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Roman ReflectionsStudies in Latin Philosophy$

Gareth D. Williams and Katharina Volk

Print publication date: 2015

Print ISBN-13: 9780199999767

Published to Oxford Scholarship Online: November 2015

DOI: 10.1093/acprof:oso/9780199999767.001.0001

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Introduction

Introduction

Chapter:
(p.1) Introduction
Source:
Roman Reflections
Author(s):

Gareth D. Williams

Katharina Volk

Publisher:
Oxford University Press

The thirteen essays collected in this volume began life as papers delivered at a conference held at Columbia University in March 2012. This event, organized by the present editors under the plain title of “Latin Philosophy,” brought together an international group of scholars of ancient philosophy, history, and literature in an attempt to explore from different but mutually informing disciplinary viewpoints the rise at Rome in the first centuries BCE and CE of philosophy as a distinctly Roman mode of discourse. Our more particular motive was to explore the ways in which, and the extent to which, the expressive capabilities of the Latin language gave distinctive shape and character to Roman philosophical discourse.

Three further factors lent impetus both to the conference and to the preparation of this volume. First, important light has been shed in recent times, most notably by Andrew Wallace-Hadrill, on the emergence in the late Roman Republic and early Empire of a “cultural revolution”—a movement toward a greater specialization in the arts, the systematization of religion, law, and language, and the rise of technical areas of knowledge largely under the influence of Hellenism. The growth of Roman philosophical discourse in Latin in this period constitutes an important manifestation of this shift in Roman cultural discourse, one that brought into Roman consciousness the doctrines and methodologies of the different Hellenistic schools of philosophy. But while the birth of philosophical discourse in Latin is naturally implicated in Rome’s ongoing negotiation with Hellenistic cultural influence, this volume seeks to stress the confidence and enterprise with which Republican practitioners, Lucretius and Cicero most obvious among them, embarked on their pioneering philosophical projects; and then to stress the strategies with which Imperial writers, Seneca most prominent among them, built on or modified the advances made by their Republican forebears. On this approach, Latin philosophical authors do not simply receive, absorb, or (p.2) passively transmit the Hellenistic models on which they draw. They mold, control, and react to or against those models, experimenting with the inherited systems and reformatting them as part of an assured assimilation of imported modes of thought. A key aim of this volume is to picture this positive development at Rome through a series of chapter-by-chapter snapshots, all of which diversely contribute to our exploratory vision of what is Roman about Roman philosophy. Of course, the umbrella term “Roman philosophy” embraces thinkers who wrote in Greek, notably Epictetus, Musonius Rufus, and Marcus Aurelius. While Epictetus figures in Wolfgang-Rainer Mann’s contribution on Helvidius Priscus (chapter 11), we are acutely conscious of our limited coverage of Greek material in this volume. In drawing attention to this omission, however, we aim to reiterate our primary focus not just on Latinity per se, but on the literary as well as the philosophical qualities, ambition, and artfulness of philosophical writing in Latin.

Second, this stress on Romanness presupposes a wide-ranging sensitivity to the social, historical, political, and literary context(s) in which philosophical writing was composed in the late Republic and early Empire. In this respect the thirteen chapters in this volume are designed to complement each other, reflecting in different ways on the relation of text to Roman cultural context. Here our interdisciplinary agenda comes to the fore. Already, in the preface to their influential Philosophia Togata I: Essays on Philosophy and Roman Society (Oxford, 1987), the editors, Miriam Griffin and Jonathan Barnes, remark as follows on the need for an interdisciplinary awareness in the study of Roman philosophy (vi):

Historians have become ever more involved with social and intellectual issues. Classical scholars are showing an increasing interest in the philosophical background and presuppositions of literary texts. Ancient philosophers are once again willing to recognize that there was philosophy after Aristotle and that Roman authors are of the first importance for the history of their subject …

Philosophical exegesis of Cicero’s works is jejune when it ignores the historical and literary dimensions of his texts. A historical investigation of the political importance of Stoicism is empty and unreal unless the philosophical tenets of the Stoic system are analyzed and understood. The literary study of Lucretius would be insubstantial if it did not consider the philosophical complexities and the historical circumstances of Epicureanism. Such reflections are perhaps platitudinous. But it is one thing to profess a platitude, another to act on it.

While a burgeoning bibliography attests to the surge of modern scholarly interest in Roman philosophy in the 1990s and into the new millennium, we believe that the words of Griffin and Barnes as quoted above are (p.3) no less pertinent today than when they were first written in the 1980s. The appearance of Philosophia Togata I and then of its sister volume, Philosophia Togata II: Plato and Aristotle at Rome (Oxford, 1997), gave great momentum to the interdisciplinary study of Roman philosophy. But the task of seeing Roman philosophy “whole” by approaching it from a variety of methodological and disciplinary avenues remains an ongoing imperative, especially in light of the advances made in interdisciplinary awareness in Classical graduate education and scholarly culture on both sides of the Atlantic in the last two decades and more. We recognize the challenges of achieving coherence in a multiauthored volume of essays, but we also hold that multiple authorship offers an excellent opportunity to fuse many different aptitudes, specialisms, and viewpoints in a single volume. Hence our interdisciplinary ambition finds strength in the diversity of our offerings, a strategy that mitigates any shortage of thematic, ideological, or interpretational consistency between the different chapters and the four main parts of this book.

Third, we stress in particular the stimulus supplied by Griffin and Barnes, but also the opportunity provided by Philosophia Togata I and II, which, in spirit, perhaps remain the closest precursors for this volume. In the preface to Philosophia Togata I Griffin and Barnes acknowledge that they concentrate on “a relatively brief chronological period,” with a focus mostly on “intellectual life in the first century BC,” even though “there is, evidently, very much to be said about later ages, when the texts are numerous and rich” (v–vi). In Philosophia Togata II they reflect on the earlier volume to the effect that “we had next to nothing to say about Plato and Aristotle, very little to say on anything which happened under the Empire”; hence Philosophia Togata II “is concerned … with Plato and Aristotle—or rather, with Platonism and Aristotelianism—at Rome; and half of it looks at Imperial events” (v). The Imperial component of our volume will make, we hope, a worthwhile contribution in an area relatively underexploited by Griffin and Barnes, and our focus on Seneca in particular is motivated not least by what we find to be his conspicuous underrepresentation in both Philosophia Togata I and II. But even as Griffin and Barnes supply a guiding model for this volume, the thirteen essays presented here reflect many of the state-of-the-art tendencies that characterize the more recent bibliography on Roman philosophy. The modern expansion of that bibliography is now well attested by Gretchen Reydams-Schils’s Oxford Bibliographies contribution on “Roman Philosophy” (2011b) - a listing that speaks for itself in documenting the current vibrancy of this field of study. The essays in this volume are designed partly to engage with major debates and directions in contemporary scholarship, but also to explore fresh lines of enquiry with an openness to experimentation and risk-taking, and in the hope that this collection can itself offer a stimulus—even a useful platform—for further work in this richly diverse area of study.

(p.4) A single essay occupies the first of the four parts into which the volume is divided. In Part I, Harry Hine (“Philosophy and philosophi: From Cicero to Apuleius”) anchors the collection by tracing the history of the use of the Greek loan word philosophus in Latin from the late Republic down to the age of Aulus Gellius and Apuleius in the second century CE. Traditional Roman attitudes that were suspicious of or hostile to philosophy are related by Hine to the derogatory associations of the term philosophus. While Cicero and Seneca readily state their commitment to philosophia and apply the verb philosophari to themselves, they show a marked reluctance to call themselves philosophi. Apuleius is the first Latin writer who straightforwardly and openly terms himself a philosophus—a shift of usage, Hine argues, that reflects the different status of philosophi in the second century compared with previous centuries, and which coincides with the emergent habit of giving familiar intellectual figures, past and present, specific labels such as, for example, philosophus, grammaticus, rhetor, and medicus.

After the panoptic scope of Hine’s chapter, we turn in Part II to the Republic. In the first of the four essays included in this section, Katharina Volk’s “Roman Pythagoras” explores a chapter in the history of philosophy at Rome that falls outside the more familiar narrative of the Roman reception and adaptation of Greek philosophical systems in the wake of the conquest of the Greek east from the second century BCE onward. From early on, Volk demonstrates, the Romans felt a special affinity to the philosophy of Pythagoras, an intellectual movement that was perceived as authentically Italian, not an importation from abroad; in tracing the evolution of this tradition down to the end of the Republic, Volk focuses not on the history of Roman Pythagoreanism as such, but on the role that this philosophy played in the Romans’ construction and understanding of their own intellectual formation.

Thereafter, in chapter 3 (“Philosophy Is in the Streets”), James E. G. Zetzel argues for the calculated construction of misunderstanding: his Cicero is simultaneously our major source for Roman intellectual life (including philosophy) in Republican Rome and the major obstacle to gaining an accurate picture of it. Not only does Cicero exaggerate his own importance, giving little significance to other writers of philosophy, but for Zetzel he also represents only one way—historical and doxographical—of writing about philosophy. In reality, Zetzel argues, there was a much wider range of philosophical thought at Rome, and conversation about ideas was hardly restricted to the villas of the elite. The alternative “street” discourse that Zetzel discerns finds its closest literary reflection in Roman satire, and particularly in Varro’s Menippean satires, written in the 70s and 60s BCE; the essay concludes with a discussion of their underestimated significance for the history of Roman philosophy.

In chapter 4 (“To See and to Be Seen: On Vision and Perception in Lucretius and Cicero”), Tobias Reinhardt offers a detailed analysis of perception (p.5) verbs—here with special focus on the forms uidere and uideri—in Lucretius’s De rerum natura and Cicero’s Academica, first defining his approach to those forms by appeal to the model of preference rule systems used in cognitive linguistics. Through exploitation of the different qualities of seeing (illusory to veridical) that uidere/-eri accommodate, Reinhardt’s Lucretius, in his discussions of perceptual illusion, privileges how things look to a perceiving subject over how they actually are—a technique by which Lucretius enjoins perceptual caution in his reader. Reinhardt’s Cicero similarly exploits the flexibility of uidere/-eri to demarcate Stoic and Academic modes of perception in the Academica. Reinhardt’s further agenda, however, is to relate these exploitations of different nuances of uidere/-eri to Lucretius’s and Cicero’s larger interaction with their Greek source-texts: the case of uidere/-eri promotes reflection on the preexisting resources and capacities of the Latin language in relation to its Greek models, and ultimately on Latin’s empowerment as a medium for writing about philosophy that is anything but hampered by “the poverty of our native speech” (patrii sermonis egestas, Lucr. 1.832).

A different approach to Cicero is taken in chapter 5 (“Teaching Pericles: Cicero on the Study of Nature”), where Gretchen Reydams-Schils disputes the scholarly view that Cicero, in his various treatments of Stoic theory and especially in De finibus 3, downplays the importance of physics relative to ethics even to the point where it is possible to make sense of Stoic ethics quite independently of physics. True, Cicero’s stress on the claims of the active, political life generates reservations in such works as, for example, De oratore 3, Brutus, and De officiis about immersion in the study of theoretical philosophy and physics; but despite this ambivalence, argues Reydams-Schils, Cicero acknowledges that under the right circumstances all branches of philosophy, physics included, can be of benefit to the statesman and the community, especially if the study of nature can underscore the social aspect of ethics by countering the excesses of self-oriented ambition. This more positive valorization of physics allows for a new interpretation of the ending of De officiis 1. It is extended in turn to De finibus 3, to the effect that Reydams-Schils significantly destabilizes the case for using that account as evidence for a Stoic ethics without physics.

We progress in Part III to the early Empire, and to five chapters on diverse aspects of the younger Seneca’s philosophical prose works. Building on the work of the cognitive linguists George Lakoff and Mark Johnson, Andrew M. Riggsby’s treatment of De ira in chapter 6 (“Tyrants, Fire, and Dangerous Things”) takes its starting point from the proposition that metaphor is a fundamental building block of the cognitive process, with the concomitant effect that metaphorical language pervades all manner of styles and topics of discourse. In his highly physicalized portrayal of the external as well as the internal dynamics of anger, Seneca characterizes ira as constituted by (p.6) the action of heat on a fluid (blood) in a container (the body); he thereby naturalizes the phenomenon of anger by giving literal force to the “everyday” heat-of-fluid-in-a-container metaphor—a technique enabled by the embedded metaphorical properties of the Latin language. On this approach, the fluid/container metaphor also allows for what Riggsby presents as an apparently novel Senecan “treatment” for anger: forcing one’s features into the bodily semblance of calm will put pressure on the internal anger, not merely hiding it, but suppressing it by appeal to the (metaphorically drawn) physical mechanism of anger. For if anger “really” is generated by the heat and pressure of a contained fluid, then it becomes controllable by intervention at that physical level. Riggsby develops his case by extending his coverage of Seneca’s metaphorical apparatus to the categories of anger as insanity and as animal-like in its ferocity.

The illustrative properties of this picturing or exemplifying of anger through the literalization of metaphor are loosely relatable to Matthew Roller’s focus on exemplarity itself in chapter 7 (“Precept(or) and Example in Seneca”). Here, Roller investigates how Seneca, in his prose works, deploys a familiar feature of everyday Roman ethics, the discourse of exemplarity, basic to which is the use of historical exempla in the service of moral argumentation. Even though Roller’s Seneca often resorts to everyday Roman exemplary discourse in a fairly traditional way, thereby supplying criteria of moral value and models for action in the present, in Letters 94 and 108 he subjects this discourse to a searching critique, identifying, from a Stoic viewpoint, a series of deficiencies in its capacity to register and assign moral value. A given glorious deed may have been motivated by a vice, not a virtue; a virtuous condition of soul can be inferred only on the basis of multiple observations over time. Focusing as it does on the individual deed in the singular moment, for Seneca Roman exemplary discourse cannot ordinarily meet this standard of multiple and layered observation; and yet, for all its faults, Seneca hardly abandons this discourse, but proposes revisions to its functioning in order to accommodate it better to Stoic ethics. Here the figure of the praeceptor steps forward as a key player in Seneca’s proposed renovation, with Seneca himself temptingly exemplifying the praeceptor role through his guiding relationship with Lucilius-as-addressee in the movement through the multiple life-moments, -situations, -choices, and -dilemmas that are featured in the Letters; the praeceptor figure thus becomes central to Seneca’s Stoic reframing of the moral dynamics of exemplarity.

The Stoic sapiens is surely configured as the ultimate (if rare-as-phoenix) praeceptor in Seneca’s philosophical prose. Our focus turns to this sage in chapter 8 (“True Greatness of Soul in Seneca’s De constantia sapientis”), where Yelena Baraz first examines the quality of magnanimitas or magnitudo animi that is fundamental to Seneca’s conceptualization of the sapiens in the moral dialogue De constantia sapientis. Seneca constructs the concept (p.7) of greatness of soul in opposition, Baraz argues, to traditional Roman ways of conceiving greatness; the evaluative structure of the conventional social hierarchy is displaced through Seneca’s assertion of a virtue-based hierarchy in which the sapiens is located at its summit. But then a change of direction: in critiquing this alternative hierarchical model, Baraz contends that the pattern of ranking plausible models for the sapiens against each other is ultimately self-undermining. By setting his two major exempla, Cato and Stilbo, in a hierarchical ranking, with Cato the “higher” exemplar, Seneca in effect destabilizes Cato’s credentials as the “true” sage: the ranking technique presupposes a measurability, or a comparativeness of standing, to which any aspiring sapiens is subject, whereas the conceptual paragon of the sage can exist only at the hierarchical summit where, by definition, there can be no degrees of gradational difference.

The sapiens recurs in chapter 9 (“Minding the Gap: Seneca, the Self, and the Sublime”), where Gareth D. Williams argues that the literary apparatus of the sublime plays a key role in Seneca’s configuration in his prose works of the totalizing consciousness of the sage. On this approach the sublime functions as no mere occasional adornment or affectation of Senecan prose style, but as a deeply embedded feature of his philosophical enterprise—a feature importantly shaped by various Latin poetic precedents, but, Williams contends, influenced in particular by Lucretius’s experimentation with the sublime. Beyond denoting a stylistic register, the Senecan sublime constitutes a transcendent state of completeness, a whole way of being that lacks oscillation and inner-division; it amounts to a sublimity of self that gives distinctive artistic coloration to the Senecan sapiens, thereby illustrating an important yet underestimated aspect of the conjunction between philosophical substance and literary ambition in Senecan prose.

In chapter 10 (“The Emotional Intelligence of Epicureans: Doctrinalism and Adaptation in Seneca’s Epistles”), Margaret Graver reflects on the nature of Roman doctrinalism in the first century CE as illumined by Seneca’s “interestingly layered reaction” to Epicureanism. Although his core commitments in ethics and philosophy of mind are firmly with Stoicism as he understands it, Seneca is comfortable exploring and occasionally endorsing some elements of Epicureanism where he feels he can do so without inconsistency. Concerning the anxiety of malefactors, for example, he objects to Epicurus’s view that nothing is just by nature, but agrees with him that wrongdoers are invariably tormented by their misdeeds; indeed, he takes such distress as evidence that we have “a natural aversion to what nature has condemned” (Ep. 97.16). Similarly, he feels no compunction about adapting certain of Epicurus’s arguments against the fear of death to a Stoic framework (Ep. 30, 36, 54). Graver argues that Seneca’s attitude is fundamentally coherent in that it does not commit him to the larger postulates of Epicureanism, but only to empirical observations about the phenomena of human experience, which Stoic as well (p.8) as Epicurean philosophers endeavor to explain. At the same time, his readiness to accommodate Epicurean assertions in some contexts is revealing for the nature of his commitment to Stoicism. While he remains convinced of the correctness of the Stoic position in all its essentials, Seneca feels no need to be protective of his adherence: for him, the encounter with the rival school is an occasion not only for debate and refutation, but also for enrichment and philosophical creativity.

The three essays contained in Part IV move from Epictetus and Apuleius in the first and second centuries CE to Augustine in the later fourth century. In chapter 11 (“ ‘You’re Playing You Now’: Helvidius Priscus as a Stoic Hero”), Wolfgang Mann examines Epictetus’s depiction of an encounter between the Roman senator Helvidius Priscus and the emperor Vespasian (Discourses 1.2.19–24): when Vespasian sends word that Priscus should not attend a meeting of the senate, Priscus insists that his role as senator obliges him to attend and to say “what seems to be right” regardless of all risk of imperial vindictiveness. Mann relates this anecdote to (1) the literary-philosophical tradition of straight-talking encounters between philosophers and despots, and (2) the tradition of recounting “philosophical” deaths, often suicides, as exemplified at Rome by, for example, Cato, Seneca, and Thrasea Paetus (Priscus’s father-in-law). While these factors offer informative background for Epictetus’s anecdote, Mann argues that they are nevertheless insufficient fully to account for its occurrence in a diatribe entitled “How one might preserve accord with one’s prosōpon [= persona] in every situation.” Hence Mann’s next step: Epictetus’s Stoic account of personae (roles) is invoked to explain Priscus’s conception of his senatorial station and duties. But Mann then argues against the suggestion advanced in recent scholarship that Epictetus’s use of the prosōpon and his understanding of the various prosōpa assigned to each human being (to the effect that morality is grounded in the particular ways in which each of us is “situated” in “ethical life”) offer an attractive, even compelling alternative to more standard, universalist ethical theories.

Richard Fletcher’s starting point in chapter 12 (“Platonizing Latin: Apuleius’s Phaedo”) is the little evidence that survives of Apuleius’s translation of Plato’s Phaedo: beyond a passing comment in Sidonius Apollinaris, two brief fragments are preserved by Priscian. The simple fact that Apuleius translated the Phaedo has been invoked by both his literary and his philosophical interpreters: for the former, his Phaedo underwrites and enriches literary-philosophical interpretation of the famous, novelistic Metamorphoses; for the latter, Apuleius’s Phaedo underscores the seriousness of his Platonism, which is based on direct engagement with the Platonic corpus. Fletcher bridges these two approaches through a close analysis of the Phaedo fragments that, he argues, yields insight into how Apuleius reads Plato and represents Platonic philosophy more generally, not least in his treatment of the Theory of Forms in his De Platone et eius (p.9) dogmate. Expanding his argument to reflect on the role of translation in Roman philosophy, Fletcher shows how Apuleius aligns himself with the Roman philosophical tradition while also blazing his own trail: if Cicero Latinizes Plato’s Greek, Fletcher’s Apuleius engages in the Platonization of the Latin language.

In conclusion to Part IV Augustine enters in chapter 13 (“Why Ancient Skeptics Don’t Doubt the Existence of the External World: Augustine and the Beginnings of Modern Skepticism”), where Katja Maria Vogt’s main point of Augustinian reference is the late treatise De trinitate. She begins from the Augustinian premise in that work that the mind is nothing other than what it takes itself introspectively to be: Augustine asserts a radical “gap” between mind and world, to the effect that the mind is so deeply different from anything that is external to it that it can function as our conduit to, and form of connection with, God; to know the mind thus becomes of paramount importance. In De trinitate, Vogt argues, Augustine thereby makes a major contribution to epistemology and philosophy of mind—an example of impressively inventive philosophy done at the intersection of engaging with Greek predecessors on the one hand, and reflecting on philosophical questions in Latin on the other. Augustine’s proposal opens the way for a new kind of skeptic who stresses the gulf between one’s own mind and all that is outside it, but who was to prove a formidable opponent for Augustine’s successors by resisting the Augustinian view that an inner turning to the mind constitutes a turning to God. For the modern skeptic, the idea that we have privileged access to mental states is a limitation that blocks the way to acquiring knowledge of the world; it is not, as for Augustine, a promising pathway to greater knowledge.

No volume of this sort can seek to offer fully satisfying coverage of a subject as chronologically expansive, thematically diverse, and textually wide-ranging as Roman philosophy, and we fully recognize this book’s practical limitations within so broad a field of study. We nevertheless hope that the quality and interest of the individual essays, and the value of the contribution that each makes in its specialist area, will significantly offset the unavoidable restrictions of scope in the volume. As for the collection as a whole, we make no pretense that we can offer a neat and tightly unifying storyline that seamlessly coordinates the different chapters. Beyond the consistency achieved by (we hope) a sustained level of high-quality scholarship, we nevertheless offer the diversity of the contributions as a strength in itself: it reflects not only the richness of Roman, and especially Latin, philosophy as a subject of vast dimensions and possibility, but also the innovative approaches that scholars are bringing to bear to this field from multiple disciplinary angles. Hence our minimum aim is to capture something of the dynamism that currently characterizes this area of scholarship. (p.10)