Friday, September 23, 2011

The Shape of Ancient Philosophy: V. The Roman Imperial Period

For what I am doing here, see this.

The political and military changes at the end of the Hellenistic period had a considerable effect on philosophy. Athens never recovered its former splendor, and philosophy ceased being as closely connected to central educational institutions as it had been. Philosophy's emphasis moves from schools like the Academy and the Lyceum and into the hands of local study groups and tutors scattered all over the Empire. This had an effect on both the way philosophy was done and the topics it covered: philosophers became much more interested in discovering what prior philosophers had thought. Doxography (the cataloging of the beliefs of different philosophical schools), biography, and commentary on philosophical classics became very important. Philosophers like Cicero (a student of Antiochus of Ascalon) were often interested less in developing their own views systematically and more in educating others as to the different philosophical views that had been held. Study of the natural world became less important in many places, while study of moral life moved to the forefront. The Stoics did very well in this environment; in fact, two of the most famous Stoic philosophers operate in this period: Epictetus and Marcus Aurelius. It perhaps says something about just how far Stoic ideas penetrated all classes of society that the former was a slave and the latter was an emperor.

Middle Platonism, however, arguably shapes much of the landscape of philosophy in the Roman Imperial period. I will simply note three of the most important here.

Eudorus of Alexandria: Eudorus put much of the focus of Middle Platonism on ethics. Eudorus's own conception of ethics was that the truly good life consists in becoming as like the gods as possible; he understood this to mean that the happy life consisted of intellectual contemplation of truth. He was also influenced by a number of Stoic ideas.

Plutarch of Chaeronea: Plutarch is easily the best known of all the Middle Platonists; this is in part due to a series of truly excellent philosophical and biographical essays that he wrote, almost all of which are well worth reading. He held that popular pagan religious views expressed philosophical truths in poetic and imaginative form, and attempt to unlock these truths by interpreting stories about the gods allegorically.

Philo of Alexandria: Also known as Philo Judaeus, Philo is the first significant Jewish philosopher of which we know much in Greek and Roman society. Alexandria, in Egypt, had a large and thriving Jewish population that had absorbed a considerable amount of Greek culture, and this included Greek philosophy. Philo and others set out to show the connections between Judaism and Greek philosophy, to interesting result. Philo held that God operated through the Logos, or divine Reason, which he associated with the figure of Wisdom in such Biblical passages as Proverbs 8:22.

The spread of philosophy among Hellenistic Jews would be important for the future of philosophy. The early Roman Imperial period also sees the rise of a new Jewish religion, Christianity, which caught on early in some Hellenistic Jewish populations around the Empire. Because of this even in the New Testament period Christians are adapting Middle Platonist language in order to express their religious views. The best example of this is the Gospel of John, where the word translated as 'Word' is the Greek word Logos:

In the beginning was the Word,
and the Word was with God,
and the Word was God.
He was with God in the beginning.
Through him all things were made;
without him nothing was made that has been made.
In him was life, and that life was the light of men.
The light shines in the darkness,
but the darkness has not understood it. (NIV)

It's unclear whether this use of the word Logos is due to Philo or (as is perhaps a bit more likely) a common Hellenistic Jewish background. Whatever the precise source, this adaptation of Middle Platonist language made it easier for later Middle Platonists, people like St. Justin Martyr and St. Clement of Alexandria, to combine their Christianity with their philosophical pursuits.

In the third century AD there is a palpable shift in the character and texture of Platonism, although it does not seem to have been noticed at the time. In the writings of people like Plotinus and Iamblichus we find a greater interest in being systematic and comprehensive: the very eclectic approach of Middle Platonism gives way to an attempt to think through all philosophical ideas with a very high degree of rigor. This new phase in philosophy is called Neoplatonism. To some extent one can see the last centuries of the Roman Imperial period as a struggle for dominance between Greek and Christian versions of Neoplatonism. With the dominance of Christianity over its pagan rivals, we begin to move out of what we usually call the Ancient period. It was a new world: the whole world, it seemed, would be Christian.

But history has a way of throwing surprises our way. Something new was brewing in Arabia. But we will get to that when we talk about philosophy in the Medieval period.

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