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  • Biography, Historiography, and Modes of Philosophizing ed. by Patrick Baker
Patrick Baker, editor. Biography, Historiography, and Modes of Philosophizing. The Renaissance Society of America, 7. Leiden: Brill, 2017. Pp. ix + 412. Cloth, $149.00.

How do we write history of philosophy? What models and methods do we use when engaging with the philosophical past and where did they come from? One influential mode of writing history of philosophy is the biographical account, found famously in Diogenes Laertius's De Vita et Moribus Philosophorum. The impact of Diogenes Laertius, especially during the early modern period, is clearly documented by the volume under review. However, this volume is not dedicated to biographical writing on philosophers exclusively, but to "collective biography" as such, although philosophers and history of philosophy play a certain role in the majority of the volume's seven parts. The aim of the volume is, in the words of the editor, "to acquaint readers with the rich and important textual tradition, and, in the exhortatory spirit of collective biography, to stimulate them to further research" (18). The concept of collective biography itself is a problematic one, as the editor frankly admits when acknowledging, in relation to the sources treated in this volume, "that it is difficult to define their shared generic parameters and thus to classify them as belonging to a coherent corpus" (11).

The volume is divided into seven parts, each of which consists of an introductory essay, a selection of source material of various lengths (in the original language and in English translation), and a bibliography. The parts are arranged chronologically, covering a period from the fifteenth to the eighteenth century, offering eight texts written by seven authors from Italy (two), England (one), the German countries (three) and France (one), of which the most well-known are certainly the German protestant reformer Philipp Melanchthon and the French philosopher Pierre Gassendi. Most of the source material presented is not available in modern editions; together with the English translations, they constitute a helpful tool for the reader interested in this rarely studied textual tradition.

The first four parts deal with texts that might legitimately be called collective biographies: Manuela Kahle presents two versions of the Life of Socrates, written by Manetti, that are clearly inspired by Diogenes Laertius, whose work became recently known through the translation [End Page 176] of Ambrogio Traversari. Marianne Pade illustrates, in her essay on John Wethamstede's Vita of Lucius Nemelius Paullus, the legacy of Plutarch and Suetonius. The legacy of Saint Jerome becomes apparent in the next two parts; the third part is devoted to Bartolomeo Facio's De Viris Illustribus. As Patrick Baker suggests, the work "provides an historical account of humanism" (128); thus, the genre becomes a "vehicle for historiography" (131). Johannes Helmrath presents the Catalogue of the Illustrious Men of Germany composed by the abbot of Sponheim, Johannes Trithemius, which served, among other intentions, a patriotic purpose.

It is less evident in what way the texts covered in the last three parts of the volume relate to the genre of collective biography. That does not mean, however, that these texts are less relevant for the reader interested in history of philosophy; quite the contrary is the case. Asaph Ben-Tov presents Melanchthon's biography of Aristotle that played a specific part in his pedagogical program. The philosophical implications of biographical writing become most obvious in Gassendi's engagement with the life of Epicurus. As Michael Weichenhan suggests, philosophy was for Gassendi "a specific activity of historical individuals" (300); thus, biography can be understood as a medium of philosophy. The final essay by Leo Catana focuses on the German Lutheran theologian and philosopher Christoph August Heumann's assessment of Porphyry's Life of Plotinus. As Catana argues convincingly, Heumann was critical of the biographical approach towards history of philosophy and favored instead a more systematic practice, which became very influential, especially in the writings of Jakob Brucker.

The various parts of the volume offer interesting insights into the role and functions of biographical writing during the early modern period. Scholars interested in the historiography of philosophy, the classical tradition, or early modern history can learn about a facet of early modern thought and writing that is often overlooked. However, in some respects the volume might not come up to the reader's expectations. Although the editor put some reflection on the precarious state of the genre label "collective biography" the concept remains vague, and clear conceptual distinctions to other text corpora, such as exempla collections or parallel lives, are missing. In addition, the criteria for selecting some authors and texts rather than others are not made evident to the reader, and thus the structure of the volume cannot avoid appearing arbitrary. Last but not least, it is a pity that a volume dedicated to collective biography lacks mention of the rich tradition of biographical writings on learned women that forms a distinctive feature of the early modern period.

Sabrina Ebbersmeyer
University of Copenhagen

Additional Information

ISSN
1538-4586
Print ISSN
0022-5053
Pages
176-177
Launched on MUSE
2018-01-17
Open Access
No
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