- What Good Is Ancient Philosophy?
What of value can we philosophers of the contemporary world possibly learn from studying ancient philosophy? Of course, we often lecture about ancient writings in our classes. The Greeks blazed many trails through an uncharted philosophical wilderness, and their first steps still guide the first steps of today’s tenderfoot thinkers. What better guide than Socrates to conduct our students through the brambles of definition? What better companion than Aristotle to help those considering virtues and vices for the first time? What better introduction to the existential condition than Epictetus? But the question I raise is not what of value we can impart to our students, but what of value can ancient philosophers impart to us? To paraphrase Tertullian, “What indeed has Athens to do with New York?”
In offering my answer to this question, I hope to show that the best answer might not be a laundry list of knowledge and skills. It is unlikely that ancient philosophers will advance our knowledge. Lucretius will not reveal secrets missed by Fermi. Aristotle will not show us logical theorems overlooked by Quine. Zeno will not refute the calculus. Any [End Page 535] knowledge the ancients first achieved has long been confirmed, explored, restated, and trivialized.
The same goes for skills. Sextus Empiricus, though perhaps virtuosic for his time, now seems crude, repetitive, and riddled with outrageous assumptions. A Socratic exchange, upon being clarified, disambiguated, fleshed out, and otherwise made fit for modern tastes, may or may not be found to hold water—but whatever the case, the literal results seldom seem worth the effort. I doubt that one of the long-lost dialogues of Aristotle, miraculously unearthed today and submitted pseudonymously to a second-tier journal, would pass a blind review.
I think it obvious, however, that we must be getting something from them. The publication rate over the last fifty years of new titles dealing with Greek philosophy testifies to an unflagging interest.
We may treat the ancients either as our equals or not. I note, as a historical aside, that most Roman and medieval writers did not treat the Greeks as equals. Many Romans thought of the Greeks as philosophically or morally superior to their own degenerate age. Thus, they tended to quote the Greeks liberally and uncritically. Irreconcilable points of disagreement were simply ignored.
Medieval authors (with a few exceptions) felt superior to the Greeks, because religious thinkers tended to discount all speculation unenlightened by revelation. Even to the most sympathetic defenders of philosophy (Jewish, Christian, or Muslim), the Greeks were examples of the best that well-intentioned humans could hope to achieve without a sacred text to correct them. And to unsympathetic religious writers, the Greeks stood as object lessons on the error of prideful speculation. Any allegiance given to the ancients by religious thinkers was highly contingent.
In contrast, we now seem to favor treating the Greeks as somehow our equals. Sometimes we treat them as colleagues, with whom we engage philosophically, and at other times we treat them as equal but utterly alien.
When we see them as colleagues, we let the principle of charity guide us as we subject ancient prose passages to a cleansing process that yields a disambiguated, quantified, valid, but usually unsound argument. The analytic philosophers, who favor this approach, tend to conflate history and think of each issue as hanging suspended in a timeless philosophical [End Page 536] moment. They see the separation of two philosophers by twenty-five centuries as an inconsequential accident. Philosophical superiority of one work over another signifies proximity to a solution, not relative nearness in time.1
On the other hand, when we treat them as equal but alien, we devote much of our energy to simply comprehending the questions they addressed, the tools they used, and the results they achieved. Contextualists like Pierre Hadot and a host of others have turned to the understanding of earlier thinkers on their own terms.2 The Cambridge series Ideas in Context, for example, while not about ancient philosophy, stands as a testament to this trend. This historical approach presumes (correctly, in my opinion) that ideas don...