The Cambridge History of Philosophy in Late Antiquity

By Fournier, Michael | Canadian Journal of History, Autumn 2013 | Go to article overview

The Cambridge History of Philosophy in Late Antiquity


Fournier, Michael, Canadian Journal of History


The Cambridge History of Philosophy in Late Antiquity, edited by Lloyd P. Gerson. New York, Cambridge University Press, 2010. xi, 1284 pp., 2 vols. $240.00 US (cloth).

Attitudes toward the study of Late Antiquity have changed dramatically in recent years. Scholars in the fields of history and literature have been revising the narratives of decline and decay, which characterize the older scholarship, and replacing them with more positive, or at least more neutral, narratives of change and transformation. Late Antiquity has emerged as a vibrant new area of study, with an ever increasing number of monographs, journals, conferences, and now websites, dedicated to the scholarly study of the period. Philosophers, however, have tended to be more circumspect (one might even say intransigent) and historians of philosophy have not been so quick to reconsider the traditional picture of late ancient philosophy.

Indeed, there are many general difficulties involved in writing a history of philosophy, beginning with the question of whether philosophy even has a history. There are other particular problems having to do with specific periods, for example, the period between Aristotle (d. 322 BCE) and Descartes (1596-1650), which some historians of philosophy view as little more than an interruption of the progress of reason. Still, there are historians who see the value in studying the philosophies of the Hellenistic period (Stoicism, Scepticism, Epicureanism) and of the later Middle Ages and Renaissance, that is, the periods when the works of Greek philosophers, especially Aristotle, had been recovered in the West, first in Latin translations, and later in the original Greek. However, for the period between the end of the Hellenistic schools and the universities of the thirteenth century, the period treated in the edited collection under review, there are noticeably fewer studies. This period continues to be frequently disparaged or simply omitted from the history. The main objection is often that in this period philosophy had ceased to be philosophy and had become religion: in fact, this accusation is ultimately embraced by many of the contributors to this work. When understood in its proper historical context, the philosophy of the age, primarily Platonism, is essentially religious, and the religion of the age is profoundly philosophical.

For this new two-volume history Lloyd Gerson commissioned eminent scholars to contribute chapters, focusing primarily on the period between 200 and 1000 CE, though Part I contains chapters that treat the transmission of the dialogues of Plato, and discuss figures as early as Cicero. The contributions are uniformly excellent. In addition to the subtlety with which the myriad philosophical positions and systems are articulated and examined, the contributions all display an impressive acquaintance with the important philological scholarship that informs current attempts to rehabilitate the reputations of authors and works from late antiquity.

Gerson describes this work as a "successor to The Cambridge History of Late Greek and Early Medieval Philosophy (CHLGEMP) which appeared in 1967 under the editorship of A.H. Armstrong" (p. 1). Indeed, the work continues that begun by Armstrong, deepening and vastly expanding it. Armstrong's own work was something of a reaction against the original revival of the study of the philosophy of late antiquity in the early twentieth century, the spirit of much of which is exemplified by E.R. Dodds' disdain (pace Plotinus and Proclus) for the depths of superstition and ignorance into which the nobility of Greek philosophy had descended. But Armstrong's history, though it endeavoured to present the later philosophy as various developments of the philosophies of Plato and Aristotle, still tended to view the period primarily as a "bridge" between classical antiquity and the later middle ages. In its "successor" the "bridge" concept is gone.

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