The Second Sophistic: A Cultural Phenomenon in the Roman Empire

By Graham Anderson | Go to book overview

6

Cookery and confection sophistic philosophy, philosophic sophistry

One of the distinctive features of intellectual life in the Early Roman Empire is the continued co-existence, peaceful or otherwise, of rhetoric and philosophy as the main pillars of the educational system. 1 What interests us here is the middle ground which both sides could claim and attempt to fortify against their rivals. Sophists could not ignore philosophy, or the fact that they had now to all intents parted company from it; and they had to protect themselves with arguments to enable them to come to terms with it all the same.

Throughout the period of the Empire there was certainly no lack of philosophy with which to come to terms. In the first two centuries the familiar cavalcade of Hellenistic schools were all in varying degrees still available. Stoics and Epicureans had long joined the ranks of the successors of Plato and Aristotle (Academics and Peripatetics), and the decidedly less social Cynics. A revival in two extremes was also apparent: NeoPythagoreanism and Pyrrhonian Scepticism experienced an upsurge, and the very success of the latter in undermining the rational basis of the dogmatic schools favoured the eventual collapse of rationalism in favour of mysticism. It was to be the Platonists who acted as carriers of both into late antiquity, with the new synthesis of Plotinus in the third century. And whatever the profusion of doctrines (and the suspicion and distaste they engendered) there was scope for a healthy philosophic life: Stoics, Epicureans and Cynics could all claim to seek a life according to nature but interpreted their goal in radically different ways, so that Stoics came to be caricatured as pedantic paradigms of social correctness, Epicureans as pleasure-seekers and Cynics as boorish radicals. It was the task of rhetoricians at

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