On the alpha Academy

Greek Thought
October 26, 2001

A survey of Greek philosophy both jars and intrigues Anthony Kenny.

Publishers are not as willing as they once were to sign up, much less to print in significant numbers, scholarly treatises on highly specialised subjects. Instead, they are forever on the lookout to enrol academics as contributors to dictionaries, encyclopedias, guides, companions or pocket digests, all for the trade rather than the academic market.

Whether this publishing fashion is good or bad, it is clearly not confined to the United Kingdom. One of the latest multi-authored compendia to appear, Greek Thought , has a French origin and an American publisher. It was first published in 1996 by Flammarion with the assistance of the French ministry of culture as Le Savoir Grec: Dictionnaire Critique . A team of translators in Ithaca, New York, translated into English those portions of the original that had been written in French or Italian, and Harvard University Press now presents the English version in a massive and handsome volume.

Jacques Brunschwig and Geoffrey Lloyd command enormous respect among both Anglophone and Francophone scholars of the ancient world, and their presence as editors will ensure that the volume is received as authoritative. They have assembled an international group of contributors including some of the foremost scholars in their disciplines. Both editors, in addition to their editorial tasks, have contributed articles of distinction in their chosen fields, notably Brunschwig on epistemology and scepticism, and Lloyd on several aspects of Greek science.

It is not clear, however, to what extent the strange structure of this compendium was a matter of editorial choice rather than publishers' dictation. The editors begin their introduction thus: "Alpha, beta, and the rest, all the way to omega: most of us, on first acquaintance with the Greek alphabet, have toyed with writing our own names with its characters, so close and yet so remote from our own." They continue for some paragraphs, in a charming way, about the romance of the Greek alphabet. But the alphabetic charm wears off when we see that most of the book is designed in a series of alphabetic sequences. Its principal sections are: the pursuit of knowledge, in 15 chapters from astronomy to theories of religion; major figures, from Anaxagoras to Zeno; and currents of thought, from the Academy to Stoicism.

This structure seems designed to have the worst of two worlds. It fails to provide the ready entry to specific information that one would gain from a single alphabetic sequence as in a dictionary or encyclopedia; on the other hand it lacks the systematic coherence that a conventional history of ideas would present. Moreover, the lack of an index of articles by their authors creates unnecessary difficulty in consultation.

As the volume contains much excellent writing by leading scholars, it might seem churlish to complain in this way about the way in which their output has been packaged. This would be so were it not that, as I remarked earlier, the production of compendia of this kind is very much a matter of the packaging of information.

If we turn to packaging in a more literal sense, the reader can have nothing but praise. The book is clearly printed and is easy to handle despite its size. The illustrations have been skilfully chosen and are most beautifully reproduced. The number of visual aids available to illustrate ancient philosophy is quite small, and the picture editors are to be congratulated on putting together a collection quite out of the ordinary run. Altogether, the volume will make a handsome present for anyone who has a keen interest in the ancient Greeks, but has no knowledge of the Greek language.

It was a noble idea to try to bring together the best of classical scholarship in both Anglo-Saxon and continental traditions of philosophy. The resulting web, however, is not seamless, which is unsurprising given that on one side or the other of the Channel there are different views not only about the best methods of philosophising but also about the boundaries of the discipline itself.

The nature of the problem is to be seen in the very titles of the French and English versions of the book. In an English book called Greek Thought , it is odd to find no serious mention of, say, Aeschylus, Sophocles or Euripides. But then we remember that the French edition was Le Savoir Grec , and we see why these thinkers were excluded. So the English edition gets a subtitle: "A Guide to Classical Knowledge". But that is not quite right either because much of what the Greek authors considered here thought they knew turned out not to be knowledge at all. It might have been better to call the book "Greek philosophy" and leave the ambiguities, both ancient and modern, to take care of themselves. The first article in the book is a brilliant piece by Michael Frede analysing how and when there first came to be in Greece people who identified themselves as philosophers, and thought of themselves as belonging to a common group with common aims and methods.

The balance between different traditions of studying ancient philosophy is reasonably well struck, but there are some surprises. Nine contributors are from North American universities, and ten from the British Isles. Of the 30 or so continental contributors, 22 are from France, and overwhelmingly from Paris. No contributor is identified as holding a post at any university in Germany, and the only German contributor holds a post at Oxford University. On the other hand, some of the essays by the four Italian contributors are among the most interesting in the volume (such as Enrico Berti on Parmenides, Mario Mignucci on logic and Carlo Natali on schools and sites of learning).

Sometimes the contrast between Francophone and Anglophone approaches to ancient thought is refreshing and illuminating. In other cases, it produces rather an odd effect. If one reads Julia Annas's piece on Plato and follows it with Luc Brisson's on Platonism, or follows Pierre Pellgrin's study of Aristotle with R. W. Sharples's on Aristotelianism, the sensation is like watching one runner taking up the torch from another in a relay race, and running with a different rhythm and at a different speed.

Many of the articles are by established scholars writing on topics with which they are very much at home. Readers will be keen to see what A. A. Long has to say on language, or David Furley on cosmology, or Edward Hussey on Heraclitus. There are some elegant brief articles on topics at the fringe of philosophy, such as Paul Cartledge's on utopias and Oswyn Murray's on history as literature, science and myth.

A necessarily preliminary general impression is that scientific and logical issues receive rather better treatment in this volume than do metaphysical and ethical ones. But exceptions at once suggest themselves: John Dillon makes a gallant attempt at the impossible task of laying out "The question of being", and Stoic ethics are deftly treated in the final article of the volume by Brunschwig.

The bibliographies attached to the articles vary greatly in value, and some of them are very disappointing. Since the work is obviously addressed to readers unfamiliar with Greek, the first item in every bibliography should be a reference to an authoritative but inexpensive English translations of the author under discussion. The article on Aristotle, however, lists only the 23 volumes of the Loeb classical library, and makes no mention of the excellent two-volume translation edited by Jonathan Barnes, or of the World's Classics editions of the philosopher's major works. The bibliography to the article on Plato contains no translation at all.

The translators must have been faced with a difficult task in translating into English French prose that was rendering concepts and theses deriving from Greek prose. On the whole, they have performed their task well. In some of the articles, however, there are sentences that in English seem to be doing very little work. It is unclear how far this is to be blamed on the translators, and how far some of the original authors themselves preferred a somewhat gaseous style.

Sir Anthony Kenny is the author of A Brief History of Western Philosophy .

Greek Thought: A Guide to Classical Knowledge

Editor - Jacques Brunschwig and Geoffrey E. R. Lloyd
ISBN - 0 674 00261 X
Publisher - Harvard University Press
Price - £34.50
Pages - 1,024

Please login or register to read this article.

Register to continue

Get a month's unlimited access to THE content online. Just register and complete your career summary.

Registration is free and only takes a moment. Once registered you can read a total of 3 articles each month, plus:

  • Sign up for the editor's highlights
  • Receive World University Rankings news first
  • Get job alerts, shortlist jobs and save job searches
  • Participate in reader discussions and post comments

Have your say

Log in or register to post comments