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On Philosophy

by Aristocles of Messene


new material in this edition copyright © 2014


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The Most Important Classical Survey of Epistemology

For the first time, this book makes the surviving fragments of Ariscocles’ On Philosophy available in a low-cost edition aimed at readers who are interested in the book as philosophy.

Ariscocles was a peripatetic philosopher who lived in the First Century AD. Extensive fragments about epistemology survive from his writing, and they can change our thinking about the history of philosophy.

Most people who have studied philosophy would agree that there was what Ortega y Gasset called a “turn to the subjective” in the seventeenth century. Philosophers before this time focused on understanding the world, while philosophers after this time focused on understanding our ability to know the world.

Aristocles’ writing shows us that, in reality, many classical philosophies also focused on our ability to know the world.

These classical philosophies anticipate many of the issues that have preoccupied modern philosophers, and they can give us a new perspective on these issues.

selection from

On Philosophy

Reconstructing Aristocles' Book

All the fragments of Aristocles’ writing that survive are in Eusebius’s Praeparatio Evangelica, which contains many passages from classical philosophers. Eusebius’ goal was to defend Christianity, so he tends to quote passages where classical philosophers refute other classical philosophers, rather than those where they advocate their own positions. As a result, we have Aristocles’ lengthy criticisms of other epistemologies, but we just have tantalizing hints of his own epistemology.

Eusebius tells us that the passages he quotes are from Books Seven and Eight of Aristocles’ On Philosophy, which had a total of ten books. The fragments from Book Seven discuss a few philosophers generally, and they are so short that we cannot see whether they have a more specific focus. The fragments from Book Eight are longer and focus very clearly on epistemology.

It is possible to imagine what the entire work was like. Asclepius of Tralles and Johannes Philoponus, both writing in the sixth century, give us a hint when they say that Aristocles believed there were five types of wisdom. After the flood that destroyed the world in Greek mythology, the survivors first learned how to produce food, which is the wisdom acquired at the time of necessity. Then they learned carpentry, architecture, and other arts, which is wisdom in arts. Then they made laws, which is wisdom in political matters. Then they studied physics. Then they studied divine and eternal things. Both these writers tell us that Aristocles says in On Philosophy that the words “wisdom” and “wise” are under­stood in these five ways.

It seems plausible, then, that Aristocles used the word “philosophy” to refer generally to love of wisdom, the literal meaning of the word in Greek, and that the book was a sort of historical survey of all knowledge.

The Suda, a tenth-century encyclopedia, tells us that Aristocles wrote two works about all philosophers and their opinions, On Philosophy in ten books and Whether Homer or Plato is the Better. The fact that Aristocles compared Homer and Plato in a book that the Suda says is about philosophers confirms that he used the word “philosophy” in a broader sense than we do today.
Thus, the first six books of On Philosophy were probably about the earlier types of wisdom that Asclepius and Philo­ponus list, the knowledge of agriculture, crafts, and politics. The Suda confirms this speculation in an oblique way, when it says that Book Six of On Philosophy mentions Sotadas of Byzantium, an almost unknown philosopher who (Clement of Alexandria tells us) dealt with the sayings of the Seven Sages. Since many early legislators, such as Solon, were included among the sages, it is plausible that Book Six was about politics.

Book Seven might have been a general introduction to the important philosophies, in our sense of this word. Book Eight was about epistemology, judging from the fragments that survive. Books Nine and Ten probably continued the dis­cussion of philosophy, in our sense, and were probably about physics and about divine and eternal things, the last two of the five types of wisdom that Asclepius and Philoponus list.