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Rediscovered Philosophers

Introduction to the Series

by Charles Siegel


new material in this edition copyright © 2016


This series of books makes it possible to read classical philosophers whose works have been inaccessible since ancient times.

When you start to study classical philosophy, you read Plato and Aristotle, and you learn that four schools dominated philosophy after their time, during the Hellenistic and Roman periods.

The Epicureans believed that the universe was infinite and was made up of atoms that combined by chance. The good life was devoted to pleasure, which consists primarily of absence of pain in the body and of disquiet in the soul.

The Stoics believed that the universe as a whole had a mind and shaped events providentially. The good life was devoted to virtue, and the wise and virtuous man was perfectly happy regardless of misfortune or pain.

The Peripatetics continued the work of Aristotle, but they became less important during Hellenistic times.

The Academics continued the work of Plato, but the Academy changed dramatically during its history. A century after Plato, it became skeptical and denied that there was any knowledge. Centuries later, the Academic Antiochus of Ascalon began to claim that the Peripatetics, the Stoics, and the old Academy of Plato all had the same beliefs, and he synthesized the ideas of these schools.

But after you have read the basic descriptions of these later classical schools, if you want to go further and read their philosophy, you soon become frustrated. Some writing of the Epicureans survives, including short works by Epicurus himself and a long book by Lucretius. Very little philosophy of the Stoics survives: there are books by late Stoics with advice about how to live a good life, but little or nothing with their philosophical theories. No complete works of the Peripatetics or later Academics survive, just fragments.

The only consecutive exposition of these philosophies is in Cicero's dialogs, where prominent Romans argue for and against Stoicism, the skeptical Academy, and the syncretic Academy, but these dialogs are hard to read because they contain extraneous material and are sometimes disorganized.

Typically, you learn about these later classical philosophers by reading descriptions of their philosophies based on fragments and testimonies. Imagine learning about Plato or William James by reading descriptions of their beliefs! You would not see how they defended their beliefs and you would miss out entirely on their personalities.

Cicero's Dialogs

Yet the works of these later classical philosophers are actually available, hidden in plain sight within Cicero's dialogs. Cicero wrote his most important works on philosophy and rhetoric in just two years, 46 BC to 44 BC, and he was capable of such large output because he took much of the text from other sources. Cicero himself admits in a letter to Atticus that his dialogs include his translations of earlier philosophical works:

You will say - "What, when you write on such subjects [philosophy]?" They are translations. They don't cost so much trouble therefore; I only contribute the language, in which I am well provided.

Cicero wrote elsewhere that he translated but also did more:

…for our part we do not fill the office of a mere translator, but, while preserving the doctrines of our chosen authorities, add thereto our own criticism and our own arrangement….

And Cicero's works themselves make it clear that he also made the Greek philosophical works more appealing to Roman gentlemen by framing them as dialogs, where the words of the philosophers were put in the mouths of prominent Romans, adding lengthy accounts of the speakers' gentlemanly behavior. He also added many illustrations of his points from Roman history and many quotations from literature; to give just one example, his book on divination includes a very long poem that he wrote about his own term as consul and about the portents that occurred then.

These additions made the books more popular at the time, and Cicero (as a character in one dialog) tells another character how much he enjoyed them:

Quintus, you have defended the Stoic doctrine with accuracy and like a Stoic. But the thing that delights me most is the fact that you illustrated your argument with many incidents taken from Roman sources - incidents, too, of a distinguished and noble type.

But for today's student of philosophy, these additions are obstacles in the way of the philosophical writing that is our real interest.

Even more confusing, Cicero sometimes has speakers deliver long discourses that combine incompatible material from several sources.

Sometimes the material included in a single discourse is repetitive, making it difficult to read. For example, his defense of Stoic theology in De Natura Deorum Book II, follows the Stoics' usual fourfold division of the subject, discussing the existence of the gods, the nature of the gods, the gods' government of the world, and the gods' care for man. But Cicero took this material from four different Stoic works, one on each of the four divisions, and he did not edit them for consistency. The first section is an exhaustive collection of Stoic arguments for the existence of the gods, but it also talks incidentally about the nature of the gods, which should be in the second section. The third section begins by discussing the existence of the gods, repeating ideas that were developed at length in the first section. The individual source works that he uses are generally well organized in themselves, but they are combined to form discourses that can be repetitive and badly organized.

Sometimes added material is out of place. For example, in the first half of Academica Book I, the speaker gives us an overview of the philosophy of Antiochus of Ascalon, founder of the Syncretic Academy, dividing philosophy into ethics, natural philosophy, and logic. Then, the same speaker adds a summary of Stoic philosophy that uses the same division into ethics, natural philosophy, and logic. Because this speaker is supposedly defending the ideas of Antiochus, we get the impression on first reading that this added section represents Antiochus' summary of the Stoics' ideas, but this is impossible: a central point of Antiochus' philosophy is that Stoics have the same ideas as Peripatetics and Academics and only use different language to state these ideas, and this concluding section is all about the substantive differences of the Stoics from these other schools. At the end, Cicero (as a character in the dialog) corrects the error of Cicero (as an editor) by saying that this does not really reflect Antiochus' view of the Stoics.

Cicero admitted in one of his dialogs that his writing is sometimes not unified, saying he could not write history because he did not have the leisure to produce cohesive works:

Why certain spare times occur to every man, and these I was unwilling to lose. For instance, if I spent a few days in rusticating at my country seat, I employed them in composing a part of the essays I had determined to write. But for an historical work, it is impossible to do it justice unless one can procure a regular vacation for a considerable period. My mind is thrown into a miserable state of suspense, when after fairly commencing a literary task, I am obliged to defer its conclusion to a future occasion; nor can I so easily recover the train of ideas in works so interrupted, as bring my essays to their appropriate conclusion, without rest or intermission.

When you break up Cicero's dialogs into their source works, it becomes very clear that he sometimes combined disparate sources in disorganized ways.

Revealing the Source Works

This series of books, The Rediscovered Philosophers, edits Cicero's dialogs to reveal the source documents behind them. It removes most of the descriptions of gentlemanly activities, of the examples from Roman history and of the quotations from literature, so you can read the philosophy without this extraneous matter. It breaks up the dialogs, presenting each source document as a separate work and identifying the author when possible. It arranges these works by school, so you can study each philosophy without interruption.

In some cases, Cicero gives us hints that let us identify the authors of these source works. In other cases, we can guess at the author. And in other cases, we can only say that a work is by an unidentified source from one of the schools - but I hope that this series of books will lead to research that could identify some more of these sources.

This series of books keeps a bit of the framing that Cicero added to incorporate these sources in dialogs, because it is not possible to reconstruct the original texts precisely. Sometimes Cicero interjects comments by the speakers and modifies the original text to accommodate the interjections. Sometimes he inserts the names of the dialogs' speakers where the original might have said "the Stoics believe" or "Posidonius believes." We would have to alter these changes in arbitrary ways to make the works read like the source documents. By retaining the dialog form, we avoid these arbitrary decisions but still let the reader get a very clear look at the source works.

Even more important, retaining the dialog form lets readers see how the source works fit into Cicero's dialogs, so they can decide for themselves whether we have identified them correctly. In cases where one discourse contains multiple source documents, we keep the source documents in the same order that they have in the dialog, and we retain the dialog framing, so readers can see the inconsistencies in the whole discourse that show it was patched together from multiple source documents.

Some discourses are unified wholes, based on a single source work. Other discourses have repetitions and stylistic inconsistencies but can be broken into individual source works that are unified wholes.

When we see how some discourses are patched together, it becomes clear that Cicero simply translated source works, with minor changes, rather than writing the dialogs himself to illustrate the ideas of different schools of philosophy. There are cases where he did the writing himself or did extensive rewriting and produced more unified discourses, but they are less common.

This series of books keeps Cicero's brief comments on his translations of Greek philosophical terms into Latin, because they are of historical interest. It also adds subheadings and sometimes breaks up the works into smaller paragraphs to make the works more readable.

Benefits of this Series

These books make it easy, for the first time, to read works by the Stoics Chrysippus, Posidonius, Panaetius, and Diogenes of Babylon, by the skeptical Academics Carneades, Clitomachus, and Philo of Larissa, by the syncretic Academic Antiochus of Ascalon, and by unidentified authors from these schools.

Scholars have argued extensively about the sources of Cicero's dialogs. This series does not review all of the opinions of scholars about sources, but it can help to clarify the issues by revealing the original source works. For example, scholars have debated about the source of the discourse by Cicero (as a character in the dialog) criticizing Antiochus in the second half of Academica Book II, but when you prepare an edition that breaks the dialogs up into individual source works, it becomes very obvious that Cicero's discourse is based on four different source works, differing noticeably in style, which have been published as "Four Works Defending Skepticism" in Philosophy of the New Academy. Though scholars have tried, it is obviously impossible to identify a single author of an inconsistent discourse written by multiple authors.

We hope that scholars will make more progress in identifying the sources by looking at the source works separately.

Most scholars give equal value to everything in Cicero's dialogs. It should also advance scholarship when they realize that these dialogs include multiple sources of widely varying quality.

Finally, we hope the public will become better acquainted with philosophical gems that are now almost unknown. Carneades' "Second Lecture on Justice" is one of the most notorious works of classical philosophy: the establishment was so shocked by its moral relativism that it rushed Carneades out of Rome; it is included in Philosophy of the Skeptical Academy. Antiochus of Ascalon's essay, which we have named "On Ethics," is the best surviving statement of classical virtue ethics, clearer and more to the point than anything that survives from Aristotle or Thomas Aquinas. These works have been buried in Cicero's dialogs and known to only a handful of classical scholars, but now they are accessible to a wider audience.

This internet preview does not include footnotes.