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The debate over whether and how philosophers of today may usefully engage with philosophers of the past is nearly as old as the history of philosophy itself. Does the study of the history of philosophy train or corrupt the budding philosopher's mind? Why study the history of philosophy? And, how to study the history of philosophy? I discuss some mainstream approaches to the study of the history of philosophy (with special focus on ancient philosophy), before explicating the one I adopt and commend.
Around the mid-thirteenth century, in the short-lived empire of Nicaea, the enlightened prince and philosopher Theodore II Laskaris was confronted with the dreadful death of his wife Elena. The period of mourning gave rise to his Moral Pieces (Ἐπιτομαὶ ἠθικαί), a collection of twelve essays of a profoundly ethical character, focusing on the instability of human fate as opposed to the durability of genuine virtue. What marks the collection as a whole is the overarching despondency at the loss of Elena, which leads to the discussion of broader concerns about human existence, happiness and morality. While placing the characteristics of human soul and nature into a Christian context (e.g. essay 1), Theodore is also keen to adopt Platonic and Aristotelian understandings of the soul and intellect, bringing them into alignment with his emphasis on spirituality addressed in his account. But it is perhaps the peculiar style of his moralism that stands out in passages such as the following:
Large is the sea of life and hard to cross, because the man who powerlessly sails on it is utterly unable to find harbor. For he is constantly disturbed by the motion of the winds. According to Homer, “mortals are weaker than everything,” (Od. 8.169; 18.130) because they have in themselves continuous misfortunes. For they are in every way weaker than everything, because everything in humankind has come to be nothing at all. For as everything in humankind is turned upside down and altered, the inconstancy of the affairs of life becomes evident, because also the properties of the soul, being changed, depart from their prior state and do not remember anything they cherished. For food, luxury, comfort, servants, honor, pomp, and everything else mortal nature is accustomed to value are of no benefit and use; none of them is for the sake of virtue and edification. The soul hardens and enjoys none of these things since they have no permanence. For they disappear with time and are considered to be nothing on account of fortune, because when they pass away unexpectedly, they bring sorrow rather than joy. Wretched nature, what will you do? You have been allotted a mixed composition beyond comprehension, you have earned a noble name in that you are called rational. You abound in rational thoughts and have such a divine spirit, but lo and behold, you are unluckier even than senseless objects when you incur these horrible corruptions caused by time.
(Moral Pieces, Essay 2, 61–89; ed. and trans. Angelov 256)
Authored by an interdisciplinary team of experts, including historians, classicists, philosophers and theologians, this original collection of essays offers the first authoritative analysis of the multifaceted reception of Greek ethics in late antiquity and Byzantium (ca. 3rd-14th c.), opening up a hitherto under-explored topic in the history of Greek philosophy. The essays discuss the sophisticated ways in which moral themes and controversies from antiquity were reinvigorated and transformed by later authors to align with their philosophical and religious outlook in each period. Topics examined range from ethics and politics in Neoplatonism and ethos in the context of rhetorical theory and performance to textual exegesis on Aristotelian ethics. The volume will appeal to scholars and students in philosophy, classics, patristic theology, and those working on the history of education and the development of Greek ethics.
The mind-body relation was at the forefront of philosophy and theology in late antiquity, a time of great intellectual innovation. This volume, the first integrated history of this important topic, explores ideas about mind and body during this period, considering both pagan and Christian thought about issues such as resurrection, incarnation and asceticism. A series of chapters presents cutting-edge research from multiple perspectives, including history, philosophy, classics and theology. Several chapters survey wider themes which provide context for detailed studies of the work of individual philosophers including Numenius, Pseudo-Dionysius, Damascius and Augustine. Wide-ranging and accessible, with translations given for all texts in the original language, this book will be essential for students and scholars of late antique thought, the history of religion and theology, and the philosophy of mind.