Sources for Ancient Philosophy

 “The Transmission of Ancient wisdom: Texts, Doxographies, Libraries” by Gabor Betegh, chapter 2 in The Cambridge History of Philosophy in Late Antiquity, vol. 1, ed. Lloyd Gerson 2010, 225 ff.

Too often, authors tell us with confidence exactly what an ancient writer said in a work now lost, with at best a brief reference to an ancient commentator whose own interest was quite different from the modern author’s. Many readers simply accept these interpretations on the authority of the modern author. But in order to receive them critically, we need to understand the context of the fragments and ancient secondary sources.

The Cambridge History of Philosophy in Late Antiquity concerns a period of ancient philosophy which, in spite of growing interest, does not attract as many readers as Classical philosophy. But Betegh’s chapter tucked inside the first volume should interest students of ancient philosophy as far back as the Presocratics.

Betegh’s survey does not attempt to resolve disputes connected with Cicero’s use of his sources or the misadventures of the Aristotelean corpus; but it does provide a systematic overview of why we have what we have and how it was preserved, misrepresented, distorted: e.g., why Simplicius’ conscientious scholarship a millennium after the Presocratics is our only source for many of their fragments.

Beginning in the Hellenistic period, “The teaching of philosophy was built around the study of authoritative texts” (especially Plato and Arisotle) “and creative philosophical activity started to take the form of exegesis.” Philosophers became also philologists, preoccupied with determining Plato’s definitive doctrines from the inconsistent dialogues, or differentiating forgeries from authentic works. Panaetius and Galen redacted their own personal editions of the classical authors. Betegh explains how Aristotle’s works were lost and found, and how the practise of teaching philosophy encouraged the use of epitomes and doxographies and the gradual loss of texts not chosen for instruction. For example, Christians were the first to switch from papyrus rolls to codices, and their preferences determined which books they transcribed.

I can corroborate from personal experience the role of teaching regimens. In the twentieth century, when Hellenistic poetry was seldom taught to undergraduates in the United States, I found in a university library one copy of an excellent study of Meleager published in nineteenth-century France; I had to cut the leaves! And ten years later it was no longer there.

I highly recommend this little gem.

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