Comment on Phillip Mitsis on Hellenistic philosophical schools


Phillip Mitsis, “The Institutions of Hellenistic Philosophy”, Chapter 27 in A Companion to the Hellenistic World, ed. Andrew Erskine (Blackwell 2005)

Phillip Mitsis attempts to improve our understanding of Hellenistic philosophical ‘schools’ with a critical review of certain speculative descriptions of them, particularly Martha Nussbaum’s apt, but overdrawn, comparison of the Epicureans, whose teaching was strictly therapeutic, with the authentic research of the Aristoteleans. Mitsis repeatedly reminds us of important differences between modern universities and ancient ‘schools’, which lacked any permanent infrastructure or financial support, and of the sparsity of our evidence on these questions. He prefers to regard the Hellenistic sects as simply “schools of thought”, whose success relied on the personal relationships between students and teachers, their mutual admiration, differences, shared intellectual convictions and rivalries.

The criticism of speculative characterizations of the schools is timely and effective; and the suggestion that intellectual inquiry was a paramount feature of Hellenistic ‘schools’ (as it should be of any school of philosophy) is cogent. However, Mitsis’ analysis does not consider an important factor: Given the absence of institutional support, what indeed was the source of the schools’ income, and what effect did it have on their doctrines and practices?

Mitsis asks his reader to imagine the different circumstances of Hellenistic compared to modern philosophical environments, and what those differences entail. Well, then, let the tenured professsor imagine an environment in which financial resources come only from the master’s own personal wealth, from private patrons, and students’ fees, without even a concept of academic freedom. Actually he need not look very far. The current academic situation in many North American universities, where teaching is done by underpaid instructors on contract, where a position which ‘offends’ any group can endanger their career, and where universities may be governed by churches which do not hesitate to censor what is taught, indicates an incipient shift towards such an environment.

As always, our evidence is sparse. Apparently Roman patronage was especially hazardous. In a paper posted on Academia.edu, Marietta Horster (Small-minded, Envious and Chauvinistic: The Self-shaping of Roman Intellectuals), drawing on the satires of Lucian and Juvenal, concludes that there was “not enough money and not enough patrons for the many... philosophers”: It was “a highly competitive situation” (p. 201). And further, that “most... were not worth the money invested in them”. Juvenal, and especially Lucian, were targeting mediocre post-Hellenistic epigones. But as early as the second century b.c.e. the Stoic Panaetius sanitized early Stoic ethics for his Scipionic patron. Although Epicureans were supposed to stay out of politics altogether, Philodemus skilfully composed the best advice he could, given the school’s constraints, for his politically active Roman patron. Musonius Rufus adapted Stoic living to suit his wealthy Roman students. There is even epigraphic evidence of Epicureans who sought financial security by becoming priests. (For references to these instances see my paper on “Platonic and Roman Influence on Stoic and Epicurean Sexual Ethics”, Chapter 25 in A Companion to Greek and Roman Sexualities, ed. Thomas K. Hubbard, Wiley Blackwell 2014.)

Mitsis’s wholesome intellectual environment and Horster’s circus of charlatans are probably both true aspects of the ancient reality.


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