posted with permission:
Plutarch Against Colotes: A Lesson in History of Philosophy. By Eleni Kechagia. Oxford Classical Monographs. Oxford and New York: Oxford University Press, 2011. Pp. xviii + 359. £70.00/$135.00. ISBN 978-0-19-959723-9.
Reviewed by Jan Opsomer, University of Leuven
Plutarch’s polemical text against the Epicurean Colotes is a precious source for fragments and testimonies from Colotes and from the philosophers attacked by the latter. Kechagia has produced the first book-length study that studies Plutarch’s “anti-Epicurean pamphlet” in its own right and not just as a source for other philosophers. She discusses Plutarch’s strategies in defending the other philosophers and attacking Colotes. Kechagia wants to do justice to Plutarch as a historian of philosophy, who teaches his readers “how (not) to do (history of) philosophy” (p. 12). Plutarch indeed exposes Colotes’ disingenuity and ignorance, and explains that a serious philosophical discussion should be based on careful reading and comparison of texts. Plutarch’s own treatise is meant to set a didactic example for his own pupils (p. 167). That is not to say, of course, that his account of his philosophical opponents would satisfy present-day scholarly standards.
Besides a fine general study of the work, Kechagia provides in-depth discussions of the sections on Democritus, Plato, and the Cyrenaics (for whose epistemology Plutarch is the principal source). Her reader is given precious insights into ancient philosophical polemics. Kechagia does a good job at disentangling different layers: (1) the philosophical doctrines attacked by Colotes; (2a) Colotes’ criticism of those doctrines, carried out against the background of (2b) his own, Epicurean, philosophical persuasion; (3a) Plutarch’s defence of the other philosophers against Colotes and (3b) his criticism of Colotes’ own views and tactics, carried out against the background of (3c) Plutarch’s own philosophical views. Plutarch not only vindicates the other philosophers by showing that Colotes has misunderstood or deliberately misrepresented them, but usually also turns the tables on Colotes (the “overturning argument”) by arguing that the Epicureans are themselves guilty of the charges they bring against others and do not even realize how inconsistent and shameless they are.
Kechagia lucidly explains Colotes’ philosophical reasons for criticising the views of the other philosophers: Colotes thinks that their doctrines make life impossible. This may seem grotesque, but becomes more understandable when seen in the context of the Epicurean idea that philosophy should serve life. Claims that neither the world as we know it nor we, human beings, really exist would indeed undermine the project of philosophy as therapy. For the same reason scepticism was perceived to be a threat. Hence the Epicureans require that our cognitive access to the world be fully reliable and informative. The main worry behind Colotes’ polemic would be that philosophy became insulated from life.
It is usually assumed that Arcesilaus was Colotes’ main target and that most if not all of the other philosophers included in Colotes’ attack were included because of the fact that Arcesilaus considered them as predecessors for his own brand of scepticism or because of perceived similarities with Arcesilaus’ position. Plutarch is fully aware of this situation and in defending the other philosophers also vindicates his own Academic roots. Kechagia acknowledges this background of the polemic, which only makes her choice not to subject the Arcesilaus section to a close study all the more surprising. For thus she deprives herself of the possibility to offer detailed comparisons with the polemical arguments and strategies deployed to attack and to defend Democritus, Plato, and the Cyrenaics.
There were some notorious omissions in Colotes’ pamphlets against the other philosophers: neither Aristotle and the Peripatetics nor the Stoics were targeted. The common view was that he left them out because the first were simply considered as Platonists and the second were not yet recognised as an important school, but rather as a sect branching of from the Cynics. Kechagia surmises that there may also be a more philosophical explanation: neither school was seen to threaten life. This is probably right, but the reason could also be that they could not be used for a polemic with Arcesilaus.
Kechagia offers useful discussions of Colotes’ attack on, and Plutarch’s vindication of, Platonic ontology; of Plutarch’s reading of Democritus’ νόμῳ-thesis as being eliminitavist about all sensible beings deriving from atoms (for which she cites some interesting parallels, pp. 191-2); of Cyrenaic epistemology (assessing Plutarch’s report slightly differently from the received view, p. 254). Kechagia’s ideas about the structuring principle of Plutarch’s text are interesting. Kechagia argues that by changing the order in which he defends the philosophers targeted by Colotes Plutarch has created a dialectical and a physical group. If we add the fact that Plutarch discusses ethical topics in the epilogue of the work, we can see that Plutarch structured his work in accordance with the traditional tripartition of philosophy. This interpretation requires Kechagia to claim that Plutarch considers Democritus’ theses as primarily ontological; and that Plutarch’s omits Melissus so as not to destroy the nice thematic arrangement (p. 163). Possibly a different explanation of the structure is called for: Plutarch wanted to create smaller thematic groups, the larger structure of two main parts being merely a by-product.
Kechagia provides a rich and thought-provoking study of an important text. The common view according to which Colotes’ book was merely anti-sceptical is rejected by her as being too narrow. Her analyses of the sections on Plato and Democritus convincingly show this assessment to be correct.