Who was who in ancient Philosophy
It is common knowledge that the Academics, followers of Plato, were among the most influential philosophers of the ancient world. Right, but “common knowledge” can sometime be way off the mark, even when it is the prevalent opinion of scholars in a given field. (For instance, it was once “common knowledge” that the Newtonian understanding of the world would soon mean the end of physics as a scientific discipline, ‘cause, you know, we basically figured out everything. I don’t have to remind you of how that one turned out…)
Turns out that there are ways to at the least approximately quantify the philosophical landscape of the Greco-Roman world, according to a paper by Richard Goulet, published as a contributed chapter in Philosophy as a Way of Life: Ancients and Moderns — Essays in Honor of Pierre Hadot, edited by Michael Chase, Stephen Clark and Michael McGhee.
Goulet’s paper, entitled “Ancient philosophers: a first statistical survey” (available here, but behind paywall) is, as the title clearly hints, a first stab at the problem. But it is fascinating nonetheless, based as it is on a scholarly database of almost 3,000 philosophers, or people who were referred to as “philosophers” in ancient times.
A survey like this comes with a large number of methodological caveats, which the paper does a good job at explaining and qualifying, right at the beginning. The author defined as “ancient” any philosopher who was active from the 6th Century BCE to the 6th Century CE, basically from the pre-Socratics to the Neoplatonists. After applying some basic filters (like, discounting mythological figures who were referred to as “philosophers”) Goulet arrived at a final list of 2,463 names.
Here, then, are the highlights that struck me as most interesting. Beginning with gender: 3.5% of the sample was made of women, which is not an insignificant number, though things have certainly gotten better in terms of gender equality within the profession (and yet, still pretty far from the optimum). Most of these women were Pythagoreans, Platonists, or Epicureans, and a good number were associated with Stoicism.
This was arguably the golden age of Western philosophy, as Goulet counted 33 distinct schools of thought. In decreasing order of numerical importance, we have: Platonists (19% of named philosophers), Pythagoreans (13%, though their influenced waned very quickly, unlike that of the other major schools), Stoics (12%), Epicureans (8%), Peripatetics/Aristotelians (6%), Socratic (5%), and Cynic (3%). That said, for the last four centuries of the period covered by the survey, it was all pretty much Platonists/Academics, with a smatter of Stoics, Peripatetics and Epicureans.
How much do we know about what these philosophers wrote? The survey’s estimate is that we have about 10 million words (or, if you prefer, 30,000 pages) of surviving texts, though only about 4% of these are outside of the Academic-Aristotelian traditions. In terms of directly transmitted texts, 13% come from Philoponus (13%), a Christian commentator of Aristotle; followed by Simplicius (11%), a Neoplatonist; then (all at 10%) Aristotle, Alexander (a Peripatetic), and Proclus (another Neoplatonist). As you can see, the choices of texts are a bit skewed.
It’s interesting that Goulet concludes that this level of uneven sampling of directly preserved texts was not a result of chance (given that we know that many of the other schools were also very productive), but must have been the outcome of, ahem, “the Neoplatonic school [playing] an important role in selecting ancient philosophical texts for preservation.” That is, if you happen to be the last school standing, why bother passing stuff from your rivals to future generations?
Another fascinating question concerns the locations of origin of the philosophers included in the statistical survey. Overwhelming numbers of them (20% of the total) came from Asia Minor, followed by Italy (15%) and Greece (14%), though geography does not correlate with particular schools: every region contributed thinkers to every major school. As Goulet aptly puts it: “philosophy was a widespread phenomenon throughout ancient society, and at every period.”
In terms of cities, the major cultural hotspots for ancient philosophy were Athens (obviously), Alexandria (Egypt), Rome, Pergamon (Turkey), Tarsus (Turkey), Ephesus (Turkey), and Constantinople (also in Turkey).
In at the least 108 cases we know of statues erected to these philosophers, “a clear indication of the high consideration received by the philosophers in ancient society and of the concern of ancient society for its famed intellectuals.” Just like today…
Goulet further comments that “philosophy was not only a private doctrinal affair, nor a purely individual ‘way of life.’ It had a social function and the status of the philosopher was recognized in every little township within the Roman empire, as well as in the law codes.” Ah, the truly good ‘ol times!
Interestingly, a good number of ancient philosophers were active as teachers (documented in 12% of the cases, but inferred for a much higher number), book writers (at the least 28%), and politically involved (at least 11%), and “attending the school of Athenian philosophers for a few months seems to have been a must in the high Roman society.”
There is much talk nowadays of the waning popularity and influence of philosophy, a “fact” that is actually debatable to an extent, at the least considering the number of discussion groups and public events devoted to philosophy that keep being organized in major cities around the world. But the modern philosopher is certainly a different figure, and has a very different impact (or lack thereof) when compared to the ancient. I don’t think that’s necessarily a good thing.
MASSIMO PIGLIUCCI IS THE K.D. IRANI PROFESSOR OF PHILOSOPHY AT THE CITY COLLEGE OF NEW YORK. HIS BACKGROUND IS IN EVOLUTIONARY BIOLOGY AND THE PHILOSOPHY OF SCIENCE, THOUGH HE HAS RECENTLY DEVELOPED A KEEN INTEREST IN STOICISM. HIS MOST RECENT BOOK (CO-EDITED WITH MAARTEN BOUDRY) IS “PHILOSOPHY OF PSEUDOSCIENCE: RECONSIDERING THE DEMARCATION PROBLEM” (UNIVERSITY OF CHICAGO PRESS, 2013). HIS OTHER WRITINGS CAN BE FOUND AT PLATOFOOTNOTE.ORG.