Pursuits of Wisdom, John M Cooper, Princeton University Press, Pp 442 (HB), $ 35
IN this book, the author discusses the main ideas and theories of pagan Greek moral philosophy as a whole – in a continuous tradition right from Socrates, the originator of the ethical theory in Western tradition, down to the Platonists of late antiquity.
He tries to show how interesting the philosophies of antiquity are for understanding human nature, human values and how to lead one’s life; secondly, how clear and compelling their philosophies were as potential guides to living, given that our cultures and historical circumstances differ in many ways from those of antiquity and that we see some basic assumptions in ancient philosophy that are not acceptable in the climate of the 21st-century philosophy.
In antiquity, beginning with Socrates, philosophy was widely pursued as not just the best guide to life, but both as the intellectual basis and the motivating force for the best human life. It was Socrates who shifted the focus away from the study of the world of Nature in general to specifically that of human nature and human life. He established ethics or moral philosophy as one part of the subject. As has been practiced since the Renaissance, things were not very different in ancient Greece and Rome.
Philosophy is traditionally composed of three branches, namely metaphysical philosophy, natural philosophy and moral philosophy, that is, dialectics, philosophy of Nature and ethics, where the last named is the principal component of philosophy.
The author’s main aim in this book is to explain and explore the ancient tradition of philosophy as a way of life, as it was founded by Socrates and as later thinkers adopting Socrates’s study of philosophy, successfully applied and elaborated his conception in their own individual ways. This tradition lasted unbroken from Plato through the eclipse of ancient pagan philosophising and its ultimate replacement as a way of life in the Greek and Roman world by Christian religion.
So, while emphasising the ancient Greek tradition of philosophy as a way of life, the author concentrates not only on ethical theories of Plato, Aristotle, the Stoics, Epicurus, the ancient Pyrrhonian sceptics and the Platonists of the Imperial period, but also on their metaphysical theories and philosophy of Nature, with their logic epistemology and philosophy of language as well.
(Princeton University Press, 41, William Street, Princeton, New Jersey 08540; press.princeton.edu)