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Pursuits of WisdomReview - Pursuits of Wisdom
Six Ways of Life in Ancient Philosophy from Socrates to PlotinusJohn M. Cooper
by John M. Cooper
Princeton University Press, 2012
Review by Ben Mulvey, Ph.D.
Jun 3rd 2014 (Volume 18, Issue 23)

There have been a number of books published in recent years having to do with the "self-help" nature of many ancient philosophical texts.  Most of these books have been light on philosophical analysis and heavy on advice for contemporary readers.  The landscape changed significantly with the publication of Pierre Hadot's Philosophy as a Way of Life (Blackwell, 1995) and What is Ancient Philosophy? (Harvard, 2002).  Hadot's srious philosophical books represented a different approach to understanding ancient texts.  Instead of understanding them as nothing more than the nascent discussions of issues that contemporary philosophers find interesting, Hadot's claim was that many ancient texts were written with the intention of offering people a specific way to live a life.

John Cooper's Pursuits of Wisdom follows Hadot in understanding ancient texts in this way.  In fact, Cooper, in the first chapter of Pursuits of Wisdom, situates his work relative to Hadot's.  More specifically, says, Cooper, "I hope to show my readers both how wonderfully good and, above all, interesting the philosophies of antiquity are, both individually and in the full sweep of this tradition's history, when considered as offering ways of life" (x).  Cooper wants to convince his readers that serious philosophy, in general can be fruitfully considered as a guide to living.  As for his readers, Cooper has "attempted to make the ancient philosophies ... accessible to philosophers, and students of philosophy, with little or no familiarity with specialist scholarship within the ... sub-field of ancient philosophy.  But I have hoped to make the book equally accessible to readers interested in philosophy, and in the idea of philosophy as a guide to life, with little formal background in the academic field" (xi). 

Cooper's 442-page book is divided into six parts, each one, other than the first, dedicated to one or more represented philosophers: Socrates, Aristotle, the Stoics, Epicurus, Sextus Empiricus, and Plotinus.  The first part of the book offers a general introduction which offers an explanation as to just what the concept of philosophy as a way of life means.  Here Cooper wants us to understand what he calls "three connected points" about ancient philosophy: (1) starting with Socrates, it was founded on the assumption that human reason could discern truth while at the same time providing motivation for action, (2) that philosophy "is the intellectual accomplishment ... whereby reason is made perfect," and (3) that "possessing the truth ... gives a person ... a ... thoroughly good life" (11-14).  All of this means, and this is an important point for Cooper, that a "philosophical way of life is ... in fundamental ways quite a different thing from any religious way of life. (17)

The second part of the book focuses on Socrates, the founder of the philosophical tradition at issue here.  Cooper claims that for "Socrates, the complete good condition of the soul is entirely a matter of one's ability ... to understand, explain, and successfully defend by argument and analysis ... one's own values and commitments" (48).  The important point to remember about Socrates, for Cooper, is not so much his emphasis on reason.  This is important to all the philosophers Cooper discusses.  Socrates doesn't uncover a body of "truths" by which to orient one's life.  What's important to Socrates is the pursuit of wisdom, to "... constantly and ceaselessly pursue wisdom through philosophical inquiry and discussion" (51).  For Cooper, it is this "committed open-endedness of Socratic philosophy marks the Socratic life off sharply from all its successors in the ancient tradition of philosophy as a way of life" (61).

The third part of the book is about Aristotle.  We know that Aristotle's ethical magnum opus, the Nicomachean Ethics, is about the nature of, and how to attain, a happy life.  But this is a notoriously maddening text in many regards. Scholars agree that various parts of the text are often difficult to reconcile with one another.  One area of contention is that on the one hand, Aristotle seems to embrace the active, but virtuous life as the happiest, while on the other hand, he seems to suggest the contemplative life is the happiest.  Cooper takes a refreshing position on this particular debate.  For Aristotle, claims Cooper, philosophy "was not a way of life, as it was for Socrates.  It is two distinct ones" (143).

Stoicism is the subject of the fourth part of Pursuits of Wisdom.  Cooper makes Stoicism immediately relevant to a contemporary audience when he says, in "our cultures today, as well as in ancient times, almost everybody grows up having developed for themselves the mistaken idea ... that happiness and the good life are largely ... determined by a preponderance in them of naturally valuable aspects, objects, and experiences"  according to Cooper and the Stoics, this belief is "the fundamental error that all vicious people make, which leads them to their mistaken and vicious ways of life" (191).  The central task of Stoic philosophy, according to Cooper, is to eradicate this error.

Interestingly Cooper devotes the fifth part of Pursuits of Wisdom to the discussion of two very different philosophical schools, the Epicurean and the Skeptic.  Perhaps the reason for so grouping them is found in Cooper's claim that "...for all the philosophers we have discussed...a devotion to reason lies at the center of the best way of life," but "neither Epicurus... nor the ancient skeptics ... accept this conception of human reason, as having divine affiliations that give it some unique power and value" (226-27).  Cooper offers a very interesting Nietzschean (my description, not Cooper's) analysis of the Epicurean understanding of reason as a naturally occurring instrumental animal function.  Because, says Cooper, Epicureanism "did not make the active engagement in philosophical study and inquiry itself in any way an essential part of the best life" (229), this is perhaps "why the Epicurean movement was so open to people of little or no education.  It did not require a lot of study or learning to be a good Epicurean" (275).  As for Skepticism, "the goal for Sextus's proto-skeptics," claims Cooper, "became to obtain tranquility through philosophy.  But since skeptics are "skeptical" about ever achieving the "legitimate requirements one must satisfy in order actually to know something" (276), Cooper raises questions about the "viability of the skeptic way of life" (303).

The final part of the book is devoted to a discussion of Plotinus and neo-Platonism.  With Plotinus, says Cooper, "we step into a different philosophical world" (306).  Plotinus leaves the earth-bound human animal world, to focus our lives "exclusively in activities of pure intellectual thinking" (307).  "The physical world as a whole ... including our own bodies – are misleading derivations from a higher realm" (308).  So philosophy for the neo-Platonists, is meant "to disengage us and take us away from this world" (316).  This new emphasis, of course, is the perfect entre to Christianity.  And that is where Cooper leaves off this impressive study of the ancients.

If there is one thing that Cooper's booked lacked, for me it would be some sort of final assessment of it all.  There is no concluding chapter in which Cooper offers some overall evaluation and assessment of the philosophical work that he so painstakingly discussed in the book.  So where do we finally stand?  What can we take from and what can we abandon from ancient philosophy?  How exactly can we weave important insights into our own self-understandings?  In noting the end of ancient pagan philosophy, all that Cooper has to offer is the comment, "Too bad" (387).  That said, Pursuits of Wisdom is a well-written, thoroughly argued book.  It undoubtedly makes an important contribution to contemporary understandings of ancient philosophy.  It might even contribute to broadening the audience of those who see the relevance and seriousness of philosophy for their lives. 

 

© 2014 Ben Mulvey

 

Ben Mulvey, Ph.D., is Associate Professor of Philosophy at the College of Arts and Sciences of Nova Southeastern University.  He received his doctorate in philosophy from Michigan State University specializing in political theory and applied ethics.  He teaches philosophy at NSU and is a member of the board of advisors of the Florida Bioethics Network.


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