GHC Review 4: Selections from Hellenistic Philosophy

GHC Review 4; Selections From Hellenistic Philosophy
Selections From Hellenistic Philosophy, Gordon H. Clark, ed. New York: Appleton Century Crofts, 1940, 267 pp.

Clark’s Selections From Hellenistic Philosophy is in a sense a second to Nahm’s similarly-titled Selections from Early Greek Philosophy. It continues to a later period with selections from various ancient philosophers in chapters on Epicureanism, The Stoics, Plutarch, Philo Judaeus, Hermes Trismegistus, and Plotinus.

The translation of the selection of Hermes Trismegistus was made by William Romaine Newbold, Clark’s professor at Pennsylvania who died young in 1926. Clark notes, “Since I was studying with him at the time of his death, Mrs. Newbold most graciously gave me his copy with its interleaved translation and extensive notes.” (preface, vii)

In this—now the fourth work on Greek philosophy reviewed in this series—there is again little of Clark’s own philosophical views explicitly present. Yet there are things of value to learn from this study of the Greeks.

Clark explains that while the Epicureans remained in detailed agreement with Epicurus himself, the Stoics are more difficult to study because of their constant change. (p. 50) The Stoics also were willing to engage in political activity while the Epicureans recommended a life of pure contemplation. (p. 53)

Clark’s comments on Philo are particularly instructive. He writes, “Even the Greek translation of the Old Testament, known as the Septuagint, contains slight traces of Greek influence. For example, many of the anthropopathisms were modified; in one or two places the concept of creation was made to approximate the Platonic picture of formation; and in at least one case the influence of Stoicism is discernible in the choice of a technical term. While these peculiarities cannot be explained as the normal result of translating, on the other hand, there is no good reason to suppose that the translators knew and intentionally promoted the later Alexandrian philosophy.” (p. 151) “In order to harmonize the revelation from God in the Old Testament with the clear, rational Greek philosophy, Philo made large use of the allegorical method of interpretation.” (p. 152) He notes also that “Because Phlio used the term Logos, because he spoke of the Logos as the image of God, the first begotten son of God, because of the repeated use of personification, Christians have at times believed they have discovered in Philo an anticipation, if not of the Trinity completely, at least of the second person of the Trinity.” (p. 157) But, Clark responds, “For although [in Philo] the Logos is the Son of God, on the other hand, Laughter is also a the Son of God, God is the husband of Wisdom, Wisdom is the daughter of God, Wisdom is the mother of the Logos, and Wisdom is the father of instruction. … Philo’s use of allegory and personification is amazing.” (p. 157-158)

As for the writings of Hermes Trismegistus, Clark writes, “The corpus as a whole is not the work of a single author, and attempts to formulate a consistent system of theology or cosmology from its teachings must result in confusion. The critical problems are difficult. None of the tractates was written before the Christian era and they were not collected into a single group much before A. D. 300.” (p. 185) And, “one must judge that the Hermetic literature is a less popular form of Gnosticism, showing Christian influence in its phraseology, but even more pagan in its philosophy than the better known Gnostic systems.” (p. 187)

The book concludes with Plotinus. Interestingly, we read, “Although Plotinus attacked Gnosticism, he does not seem to have been familiar with the main current of Christianity.” (p. 220) Pertinent to epistemology (and I hope to begin writing a book on Clark’s epistemology following this re-read through and review of all his books) Clark notes, “To defend the possibility of knowledge against skepticism Plotinus therefore rejected not only the crude Epicurean form of image-transmission, but also the more refined theory of Aristotle, and even the theory of Plato whom in general he followed. The explanation he accepted is that of the sympathy of similar parts of the same universe.” (p. 222)
Before we move on to Clark’s Christian constructions, there is one more book—A History of Philosophy—in his early stage of work in secular philosophy.

For the previous review in this series see here.
For the next review in this series see here.

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  1. Pingback: GHC Review 3: Selections From Early Greek Philosophy | A Place for Thoughts

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