In the middle of the seventeenth century, [I] the standard approach to the historiography of philosophy, which at this time almost universally meant writing the history of ancient philosophy, was still closely modelled on Diogenes Laertius's book on the Lives of Eminent Philosophers. A typical work would be organized by sect, each section being subdivided by author, with a doxography of the sect's distinctive arguments presented in the section to devoted to its founder--in the case of the Stoics, Zeno of Citium. Passages on later philosophers adhering to the particular school would follow the treatment of the founder, in broadly chronological order. While mention would be made of particular specialisms or idiosyncracies which appeared in the work of these later adherents, there would be no detailed treatment of what scholars would today recognize as the basic stuff of the history of philosophy, [II] the presentation of how the course of philosophical argument over time led to modifications in the doctrines maintained by the philosophers and the schools. Those who wrote on the history of philosophy could discuss whether theses were true or false, in light of the best philosophical accounts of their own age, or of revealed religion, but they provided no serious account of how progress in philosophy might be made, of how within a certain tradition of philosophical argument, arguments might be found wanting and replaced, where possible, with better ones. [Emphasis and numbering added--ES] Christopher Brooke Philosophic Pride: Stoicism and Political Thought from Lipsius to Rousseau, pp. 139-140. (For an earlier version of Brooke's argument, see here.)
I have quoted from the opening lines of a section on changes in the historiography of philosophy that Christopher Brooke recounts in chapter six of his impressive monograph (from which I learned a lot). Before I get to that, let me say something about Brooke's wonderful book. The main thrust tells the story of the miraculous come-back of Stoic ideas in political theory (and ethics, meta-ethics) after Machiavelli's seeming knock-out blows against them. The Stoic political theory that Machiavelli undermined is associated with Seneca's views on the ruler's constancy. As Brooke nicely notes a key move made by the re-founder of Stoicism, Lipsius, is to switch constancy as a virtue from the ruler to the subject. In an unusual oversight, Brooke fails to note the significance of this move to Descartes, whose philosophy is -- as I have noted before (here; see also this post on Descartes's pride and generosity) -- written from the perspective of the technocratic (and constant) subject and, which, in fact, embraces constancy as a key virtue in his second methodological and regulative maxim in the Discourse on Method. Be that as it may, a more fundamental difference, and this is nicely emphasized by Brooke, is that the Machiavellian prince is not immanent in the political order (she acquires dominions and subjects for her own glory) whereas for Lipsius she is serving the common good (32-33). Lipsius's position comes under attack from both Christian (Augustianian) moralists as well as 'secular' (61--Montaigne)and (Hobbesian) political realists and Brooke ably recounts the developments of Stoic ideas (switching from Seneca to Marcus Aurelius along the way) all the way to Rousseau.*
Okay, let me turn to methodology. In chapter six, Brooke recounts a "revolution" (141) in the historiography of philosophy away from doxography (which, it is worth noting, itself imposed an order on its source material). One of the innovations was (III) to think of philosophy as "problem-driven," in particular,
examining particular philosophical questions, the arguments to which these had historically given rise, and, crucially, those moments at which the participants in those arguments appeared to agree that the state of the question had changed, or that the argument had moved on. In considering the topics that were debated between the artisans of the different schools, furthermore, the new historians of philosophy had the highest praise for those they considered to be 'eclectic' philosophers, those who were not beholden to the dogmas of a particular school, but who enjoyed the freedom to draw as they saw fit from among the various authorities and arguments that were available to them. (141)
This revolution is associated with Pufendorf and Thomasius and makes a narrative of "progress" possible. (I go over some of the same material here, where I provide an analysis of how the new early modern historiography creates revolutionary baselines from which progress is to be discerned.) Brooke correctly notes that this historiography is itself made possible by the embrace of eclecticism -- the selection (of what is best) -- as a respectable philosophical stance. It also involves a more subtle shift from philosophy as a coherent way of life as philosophy as arguments (of course, arguments are possible in the former and the latter is compatible with a life-style). In context, Brooke notes that it, thereby, rejects a focus on schools and their internal tradition/development. While problem driven philosophy is still familiar to us, it is important to emphasize that such eclecticism is also incompatible with another way of thinking about philosophy, systematicity.
Systematicity is mentioned when Brooke discusses another methodological innovation (one responding to the ways in which Stoicism and Spinozism were seen as species of atheism or at least hostile to "religious orthodoxy" (141)) pioneered by Buddeaus:
Rather than examining each of the ancient philosophical schools by listing their opinions on various topics, Buddeus sought (IV) to identify the nuclear or constitutive principles of those philosophical schools, the key teachings from which other doctrines were considered to flow. This was then a way of distinguishing the core from the peripheral arguments of the various schools...(141)
The core is here like a timeless, but knowable essence from which other less essential doctrines flow. (This is the central explanatory framework of seventeenth century science before it gets displaced by a focus on laws.) Buddeus treats a temporal tradition here as akin to a substance. But once such a body of knowledge is treated as a substance with an essence it is not a huge step to seeing it as a system with a core and a periphery. This allows then a comparison, as Brooke notes, in Spinozism before Spinoza, between Stoicism and Spinozisms and the identification of these as instances of the same system. (Leo Catana has done fine work (see here, and here) on how Buddeus's ideas on systematicity were carefully developed (and partially transformed) and made influential in the work of Brucker whose ideas were taken up in the critical (Kantian) philosophy and its historiography.)
Okay, so we have here three methods of history of philosophy:
- Doxography of potentially many sects (I)
- A focus on the innovations in arguments that solve (philosophical) problems and, thereby, produce new doctrines (II&III)
- A focus on systems with a core and a periphery. (IV)
In Brooke's hands the views of Pufendorf and Thomasius (III) are very close to what he takes to be the contemporary understanding ('scholars today') of the history of philosophy (IV) which is why I don't distinguish them in this list. To be sure, and Brooke ignores this, there are able adherents of IV today (see Alan Nelson; not to mention those of us that reject I-IV).
Of course, there is a non-trivial difference between II & III: many scholars today would, while not eschewing evaluation altogether ('does an argument succeed on its own terms?;' 'are there hidden tensions?;', etc.), understand themselves primarily as describing the arguments that lead to novel doctrines of the past finding, as it were, the historical truth or historical meaning (see Lærke); while the eclectic historians (of the seventeenth and eighteenth century) are seeing themselves as paving the way for improved doctrines, that is, more progress (say in a 'science of morality' (144)) by learning from other people's mistakes.
That is to say the eclectic historians share something in common with Lipsius and Machiavelli. For, one commonality between Lipsius and Machiavelli noted by Brooke is that both believe (V) that history can be instructive. For Lipsius and Machiavelli, the instruction does not generate "general rules with universal application" (31), but maxims which rely on contextual judgment and prudence in knowing then and knowing when to apply them. That is the historian can also aim
- to be instructed by the past (III&V)
Now, here my point is not to collapse entirely the distinction between political history and the history of political theory, although a too rigorous separation makes one misunderstand, even underestimate, contributions to both genres (Thucydides Machiavelli, Hume, maybe Tacitus),--about which another time very soon. Rather, I want to close with a pet-peeve about the contemporary stance that Brooke subscribes and exemplifies so ably: it privileges recent scholarship and, thus, exhibits a certain unwillingness to learn from the source material. So, for example, Brooke does not treat his sources (many of which are offering philosophical interpretations about the nature of Stoicism) as symmetrical in understanding with recent scholars. So, for example, the sources are never allowed to challenge the findings about ancient Stoicism by recent scholars (although he ably notes controversies among them and also ably shows when material was or was not available). Now, undoubtedly recent scholars have the advantage of using more sources and better technical tools (about dating, authorship, etc.), and I would not wish to deny that classical philology advances (say, from the days of Lipsius). But Brooke always privileges the perspectives of recent scholars over his early modern sources.
So, for example, as we have seen, in chapter six (in fact, the argument starts at the end of chapter five), Brooke treats the interest in the Stoic attitude toward providence and divinity as a modern phenomenon primarily as a result of the rise of Spinozism, Pantheism, and Deism and the ways these (each) swerve uncomfortably close to atheism. I agree with his reading of the early moderns. But he treats their interpretation of Stoicism as a distinctly (early) modern phenomenon. This is odd because it is a recurring theme in a widely read text and important source, Cicero's On the Nature of the Gods, that (recall) ancient schools disguise their true doctrines on the gods out of fear of popular odium. (In Cicero the topic is raised polemically about the Epicureans twice, but it is also discussed in the context of other schools and himself). Early Modern readers did not miss the point and often treated fear of popular odium as a danger for all of the ancient, philosophical sects (recall here, and here on Smith and Toland on Pythogoreans). While this seems apt for Epicureans, it may seem odd to raise this concern about the Stoics. But while, the Stoics often talked of (partial) providence (for the virtuous [for evidence and this terminology, see Runia]), they also embrace fatalism and so the early modern suspicion of the nature of their theism is not without ground. The point here is not to defend esotericism or the early modern readings of the Stoics (who, inspired, by Plutarch often treat Stoics as religious hypocrites);** rather the point is to nudge us toward a methodology that treats our historical subjects as equal partners in our intellectual voyage(s).
*It is notable that in Brooke's hands the radical early Stoical political ideas about cosmopolitanism, equality of sexes, the rejection of many civil institutions of subordination, and the centrality of love are nearly absent in the story. This absence is not so notable at the start of his narrative, but it becomes striking when he reaches the late eighteenth century (where some of these ideas became very prominent again including in Rousseau, whom Brooke treats ably). I think this absence is due to Brooke's decision to frame his book around the Augustinian polemic with Stoic pride--this move, which is genuinely illuminating, also subtly forces a focus on ethics and metha-ethics.
**Brooke (65ff) notes, of course, that the charge of moral hypocrisy is often leveled against the Stoics, but he misses the religious issue.