New publication: Cicero's Academici libri and Lucullus

In Greco-Roman antiquity there were two major sceptical movements, Academic Scepticism, i.e. the sceptical outlook adopted by Plato's Academy from Arcesilaus in the third century to the beginning of the first century, and Pyrrhonism. For the modern reader, the latter is primarily represented in the writings of Sextus Empiricus, while our main body of evidence for the former is the corpus of Cicero's philosophical writings. Among these, the Lucullus and the fragments of the Academici libri, which are the extant parts of different editions of the same work collectively called Academica (Acad.) by modern scholars, are devoted to epistemology (in the broad sense of logikē).

            The texts are dialogues in which a dogmatic speaker and a sceptical speaker converse with each other, setting out a version of the Stoic view on perceptual knowledge and sceptical objections to it. Both sides underpin their positions with an account of the history of philosophy which casts their respective outlook as the appropriate culminating point of the philosophical tradition (construed in a suitable way) which started with Socrates and continued in the Academy.

            These features make the set of texts quite unusual. Much of our information on Stoic epistemology comes from summary accounts and reports by (occasionally hostile) non-Stoics, whereas in Acad. speakers who endorse the doctrines in question lay them out on their own terms and explain in detail how one would counter objections to them, and so on. Similarly, in the absence of books written e.g. by someone like Clitomachus the parts of Acad. which develop the sceptical outlook on its own terms are invaluable evidence, whereas evidence from elsewhere often shows an obvious bias (thus Sextus is keen to present Pyrrhonism as the only genuine form of scepticism). And while much ancient philosophical writing shows a keen sense of its own historical situatedness, Acad. is an extreme case in that it offers two competing interpretations of the same tradition which issue in radically different points of arrival.

            Acad. had benefitted greatly from the increased interest which Hellenistic philosophy has enjoyed since the 1950s, but the only detailed commentary on all the texts dated from 1885, and the only properly critical edition so far from 1908. It thus seemed an opportune moment to replace both.

            The commentary aims to put all the information which is necessary for making sense of the text at the reader's disposal, but it also seeks to advance a number of particular claims and to show how they can be sustained across the texts in their entirety. These relate to:

  • the status of the Ciceronian corpus as evidence for the sceptical Academy and the somewhat different positions adopted by various Academic philosophers.
  • the precise formulation of these positions and their standing within the Academy (official view of the school vs position of a splinter group).
  •  the nature of the objection with which Arcesilaus started the debate between Stoics and sceptics, and how the debate developed thereafter.
  • the manner and mechanism by which Antiochus of Ascalon, previously a sceptic, formulated a dogmatic 'Platonist' position for the first time in two centuries (albeit a different one from that of the Middle Platonists).

Both volumes are available from OUP here and here.

Tobias Reinhardt, 10 January 2023

reinhardt vol 1 high quality

Oxford Classical Texts new edition

reinhardt vol 2 high quality

Companion commentary & translation