OUP (2018) h/b 314pp £47.99 (ISBN 9780190885120)
The volume under review sets itself an immense challenge: to uncover the history of a unified concept of wisdom, shared across the Mediterranean from Homer to the New Testament, in Hebrew, Greek, and Aramaic, and one still present, quietly though integrally, in western culture today. While it may fall short of convincing in its entirety, its chief value lies in the synoptic and comparative vistas it opens up.
The book starts with the Homeric epics in chapter 1, takes us through portions of the Hebrew bible (parts of Genesis, Proverbs, Ecclesiastes and Job: chapter 2 and 3), the character of Socrates in Plato’s dialogues (chapter 4), wisdom in Plato and Aristotle more generally (chapter 5), Hellenistic Jewish thought (Aristobulus and Wisdom of Solomon in chapter 6), and finishes with the New Testament (chapter 7). Given each of these individual topics comes with an overwhelming volume of existing commentary and critical thought, the coverage is partial and will not please everyone. The writing is geared to the non-specialist, and is pitched for general readership rather than an academic market.
The first chapter (on Homer) may well raise the classicist’s eyebrow. The overall thesis is that Homeric wisdom consists of bowing to one’s lot in life, and Achilles is apparently thus the prime example of wisdom. Achilles was seen as exemplary in many ways, but not, in the ancient world, as particularly wise. There is a significant bibliography on Homer as a paradigmatic, philosophical or quasi-biblical text that doesn’t seem to have really been engaged here: R. Lamberton’s Homer the Theologian is mentioned, but not seriously, or M. Niehoff’s excellent edited volume Homer and the Bible in the Eyes of Ancient Interpreters (Brill, 2012), to mention a few starting points.
The individual theses followed in the other chapters are more satisfying: either convincing or, at the least, thought-provoking. The idea of ‘metaphysical vulnerability’ (see especially pp. 105-7) that L. employs to interpret Job and the Hebrew bible is particularly striking. Placing Socrates in the midst of Jewish and Christian religious writings, and foregrounding the religious nature of Socrates’ teaching (111) may well be unfamiliar to many classicists but allow us to look at some of Plato’s dialogues in a new light.
There are a few overarching issues that weaken the argument of the book as a whole: at the outset, one might want a little more critical interrogation of the notion of ‘western civilisation’ L. seeks to address; this is not just politically savvy consciousness of the dangers of this bent of classics (mostly recently and obviously in Donna Zuckerberg’s Not All Dead White Men [HUP, 2018]), but also an aspect of ancient discussions of wisdom which foregrounded the foreign origins of wisdom (see G. Boys-Stones, Post-Hellenistic Philosophy [OUP, 2001]; also G. Stroumsa, Barbarian Philosophy [Mohr Siebeck, 1999]). On early Christianity, L. claims that all four gospels share a ‘refusal to articulate… [the] significance [of Jesus’ life] in terms of abstract concepts like wisdom, virtue or “devout reason”’ (209), despite the prologue of John’s gospel using revolving around the abstract religious-philosophical logos. Moreover, given the centrality of the afterlife and salvation, it is surprising that discussion of these is almost completely absent, though integrally connected to the idea of wisdom (e.g. 1 Cor. 1:18), and problematic for Homeric discussions of wisdom (e.g. the shade of Achilles in Odyssey 11). On a very minor note, transliteration and quotation of Greek is oddly inconsistent—macra and iota subscripts are inconsistent, as is the choice between Greek font and alliteration—sometimes even in the same paragraph (passim, but see e.g. 157, 234).
Stuart R. Thomson