A review of Pursuits of Wisdom: Six Ways of Life in Ancient Philosophy from Socrates to Plotinus, by John M. Cooper

In Pursuits of Wisdom Princeton philosophy professor John Cooper attempts to engage ancient philosophy on its own terms, rather than using it merely to address issues that today’s professors of philosophy happen to notice. Although he is influenced by Pierre Hadot’s emphasis on philosophic ways of life, he rejects the French theorist’s too easy assimilation of philosophy to religion and of thought to spiritual exercises. Cooper’s concern is primarily with ethics or ethical theory as he believes the ancients see it: they emphasize character rather than discrete actions, connect ethics to general philosophical matters rather than divide things into specialties, and consider reason the motivation for action, not merely its justification.

Cooper looks at “six ways of life in ancient philosophy”: Socratic, Aristotelian, Stoic, Epicurean, Skeptic, and neo-Platonic. He differentiates Socrates from Plato, but, unfortunately, Plato does not receive his own chapter, although he comes up often throughout the book. Plato’s Republic, which one would have guessed in advance to be the book’s center, is not analyzed systematically.

The book’s considerable virtue is to take ancient thinkers seriously on their own terms. Cooper makes the best case he can for what might sometimes seem to be obscure or unwelcome teachings. He does not try to squeeze Plato and Aristotle between the deadly pages of the Philosophical Review—we cannot reduce ethics to contemporary attempts to justify “moral requirements” by their consequences, by “a supposed ‘categorical’ imperative,” or by “something called ‘virtue ethics.'”

Despite Cooper’s welcome distance from today’s restrictions, he is sometimes guided by philosophical anachronisms. The choice between philosophy and religion is an “existential choice,” he writes. Philosophy can offer or issue in “world views.” Socratic wisdom is to “firmly grasp and understand the full system of human values.” Plato’s Republic discusses an “ideal” state.

A consequence (or cause?) of these anachronisms is that Cooper does not appear to believe in the truth of classic teachings about inevitable splits between knowledge and opinion, the gap between the radicalism of philosophy and the orthodoxy of any political and ethical life, or the difference between the few and the many. One result is that he occasionally verges on reducing (some of) his thinkers to ancient Dale Carnegies, self-help gurus for the hopeful gentleman in a confusing world. And, although Cooper clearly means to distinguish philosophy from religion, revelation’s challenge to philosophical enlightenment, or their rivalry as ways of life, is not addressed systematically. A brief mention of Alfarabi, Averroes, and Maimonides, distant as they are from Professor Cooper’s expertise and the time-frame of his book, would have pointed to other, yet related, philosophically informed ways of dealing with the issues he addresses.

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The book begins by discussing a “notional” Socrates, a figure compounded of the real and the literary, who stars in the dialogues of Plato that Cooper chooses to call Socratic. He does not clarify why he splits this Socrates from other dialogues in which Socrates also takes charge. He has in mind as Socratic the ApologyLachesProtagoras and so on—everything Socratic other than the SymposiumPhaedoTheatetusPhilebus, and the last nine books of the Republic. This arbitrary split would be less tendentious had Cooper discussed Plato systematically. As it is, he does not examine step by step any of the Socratic dialogues, but uses them to make or confirm general points. He seems most concerned with theApology, and with the Protagoras‘ question of the unity of virtue and the link between knowing what is right and doing it.

Cooper’s major arguments are that Socrates sought to know what is good, that this knowledge needs to grasp the full relation or unity of all good things or “values,” that such full knowledge is difficult or impossible to attain, and that the soul’s central motivation is reasonable understanding—it is not merely a means to discover what one should otherwise choose. He attempts to bring together the philosophical and the moral as much as he can.

There are several difficulties with his thoughtful discussion, some of which arise from his artificially limiting the dialogues he explores. He sees the importance of the soul for Socrates, but does not examine carefully how its powers are best used in thought itself. He treats the virtues as if they and the goods with which they deal could all be unified, but he overlooks the tensions and difficulties that Plato brings out even in the “Socratic” LachesRepublic (Book 1), and Hippias Major, as well as elsewhere. He does not explore the connection between the Protagoras‘ argument that virtue is unified and the tendentious opinion there that the good and the pleasant are identical. He does not examine what even the Socratic dialogues show about the tension between the family and the life of the mind, reason and piety, and the demands of law and of thought, or discuss how philosophy as a way of life is affected by different political regimes. Speaking more theoretically, I would say that Cooper insufficiently explores the limits of reason’s objects in their usual legal and other embodiments.

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Although we would have benefited from Cooper’s discussion of the rest of Plato, it also would apparently have been disputable at its core. Cooper maintains that, for Plato, “the philosophically happy life is one of full knowledge, actually possessed and not merely sought.” “There is an intelligible form of the Good, and philosophical argument and discussion, if assiduously enough pursued will lead us to grasp its full nature.” Even if we join the author in believing that Plato’sRepublic‘s “ideal social and political system” could become fully actual (which we should not), Socrates makes clear the elusiveness of our understanding of the Good. As Cooper sees it, moreover, Plato’s successors also propose a life “of confident, philosophically grounded, virtuous action.”

The chapter on Aristotle is the book’s best. Cooper considers carefully the relation between the Nicomachean Ethics and the Politics, and provides a thoughtful analysis of the importance of practical reason in ethical choice. He offers a good description of happiness and virtue. He clarifies the significance of the mean and the necessary imprecision but not relativism of Aristotle’s discussion. As with Plato, however, Cooper makes virtue in Aristotle too seamless. To achieve this harmony he downplays several phenomena that Aristotle analyzes and many difficulties that he points out.

Cooper does not analyze the variety of regimes and how this affects virtue and rule. He does not discuss the rivalries among those who enjoy practical reason or are great-souled. He does not examine the tension between the rule of the one best and the rule of laws, or the variety among justified claims to rule. He does not discuss the issues that Aristotle raises of distributive and natural justice. In general, he does not examine rigorously the goods with which the virtues deal, how we produce, enjoy, or achieve them, and the consequent limits that scarcity and the harshness of acquisition place on dealing with them virtuously. He says little or nothing about punishment, obedience, and religion in political life. He therefore also does not come to grips with the radical nature of philosophy, its questioning of opinion and the manner in which the philosopher gives less than his all to the community. Although Cooper usefully argues that philosophy in Aristotle is “a way of life, not just a subject of academic study” and, indeed, the highest life, he does not examine fully enough the source of theoretical virtue’s height. A thorough analysis of Book 10 of the Ethics would have been welcome.

Cooper’s examination of schools of thought after Aristotle continues to emphasize the link between philosophy and morality. Each of these analyses is interesting although necessarily limited. We have no central Stoic philosophical texts, so Cooper’s reconstruction, based on reports from others such as Cicero and Seneca’s “literary, but not technically philosophical works,” may of course be countered by others’ reconstructions. Nonetheless, the task Cooper sets for himself has the great merit of trying to make the most sense of and the best case for “Stoic resignation and avoidance of emotion” and similar teachings.

His discussion of Epicurus concentrates on the understanding of pleasure. This thoughtful analysis might have been contrasted with Plato and Aristotle’s discussions of pleasure, especially of the pleasure in philosophy. It also would have been good if he had analyzed more searchingly the unique or characteristic element in his discussion of Epicurus, “katastematic” pleasure, that is, “pleasure in the awareness of the healthy functioning of one’s own natural constitution, physical and psychic.”

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Cooper places his discussion of skepticism after Epicureanism because

it is a fundamental fact about ancient skepticism as a philosophy that it presented itself in the guise of a way of life. Much of its philosophical interest and value are lost if it is too readily assimilated to its early modern and later descendents. The skeptical philosophy…aims at helping people to achieve the ethical “end” for human beings.


His discussion is a good place to begin to consider the differences between ancient and modern skepticism.

Cooper’s discussion of neo-Platonism is thoughtful, useful, and comprehensive. It has the virtue of addressing the texts of a single author, Plotinus. It is in this chapter that the author addresses Plato himself most directly, though he still does not give a full account. He does not consider discussions in the Sophist and Philebus that could have helped his examination of purity. And his account of virtue in the Republic makes too much of a putative unity of political and philosophical excellence.

One can and must dispute elements of John Cooper’s discussions in Pursuits of Wisdom, but there is much to learn from it, and readers will benefit from it and from the intelligence and erudition that produced it. To see classical philosophy as a way of life, and to explicate rather than to mock or abuse its arguments, should be common ground among serious pursuers of wisdom.