Scholia Reviews ns 17 (2008) 14.
Trevor Curnow, The Philosophers of the Ancient World. London: Duckworth, 2006. Pp. xviii + 296. ISBN 0-7156-3497-6. UK£16.99.
Philosophy and Ethics, University of KwaZulu-Natal, Durban, South Africa
This book is an encyclopaedia of ancient philosophers, some well known, and others very obscure. It isn’t the sort of book that one would read from cover to cover, although that is possible. After skimming the book, I went to some of the names I knew well (for example, Plato, Aristotle, Heraclitus, Pythagoreas) and jumped around using the extensive cross-references, which are indicated by bold type. The references are easy to find, since all of the entries are in alphabetical order. As the title suggests, all of the entries are under the names of philosophers. I think it would have been useful to have included some entries on major schools and their members, though the information is in the entries if one is willing to follow the cross-references. Also, it might have been useful to have the occasional chart of inter-relations among closely interacting philosophers and their disciples (and sometimes of their wives -- the last would, in some cases lead to some complex charts indeed!) The ten outline maps of parts of the ancient world with major cities are very useful.
The entries for the major philosophers like Socrates, Plato, and Aristotle won’t add much to the knowledge of even the relatively casual student of Ancient Philosophy. The entry on Socrates is just over one page, and mentions only Plato, Aristotle, and Xenophan. The Plato entry is more generous at two pages, and mostly mentions Socrates and those Plato influenced, as well as some details of his life. I did notice that there were four other Platos who got only one line entries. It is unlikely one would make a misidentification. Aristotle (there are five entries under that name, but you know who I mean) gets two pages as well, and the bulk of the entry is on how his works were compiled and organized. Some details are given of his life.
The value of the book is in its comprehensive listing of just about anybody related to Ancient Philosophy, either directly or as a partner, spouse, or interpreter, even by hearsay. The entries on less better known philosophers, like Parmenides and Zeno are close to as long as the ones for the better known ancient thinkers. Even Heraclites gets a full page. This is where the book can be genuinely useful for someone reading Plato or later philosophers who refer to the lesser figures.
Many of the entries are quite short, and are of the form ‘x was the pupil of y’. Most of them add a bit more detail. Some point to interesting information about personalities and relationships, such as the various interlocking marriages I mentioned above, or other details. One entry that struck me was for a slave and follower of Epicurus who was freed in Epicurus’ will. Apparently that is about all we know about him. There are also various historical figures who advised and corresponded with kings and emperors. A number of entries are for poets associated with various philosophers.
Overall, the lack of knowledge of the ancient figures is the most striking thing about the book. I found it amusing to follow through from one name to another via cross- references, and spent more time than I intended on this task. Other than that, the book would be useful for a Classics or Philosophy library. There are bibliographical entries at the end of some of the major entries (and some minor), as well as a bibliographical essay at the end of the book that might be of some value to anyone studying ancient figures. At best, this volume is a first place to look.