Ancient Philosophy in Early Modern Europe

  • May 15-16, 2017
  • Princeton University

Scholars of ancient and early modern philosophy have much to discuss. Both groups study periods in which thinkers of diverse national backgrounds were joined by a lingua franca. The key figures of each period flourished inside and outside of academic institutions, as schoolmasters, courtiers, mystics, and politicians. The “philosophy” they did was not distinct from the natural sciences: debates about the nature of matter, forces, and qualities, about biological development or the structure of the heavens, are found interwoven with discussions of moral psychology and the organization of the state. Each field demands, in addition to wide-ranging philosophical expertise, philological acuteness and a broad training in the history, culture, and institutions of its period.

What’s more, the major philosophical and scientific movements of early modern Europe defined themselves in relation to ancient thought. Copernicus, Kepler, and Galileo built their astronomical systems against Ptolemy’s; Descartes devised his dynamics in opposition to the Scholastic philosophy he had learned in Jesuit colleges; Leibniz transmutes Aristotelian and Platonic ideas into a critique of the mechanical philosophy. Pierre Gassendi’s atomism draws deeply from Epicurus; Marcello Malpighi’s early career was spent polemicizing against Galenic medicine; Robert Boyle’s chemistry takes Aristotle’s to task, while Anne Conway and Henry More explicitly root their metaphysics in Plato and Plotinus. How were these figures read, understood, and put to use by the scientists and philosophers of early modern Europe?

Finally, the trail of Greek thought to early modern Europe is not easy to track. To understand the scientific revolution, one must understand not only the ancient thinkers with whom the moderns quarrelled, but the history of their transmission through an enormous variety of cultural contexts. Ancient philosophy’s journey to early modern Europe, though one of the most important stories in the history of classical reception, is also one of the hardest to tell—it leads from the vast corpora of late antique commentary, through the theological schools of Edessa and Nisibis in Syria, through ‘Abbāsid Baghdad, the Jewish communities of Muslim Spain and medieval Provence, the Byzantine Empire and the universities of the Latin West, to the European hubs of the scientific revolution: Florence, Paris, London, Amsterdam. How did it reach them? With what augmentations and omissions, how presented or distorted, under what orthodoxies of interpretation?

This conference brings together scholars of both periods to explore, through the presentation of case studies in the reception history of ancient thought, the philosophical and methodological gains that can be made by interdisciplinary work on these questions.

For the call for papers, see the conference website.

Sponsored by

Department of Classics, Princeton University
Department of Philosophy, Princeton University
Stanley J. Seeger ’52 Center for Hellenic Studies
Center for Collaborative History, Princeton University
Princeton University Council of Humanities