Vol. 24, No. 2 (Fall 2020)

Continental Interpretations of Hellenistic Thought
Guest Editors: Frederik Bakker, Antonio Cimino, and Elena Nicoli

JUSSI BACKMAN, Modernity in Antiquity: Hellenistic and Roman Philosophy in Heidegger and Arendt


This article looks at the role of Hellenistic thought in the historical narratives of Martin Heidegger and Hannah Arendt. To a certain extent, both see—with G. W. F. Hegel, J. G. Droysen, and Eduard Zeller—Hellenistic and Roman philosophy as a “modernity in antiquity,” but with important differences. Heidegger is generally dismissive of Hellenistic thought and comes to see it as a decisive historical turning point at which a protomodern element of subjective willing and domination is injected into the classical heritage of Plato and Aristotle. Arendt, likewise, credits Stoic philosophy with the discovery of the will as an active faculty constituting a realm of subjective freedom and autonomy. While she considers Hellenistic philosophy as essentially apolitical and world-alienated—in contrast to the inherently political and practical Roman culture—it nonetheless holds for her an important but unexploited ethical and political potential.

AARON TURNER, Ataraxia as “Worldliness”: Epicureanism and Blumenberg’s Concept of Modernity


The fundamental principle of Hans Blumenberg’s concept of Modernity is “immanent self-assertion,” through which the modern human being identifies within itself the possibilities of transforming or reconstructing the world according to a human order. “Immanent self-assertion” is a product of human progress and is conditioned by the historical development of theoretical curiosity. In this article, it is argued that Blumenberg’s concept of Modernity is founded on a misinterpretation of Epicurean ataraxia, which is traditionally defined as “freedom from anxiety” and which Blumenberg himself characterizes as “dispassionate ease.” For Blumenberg, ataraxia epitomizes the limitations of theoretical curiosity before the modern era. Where Blumenberg identifies “immanent self-assertion” as the means of extending absolute influence over the world through the subjugation of nature, it is argued that Epicurean worldliness resides within a sense of self-mastery against the radical contingency of tuchē (fortune) that defines the world order.

KURT LAMPE, Stiegler, Foucault, and Epictetus: The Therapeutics of Reading and Writing


Why does Bernard Stiegler speak of “this culture, which I have named, after Epictetus, my melete?” In the first part of this article, I elucidate Stiegler’s claims about both Stoic exercises of reading and writing and their significance for the interpretive questions he has adapted from Michel Foucault and Jacques Derrida. In particular, I address the relations among care for oneself and others, the use of material technologies, and resistance to subjection or “freedom.” In the second part, I consider the merits and limitations of Stiegler’s comments about reading and writing in Stoicism, with particular attention to Epictetus. We will see that Stiegler’s interpretive framework casts considerable light on ancient texts and contexts, on the condition that it be combined with close reading of ancient texts and engagement with specialist scholarship. Finally, in the conclusion, I will suggest that the history of technology in Epictetus’s time contributes to a debate about Stiegler’s theories.

EVELINA PRAINO, What Remains of Stoic Ethics? From Foucault to Italian Critical Thinkers


Among Foucault’s works on the “techniques of the self,” the importance of the Stoic doctrine of cura sui is testified by a number of essays such as The Care of the Self and The Hermeneutics of the Subject. In line with Foucault’s biopolitical thought throughout the 1970s, my core argument in this paper is that some authors of the Italian Theory develop their account of contemporary neoliberalism through the interpretation of cura sui as a form of self-enterprise. Thus, I compare certain passages of late imperial Stoicism with contemporary critical literature in order to demonstrate that (1) a certain semantic contiguity led to an interpretation of the technologies of the self that is quite different from Foucault’s original purpose, and (2) their ethical outcomes in the domain of self-entrepreneurship suffer from a substantial ambiguity.

NICOLAI VON EGGERS, Lived Ontologies: Cicero, Agamben, and the Philosophy of Life


In this article, I analyze the relation between ontology and practical philosophy in Cicero’s work and the role Hellenistic philosophy plays within the work of Giorgio Agamben. I discuss the relation between life and ontology, between philosophy as a guide to living and philosophy as the study of being. Unlike philosophers who treat Hellenistic philosophy as a form of therapy (Nussbaum, Foucault, Hadot), I show how Agamben interprets Hellenistic philosophy as oppressive by turning the theory of being into an injunction of having-to-be. For Agamben, every philosophy implies a certain form of life, and it is thus impossible to distinguish between ontology and living. The aim of philosophy, therefore, is not to be therapeutic but rather to develop an ontology that will allow for humanity to live without oppression. Through a detailed reading of Cicero’s concept of “nature,” I develop the reading and critique of Cicero suggested by Agamben.



HANNAH LAGRAND, Hidden Depths: Thinking and the Richness of the Private in Hannah Arendt


Throughout her work, Hannah Arendt continually insists on the importance of the division between public and private. However, while the value of the public is a clear theme in Arendt scholarship, the unique value of the private often goes overlooked. In this essay, I draw on Arendt’s work in The Life of the Mind, particularly her discussion of the thinking activity, in order to draw out the richness that the hiddenness of the private has to offer as well as to explore what it might look like to care for the private in a modern world.

ALEXANDRA MORRISON, The Politics of Feeling: The Phenomenology of Affect in Sara Ahmed and Judith Butler


The work of Sara Ahmed and Judith Butler exemplifies a recent concern with the politics of affect. Their distinctive contributions are informed by phenomenological accounts of passivity and agency. They view affect as critical to the articulation of social and political space, as well as to the individuation of embodied agents; for each, affect is key to an account of critical engagement. Their attention to affective economies also reflects their concern with the dynamics of exclusion, concealment, and marginalization, and thus their powerful insights into the politics of affect contribute to our understanding of the role that affect plays in both the formation of normative orientations over time, and also to their potential disruption and transformation.

WHITNEY HOWELL, Necessary but Insufficient: Merleau-Ponty and the Ethics of Anonymity in Interpersonal Life


In Phenomenology of Perception, Merleau-Ponty presents an account of an “anonymous” body that informs perception and habit and that exerts a normative force in shaping more personal aspects of who we are. This paper demonstrates the relevance of Merleau-Ponty’s account of anonymity to interpersonal experience. I argue that although anonymity is a necessary condition of interpersonal life, it inhibits our recognition of our own and others’ freedom. I draw on Derrida’s analysis of justice in “Force of Law” to propose that ethical interpersonal life requires that we develop a critical relationship to the anonymity that underlies our experience of others.