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Philosophical Orations

Maximus of Tyre

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Title: Philosophical Orations
Author: Maximus of Tyre
Genre: Orations
Written: ca. 2nd cent. (Eng. 2023)
Length: 908 pages
Original in: ancient Greek
Availability: Philosophical Orations: vol. 1 and vol. 2 - US
Philosophical Orations: vol. 1 and vol. 2 - UK
Philosophical Orations: vol. 1 and vol. 2 - Canada
Choix de conférences - France
Philosophische Vorträge - Deutschland
Dissertazioni - Italia
Disertaciones filosóficas: i-xvii and xviii-xli - España
from: Bookshop.org (US)
directly from: Harvard University Press
  • The Discourses of the Platonic Philosopher Maximus of Tyre, Delivered in Rome During His First Visit
  • Greek title: Μαξίμου Τυριού Πλατωνικού φιλοσόφου των εν Ρώμη διαλέξεων της πρώτης επιδημίας
  • Translated and edited by William H. Race
  • Previously translated as The Dissertations of Maximus Tyrius by Thomas Taylor (1804) and as The Philosophical Orations by Michael Trapp (1997)
  • This is a bilingual edition that includes the original Greek text
  • Published in two volumes

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Our Assessment:

B+ : impressive edition and translation of interesting texts

See our review for fuller assessment.

Review Summaries
Source Rating Date Reviewer
BMCR* . (1998.02.06) John Bussanich

  From the Reviews:
  • "In Maximus we have someone who, like his contemporary Apuleius, was more a sophist than a philosopher. Nevertheless, his writings have more than a purely literary interest.(...) In genre they are perhaps closest to Plutarch’s Platonic Questions or Dinner-Party Problems, though Maximus is considerably less sophisticated as a philosopher than Plutarch. (...) (T)hese orations are not systematic, comprehensive, or critically sophisticated; indeed, they lack formal argumentation throughout." - John Bussanich. Bryn Mawr Classical Review

Please note that these ratings solely represent the complete review's biased interpretation and subjective opinion of the actual reviews and do not claim to accurately reflect or represent the views of the reviewers. Similarly the illustrative quotes chosen here are merely those the complete review subjectively believes represent the tenor and judgment of the review as a whole. We acknowledge (and remind and warn you) that they may, in fact, be entirely unrepresentative of the actual reviews by any other measure.

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The complete review's Review:

       Little is known about Maximus of Tyre beyond his surviving work, these forty-one 'Philosophical Orations', but he is billed as a 'Platonic philosopher' in the longer descriptive title and, while not making a mark as an original thinker, he shows here an engaging style in addressing a variety of philosophical questions.
       His philosophical orientation throughout, as translator William H. Race notes in his General Introduction to these volumes, is: "broadly and quite consistently Platonic". As Race sums up:

     He makes no claim to proposing new doctrines, but positions himself as an interpreter and expounder of the Greek intellectual and cultural tradition, principally through the lens of Plato's writings.
       He does so in these pieces which Race suggests: "could be called orations, discourses, speeches, lectures, talks, inquiries, essays, or even sermons". They are of varying but always readily manageable length -- Race helpfully tallies that the shortest is 870 words, the longest 2,629 -- and rely extensively on historical and literary examples, with Maximus frequently referring to and quoting from others' writings, notably Plato, but also Homer, whom he mentions (by Race's count) 117 times and who: "is present in twenty eight of the forty-one orations and the main subject of two" (and where: "Homeric quotations often serve as proof texts and springboards to discussions"). The text is well-annotated, with Race pointing out the sources of quotes and other references in his footnotes.
       Helpfully, Race also presents a short (two- or three-page) Introduction before each of the orations, summing up the subject-matter being treated and then providing a quick, point by point summary of Maximus' examples and arguments.
       The order of the orations here follows that of the Teubner editions (Hobein, 1910; Trapp, 1994) and that of Koniaris (1995) -- with a concordance to the two other orderings found in other editions helpfully provided in the General Introduction.
       Quite a few of the orations deal explicitly with Plato -- one considering 'What god is according to Plato' (11), for example, or one wondering: 'Whether Plato was right to exclude Homer from his republic' (17). Several also (re)consider the case of Socrates, ranging from 'Whether Socrates did the right thing by not defending himself in court' (3), to two that consider Socrates' daimonium (8 and 9), to a quartet examining Socrates' 'art of love' (18-21) -- making for interesting comparison to the extensive Socrates-literature also found elsewhere. Several times, Maximus argues first for one position, then the other in successive orations, as in debating which is better, the active life or the contemplative one (15 and 16), or 'Whether there exists one good greater than another' (39 and 40).
       Throughout, Maximus effectively uses quotes from other authors, often slightly changed and adapted; among his appealing little rhetorical tricks is to switch the figure being addressed in a quote, as when he takes from the Odyssey:
τοῦτό τί μοι κάλλιστον ἐνὶ φρεσὶν εἴδεται εἶναι. [9.11]
       In the Loeb A.T.Murray translation, revised by George E. Dimock:
This seems to my mind a thing surpassingly lovely.
       Maximus turns this into a question, and substitutes 'your' (σοι) for Homer's 'my' (μοι) [22.1]:
τοῦτό τί σοι κάλλιστον ἐνὶ φρεσὶν εἴδεται εἶναι;

[Does this seem to your mind to be the very best thing ?]
       Elsewhere [26.1], Maximus notes that: "whenever I encounter Homer's poems, I am incapable of praising the man all on my own, so once again I shall need him to lend me some of his verses" -- taking:
Δημόδοκ᾿, ἔξοχα δή σε βροτῶν αἰνίζομ᾿ ἁπάντων [Od. 8.487]

[Murray/Dimock: Demodocus, truly above all mortal men do I praise you]
       And turning it into:
ἔξοχα δή σε βροτῶν, ὦ Ὅμηρ', αἰνίζομ' ἀπάντων

[O Homer, truly I praise you above all mortals]
       The first -- and longest -- oration is, as Race sums up: "a programmatic statement of Maximus' overall project as a public orator and philosopher" -- noting, among much else, that while sophists, who think that: "philosophy consists merely of nouns and verbs, techniques of speaking, refutation, disputations, sophisms, and the waste of time spent on these", are a dime a dozen, a true teacher: "uplifts the soul of the young, guides their ambitions, and aims at nothing other than moderating their desires by means of pains and pleasures". However, he then also amusingly takes down the practice in his oration arguing in favor of the active over the contemplative life [15]:
τοὺς δὲ ἐν φιλοσοφίᾳ καὶ πάνυ ἄν τις ἢ μέμψαιτο ἢ οἰκτείραι, οἳ κομῶντες ἐπὶ φρονήσει καὶ τέχνῃ βίου καὶ ἐπιστήμῃ λόγου οὔπω γε νῦν παύονται στασιάζοντες πρὸς αὐτοὺς καὶ πρὸς ἄλλους καὶ ἀμφισβητοῦντες ποίῳ σχήματι βίου φέροντες αὐτοὺς ἐγχειροῦσιν

[However, those engaged in philosophy fully deserve either our blame or our pity, since they pride themselves on their intelligence, their expertise in how to live life, and their knowledge of argumentation, yet still today have not stopped disputing among themselves and with others, as they debate what style of life they should adopt for themselves.]
       Of course, in the following counter-oration, which argues that the contemplative life is superior to the active one, philosophical pursuit is found to be the most rewarding, a voyage of the mind that goes far beyond any that one can physically manage. A later oration -- 22 -- is then devoted entirely to the argument: 'That the enjoyment of philosophical discourse is superior to that of any other discourse', while a whole sequence then considers 'What the ultimate end of philosophy is' (the title even used for both the first and last in the sequence, 29 and 33). In 36 he makes the case for: 'Whether the life of the Cynic is to be preferred' -- i.e. the completrely unbound Diogenes.
       In arguing for the abstract (philosophy) over the real (history) he sees a danger in the bad examples from real-life [22.6]:
καὶ τὸ πολὺ τῆς ἱστορίας πλεονέκται τύραννοι καὶ πόλεμοι ἄδικοι καὶ εὐτυχίαι ἄλογοι καὶ πράξεις πονηραὶ καὶ συμφοραὶ ἀγνώμονες καὶ περιστάσεις τραγικαί· ὧν σφαλερὰ μὲν ἡ μίμησις, βλαβερὰ δὲ ἡ μνήμη, ἀθάνατος δὲ ἡ δυστυχία. ἐγὼ δὲ ποθῶ πρὸς τὴν εὐωχίαν τροφὴν λόγων ὑγιεινῶν, καὶ ἀνόσου τοιούτου δέομαι σιτίου ἀφ’ οὗ καὶ Σωκράτης ὑγίανεν καὶ Πλάτων καὶ Ξενοφῶν καὶ Αἰσχίνης.

[The great bulk of history consists of greedy tyrants, unjust wars, unwarranted successes, sordid deeds, cruel disasters, and tragic situations. Imitating these is dangerous, and recalling them is harmful; the ill fortune they bring goes on forever. For my feast I crave the nourishment of healthful words, and I need such wholesome food as maintained the health of Socrates, Plato, Xenophon, and Aeschines.]
       The connection to the literary is among the attractive features of Maximus' argumentation -- not just the references, but taking art seriously, to the extent even that one of the orations is devoted to the question of 'Whether there is a Homeric school of philosophy ' (26), where he argues that Homer's work can be seen as having two aspects:
κατὰ μὲν τὴν ποιητικὴν ἐντεταμένον εἰς μύθου σχῆμα, κατὰ δὲ φιλοσοφίαν εἰς ζῆλον ἀρετῆς καὶ ἀληθείας γνῶσιν συντεταγμένον.

[in terms of poetry, being cast in the form of a story; in terms of philosophy, being composed toward an emulation of virtue and knowledge of truth.]
       While Maximus struggles in arguing 'Whether Plato was right to exclude Homer from his Republic' (17) -- acknowledging Homer's great art (his are: "the most beautiful and splendid of all verses") but also that, in the ideal that is Plato's republic, "established in theory according to what is most perfect rather than what is most practicable", there is good reason to keep it out -- he also suggests elsewhere (4), for example:
οὕτω τοι καὶ τὰ ποιητικῆς πρὸς φιλοσοφίαν ἔχει. καὶ γὰρ ποιητικὴ τί ἄλλο ἢ φιλοσοφία, τῷ μὲν χρόνῳ παλαιά, τῇ δὲ ἁρμονίᾳ ἔμμετρος, τῇ δὲ γνώμῃ μυθολογική; καὶ φιλοσοφία τί ἄλλο ἢ ποιητική, τῷ μὲν χρόνῳ νεωτέρα, τῇ δὲ ἁρμονίᾳ εὐζωνοτέρα, τῇ δὲ γνώμῃ σαφεστέρα; δύο τοίνυν πραγμάτων χρόνῳ μόνον καὶ σχήματι ἀλλήλοις διαφερομένων πῶς ἄν τις διαιτήσαι τὴν διαφορὰν ἐν οἷς τι περὶ τοῦ θείου ἑκάτεροι λέγουσιν καὶ οἱ ποιηταὶ καὶ οἱ φιλόσοφοι;

[For what is poetry other than philosophy that is ancient in time, composed in meter, and expressed in myth ? And what is philosophy other than poetry that is more recent in time, composed more loosely, and expressed more clearly ? And so, when two things differ from each other only in terms of time and form, how then is one to determine the differences in what poets and philosophers each say about the gods ?]
       Maximus also shows some fine flights of oratory and poetry, while remaining aware of the bounds of his talents (i.e. he doesn't try too much), and Race's translation is generous and elegantly turned, down to such simple bits as: Ἐγὼ καὶ θαλάττῃ διὰ τοῦτο ἀπιστῶ, κἂν νήνεμος ᾖ, κἂν γαλήνην ἔχῃ· ὑποπτεύω γὰρ αὐτῆς τὴν ἡσυχίαν ('This is why I distrust the sea, even when it is windless and calm, for I am suspicious of its tranquility' [30.4]).
       Race does note in his General Introduction that the Philosophical Orations are striking for how completely Maximus ignores the then-present-day, or indeed practically anything after the death of Alexander (323 BCE), with the latest poet he quotes being Aratus ("who died ca. 240 BC"). Indeed:
There is not a single indication of anyone or anything Roman. The Orations thus draw on a canon of Greek poets from Homer to Aratus, and on Classical and Hellenistic philosophers and historians, and are wholly detached from two centuries of Roman rule.
       Given when Maximus was writing (and/or speaking ...), this is remarkable -- and all the more so given the place where he was speaking, as the orations are, after all, said to have been: 'Delivered in Rome During His First Visit' .....
       There's something to be said for his choice, too, however, as his focus on larger and 'eternal' truths, with argument based on the firmest, oldest foundations -- specifically, Homer and Plato -- which had by then easily stood the tests of time already, has held up quite well. The subjects and Maximus' treatment of them are also mostly broad and general enough to remain easily accessible to contemporary readers. Maximus' style and approach is somewhat meandering but quite agreeable; as his willingness to argue both sides of a question suggests, he's in many ways not too dogmatic and has nice way of trying to look at things from various sides -- though it also does make for some contortions, since there are points on which he does have firm opinions. The arguments are rich in examples and often pleasingly chosen quotes and references, and if the philosophical points are not always strictly argued through, Maximus was clearly an entertaining orator to listen to, and remains an enjoyable one to read.
       There are also some impassioned bits that still resonate particularly well; oration 12, on 'Whether a wrongdoer should be wronged in return' is one that is all too fitting for the times, making the case that: "If, in general, doing wrong is bad, then returning a wrong is equally bad". Maximus' cry still makes an impression:
Ὦ Ζεῦ, οἷον καὶ πεποίηκας· δικαιοσύνην ἐξ ἀδικημάτων. καὶ ποῖ βαδιεῖται τὸ κακόν; καὶ ποῦ στήσεται; οὐκ οἶσθα ὅτι πηγὴν ταύτην ἀέναον κινεῖς πονηρίας καὶ γράφεις νόμον ἀρχέκακον τῇ πάσῃ γῇ;

[O Zeus ! What a situation you have brought about by creating justice out of wrongful acts ! How far indeed will the evil go ? Where will it stop ? Do you not realize that you are opening up this floodgate of wickedness and are laying down a law that marks the "beginning of evil" for the entire world ?]
       If not an original thinker, Maximus certainly knew his Plato and Homer, among others, and presents many of the ideas of interest to him well. The orations are quite well structured, with Maximus' mix of anecdotes, examples, and literary and philosophical references woven together quite engagingly -- sometimes more loosely than others. The orations are uneven, but on the whole the collection is very satisfying, and both of literary and philosophical interest.
       With excellent but not overwhelming supporting material in the form of the introductions and notes and an absorbing translation (as well as, of course, the benefit of having the original text facing the English), the presentation of these Loeb volumes is exemplary, an impressive edition of interesting texts.

- M.A.Orthofer, 20 January 2024

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Philosophical Orations: Reviews (* review of a different translation): Other books of interest under review:

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About the Author:

       Maximus of Tyre (Μάξιμος Τύριος) lived around the second century.

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© 2024 the complete review

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