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date: 28 January 2023

philosophy, modern reception offree

philosophy, modern reception offree

  • David K. Glidden


Ancient philosophy’s modern reception reflects methods of transmission and dissemination of ancient philosophic texts. Ancient Greco-Roman philosophy impacted modernity via six means of influence: printed books, libraries, critical scholarship, vernacular translations, eclectic borrowing, and thematic resonance.


  • Philosophy
  • Reception

The beginnings of the Italian and Northern European Renaissance awakened interest in ancient Greco-Roman authors. The increased wealth of a propertied class and the leisure time afforded by that prosperity stimulated literacy both for business and pleasure and provided fertile ground for philosophic reflection. The philosophical writings of antiquity were transformed as ancient authors became heralds and guides for the future, rather than relics of the past. All of the following modern philosophic discussions have classical roots: the concepts of virtue, human thriving, equality before the law, the centrality of hypothetical reasoning for scientific inquiry, the foundations of semiotics, the mathematically fathomable structures of physical reality, the existence of natural kinds and the identities they confer on particulars, as well as predicate and propositional logic and their impacts upon computing code. The ways we variously view reality and truth and how we gain confidence in fashioning a comforting reality owes everything to ancient insights. The same is true of the dichotomies that organize conceptual discrimination: being/nonbeing, permanence/impermanence, motion/rest—building blocks used in constructing varied understandings of the world, continually subject to revision and refinement. The impact of ancient philosophy on the modern era is broad and deep.

Printed Books

From the very beginning of printing in the mid-15th century, classical texts featured prominently in the output of various presses. Printed books vastly expanded the number and range of philosophical texts, hitherto available primarily in ecclesiastical manuscript collections. After the more revered texts, such as the Bible and the writings of Plato and Aristotle, had first been published in Greek and Latin, other works came to light from hitherto unknown or suppressed authors, exposing a hidden history of ancient philosophy for public consumption. In 1562, Henri (Stephanus) Etienne published a Latin translation of SextusOutlines of Pyrrhonism, followed in 1621 by Chouet’s Greek/Latin edition of the entire extant Sextus. That same edition included Diogenes Laertius’ writings on Pyrrhonism, Galen’s critique of Pyrrhonism translated by Erasmus, and Stephanus’ own annotations of the Outlines. This reintroduction of Sextus’ writings proved revolutionary for subsequent theories of knowledge and the ensuing history of increasingly empirical sciences, from Boyle’s Sceptical Chymist (1661) onwards. Sextus’ scepticism knew no bounds and gradually infected wider areas of inquiry, from medicine to politics, subverting faith in abstract reason as well as uncritical perception. Lambinus’ 1563 edition of Lucretius’ infamous De rerum natura exerted an even more subversive impact upon the history of ideas, by elegantly overthrowing the unified theory of Aristotelian nature, offering in its stead a mechanistic and chaotic atomism open to experiment and quantification, leading to the emergence of a theory of evolution and developmental anthropology. It also inspired carpe diem poetry, with its hedonic focus on this world, as the only haven for our mortal existence. It is impossible to exaggerate the importance of the printed editions of Sextus and Lucretius for the subsequent history of modernity.


Printed editions, in turn, invited the rise of large private libraries, as competitions arose among the landed gentry for displaying their collections. This promoted book merchants and bibliophiles expert at evaluating editions and their worth. Philosophic texts featured prominently in the trade of books and the assembling of libraries. Some important collectors were themselves philosophers.

Within these early collections, ancient and modern philosophy was not distinguished. Locke’s library, for example, put classical and contemporary philosophical texts on the same shelves, a model imitated by Thomas Jefferson, whose extensive collection restocked the United States Congressional Library, after the British had burned it down in 1814. Impressive private collections of ancient philosophical texts accelerated their diffusion and encouraged a rapidly growing readership, while adding luster and value to collectors’ tastes and their estates. In this way, Henry Huntington’s Library in Pasadena, California, came into prominence at the water’s edge of western civilization. The glamour of these private collections encouraged the funding of national and regional public research libraries, such as the British Library, the Bibliothèque nationale de France, the New York Public Library, and the expanding Library of Congress. Local lending libraries also came into existence, introducing new readers to philosophical classics, tempting them with the alluring status of being well read. By the 19th and early 20th century, educated members of the middle class collected modest libraries of their own at home. Cicero, Seneca, Virgil, and Plato became familiar household deities, whose names even graced place names for villages and schools in the American Midwest.

Critical Scholarship

The independent growth of university libraries extended accessibility of philosophical texts to an increasingly literate and secular, leisured and professional class, beginning with Italy, France, England, and central Europe. As long as readers were literate in the vernacular, lawyers, minor clerics, even the children of landed gentry or commercial vendors could access the sages of antiquity, without first mastering Greek or sometimes even Latin. Universities in Europe especially prized their collections for promoting erudite research on ancient Greco-Roman philosophy. Educated by the emerging science of philology, university scholars renewed the close scrutiny of primary texts and commentaries, techniques inherited from antiquity. With the waves of imperialist expansion after the 15th century, antiquarian classical philology soon began to make its presence known in the remotest colonial schools and colleges.

The increased scrutiny of texts encouraged new arrangements and divisions of material. Thomas Stanley’s annotated and influential History of Philosophy (1655–1661) subtly changed the focus of these global scholarly pursuits by segregating ancient philosophy off into a separate discipline in its own right. This pattern has been imitated right up unto the modern day, from Jacob Brucker’s Historia Critica Philosophiae (1742–1744) to Will and Ariel Durant’s Story of Civilization (1935–1975).

Once the history of philosophy was ceded its own academic status, Greco-Roman philosophers were no longer seen as primary conversational partners with modern philosophers, who no longer regarded ancient philosophy as foundational for all rational inquiry. Ancient philosophical texts began to be read and treated differently. Modern philosophers were now free to pick and choose whatever passages they liked from ancient texts and appropriate them for their own purposes. Plato and Aristotle were dethroned as the starting points for philosophical investigation. Philosophers were free to ignore their writings as well as the work of scholastic scholars who had devoted their lives to ancient heroes. The history of philosophy became secondary to the contemporary practice of philosophy. This had a number of effects. The emergence of mathematical and symbolic logic toward the end of the 19th century made redundant the need for expertise in Aristotelian and Stoic logic. With the rise of vernacular languages, the philosophical study of rhetoric became bound to specific natural languages, rather than as a transcendent line of inquiry. There was no longer a sense of debt amongst philosophers to the ancient texts. For example, modern metaphysicians might find it merely quaint that Aristotle anticipated their views on natural kinds.

As the split between ancient and modern philosophy hardened, ancient philosophical texts increasingly became the preserve of the antiquarian. Scholars such as Isaac Casaubon (1559–1614) emerged, who gave themselves over to the pursuit of classical scholarship for its own sake, remaining perfectly indifferent to the moral and philosophical importance of the texts they perused. One effect of such narrow-minded scholarship was to cloister ancient philosophical texts ever further into museum pieces for antiquarians. Indeed, these philosophical texts were often more interesting to novelists than philosophers. The classical scholar and novelist George Eliot (Mary Anne Evans) excoriated such ethical indifference in her historical novel Romola (1862–1863), just as she belittled the eponymous Casaubon in Middlemarch (1871–1872). At the same time, in her last work of fiction, Impressions of Theophrastus Such (1879), George Eliot adapted TheophrastusCharacters to caricature the morally indifferent of her own era, the anti-Semites, the self-seeking, the arrogant, and the greedy. It was as if the great ancient moralists had lost their voices amidst the din of commerce and scholarship and were no longer heard to guide us. Complaints against antiquarian scholarship and sterile studies of ancient philosophical texts have only increased over time, to the point of questioning the very value of teaching those dead philosophers in contemporary philosophy classes.

Vernacular Translations

One of the key factors that assisted the dissemination of philosophic texts beyond the academy and the antiquarian was the rise of vernacular translations. Consider the case of Jacques Amyot (1513–1593), who translated both Plutarch’s Lives (1559) and his Moralia (1572) into French. Plutarch’s engaging moral portraits of the great ancients, his philosophical curiosity, and chatty style all came across well in translation and strongly appealed to the bourgeoisie and literate classes throughout Europe. Montaigne’s affection for the French Plutarch proved contagious: he was followed by Descartes and Pascal, as well as modern French playwrights and philosophers like Pierre Bayle and the encyclopaedists. Shakespeare borrowed plots from Amyot’s Plutarch, as Amyot’s translation was re-translated time and time again. The audience for Greco-Roman thinkers greatly expanded thanks to engaging, readable translations encompassing the full range of ancient philosophy. But especially prized were those translations with a practical emphasis on how to live a happy life. La Fontaine’s witty renditions in rhyme and rhythm of Aesop’s fables took on a considerable following of their own. Even Stoic moralists like the dour Seneca proved popular in Elizabethan and Jacobean drama. Epictetus enjoyed a similar fame. Cicero, whose philosophical popularity continued through the Middle Ages, gained new influence in 1820, when large portions of his lost Republic were found in a palimpsest owned by the Vatican Library. This discovery was especially meaningful for the world of new Republics (especially France and the United States) that had emerged in the 18th-century and who were looking for philosophic guidance on their governmental principles.

Eclectic Borrowing

Widespread use of paraphrase and eclectic borrowing from ancient philosophies exerted an even greater impact upon popular culture than learned editions and translations of specific ancient philosophical texts. Take Erasmus’s Adages, for instance: a 16th-century best seller whose fame continued over the centuries. In its many editions, it consisted of an expanding hodgepodge of wit and wisdom. Erasmus mixed philosophical sources with popular and profane paroimia, or moral sayings, thereby blending ancient philosophy with popular culture. He then wittily explored what these sayings might mean. Drawing on medieval compendia and florilegia, Erasmus spent decades of his life hunting for adages, maxims, and parables to entertain secular audiences while also edifying them. From “know thyself” or “nothing in excess” to “show the middle finger,” Erasmus tore ancient topoi from their roots to give them a life of their own, feeding them to an audience eager to feast upon these sayings for their own nourishment and pleasure. His Apophthegmes, derived from Plutarch, was a more scholarly endeavour, but it too enjoyed renown in vernacular translations. Montaigne’s Essais proved even more adept at widespread borrowing of ancient wisdom to draw connections with everyday life. Montaigne might quote some of his sources in their original languages; others he translated without attribution, all the while talking movingly about the vicissitudes of the human condition. Robert Burton’s Anatomy of Melancholy (1621–1638) followed this same course of using eclectically selected ancient sayings to inspire moderns.

These daisy-chain borrowings could, on occasion, acquire considerable philosophical and historical consequence. For example, Gassendi translated and incorporated Epicurean texts into his Latin writings, often without attribution. Gassendi’s translators then turned his Latin into vernacular versions, with similar indifference to provenance. In this way, Walter Charleton’s seminal work Physiologia Epicuro-Gassendo-Charletoniana (1654) introduced Epicurean empiricism and atomism into England, for Hobbes, Locke, their colleagues and successors to embrace. The scholarly study of Epicurean texts in Greek was displaced by the thematic independence of the empiricism and atomism those texts originally advanced. Provenance was of little importance for readers who were witnessing the revolutionary impact of Epicureanism upon the new material sciences and their data-based epistemology.

Thematic Resonance

With the scholarly study of ancient philosophy relegated to the role of historical investigation, modern philosophers no longer saw a need to devote their time and efforts at correcting the mistakes of ancient predecessors. They were free to fashion their own inventions, unshackled from the obligation to continue a conversation with the founding fathers. Ironically, it was at this stage in the development of modern philosophy that ancient philosophy exerted its greatest influence. Modern philosophers began to borrow higgledy-piggledy across the full range of ancient writings. The precise transmission of ideas by influence is difficult to determine. But ancient philosophy soon resonated thematically across the full spectrum of western modernity and contemporary philosophy, echoing ancient arguments and views now clothed in modern garb. This thematic resonance has been of far greater importance than any of the other five avenues of influence synoptically surveyed here.

The philosophical heirs of Greco-Roman philosophy are legion. Consider the so-called founder of modern philosophy, Descartes. His method of doubt was plagiarized from Sextus, with elements drawn from Plato’s Theaetetus. His theory of clear and distinct ideas was stolen from the Stoics. His theory of an immaterial soul was taken from Plato, by way of Augustine’s theological corrections regarding the soul’s inextricable attachment to the body. His arguments for God’s existence, in defence against Protagorean subjectivism, echoed ancient assertions concerning the divine authority and goodness of reason, notably echoing Aristotle. Many modern Platonists, like Arnauld, Malebranche, Berkeley, and Emerson were similarly indebted to Plato and to a lesser extent the Stoics.

To a scholar of antiquity, modern philosophy can seem like a mishmash of borrowed goods. Locke’s Essay owed everything to a Stoic theory of ideas incoherently mismatched to Epicurean atomism. There is almost nothing in Kant that was not already present in Stoicism. Yet, by refashioning these borrowed elements, Kant’s writings, and Locke’s as well, took on an authenticity and authority of their own. There is ancient cynicism implicit in Diderot and Voltaire, as well as Antisthenes’ wit in Derrida. There is Hume’s mitigated Pyrrhonism. Condillac and the French sensationalists modified Cyrenaic empiricism to suit their views on philosophical psychology and the tenuousness of sensory data. Hegel, Husserl, and Heidegger made much of their Hellenic affections for Greek philosophical vocabulary. Marx acknowledged his debts to Epicureanism, though like Hegel he spurned Epicurus’ fatalism about the human condition. Freud’s theory of the human psyche was openly appropriated from Plato but used for entirely different purposes. Aristotle’s influence has been ubiquitous throughout the histories of logic, metaphysics, ethics, biology, psychology, and physics, though typically put to different uses than he intended. So, Spinoza was a creature of Aristotle’s ethics. Protagoras was born again in Foucault. Plutarch’s Lives lived on in Harry Truman. Like Goethe’s Faust, generations of thinkers and non-thinkers, philosophical or not, have been haunted by the daemons of ancient philosophy, leading some to the edge of madness (Kierkegaard, Nietzsche). If you choose your favorite modern or contemporary philosophers from wherever in post-Renaissance Europe, Britain, or the Americas, you are bound to hear the dim voices of antiquity.


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