Philosophy in Questions & Answers

Category: Ancient Learning > Paideia

Few students of Greco-Roman philosophy are aware that, alongside the schools of systematic philosophy, there were also genres of philosophical writing that followed quite different rules. One is the tradition of Ethical Maxims (such as the so-called Delphic Maxims). Another are a number of texts structured as questions and answers, which aim at being pithy rather than systematic. Despite their apparent simplicity, their artful brevity and consequent richness of meaning makes them quite difficult to translate, and they bear close scrutiny as a largely untapped vein of wisdom spanning ethics and natural philosophy. I here translate:

  • “What is a God?”: some examples of a common question in the genre.
  • Carfyllis and Niciarius: one relatively short and one fragmentary text of the question-and-answer genre, both attributed to otherwise unknown writers.
  • Amasis and Thales: a section from Plutarch’s Banquet of the Seven Sages, in which the responses of the Egyptian king Amasis to certain questions by an Ethiopian king are reported, and Thales goes on to give a more correct answer to each.
  • The Verbal Duel of Emperor Hadrian and Epictetus the Philosopher: beside the famous records of the Stoic philosopher Epictetus’ lectures made by his student Arrian, there is also this collection of his supposed responses to questions posed by the emperor Hadrian. This is hardly based on historical events, but it gives us something of an idea what people with a literary bent but without philosophical training thought wisdom consisted in. There is no reason to think this reflects historical events, but the text is a unique and, in its way, quite comprehensive reflection about the world and about society in the Roman empire.
  • The Life of Secundus the Philosopher: [Work in Progress]
  • Alexander and the Indian Sages: the story of Alexander’s encounter with the Indian ‘naked sages’ (gymnosophists) had a long literary career in various genres. The examples here are, of course, in the question-and-answer genre, and one of their points is the superiority of philosophers over kings. (However, to my knowledge, there is little that is particularly Indian about the philosophers’ answers.)

Incidentally, I would like to point out how little the quesiton-and-answer genre is bound to a specific language: there are texts in Greek, in Latin, and in both languages here.