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288 Ways of Looking at the summum bonum: Varro the Roman Eclectic

Katharina Volk

Columbia University

In his Menippean Satires, M. Terentius Varro adopted the Cynic persona of his model Menippus of Gadara.  In his De lingua Latina, he espoused a Stoic(izing) theory of language, declaring that he had studied "not just at the lamp of [the critic] Aristophanes [of Byzantium], but also at that of Cleanthes" (5.9; cf. Dahlmann 1932).  In the same work, however, Varro also avowedly followed Pythagorean numerical schemes (5.11) and invoked Epicurean atomism (6.39).  While his wish to be buried Pythagorico modo (Plin. HN 35.160) might point to some personal commitment to that philosophical sect, the author in his De philosophia explicitly declared himself a follower of the ethical teachings of Antiochus' "Old Academy"—but not until after having reviewed 287 additional ways of conceiving of the summum bonum (ap. August. Civ. D. 19.1-3; cf. Tarver 1997; Blank 2012).  What we have to conclude is that the great Roman polymath was that bugbear of the historian of philosophy: an eclectic.

Sidestepping modern discussions of eclecticism and the question of whether this term, often used in a denigrating sense, can be employed in a useful way in the description of past thinkers or not (cf. Dillon and Long 1988), my paper will focus on the phenomenon of Varro's eclecticism itself, that is, his willingness to "select," to pick and choose philosophical tenets and methodologies as he saw fit.  Viewing Varro in the intellectual context of the late Roman Republic, I will argue that his lack of philosophical dogmatism presents a fundamentally Roman approach to Greek learning: Varro and his contemporaries (Cicero comes to mind) did not blindly adopt Greek doctrine but critically selected those aspects that fit their own intellectual, emotional, societal, and political needs, creating their own, Roman, philosophy in the process. 

At the same time, I suggest that Varro's eclectic approach to the building blocks of philosophical doctrine and argument needs to be understood as part and parcel of his scholarly methodology as a whole.  The archetypal antiquarian (cf. Momigliano 1966[1950]), Varro was at heart a collector (cf. Moatti 2015: 94-163), one who amassed vast amounts of material in an effort to encompass the totality of a given phenomenon, whether it was Roman religious practice or agriculture or Hellenistic ethical theory.  Philosophical ideas were there to be collected just like other human artifacts, while philosophical methods could serve, among other approaches, to classify and order the knowledge gathered in this way.  Philosophy, in other words, provided both a number of diverse mental tools in Varro's kit and some of the multiform matter on which these tools were set to work.  In coming to terms with such heterodox uses of philosophy and ensure that they do not get sidelined in histories focused on doctrinal consistency, I suggest that we need to enlarge our own intellectual tool kit: as a description of Varro's philosophical modus operandi, "eclecticism" barely scratches the surface.

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Varro the Philosopher

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