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Varro and Antiochus in the Liber de Philosophia

Nathan Gilbert

Durham University

The majority of the voluminous output of Varro has been lost and persists only in fragments or testimonia.  This scattered evidence is nevertheless more than sufficient to establish his deep knowledge of the Greek philosophical tradition—Cicero was right to say Varro had sprinkled his works with philosophy (so the interlocuter Varro at Ac. Post. 2).  Cicero, furthermore, in private letters and in his Academica viewed Varro as a follower of Antiochus of Ascalon’s revived “Old Academy” (e.g. Att. 13.12.3 and 13.25.3, see further Griffin 1995; on Antiochus, see Sedley 2012), while Augustine called Antiochus Varro’s magister (De Civ. 19.3).  Varro’s philosophical allegiance and his relationship with Antiochus have been the study of only a handful of articles in recent decades (Tarver 1997: 138-41; Blank 2012; Lehmann 2015: 126-130).  Blank’s contribution is the most comprehensive and offers a wide-ranging survey of Antiochean influences across the fragmentary Varronian corpus, particularly his linguistic and theological endeavors. 

This short paper will be unable to survey the fragments of all of Varro; I focus squarely on the testimonia for the lost Liber de Philosophia, preserved by Augustine in four chapters of De Civitate Dei (19.1-4: the last comprehensive reading of the lost work is Langenberg 1959, with further advances in Tarver 1997; scholarship typically devotes a mere few pages to the work).  I argue this text has not been sufficiently utilized for its ability to elucidate Varro’s relationship to Antiochus and to bring out unique aspects of Varro’s wide-ranging and syncretic approach to philosophy and its history. 

In this work Varro established 288 views on what constituted the highest human good.  Beginning with a four-fold classification of pleasure, tranquility, the combination of both, or the so-called prima naturae, Varro then applied “differentiae,” principles of differentiation, to these basic positions—e.g. how these basic goods related to virtue; whether the ideal life was conceived as political or contemplative; skeptical or dogmatic.  And so forth: all the way to 288 distinct positions on the summum bonum.  He then immediately deconstructs this system, arguing for the correctness of Antiochus and the Old Academy.      

Two questions have worried scholars.  First, why does Varro employ these differentiae, only to abandon them?  Second, to what degree is Varro’s argumentation particularly Antiochean?  As to the first question, I offer a charitable reading of Varro’s argument, suggesting that while these differentiae do not define the summum bonum, they make clear crucial, subsidiary details of different positions—a school’s epistemological stance, attitude toward custom, or view on political participation.  I thus treat all of Varro’s differentiae as part of an intelligent method to organize philosophical knowledge, in contrast to some accounts (e.g. the differentia ex Cynicis is usually brushed aside as referring only to clothing, not an ethical stance toward custom, as I suggest).  I thereby offer support for Tarver’s contention that Varro’s method of division was an organizing tactic; I align this interpretation with the ancient ars memorativa (cf. Yates 1966 and Smallwood 1997).

Second, it has been long realized that Varro deploys a version of the so-called Carneadea divisio, Carneades’ explication of ethical position which had been taken up by Antiochus (Algra 1995).  Antiochus’s use of the divisio also used a grid-like system, to categorize and analyze the various ethical positions.  But we are explicitly told by Cicero that this divisio was used by Antiochus to undermine the philosophical coherence of his Stoic and Epicurean rivals.  Varro’s divisio, on the other hand, is employed to include various sects under the umbrella of Antiochus’ Old Academy, including finding room for Epicurean hedonism—which I will support by reference to fragments of Varro’s Menippeans—a move unparalleled in our evidence for Antiochus.  Varro has taken this ethical framework and run with it, multiplying the possible combinations far beyond the original divisio, and according to different criteria; Varro has adopted a key argument in Antiochus’s arsenal and modified it for his own purposes.

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Varro the Philosopher

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