The Anonymous' Commentary on Plato's Theatetus and a Middle-Platonic Theory of Knowledge.
The work received some initial attention, since it seemed to be one of the oldest commentaries on Plato's dialogues ever found. This impression was later corroborated, and, according to the most accepted hypothesis about its date of composition, the work is one of the two oldest pieces of Greek commentary that we have. (1) As for the content of the text, although not particularly ingenious, it has been the subject of a number of recent studies. One reason for that is the information it provides about the philosophical debates of its time, presumably the last half of the first century B.C.
As is well known, historians of philosophy have been very critical of the thinkers of this period (sometimes called "Late Antiquity" or "Imperial Period", because of the geo-political importance of the Roman Empire at the time). They usually describe the intellectual activity of this time as a mere compilation and popularization of the great philosophical systems of Classical and Hellenistic ages, stigmatizing these thinkers with the negative label of "eclectic philosophers".
According to the historiographical category of "eclecticism" formulated by the German classicist E. Zeller, the philosophers of that period (roughly situated around 80 B.C. and 200 AD) lost their scientific rigor and creativity, limiting themselves to the election (eklegein) of different theories, hypotheses, and arguments from the philosophical schools of their past. This interpretation survived, and since Zeller it became a widespread assumption the idea that Imperial philosophers only presented inconsistent theories; their philosophy being the mere amalgam of different theses and ideas, theoretical chimeras born from distinct parts of conflicting philosophical systems.
The roots of that prejudice against Imperial philosopher are not easy to point out, and in order to consider Zeller's views with some justice we have to take into account the popularity the philosophy of Plotinus and the concept of "Neoplatonism" received in his time. The distinction between the Neoplatonic school and eclecticism seems to Zeller a correct way to differentiate the novelties of Plotinus's philosophical system from the philosophy of its predecessors. From the standing point of this differentiation, eclecticism in a looser sense became to be considered a general feature of philosophical thought from the end of the second century B.C. up to Plotinus. In Zeller's mind, Plotinus was no longer an eclectic philosopher, although somehow eclecticism had prepared the way for his philosophical system. In this way, Zeller uses the term "eclecticism" as a huge generalization, making no attempt to establish a precise connection between this concept and the philosophical position of the individual thinkers within the historical period in question.
In fact, it is not even possible to find a clear definition of "eclecticism" in Zeller's book. Nonetheless, anyone who reads Zeller's account of the general features of eclecticism can have no doubts about his strongly unfavorable judgment. After all, Zeller characterizes philosophical eclecticism as "the dying out of a scientific outlook", a "scientific decline", a "merely exterior connection between different positions," and "uncritical philosophizing" (Zeller, 1892, p. 547-564).
Instead of providing a definition of "eclecticism", Zeller decides to give a historical explanation of its origin in a section with the significant title "Origin and Character of Eclecticism" (Entstehungsgrunde und Charakter des Eklekticismus). In this section, Zeller relates the alleged scientific decline represented by the emergence of philosophical eclecticism to the pragmatical spirit of the Romans, too much occupied with down to earth problems, and therefore not well disposed to the metaphysical inquiry proper of the Greeks. (2)
With that background, it comes as no surprise that recent publications have lost their interest on the historiographical category of "eclecticism". The term itself seems to have contributed a great deal to undermine the prestige of the philosophers of late antiquity. As a result, the recent revival of imperial age philosophy came with the progressive abandonment of the concept of "eclecticism". The term stop to be a correct label to describe the philosophical activity of that time, to the point that it is now rare to find an expert using this concept to describe the philosophical landscape of late antiquity. (3)
In this paper, I will defend that the historiographical category of philosophical eclecticism is a correct way to describe the epistemology and the exegetical activity of the Anonymous commentator on Plato's Theaetetus. In addition, I intent to show that the interpretation of the platonic philosophy presented in this commentary not only presupposes an eclectic philosophical attitude, but also offers a conscious defense of a positive and philosophically relevant form of eclecticism. In other words, I believe that the anonymous author of the commentary (Anon.) assumes a method of inquiry based on the deliberate use of hypotheses and arguments from different philosophical schools. Furthermore, he intends to lay ground of his way of doing philosophy by attributing it to Plato and the platonic tradition. In doing so, Anon. provides us with a positive understanding of eclecticism as a legitimate methodology of philosophical investigation.
According to my reading of the text, the defense of philosophical eclecticism occurs in three different levels. In the first level, which we can call performative, Anon. makes use of stoic and skeptical theses, and adapts those theses to make them fit with his own interpretation of Platonism. In a second level, the Commentary identifies this form of eclecticism with the original platonic method, using it to argue for the unity of the Academy. Finally, the Commentary recognizes in the Platonic corpus, especially in the dialogues Meno and Theaetetus, the exposition of a theory of knowledge that provides the philosophical ground to the eclectic methodology, presenting it as the right way to obtain knowledge of the truth. In what follows, I will treat each one of these levels separately.
First level of eclecticism's defense: appropriation and adaptation of skeptical and stoic arguments and theses
The portion of the papyrus that we have contains the discussion of many different stoic, and skeptical arguments. Given the polemical atmosphere among the philosophical schools at that time, it is no surprise that all of them present refutations, to some extent, of the stoic or skeptical position. I would like to stress "to some extent" because, as we are going to see, Anon. does not criticize stoic and skeptic arguments simply to prove them wrong. Rather, his critiques are much more complex. For, after the initial refutation of the theses in question, some of them are adapted and reformulated in order to be incorporated into the essentially platonic philosophical system of the commentator.
1.1 The case of Stoic oikeiosis
The first stoic thesis mentioned in the Commentary deals with the concept of oikeiosis (usually translated as affinity or appropriation). The opportunity for the exposition is provided by a statement on Theaetetus' paragraph 143d, in which Socrates says that he cares more about the young men of Athens than about those of Cyrene. (4) This simple sentence gives Anon. the occasion to start an investigation into the stoic concept of oikeiosis and its consequences to the stoic theory of justice.
Briefly, Anon.'s argument is the following: in order for the concept of oikeiosis to provide ground for a theory of justice (5), it is necessary for each human being to have the same degree of affinity towards each other. However, people have different degrees of affinity toward different individuals, as Socrates' speech testifies. Specially, we have more affinity to ourselves than to any other person:
He [Socrates] cares for the Cyrenaeans, but to the same degree as any other humans. For we experience affinity towards those similar to us as he feels more affinity towards his own citizens. For affinity is more and less intense. If those who base justice on affinity say that one has an equal sense of affinity towards oneself and the farthest Mysian, their thesis preserves justice--but it is not agreed that affinity is equal, because that is something that is contrary to what is obvious and to co-perception. For affinity towards oneself is natural and non-rational while that towards one's neighbors is also natural, but not non-rational. If we discover wickedness in people, we do not only censure them, but have a sense of alienation towards them; but they themselves, when they are doing wrong, do not accept (4) the corollary, and are unable to hate themselves. In fact, the affinity one feels towards oneself is not equal to that felt towards anyone else, and we do not even have an equal sense of affinity towards all our own limbs. We do not feel the same way about an eye and a finger, let alone about finger-nails and hair, since we are not equally 'alienated' from the loss of them, but to some more and other less. (6) (5.13-6.16)
Based on the evidence that "okeiosis is more and less intense", the Commentary concludes that the stoics are wrong in trying to explain the concept of justice by means of affinity. (7) The idea seems to be that if even a model of rationality and virtuous life like Socrates displays different degrees of affinity towards different people, then
his justice towards others is not based on this disposition. According to Anon. the true foundation for the concept of justice will not be found within the egoistic human character, naturally disposed to feel more affinity towards himself than towards anyone else, but in transcendence. He even finds in the text of the Theaetetus a suitable exhortation to that transcendental ethical theory: the "assimilation to God" (homoiosis toi theoi), an emblematic expression that represents one of the most widespread assumptions of middle-Platonism:
In the case of virtue as in the case of an expertise, if one thing surpasses another by a single unit it is enough for the other to be obliterated. This is why Plato did not base justice on affinity, but on 'coming to be like god', as we shall show. (8)
[phrase omitted] (7.15-20)
What is particularly interesting about Anon.'s argument against the stoic concept of oikeiosis is that the stoic theory is not completely rejected even after its refutation. (9) Rather, Anon. finds a positive role for this concept, adapting it to become consistent with his own interpretation of Platonism. So, just after his criticism of the stoic concept of oikeiosis, Anon. introduces the distinction between airetike oikeiosis and kedemonike oikeiosis, and uses this distinction as a way to establish a positive role for the concept of affinity. Elective affinity (airetike oikeiosis) is necessary for the identification of individuals that are well disposed to the rational enquiry and the virtuous life.
Of affinity itself, one kind is 'caring', namely that which is displayed towards oneself, and towards one's neighbors as if they were to a certain extent equal; another is 'elective', namely that by which we choose goods for ourselves, not because we care for them, but because we want to have them. It is clear that affinity towards oneself and those like oneself is not elective: no-one chooses himself (what he chooses is that he should exist, and that what is good should belong to him). A person cares for himself, and his neighbors. (8) This is why he [Socrates] said 'If I cared more for those in Cyrene', making it clear that such affinity is 'caring'. (...) 'And concerning the young men of Cyrene, especially, I desire to know which show some signs of becoming moderate.' In matters of love, it is said that the sage knows who is worthy of love. The question arises how Theaetetus could have escaped his [Socrates] notice, since he has a good nature. The answer is that he did not escape his notice: he does not find all those who are beautiful by himself, but there are some whom he finds through others. And he made this clear, because he himself does all he can to look for them, and also asks others whom he sees associating with the young. For being around either of them points the way to those who have good natures. (7.26-8.6)
It is through airetike oikeiosis that Socrates finds the wise and beautiful young men. Thus, by serving to classify the different kinds of human nature, elective affinity becomes the very condition for the emergence of philosophical communities, and ultimately for the exercise of philosophy itself. In fact, as Anon. points out at the beginning of the passage, it is through this kind of disposition that we choose any goods for ourselves.
1.2 The case of the skeptical Shipwreck and Growing Argument
The same pattern of argumentative appropriation can be found on the use of skeptical arguments. As a way of proving the impossibility of a theory of justice based on the concept of oikeiosis, even if we admit the existence of different degrees of affinity, Anon. presents the famous Shipwreck Argument. As we know, this argument was created by Carneades (Cic. Resp. 3.30; De off. 3.90) (10) to devise a situation in which people would clearly display the different degrees of affinity they have towards each other. In a shipwreck, everyone tries to save himself. And even in the case of stoic sages, if two of them are in a shipwreck, how would they decide which one should survive? Anon.'s assumption here seems to be that, all being equal, each will look out for himself.
On the other hand, if they themselves [sc. the stoics who introduce justice from affinity] say that affinity can be intensified, then it will allow for the existence of philanthropy, but the situation of the shipwrecked people (where only one of them can be saved) will refute them. Whether or not this situation would ever arise, they nevertheless find themselves being refuted. (6.17-29)
In this case, Anon. deploys a skeptical argument to refute a stoic position. Here, we do not have to assume that Anon.'s use of the shipwreck argument makes him a skeptical philosopher. Rather, than subscribing to skepticism, Anon. is adapting parts of the skeptical argumentation for his own philosophical intentions. His use of the shipwreck argument must be analyzed in context. And in regard to its context, the argument can only make sense as part of a larger defense of the "assimilation to God" theory.
However, the most remarkable use of a skeptical argument can be found on the discussion of the "Growing Argument" (69-71). This time the textual justification to evoke stoic thesis is given by the theory of universal flux that the Theaetetus ascribes to Protagoras. (11) According to the standard version of the Growing Argument, "just as number or measure when added to or subtracted from becomes a different number or measure, so too a person who grows or diminishes becomes a different person" (Long & Sedley, 1987, p. 172). The argument was particularly relevant to some stoic formulations that identified the substance with its material substrate (hypokeimenon). If matter is the sole principle of individuation, then a change of matter constitutes a change of identity. Hence Socrates is a different person from the same individual with one extra particle of matter added. The argument implies that the stoic concept of growth is contradictory, on the ground that for anything to grow it must exists from the beginning to the end of the process, and the denial of identity over time presented by the argument exclude this.
The Stoics (for instance Chrysippus) countered the argument by distinguishing between "substance", i.e. the material substrate, and the "peculiarly qualified" (idios poios), which is not identical with the material substrate, although constituted by it. This way, a mere quantitative change in the material substrate would not imply any change in the "peculiarly qualified", which would, thus, be capable of retaining identity through the process of growth and diminution.
Despite the poor state of the papyrus's pages on this part of the text, it is possible to reconstruct the Commentary's argument as stating the identity between the individual and the sum of all its essential properties: that is, its material substrate plus its peculiarly qualified. If that is the case, say the Academics skeptics, then any change in the material substrate will imply the emergence of a different individual:
What is in flux, according to some, does not increase or decrease in the way that something peculiarly qualified can. Their point is that only what is the same thing can acquire addition; similarly, it is the same thing that becomes smaller, viz. when it is reduced by a certain amount. Increase, decrease and individual qualification, then, are inter-entailing, so that (70) if one of them is conceded, the rest are given, and if one is denied, the rest are denied. (69.43-70.5)
This time, Anon. fully rejects the stoic theory of the idios poios, agreeing with the skeptical argument. The strategy is to accept the academic argument as a real proof of the incapacity of understanding movement and change within the limits of a materialistic philosophy. The Commentary, on the other hand, leaves open the possibility of explaining material growth with reference to the transcendental aspect reality. Thus, the skeptical argument is used to disqualify the stoic materialism, but the argument has its scope restricted to the sensible world, therefore not holding against a Platonic theory of substance.
These examples show that in regard both to the concept of affinity and to the concept of material change Anon. makes use of arguments and theses of different philosophical schools. However, his methodology cannot be described as the a-critical juxtaposition of inconsistent theories. Rather, Anon.'s eclecticism is actually very complex, since it involves the critical appreciation and adaptation of theses from different philosophical schools. These theses are not simply refuted and rejected, but are appreciated and adapted in order for them to become consistent with the author's own platonic system.
Second level of eclecticism's defense: the attribution of an eclectic methodology to Plato and the Academy
The Commentary contains some indications that the Anonymous author attributes to Plato the same kind of eclectic methodology that is at work in his use of skeptical and stoic arguments. During the discussion of the Growing Argument, for instance, Anon. states:
Pythagoras was the first to use the Growing Argument, and Plato used it, as we noted in commenting on the Symposium. Members of the Academy argue in this direction as well: they themselves are clear that they believe in growth, but since the Stoics establish this when it does not need proof, they show us that, if someone wishes to prove what is obvious, someone else will easily find more persuasive arguments to the contrary. (70.9-22)
[phrase omitted] 70.15 [phrase omitted].
In this passage, Anon. claims that Plato himself used the Growing Argument, which he believes to have Pythagorean credentials. Since the Commentary clearly denies the possibility of understanding Plato as a skeptic philosopher (cf. 54.38-55.10), we must conclude that, according to the author, Plato deployed the Growing Argument in order to argue for his own theories.
Likewise, about the distinction that enabled the commentator to restrict oikeiosis to the immediate sphere of social interactions, and, in doing so, to find a positive role for that concept, Anon. says: "This much-discussed 'affinity' is introduced not only by Socrates, but also by the sophists in Plato" (7.10).
Again, it is clear that the author is assigning to Plato not the original stoic understanding of affinity, but his own distinction between airetike oikeiosis and kedemonike oikeiosis. The most remarkable feature of this last sentence, however, lies in the fact that it ascribes to the sophistic characters in Plato's dialogues the introduction of platonic doctrines. Considering that the sophists depicted in the dialogues have any measure of similitude to the real individuals they represent, we can understand the Commentary as stating that Plato adapted the arguments of the sophists in order to present his own philosophy. This way, the different characters of Plato's dialogues, although initially arguing for their own point of view, at the end of the day, serve to express the philosophy of Plato himself.
This interpretation of the platonic methodology allows Anon. to recognize a fundamental unity under the many different academic tendencies:
Some people infer from these words that Plato was an Academic, in the sense of not having doctrines. My account will show that even other members of the Academy did, with very few exceptions, have doctrines, and that the Academy is unified by the fact that its members hold their most important doctrines in common with Plato. In any case, the fact that Plato held doctrines and declared them with conviction can be grasped from Plato himself. (54.40-55.10)
[phrase omitted] 55.10 55.10.
The text does not tell us which are these most important doctrines, but we can suppose that the author recognizes the use of a method based on the confrontation and evaluation of arguments and hypothesis from other thinkers or philosophical schools an unifying trait of the platonic tradition. Academic skeptics and dogmatics share the same method of investigation, based on the dialectical confrontation and critical evaluation of their opponent's theses. Furthermore, Platonists appropriate arguments from other philosophical schools, even if this appropriation is only methodological as, for example, in the case of skeptics. Hence, by interpreting the negative dialectics of academic skeptics as part of the same argumentative strategy of Plato and the dogmatics, Anon. could maintain his eclectic methodology as a source of unity for the whole academic tradition.
Third level of eclecticism defense: the formulation of a subjectivist theory of knowledge
Surprisingly, the author of the Commentary does not accept what seems to us to be the most fundamental insight of the Platonic theory of knowledge, namely the distinction between two kinds of objects, one of them able to generate knowledge (the Forms), and the other able to generate only opinions (the sensibles). In fact, the Commentary clearly denies this interpretation of the Platonic epistemology, which relates the aporetic end of the Theaetetus to the fact that Forms do not take part in the discussion. Instead of a theory of knowledge that measures the value of a cognitive act only by its object, the commentator proposes a subjectivist epistemology that defines knowledge as "correct opinion bound by the reasoning of the cause (aitias logismos)" or "correct opinion bound by the cause of reasoning (aitias logismou)" according to Anonymous heterodoxical reading of the Meno's definition of knowledge:
Some Platonists thought that the dialogue is about the criterion, since it is rich in investigation of this. This is not right. Rather, it is about [2.20] simple and incomposite knowledge: for this purpose it has to look into the question of the criterion. By 'criterion' I mean that through which we judge, as a tool. For we need something by which to judge things: then, as long as this is accurate, the steadfast acceptance of [2.30] well-made judgements gives us knowledge. But these people say that, having proposed to search for knowledge, he shows in the Theaetetus what its objects are not, and in the Sophist what its objects are. [2.40] They came close, but they did not reach the truth: for he does not seek the material with which knowledge is concerned, but [2.50] what its essence is. This is a different thing, as in the case of skills it is one thing to look for the essence of each of them, another to look for the material with which they concern themselves. [3.1] Knowledge is right reason bound 'by the cause of reasoning' [Men. 98a]--for we know things when we know what they are, but also why they are. But there were those who valued the senses highly because they possess [3.10] something striking, attributing accuracy to them as well. Because of this, he is first going to put their supposition to the test; then he will pass on to right opinion, and after this to right opinion with reason. [3.20] Then he will cease the investigation--for he would only need to add the bond of explanation for his account of this kind of knowledge to be complete. This sort of thing will be clarified in the exegesis. (2.15-3.26)
The first aspect we should note about this subjectivist theory of knowledge is that it naturally explains the passage from opinion to knowledge, which is something that the object-orientated formulation has notorious difficulties to explain. For, if the nature of our cognitive acts is a function of the object to which it is oriented, then we would not be able to pass from the state of opinion about a object x to the state of knowledge about the same object x. The theory of knowledge presented in the Commentary, on the other hand, does not take objects or modes of apprehension as criteria of truth. Rather it defines knowledge as a certain mode of justification of propositions. Knowledge is different from opinion because of the argumentative articulation it has with the reasoning of causes (cf. Sedley, 1996).
This interpretation of the Platonic theory of knowledge seems to provide a theoretical foundation for the eclectic methodology of Anon. As we have seen, the appropriation of arguments and thesis of other schools take place only after the confrontation, evaluation, and reasoning about its relations to the platonic point of view of the commentator. According to the text it is through this process of polemic confrontation between arguments that the dialectician is able to purge the false opinions and articulate by recollection (anamnesis) the knowledge already existing in his soul:
So do you know that I myself have the same skill as my mother, [47.30] because I act as midwife?' He called himself a midwife after her because his method of teaching was that kind of thing. Sometimes he expounded and committed himself to doctrines; but when he was teaching, he prepared [47.40] his students to talk about things themselves, unfolding and articulating their natural concepts. And this way of doing things follows from the doctrine that so-called acts of 'learning' [48.1] are in fact acts of recollection, and that the soul of every man has seen what exists and does not need the mathematical sciences to be inculcated--it needs recollection. This doctrine will be discussed in my commentary on [48.10] On the Soul [i.e. the Phaedo]. (47.30-48.10)
The most striking feature of the interpretation put forward by the Commentary lies in the fact that the Anonymous author identifies in the Theaetetus itself the realization of the eclectic methodology he adopts, and ascribes to Plato and the Academy. According to his reading of the text, the different attempts of defining knowledge we find in the dialogue represent progressive stages towards the correct definition stated in the Meno. In this way, the whole dialogue represents an argumentative engagement with different non-platonic definitions of knowledge, such as the Protagorian relativism, and its secret doctrine of universal flux, the aviary model, the block of wax model, and so on. At the end of this process of evaluation and adaptation of non-platonic thesis, the young Theaetetus should articulate the correct platonic definition. The dialogue ends in aporia in order for the reader to conclude the process by himself. So after the last definition proposed by Theaetetus, i.e.: Knowledge is correct opinion with a logos, the reader should only supply the reference to the causes in order to get the correct definition of knowledge as stated in the Meno:
For the natural concepts are in need of articulation. Before this, people apprehend things insofar as they have traces of them; but they do not apprehend them clearly. This is why [47.1] Theaetetus was not in a position to give an adequate account of knowledge, but did not find it easy to listen to anyone else properly either, as Socrates encouraged him to do. (...) And yet, although he did not hit on it, Theaetetus does not give up searching for what knowledge is. [47.20] His good nature meant that he was full of common concepts, and that they were not buried too deep in him. (47.1-47.20)
Please Note: Illustration(s) are not available due to copyright
https://doi.org/10.14195/1984-249X_27_6 Submitted in 13/12/2018 and accepted for publication 05/02/2019
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Renato Matoso [i] https://orcid.org/0000-0003-1067-0545 firstname.lastname@example.org
[i] Pontificia Universidade Catolica do Rio de Janeiro--Rio de Janeiro--RJ--Brasil
MATOSO, R. (2019). The Anonymous' Commentary on Plato's Theatetus and a Middle-Platonic Theory of Knowledge. Archai 27, e02706.
(1) On paleographical grounds the papyrus dates to the second century AD, and it was assumed by Diels, Schubart and Heinerg, the first editors, that it was composed on the same period. However, Tarrant (1983, p. 161-187), and Bastianini & Sedley (1995, p. 227-562), successfully argued for an earlier date of composition (first century BC).
(2) For more information on the history of the concept of eclecticism (cf. Donini, 1988).
(3) Just to quote some examples, Brisson on the philosophy of Imperial Age: "on ne gagne guere a parler de 'eclectisme' ou simplement de 'syncretisme' pour qualifier cette culture philosophique commune" (Brisson, 2002, p. 20); Gottschalk on the aristotelian philosophy in the Roman Empire: "[Claudius Ptolemaeus the astronomer and the physician Galen] both are often described as 'eclectic Peripatetics', but the label is unhelpful." (Gottschalk, 1987, p. 1164); Dillon on the preface of his survey on the philosophy of middle-Platonism: "One key word employed very freely by casual surveyors of this period I have also striven to exclude--'eclecticism'" (Dillon, 1996, p. xiv).
(4) "If I cared enough about people in Cyrene, Theodorus, I would ask you whether there are any rising geometricians or philosophers in that part of the world. But I am more interested in our own youth than theirs" (Tht. 143d1-5).
(5) There is independent evidence for the claim that the Stoics made oikeiosis the origin of justice (SVF 1.197).
(6) Translations from Boys-Stones (2018) with minor adaptations.
(7) There is the possibility that the Stoics did not commit themselves to the position that affinity is equal regardless of its object, but the argument together with the case of the shipwreck (see below) poses a dilemma according to which the foundation of justice in oikeiosis is problematic whether affinity is conceived as equal or variant. (cf. Opsomer, 1998, p. 45)
(8) Unfortunately, the part of the commentary with the discussion on the "assimilation to God" is missing.
(9) As noted by Bonnazzi (2008, p. 599).
(10) Levy, 1990, p. 302-304; Levy, 1993, p. 151-152.
(11) "What is really true is this: the things of which we naturally say they 'are' are in process of coming to be, as the result of movement and change and blending with one another. We are wrong when we say they 'are' since nothing ever is, but everything is coming to be" (152d7-e1).
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|Publication:||Revista Archai: Revista de Estudos Sobre as Origens do Pensamento Ocidental|
|Date:||Sep 1, 2019|
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