Title: "Coins and Classical Philosophy", Teaching Philosophy, 12/3, 1989, 243-255.
Author: Robert S. Brumbaugh & John P. Burnham
Date: February 2002
Reviewer: John Sellars
 The authors - a lecturer in ancient philosophy and a museum curator - have held annual exhibitions of ancient coins designed to complement a course in ancient philosophy. They suggest a number of reasons why ancient coins may have some relevance to ancient philosophy:
The remainder of the article [244-255] is comprised of photographs of the exhibits along with brief captions.
This article is at once both very suggestive yet highly disappointing. As someone who has taught ancient philosophy and has a passing interest in ancient numismatics, the title immediately caught my attention. Yet the content of the article itself is limited to a single page and the opening claim is hardly developed at all.
Having said that, I would want to agree with the authors' basic intuition that it is important when teaching ancient philosophy to try to bring these long-dead figures back to life. Although there is a sense in which it is correct to emphasise the cultural differences between life in the contemporary west and, say, Athens in the fifth century BC, it is also important not to create a situation in which one's students become unable to identify with their subjects. Coins are but one way in which such an affinity may be developed. Others might include using portraits (i.e. statues and busts), ancient literary biographies (such as Diogenes Laertius) and images of locations (such as the Athenian Agora). All of these may help to flesh out the 'foreign' names on the printed page. Of course, the ultimate experience would be the field trip to Athens and a tour of the Agora, Socrates' prison, the Stoa, and the sites of the Academy and Lyceum. While the latter is no doubt impractical for many, some of the others could well be used to good effect.
But, one might argue, none of these devices actually contribute to an understanding of ancient philosophy; they simply help to bring to life some of the names and places that the students will encounter when studying ancient philosophy. For those who think that philosophy is simply a matter of rational argument (that may be abstracted from its cultural and historical context), such devices may all appear completely unnecessary. Yet philosophy was conceived in antiquity quite differently from how it is generally conceived today. It was foremost a way of life in which everyday actions, and even outward appearance, took on an important philosophical significance. In order to understand ancient philosophical arguments within the broader cultural context in which they were developed, it may well be necessary to flesh out that context by drawing upon biographical and historical material. This is not to devalue rational argument; it is simply to contextualise it.
An exhibition of ancient coins may contribute to this process of bringing to life ancient philosophers, although the connections that can actually be drawn are few and often somewhat tenuous (as is clear in many of the authors' captions). Images of statues and locations are, I think, likely to be more helpful. A similar approach may also be of benefit when teaching other philosophies from cultures or periods distant from our own (such as medieval or oriental philosophy).
As for the authors' claim that ancient coins illustrate a Greek sympathy for Platonic metaphysics, this is surely untenable and would presumably turn members of all cultures with pre-modern minting techniques into Platonic idealists.
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