Gerlach, Jens

»Gnomica Democritea«

Studien zur gnomologischen Überlieferung der Ethik Demokrits und zum Corpus Parisinum mit einer Edition der »Democritea« des Corpus Parisinum

17.0 x 24.0 cm, 676 p., 3 illustrations b/w, cloth
98,00 €

ISBN: 9783895004940
Table of Contents

Short Description

The book “Gnomica Democritea” takes a panoramic view of the fate of Democritus’ ethics by establishing a connection between the lost body of works on ethics and the “gnomological” tradition which is at the core of Diels’ collection of fragments attributed to Democritus (in his book Fragmente der Vorsokratiker, chapter 68). The focus of the study is on the early and middle period of the Byzantine gnomological tradition which had not yet been analysed so far, and it leads to some modifications of the canon of texts established by Diels. Starting from a central “universal collection” (Corpus Parisinum), the author traces the erratic ways of tradition of the Democritea with unprecedented precision, and this results in new insight about the Byzantine florilegia.


To this day, the way the texts of the moral philosopher Democritus of Abdera (4th/5th century BC) have come down to us constitutes a mystery: While all traces of his original writings on ethics disappear as early as the beginning of the Time of the Emperors, an indirect tradition reappears, as it were abruptly, in Late Antiquity. The approximately 300 text fragments preserved in the form of text collections from Late Antiquity (Ps.-Democrates, Stobaios) and attributed to Democritus predominantly take the form of a sententious single sentence (Greek: gnome), and they form the core of the fragments from Democritus which constitute the authoritative canon established by Diels (Fragments of Presocratic Philosophers, ch. 68).
The author of the study entitled Gnomica Democritea first sets out to put the general authenticity of the gnomica as postulated by Diels and many others on a new footing by demonstrating connections, as far as content and linguistic form are concerned, between the sparse literary fragments from original writings and the heteronomous gnomological tradition, and, in the course of this, defines more precisely the term “authenticity”: While the gnomic sentences may indirectly be based on a genuine text tradition, the form of the text was subject to manifold changes in the course of the long history of their reception. During this process, the meaning was frequently banalised or reinterpreted in the vein of popular philosophic ideas. In some cases it is possible to retrace such phenomena of reception amid the ruins of the gnomological tradition; once in a while there is even the chance to re-establish the original context, discover text variants and new fragments. Insight into the processes and the motivations of the gnomological transformation does not only lead to modifications, in some places, of Diels’ canon but, in addition, facilitates a more differentiated assessment of the “fragments” transmitted within the gnomic tradition.
Since it has been proven that not only the sources from Late Antiquity, but also the great Byzantine florilegia are based on older and sometimes lost models and thus are part of a continual tradition reaching back to Antiquity, the author, in the main body of his study, assesses the importance for Democritus of the later tradition (starting from the 6th century) which so far has been ignored; a florilegium called Corpus Parisinum (9th century), which is of outstanding importance for the history of this text tradition, constitutes the centre-piece of the study. On the basis of a meticulous analysis of the tradition, origin and compilatory structure of this collection, its sources and descendants, the erratic ways of tradition of the Democritea from Late Antiquity up to the height of the Middle Ages as well as the successive manipulations and mistakes are traced with unprecedented precision.
Since an approach concentrating purely on authorship cannot suffice to understand the complex tradition of the gnomological sources and their relations, the relevant compilations in their entirety had to be studied as compositional entities. Owing to the wide investigative scope of this approach, which combines traditional philological methods with an innovative analysis of structure und composition, it was possible to go beyond the “index fossil” of Democritus and arrive at entirely new and fundamental insight about the Corpus Parisinum and the environment of its tradition as well as the underlying methods and concepts of the compilers.


„Gerlaeh's arguments in his book Gnomica Democritea are very important not only for thc study of gnomologia, but for the whole of Byzantine culture and in particular for lexieography. Several problems concerning thc transmission of gnomological works must be reconsidered, and also the concept of dark ages must bc rethought.“

Von Renzo Tosi

In: Eikasmo XXIV (2013), S.307-318.

“Scholars of Democritus will want to discuss the plausibility of Gerlach's identification of individual sayings in more detail than I am competent to do. Whatever one's view of particular arguments, however, this work is indisputably a major addition to the study of Democritus. It is all the more admirable because, as concerned as it is with red action criticism, that is by no means all it does. It makes a significant contribution to the study of Democritus himself. It contributes to debates about the relationship between Democritus and other philosophical schools. It forms a thought-provoking case-study of the relationship between 'high' philosophy and popular ethics, arguing that (if not quite showing how) Democritean material finds its way, for instance, into Greek proverbs, gnomai of the Seven Sages and Christian doctrine. It investigates, as few other studies have done, the way the process of compiling a miscellany affects the way its components are subsequently read and understood.
Wide-ranging, intellectually stimulating and technically meticulous, this book will be both a point of reference and a starting-point for new projects for the foreseeable future.”

Teresa Morgan

In: Journal of Hellenic Studies. 130 (2010). pp. 284-285.


“Jens Gerlach (G.) has written a masterful study of teh ethical maxims attributed to Democritus in Byzantine florilegia that is sure to become an important reference for future scholars. The primary object of study is the material related to Democritus in the so-called Copus Parisinum. (...)
The book will have two main audiences with some overlapping: scholars working on Democritus and scholars interested in late antique or Byzantine florilegia and gnomonologia.
(...) let me conclude this review by stating my enthusiastic admiration of and gratitude for G.’s scholary resourcefulness and stamina. This is a major contribution to the study of the Greek gnomological tradition. Some scholars of Democritus may perhaps be somewhat disappointed in the results - but only if they expect substantial new fragments and not typical gnomological fare. However, the real value for Democritean studies is the reevaluation of the whole tradition of ethical sayings, based on careful source-analysis, which delineates the connections of Byzantine to ancient sources more clearly than has previously been done. (...)
G. os to be especially commended for his acribeia, his array of conceptual tools, the clarity and construction of his edition and his helpful appendices. (...) At the basic level a collection of sayings like CP [Corpus Prisinum] is easy to grasp conceptually. However, any reality becomes complex when you apply a variety of perspectives to it. That is what is so fascinating about the world we live in: you can go on digging forever to reach the reality behind the evidence.”

Denis M. Searby

In: Gnomon. 84 (2012) heft 2. S. 100-107.

Biographical Note

Dr. Jens Gerlach studied classical philology and pedagogics at Hamburg University and works since 2000 teacher of Greek and Latin at a Hamburg “Gymnasium”.

Research Focus:

1. The gnomological tradition of ancient Greek authors in Late Antiquity and the Byzantine Middle Ages (gnomologies, florilegia and other bodies of aphorisms)
2. Lucian of Samosata as a satirist, language virtuoso and critic of the contemporary philosophic culture.


Altertumswissenschaften (36) || Ancient Greece (29) || Ancient World (121) || Ancient philosophy (3) || Ancient, classical & medieval texts (70) || Ethics & moral philosophy (4) || Historical states, empires & regions (201) || History of philosophy, philosophical traditions (13) || Klassische Philologie (12) || Linguistics (657) || Philosophy (40) || Topics in philosophy (13) || c 1000 BCE to start of CE period (123)