Thursday, May 31, 2007

Monday, May 28, 2007

Who was Diogenes Laertius?

We've just begun our annual Cambridge 'Mayweek' seminar (at least most of it is in May, this time), this year reading Diogenes Laertius 9. It is already evident that it is going to be a very interesting exercise, and for me one of the interesting things is the ease with which it is possible to imagine looking 'through' Diogenes and instead begin to think about his sources and the subjects of his biography. It is certainly possible to separate questions about, for example, what Heraclitus thought, from questions about what Hellenistic writers -- Diogenes' usual sources -- thought Heraclitus thought, from questions about what Diogenes himself thought Heraclitus thought. But in cases like Heraclitus, in which we have lots of other evidence, it quickly turns into a case of wondering how much Diogenes 'got right' and the extent to which we could use him as a source for these earlier philosophers.

But what did Diogenes think he was doing when he was writing this odd work? And to what extent was he interested in writing something we might be happy to call a history of philosophy with the same sorts of concerns about accuracy, charity of interpretation, thoughts about the history of ideas and the influence between one position and another? It seems to me that it is not at all clear what we should say. I've tried to say something about these questions in a piece to be published later this year, but it strikes me as I think about it more that Diogenes himself is a very elusive figure. It is not easy to date him securely, or to place his own intellectual allegiances with much confidence. And, in part, it is his care to name so many sources that encourages us to look through him to a period of Hellenistic and classical scholarship.

Who knows? Perhaps over this week more of Diogenes will emerge as we read through the book carefully. Certainly, this would seem to be the only way to make any headway. It's time to read Diogenes for himself and not simply as a source for reconstructing others' philosophies.

Thursday, May 24, 2007

Word of the day

Today's word is: mobbing. This is what the OED offers:

1. a. The action of a mob or group of people in attacking, harassing, or crowding round a person (now esp. in adulation or acclamation); an instance of this. Also: the action or an act of congregating in a mob or crowd.

It is apparently an ornithological term, used of flocks which turn on one particular member. But it is a useful description of occasional human behaviour too.

Monday, May 21, 2007

Caution: Pyrrhonist crossing

We're getting ready for a seminar next week on book nine of Diogenes Laertius. I'm going to be introducing the section on the life of Pyrrho. Like Socrates, Pyrrho wrote no philosophical works and, like Socrates, it is incredibly difficult to make clear headway in working out precisely what he thought. Also like Socrates, Pyrrho inspired a series of followers -- Pyrrhonists -- who later went on to elaborate a sophisticated and self-reflexive form of scepticism which professed to suspend judgment over everything.

The stories about Pyrrho's life often found in later sources like Diogenes, clearly reflect the later history of the school and might not, therefore, be simple guides to early Pyrrhonian attitudes. But they are fun, nevertheless, and also revealing of just how weird philosophers were imagined to be. Pyrrho was evidently a great target for this kind of speculation, precisely because of his professed refusal to assent to any dogmatic assertion.

Still, it is not always perfectly clear to me when a given story is supposed to be critical and when it is not. For example, this extract from DL 9.62 might be a fairly straightforward example of a charge commonly made against various forms of scepticism: it is impossible to live that way. Pyrrho was supposed to be constantly in danger of being struck down as he wandered about, paying no heed to what his senses told him (or, perhaps, actively rejecting what his senses told him):
Ἀκόλουθος δ’ ἦν καὶ τῷ βίῳ, μηδὲν ἐκτρεπόμενος μηδὲ φυλαττόμενος, ἅπαντα ὑφιστάμενος, ἀμάξας, εἰ τύχοι, καὶ κρημνοὺς καὶ κύνας καὶ ὅσα <τοιαῦτα> μηδὲν ταῖς αἰσθήσεσιν ἐπιτρέπων. σώζεσθαι μέντοι, καθά φασιν οἱ περὶ τὸν Καρύστιον Ἀντίγονον ὑπὸ τῶν γνωρίμων παρακολουθούντων.
This is Hicks' translation:
He lived a life consistent with his doctrine going out of his way for nothing, taking no precautions, but facing all risks as they came, whether carts, precipices, dogs or what not, and, generally, leaving nothing to the arbitrament of the sense; but he was kept out of harm's way by his friends who, as Antigonus of Carystus tells us, used to follow close after him.
There is no reason to think that Antigonus, whose biography of Pyrrho Diogenes uses here and there, is particularly hostile to Pyrrho. And it is worth noting that Pyrrho did live to a ripe old age. So do we have here a familiar apraxia charge? On this view, it was only because of his followers that Pyrrho did not meet a sticky end rather quickly. Surely his followers had to take a rather different attitude from Pyrrho himself to the prospect of an on-rushing cart, so the viability of this form of scepticism is parasitic of at least someone somewhere taking a resolutely non-sceptical attitude. (It is worth noting that the next comment in Diogenes comes from Aenesidemus, the first century BC fan of Pyrrho, who set out to deny that Pyrrho had ever behaved so bizzarely.) I'm more attracted to this critical interpretation than I once was, but I still wonder whether perhaps this story too is part of a more positive spin. After all, a large number of the anecdotes in Diogenes seem to be trying to offer a positive image of Pyrrho's equipoise. Can this one be viewed in this way? On this view, Pyrrho did indeed live according to his scepticism precisely because of his charismatic tranquillity which encouraged such devoted followers. On either view there is a pun to be found here. Pyrrho lives 'following' (akolouthos) his doctrine because of his followers (parakolouthountes) who pull him out of harm's way.

It's a tricky thing, reading ancient philosophical biography...

Wednesday, May 16, 2007

Presocratics: the revenge

Catherine Osborne, the author of a recent Very short introduction to Presocratic philosophy wrote an interesting comment on my last post. I think it is worth quoting it here:

I have to admit to finding the opposition to "Presocratic" as a category rather irritating. In some cases it seems to be based on the simple misconception that "pre" must mean chronologically prior--whereas logical or developmental priority is surely what is intended by this term. (Where one thing is the inspiration or target or provocation for another, the latter is in a sense posterior). And priority in this sense needn't be anything to be ashamed of: on the contrary in all ancient thought priority is preferable and dependence is inferiority. Only if one assumes that all development is progress should one assume that being described "pre" Socrates is an insult. And why on earth should one think that?

That's a nice twist: why not think of 'Presocratic' as a way of saying that a particular philosopher is a necessary progenitor of Socrates? Some things from Platonic dialogues could certainly be offered as supporting evidence: Socrates' interest in and eventual rejection of Anaxagoras in Phaedo; his interest in Eleaticism as made clear in Republic V, Parmenides, Sophist and so on; and other less explicit strands of influence such as the possible influence of Philolaus, or Diogenes of Apollonia's teleology. The difficulty is, of course, that these are all cases from the Platonic Socrates. So how about reviving the Nietzschean category of 'Pre-platonic' philosophy?

Monday, May 14, 2007

Were there Presocratic philosophers?

A strange question, perhaps, but one worth asking. It is particularly interesting for me, having just completed a book called Presocratics which at least one of the press's reviewers thought was unfortunately titled. Haven't we moved away from the anachronistic and misleading designation of a group of people, some of whom are contemporaries of or later than Socrates, as 'Presocratics'? And doesn't this term make us fall into the trap of seeing early Greek philosophy merely as a prelude to something more impressive? And doesn't it mislead by implying that there was a distinguishable group of 'philosophers' in sixth and fifth-century BC Greece, contrasted with the various other doctors, astronomers, theologians, poets, historians and the like? Come on, these people might go on, let's give this eighteenth century fiction the boot (perhaps with a recognition that we can blame people like Aristotle for recommending it for this long)! Down with Die Vorsokratiker and up with something less contentious: 'Early Greek philosophy', maybe, or -- if you're sticking to a certain view of what these people in fact did -- 'Early Greek natural philosophy'. In fact, the US distributors of my book were particularly concerned by this sort of criticism and have added -- without asking me -- a subtitle. In the US, it is called: Presocratics: Natural philosophers before Socrates, even though there is quite a lot of epistemology, for example, discussed in it. The subtitle does not seem to be on the cover, though, so I doubt it will make a great deal of difference.

Now, I've no significant investment in the term 'Presocratic' such that I think these criticisms are all misguided. On the contrary, I think they are generally sound. All the same, I think it is a term which is not wholly useless. In fact, it is the easiest and more effective way to refer to a recognised tradition and period of ancient philosophy. True, this tradition -- like any other -- is to some extent manufactured. The classical Greeks put this lot together, even if they didn't use the term 'Presocratic' to refer to them, and that means that thinking about them in the 'traditional' way is not wholly out of touch with at least some of antiquity. It's a bit like other historiographical terms, like 'The Dark Ages' or 'Archaic Greece', retrospectively applied and a touch misleading on occasions but not completely useless. How strongly do people feel about discarding this sort of categorisation?

In any case, I was excited this morning to get hold of a copy of a recent book by one of the most intelligent and persuasive critics of the unthinking acceptance of this category of ancient philosophical historiography, André Laks: Introduction à la «philosophie présocratique». (Note the importance of the 'entre guillemets..'.) He has published a series of important pieces on this question recently and here is the full statement of his views. While I was at it I also bought his Le vide et la haine: éléments pour une histoire archaïque de la négativité. They are, I'm afraid to say, not the sort of thing that could easily be put on to one of our undergraduate reading lists, not least because they are not in English and undergraduates in Classics and Philosophy don't read much in other modern languages. That's a shame, because they are bound to be very interesting.

Thursday, May 10, 2007

Stoic education

I was a bit taken aback by a brief report in the Guardian explaining that some teachers from the UK have visited the US to see schools which implement 'happiness' lessons. This is already something of an odd idea, I think, since I reckon Aristotle had it right when he saw an important role in early life simply for the inculcation of positive character traits, habits, dispositions and the like. It's odd to give lessons in happiness, in other words, if that is any more than encouraging children to become the sort of people who might in time go on to live happy lives. Perhaps 18 hours of 'role, playing, confidence-building games and discussion' might help but it certainly doesn't constitute much of an education in happiness.

But perhaps that's OK. Surely these aren't meant to be sufficient for an education in happiness, whatever that is. The bigger surprise came as I read on, since it became clear that the happiness involved is not anything Aristotle would have recognised and, I think, is not really anything that I recognise as deserving the name either. Instead, happiness seems to be equated with something called 'emotional resilience'.

Here is Manchester city council's director of children's services, Pauline Newman:

"This is very much about providing children and young people with the tools they need to manage their feelings and motivation and to find solutions. The work complements what schools already do in parts of the curriculum and in ways they support children.

"Like adults, some children and young people seem able to deal with anything that life brings their way, but others do need help. Learning the kind of skills that will help them cope better emotionally with these things can make an enormous difference in young people's lives - not just at school but later in life as adults. "

Manage their feelings? As in 'anger management'? Dealing with anything life brings their way? Coping emotionally? Am I the only one to find these thoroughly depressing components of a happy life?

Certainly enormous and extravagant bursts of rage at inappropriate objects are not a good idea; they disrupt and damage the person and those around them. But what is it to 'manage' these feelings? Perhaps it's some good old-fashioned English bottling up of one's feelings. Or perhaps its the older Stoic notion of apatheia: putting up with the world because of an acceptance of one's place within the order of things.

This doesn't sound like happiness to me. And I'm worried that children of 11 years old are being encouraged to take on this sort of idea. Surely it would be better to offer them hope, encourage their ambition, excite their creative and intellectual abilities? That sounds like a useful set of tools for happiness to me. But then again, perhaps Manchester city council thinks it is better to have 'emotionally resilient' young people who put up with things as they are.

Monday, May 07, 2007

Philosophy and real life

When you write a philosophical work, the connection between the various arguments and claims you make and practical application are not always at the forefront of your mind. But they should be, particularly if like me some of the philosophical questions you write about are ethical ones. So I was given an important reminder of the kind of audience I should have in mind always by something I read this morning.

Do not go gentle is a blog written by a young man suffering from pancreatic cancer. He died in December 2006. One of the books he was reading is my own Facing Death. His reactions to it, and in particular to which of the various ways of fearing death was the most troubling for him, are extremely interesting. (Read them here and here.) The Epicureans did indeed want their philosophy to be directly applied to 'real life' cases, so this would have been of great interest to them too. I wonder if our most basic and general feelings and concerns about death have changed significantly since the third century BC. Probably. It would be odd if Christianity, modern health-care and palliative care have not had some effect. But it is notable that some arguments peddled over two thousand years ago still have some evident resonance.

Update 8 May: please read the comment from Scott's sister. I should have said originally that reading Scott's blog was a humbling experience. He was evidently a special person and I am honoured that at that time he would consider reading and thinking about something I had written.

Thursday, May 03, 2007


Here's a philosopher who ought to be better known: Hegesias the Cyrenaic, sometimes nick-named the 'Death Persuader' because of his general pessimism and unfortunate habit of convincing people that there is no point to living. It is said that he was so persuasive when talking about this topic that he was banned from speaking in public by Ptolemy Philadelphus; the body-count at the end of each of his lectures was too high (Cic. Tusc. 1.83-4). Perhaps he would have got on with David Benatar...

Anyway, perhaps I'll come back to Hegesias and his generally gloomy picture of life some other time. For now, I just want to share one of his pearls of wisdom from the report in Diogenes Laertius 2.95:

κα τ μν φρονι τ ζν λυσιτελς εναι, τ δ φρονίμ διάφορον.

For the fool life is advantageous; for the wise it is indifferent.

Wisdom makes life less valuable? Perhaps he means it appears advantageous to the fool but in fact it is merely indifferent; only the wise man can see that properly. Or perhaps he means that life is worth living only if you are not (yet) wise. Once widom is achieved there is nothing more of any worth in continuing to live. Perhaps this is what is meant by the frustratingly brief report at DL 2.94 of another of his claims, which seems pointedly different from other thoughts along the lines that life and death are indifferent:

τήν τε ζων κα τν θάνατον αρετόν.

Life and death are choiceworthy.

However we make sense of Hegesias' view, it certainly doesn't give much incentive to go out and try to become wise... And it is also a nice twist on the old Socratic maxim that 'an unexamined life is not worth living'; now, the less you examine your life, the less wise you are, the more point there is to living.

Tuesday, May 01, 2007

Kids' TV....

.. can be so much better than the grown-ups' version. This is brilliant:

The raving pigs after about 5 minutes are fantastic! (And, plenty more episodes to be found where that came from...)