Tuesday, October 30, 2007

What is the logical form of this?

Thank goodness for YouTube. Here is my favourite bit from Derek Jarman's quirky film, Wittgenstein. What is the logical form of a V sign? Witters' reaction might be a bit extreme, but it's a good lesson in the complexity of meaningful forms of communication. And funny.

Wednesday, October 24, 2007

Some boring statistics

Facebook collects all the information its users decide to put in their profiles. I imagine this is commercially quite useful. But it also allows it to display tables like this one, which gives some results for the Cambridge UK network (you might have to click on it to see it large enough):

I reckon it's pretty depressing. Is it really true that the 'top books' among Cambridge network people are Harry Potter... and The Lord of the Rings. Good grief. And as for the top music choices, we really do come out as a load of boring MORers. What will we all be reading and listening to when we really are boring and middle aged? (I know: some of us are closer to that than others. But I wouldn't put U2 and Queen on my list...)

Monday, October 22, 2007

Epicurean joy II

It's nice to get comments on my blog, particularly when they are clever. In response to my musing last time, Eric Brown writes:

"I am puzzled about joy and katastematic pleasure, too, and so I'm glad you're putting this out there.

I'm not sure I understand your argument against Purinton's interpretation. Do you mean to attribute the following to Epicurus?

(1) Nonhuman animals experience katastematic pleasure.
(2) Nonhuman animals do not experience epilogismos.
Therefore, (3) epilogismos cannot be necessary for the experience of katastematic pleasure.
But (4) one can take joy in katastematic pleasure only by experiencing epilogismos about the settled state of the flesh.
Therefore, (5) joy cannot be necessary for the experience of katastematic pleasure.
Therefore, (6) katastematic pleasure cannot be defined as the intentional object of joy.

What's the evidence for (1)? I've no doubt that nonhuman animals experience the calm state of the flesh that we experience as katastematic pleasure, at least according to the Epicureans, but I cannot recall off the top of my head any evidence that Epicureans take nonhuman animals to experience this state as pleasure. (Indeed, isn't this part of Cicero's complaint--that the appeal to infant and animal pursuit of pleasure appeals to their pursuit of kinetic and not katastematic pleasure?) What am I forgetting?"

I had to think this over for quite a while, but this is as far as I have got:

I don’t think Eric is forgetting anything, and he makes a very good argument. So what can we say about (1)? I wonder if it will help to distinguish between the two types of katastematic pleasure: bodily (aponia) and psychic (ataraxia).

The Epicureans’ account of the hedonic lives of non-rational animals is not very clear. I can see no way, however, in which they could deny that non-rational animals can attain aponia. That is, it seems perfectly possible for a cat, say, to attain a state of physical painlessness. If that is true, I don’t see how the cat is not experiencing at least this form of katastematic pleasure. What a cat cannot do, however, is reflect upon and notice this state and cannot consider and reflect upon its likely continuance. (There are other drawbacks to being a cat. A cat can’t look at another cat with a bad paw and think, ‘How nice I don’t feel that pain’ in the way Lucretius imagines a human onlooker thinking at the beginning of DRN 2; that, by the way, looks to me like a good example of an instance of ‘joy’.) So a cat cannot experience ‘joy’. If that’s on the right lines then if we substitute aponia for ‘katastematic pleasure’ in Eric’s construal of the argument, it seems to me to be OK.

Now what about ataraxia? I suppose the Epicureans won’t want to let cats have that. But, on the other hand, the Epicureans are certainly concerned not to make it seem that a cat is better off than a human precisely because it can never experience mental pains, tarachai. (This looks like the mental analogue of the criticism – at least as old as Callicles in the Gorgias – that to say that we should aim at painlessness is to say that we should want to be like a stone, that is simply incapable of feeling pain.) What they say in response is not so clear but seems to be in two parts: (i) animals can, at least to some extent, experience tarachai; (ii) animals cannot – as humans can – reason away irrational fears and in addition take further pleasure in recognizing their care-free state. What evidence I have found about this is in Philodemus On the gods 1 XV and Polystratus De Irrat. Cont. VI–VII.

This leaves as yet unconsidered whether katastematic pleasure of either sort feels pleasant by itself, as it were. I think Purinton argues that it is rather ‘joy’ which ensures the positive hedonic feel of a good life, which is why he thinks an Epicurean would not want a life of joyless katastematic pleasure. I’m not so sure; or, at least, I am not sure that the Epicureans either do or ought to take this route. It seems to me more likely that they do indeed want to insist that katastematic pleasure is itself pleasant: living a (physical) life without pain is pleasant and living a (mental) life without care is also pleasant. Joy is certainly, however, something distinct from katastematic pleasure. But it seems to me that joy is not necessary for the katastematic pleasure’s having any positive hedonic value. I can see no evidence for that point and the evidence I can find seems to point rather towards the characterisation of joy I tried in the previous post. Now, whether this is coherent, let alone plausible, is another matter. At the moment I can’t help being on Cicero’s side here. But that’s the Epicureans’ fault, not the fault of Cicero’s interpretation.

Wednesday, October 17, 2007

Epicurean joy

I’ve been wondering again about Epicurean hedonism and in particular its claim that painlessness is the highest pleasure. Most people find this implausible and also hard to reconcile with any recognisable hedonism. So there are some interesting attempts to make sense of the Epicurean view. In one particularly interesting article, Purinton [1] argues that katastematic pleasure should be understood as the object of the intentional state of ‘joy’ (khara). Both katastematic pleasure and the various ‘smooth motions’ in body or soul identified as kinetic pleasures, are to be understood as possible objects of joy in this sense. On this account, katastematic pleasure may not immediately ‘feel’ good but rather ‘is’ good and, if we think properly about what we should value, can be an object of joy.

I am not sure this is quite right. One of the most important passages to be addressed is a quotation from Epicurus’ On the telos, found at Plut. Non posse 1089D (Us. 68):

τὸ γὰρ εὐσταθὲς σαρκὸς κατάστημα καὶ τὸ περὶ ταύτης πιστὸν ἔλπισμα τὴν ἀκροτάτην χαρὰν καὶ βεβαιοτάτην ἔχειν τοῖς ἐπιλογίζεσθαι δυναμένοις.

For the well-settled state of the flesh and the trusted expectation of it povide the highest and most secure joy for those able to appraise it.

The most important point to note about this quotation for our present purposes is that joy is closely associated here with the capacity for some kind of calculation of reflection, that is with some kind of rational activity (described as epilogismos) which involves the proper assessment of one’s current and likely future well-being. [2] Joy, in other words, is produced only when one is able rationally to reflect on the well-settled state of one’s body or able to expect that well-settled state to continue in the future. Indeed, the Epicureans regularly remind us that the expectation that painlessness will persist can be a source of present pleasure and that the suspicion that it will not can cause present distress. Consider, for example, SV 33’s insistence that the present absence and expectation of future absence of hunger and the like the ‘cry of the body’. Similarly, doxographic sources regularly contrast the Epicureans and Cyrenaics in terms of the formers’ distinctive acceptance that memory and anticipation can produce pleasure (see e.g. DL 2.89). The conclusion that ‘joy’ is the product of rational activity and assessment is supported by the scholion to Ep. Hdt. 66 in which khara and phobos, fear, are assigned to the workings of the rational part of the soul located in the chest. Most crucially, they are said to be distinct from the pathē such as pleasure and pain. ‘Joy’, on this account, is produced by rational activity and like fear, but unlike the pathē, it will be corrigible. [3] One can be either correct or mistaken in the assessment of one’s current bodily state. It is likely, therefore, that if there is a contrast or distinction to be drawn between ‘joy’ and ‘katastematic pleasure’ then it is not a distinction that makes katastematic pleasure the intentional object of joy, but it is a distinction between different types or sources of pleasure. Joy, we might say, is a positive rational evaluation of one’s present or future state just as its counterpart, fear, is a negative rational evaluation of one’s likely future state. Fear is a kind of pain; so we can infer that joy is a kind of pleasure. But what really distinguishes joy is that it is brought about in a particular fashion. Joy, for example, is not a possible affection of non-rational creatures since they lack the psychic capacity required for the rational evaluation of their current state, let alone the consideration of their future state. But those non-rational creatures may nevertheless experience the pathos of pleasure, indeed the fact that they do so and that it encourages them to act in a particular way is part of Epicurus’ opening, ‘cradle’, argument for the idea that pleasure is the good.

[1] J. Purinton, ‘Epicurus on the telos’, Phronesis 38, 1993, 281–230.

[2] See M. Schofield, ‘Epilogismos: an appraisal’ in M. Frede and G. Striker eds. Rationality in Greek thought (Oxford, 1996).

[3] See D. Konstan, ‘Epicurean ‘passions’ and the good life’ in B. Reis ed. The virtuous life in Greek ethics (Cambridge, 2006).

Sunday, October 14, 2007


Our younger daughter turned 3 this week so we have had the regular influx of new toys. I'm still not quite sure where they are all going to go, but we'll squeeze them in somewhere, no doubt. Biggest and most impressive is a Playmobil castle with all the trimmings. Not quite my scene, but it's clearly going to be a big hit. But there are much more interesting Playmobil bits for the Classicist in your life. Like this excellent Cleopatra, for example, or this interesting orator complete with a list of useful Latin phrases.

Wednesday, October 10, 2007


I've mentioned the lovely people at Despair, inc. before. But here is one of their finest moments. I tried to get them to send me a t-shirt of it but it seems that you can't get them shipped to the UK. Damn. Not that they care; as their customer dissatisfaction slogan has it: 'We're not satisfied until you're not satisfied'.

Tuesday, October 09, 2007

How to annoy a Platonist...

I've been revisiting some ideas about Epicurean hedonism recently. In particular, I've begun to think again about the Epicurean idea that a state of painlessness is itself a pleasure, indeed the highest pleasure possible. It's an odd thought, and it has generally been subject to a great deal of scepticism. Rightly so, it seems to me now (although it's one of those questions on which I've wavered back and forth...) I'm beginning to think that Epicurus really should have read Aristotle on pleasure more carefully. Or perhaps he should have read Aristotle on pleasure full stop; it isn't so obvious that Epicurus had much of an idea of what is in what we have as the Nicomachean Ethics. Still, I reckon he'd have found a lot in there to his liking. In particular, he might have usefully adapted Aristotle's armoury of activities and changes (energeiai and kinêseis) for his own distinction between katastematic and kinetic pleasures. (I would like to think that perhaps he did try to do just that. Well, I've often wondered if the curious and obscure quotation from Epicurus' On choices at DL 10.136 might point to him doing just that:
“ἡ μὲν γὰρ ἀταραξία καὶ ἀπονία καταστηματικαί εἰσιν ἡδοναί· ἡ δὲ χαρὰ καὶ ἡ εὐφροσύνη κατὰ κίνησιν ἐνεργείᾳ βλέπονται.”

Unfortunately, the text is a bit wobbly and there are all sorts of tricky aspects of the syntax to work out: ἐνεργείᾳ or ἐνεργείαι, for example? Thats a job for another (rainy) day, perhaps.) But for now I thought I'd share one of my favourite bits of Epicurean provocation, which I remember once (I think genuinely) shocked one of my fellow graduate students. (That might be because he was of a Platonist sort of persuasion at the time...) Here goes:
I spit on the fine (τὸ καλόν) and those who vacantly gawp at it, whenever it produces no pleasure.
Quoted at Athenaeus 547a (Us. 512)

Terrific stuff.

Friday, October 05, 2007

Herding instincts

With the new influx of students, the town seems curiously full. Perhaps the impression is compounded by the herding instincts of particularly the new students. I imagine the thought guiding their group-bonding behaviour is that if you are ever more than a metre or so away from one of your newly-made friends you might (a) get lost, (b) be forgotten about, (c) spend your next three years at university lonely and unloved. This tends to calm down eventually, of course, but for now it is causing major problems with the traffic.

There have always been bad cyclists in Cambridge, but now they are supplemented by huge pelotons of students, trying to stick together and therefore heading to lectures riding three or more abreast down the street. Many of them haven't cycled regularly since they were young kids and don't yet have the traffic sense to get out of the way when required and speed up when necessary. (And lots of them don't know yet how to change gear with confidence so end up peddling furiously in a low gear but failing to make much progress down the road.)

The cycle herds are reinforced by flocks of pedestrians. This morning a bunch of ten or so decided that in order to get to a lecture on the Sidgwick site they were perfectly entitled to stand in the middle of the Queen's Road/Silver Street crossroads. Like a bunch of Buridan's asses they seemed caught between an urge to get to the other side and an equipollent urge to retreat to the curb. So they just stayed there, waiting for some brave soul to take on a leadership role and manage the crossing. I've seen this sort of behaviour on David Attenborough programmes, so it's comforting -- in a way -- to have such a graphic illustration of the fact that humans are, after all, social animals in much the way that wilderbeest are. Thankfully, Cambridge drivers are -- for now -- generally in a forgiving mood or the body count would be pretty horrific.

Wednesday, October 03, 2007


Hahaha. You have to say the 'v' as a 'w'...

But it's really there: http://la.wikipedia.org/wiki/Pagina_prima

Not quite up to the standard of the Private Eye degree citations, but close. Here's a good example:

Britannia Spears

Britannia Spears, dicta Britney Spears, est cantrix et saltatrix Americana. Nata est 2 Decembris 1981 in Silva Cantii (Anglice: Kentwood) in Ludoviciana. Musicam popularem canit. Anno 2004, Coemgeno Federline nupsit, et duos filios habent.


Britannia puella canere et saltare semper amabat. Anno 1991, cum annos novem haberet, ad Broadviam ivit ut "infrastudium" pro Laura Bella Bundy in fabula Immisericordis (Anglice: Ruthless) ageret. Postea, ab 1992 ad 1994, apparuit in Canale Disneyo cum Christina Aguilera et Iustino Timberlake in Sodalitate Mici Muris (Anglice: Mickey Mouse Club).

Hoc programmati primavera anni 1994 deleto, Britannia domi habitavit in Ludoviciana ut vitam puellae Americanam vulgaris habeat; revertit autem, post tres annos, ad mundum saltationis.

I especially like the idea of a 'vita puellae Americana vulgaris'...

Monday, October 01, 2007

Scarlet day

The new academic year has just begun and the weather has turned decidedly autumnal right on cue. I was feeling pretty lethargic last week and not at all looking forward to being pitched into the brief but very intense teaching term. But the city has been transformed over the weekend by the influx of new and returning students and there is a genuine buzz of excitement in the air. It's quite infectious, because for now at least I'm feeling quite positive about the term.

It might be because I was at the new undergraduates' matriculation dinner last night and it was hard not to be carried along by the mixture of pride, excitement and sheer terror that the new students are feeling at the thought of starting their degree courses. It's not so long ago -- I'd like to think -- that I was in a similar state myself. I seem to remember being particularly concerned about how to get the washing machines in the communal laundry to work; they were enormous great top-loading machines that had to be fed 50 pence pieces. They simply evened out the grime rather than properly washing things, so over the eight weeks your clothes became a uniform shade of grey. They would then emerge from the 20p guzzling 'driers' (enormous drums heated by alarming flames you could just glimpse if you peered round the back) slightly warm, damp, and grey...

But anyway, it's a very special time. In eight weeks or so we'll start interviewing for next year's intake, but for now we can concentrate on our current students and get them off to a good start in their first, or second, or whatever year.

This week is also a good time to be selling posters and toasters.