Thursday, May 31, 2007
Monday, May 28, 2007
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
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
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
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?
Monday, May 14, 2007
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
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
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
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:
καὶ τῷ μὲν ἄφρονι τὸ ζῆν λυσιτελὲς εἶναι, τῷ δὲ φρονίμῳ ἀδιάφορον.
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 ζωὴν καὶ τὸν θάνατον αἱρετόν.
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.