Monday, November 26, 2007

Charity has its limits

Oh dear. Kenodoxia has now been cited in Mary Beard's 'Don's diary' (in the latest Cam magazine) as a vaguely scholarly trip along the by-ways of ancient philosophy. I have a sneaking feeling I haven't been very scholarly lately, nor very philosophical. But here's a gesture in that direction.

What's the worst argument to be found in an ancient philosophical text? I mean the argument that is the most obviously fallacious or otherwise glaringly misguided? Now, the Principle of Charity often leads us in the business to try to do the best for whatever apparently ghastly bit of reasoning we might find. (Think, for example, of the 'Argument from opposites' in Plato's Phaedo: 'being dead' and 'being alive' are opposites in the required sense, are they Socrates?)

But I can't do very much for the following:
'If you are light, pain, I can bear you; if I cannot bear you, you are short.'

levis es si ferre possum; brevis es si ferre non possum.

Sen. Ep. Mor. 24.14
This is meant to persuade us that intense pain does not last. It's not just Seneca who peddles this rubbish, though: he probably caught it from an Epicurean (see Epic. Ep. Men. 133; KD 4; SV 4; Diog. Oin. fr. 42 Smith; also Cic. Tusc. 2.44.) But Seneca is daft enough to repeat it, even thanking nature for making it so (Ep. Mor. 78.7). If it's an argument at all and not just a daftly optimistic assertion, then it must mean something like this:
If pain is intolerable then it will kill you; it will not last. If pain lasts then it must therefore be tolerable.
This is of course true only in a very special and literal sense of 'intolerable'. I doubt anyone will be much relieved when they turn to a doctor and complain of excruciating agony if the doctor turns round and says: 'Well, it hasn't killed you. So it must be tolerable. Luck you.' Anyone persuaded by this not to worry about pain is an idiot or (and?) already, like Seneca, a Stoic...

Any arguments worse than this?

Why kids are great

Despite getting us all up at 5.30 for the last three days, daughter #2 managed to cheer us up by provoking the following conversation over breakfast:

Daughter #2: 'Will you come to explore a volcano with me?' (Daughter #2 is wearing a bike-helmet to eat her breakfast. In fact, she has been wearing it all weekend since seeing Dr Iain Stewart's new BBC2 series and people abseiling into a crater to look at moltem lava.)

Daughter #1: 'Sorry, no. It's a school day today.'

Wednesday, November 21, 2007

So, this is what it's all for?

A report in yesterday's Guardian tells me that philosophy graduates are much more popular with prospective employers than perhaps they used to be. Certainly there are many more of them (in 2006 more than twice as many people graduated with a degree in philosophy than in 2001) and they are finding work in some interesting places.

Good for them. But I couldn't help feeling a little deflated by the following:
Fiona Czerniawska, director of the Management Consultancies Association's think tank, says: "A philosophy degree has trained the individual's brain and given them the ability to provide management-consulting firms with the sort of skills that they require and clients demand. These skills can include the ability to be very analytical, provide clear and innovative thinking, and question assumptions."
I would have hoped that all university degrees offer that kind of education. For my part, I don't think that what I am doing when I teach is fit someone out with the kind of skills that management consulting firms demand. And it somehow bores me to hear once again the reduction of philosophy to some kind of 'brain-training' and the provision of a set of transferable analytic skills. But perhaps the increased employability of a philosophy degree will attract some good students who might otherwise have been put off and, if things go well, perhaps they will in the course of their studies read and think about something which lets them imagine doing something interesting afterwards.

Tuesday, November 20, 2007

More free stuff...

Thanks to Harry who commented on a previous post, I found the Internet Archive. Not only does it hold lots of interesting music, but plenty of free pdfs of books -- with no problems this time with access from the UK and so no need for proxies.

I now have a nice pdf of Mutschmann's edition of Sextus Empiricus PH and also Oliveri's editions of Philodemus On the good king... and On frank speech.

Friday, November 16, 2007

I missed out...

Yesterday was UNESCO World Philosophy Day. Julian Baggini, on the Guardian website, is not sure whether to celebrate. I had no such troubles, mainly because -- I confess -- I didn't know anything about it. From my perspective at least, yesterday was not particularly philosophical. No more than most other days, in any case. But at least I'm not too late for the 2007 World Philosophy Day activities in Instanbul, on November 21-23. There's a programme here.

This is what the DG of UNESCO thinks it is all about:
To give greater depth to political, philosophical and intercultural dialogue and to mutual understanding of shared memories and values, ambitions and joint projects admittedly requires an updated chart of lines of convergence and divergence, of the differences, silences, misunderstandings and deadlocks that are always possible. The purpose of this Day is therefore to set out the conditions for such a universal dialogue by opening up to the diversity of interlocutors, and of philosophical currents and traditions, in an endeavour to take stock, to provide a perspective on the world and to engage in a critical rereading of our concepts and way of thinking.
Admirable aims, I suppose, albeit with a whiff of hand-waving generality...

Tuesday, November 13, 2007

De morte

Was the first century BC, the years 55-c.40 BC in particular, a boom period for thanatology? I have been looking at some works of that period and I am beginning to compile a relatively long list of works we either have in total or in part or else can be confident belonged to that period:
  1. Lucretius, De rerum natura, book 3, lines 830-end
  2. Cicero, Tusculan disputations, book 1 (Cicero also wrote a Consolatio just before Tusc. His daughter, Tullia, died early in 45 BC.)
  3. Philodemus, On death
  4. L. Varius Rufus, On death (a poem; fragments survive)
  5. And, perhaps: Pseudo-Platonic Axiochus
This may not be a tremendously long list, but in terms of ancient works which survive or are known and considering the relatively close date of at least 1-4, I reckon this looks like a period of particular interest in such matters. If so, why?

Perhaps the most plausible explanation is that it is the result of a growing Roman interest in Epicureanism, the philosophy which emphasised most strongly the importance of getting right about the fear of death. Also, items 1, 3, and 4 were perhaps composed by people who were acquaintances or perhaps more loosely associated. This is therefore perhaps the result of a particular group's interest in this question. And, I imagine we should not discount the possibility that the turbulent times leading up to and after Caesar's assassination, the ongoing upheavals and -- no doubt -- deaths, might have encouraged this kind of reflection. We ought not to over-emphasise this last point, I suppose, since people die all the time and the Romans can't be said to have lived an entirely trouble-free kind of existence before the mid-first century BC. All the same, a number of these works either explicitly mention or can be plausibly linked to political concerns.

Am I missing any items from the list? And is there any other comparable period of activity? Is it that this looks to be unusual simply because we happen to know a bit about the works from this very well-documented period?

Monday, November 12, 2007


You can listen here to Alain De Botton discussing what philosophy is. One claim that emerges in the interview struck me as interesting. Is it really the case that philosophers are often bad writers? Is it a shame that Kant is such a bad writer given that Plato started so well? (By which I mean both: Is it true that Kant is a bad writer? and Is it a shame that Kant writes so differently from Plato?)

Sunday, November 11, 2007

Christmas list

Item no. 1 on my list is the new shirt from the good people at Philosophy Football... It commemorates the famous Monty Python joke, YouTubed below. One minor blemish is that the shirt prints 'Empedocles of Acraga' rather than 'Acragas'. The Pythons had on their teamsheet, since the final was being played in Munich, 'Empedocles von Acraga' so it was an easy slip. I'd still wear it, though, particularly since the right team won. (Sophocles at right-back is a bit of a surprise, now I think about it. I think I'd have put Melissus in -- no one gets past an Eleatic.)

Wednesday, November 07, 2007

Free stuff

Even better than cheap reprinted books are free books. Google Books, for example, will allow you to download Diels' Doxographi Graeci in PDF form for free... There are lots of other goodies there too, including the 1903 edition of Diels' Fragmente der Vorsokratiker... Well, you can get these if you are in the US. Those of us in the UK can't. If you hide your IP address you can get to the page only by getting there via a proxy site, and even then the PDF won't download properly. Shucks.

Reprinting is good

Recently, my life has been much improved by publishers reprinting or re-issuing some otherwise hard to find things. First, Cambridge University Press have begun paperbacking some important things that were otherwise out of print or very expensive. Favourite so far is:

But perhaps even better than that is a series from the Italian publisher Bompiani. They have now released versions of Usener's Epicurea, Von Armim's Stoicorum Veterum Fragmenta and, more recently, Luria's edition of the fragments of Democritus. Each volume include a copy of the original publication with facing Italian translation. In the case of Luria, this includes an Italian translation of the original Russian commentary which, up to now, has been a complete mystery to me. Good on you, Bompiani! Best of all, they're cheap.

Friday, November 02, 2007

Is poikilia the spice of life?

Some more on Epicurean pleasure. How can the Epicureans persuade us to think that painlessness is itself a pleasure, let alone the greatest pleasure? Torquatus’ attempt to answer the question in Cicero Fin. 2 is brief but important. He reminds Cicero of the Epicurean notion that katastematic pleasure cannot be increased but merely varied (variari) (2.10); the painless state admits of pleasant variation. This variation, somehow, is meant to smooth the acceptance of e.g. the absence of thirst as a genuine form of pleasure. Of course, Cicero will have none of this and offers yet another dilemma – the problem which seems to me to be a genuine and serious one for Epicureanism. Although Torquatus mentioned this variation only briefly, at Fin. 1.38, Cicero has remembered his Epicureanism well enough to be able to point out something which Torquatus has not stressed, namely that this variation is distinct from painlessness and in no way increases the pleasure of painlessness (see KD 18, which is very explicit about this). The painlessness is itself supposed to be the greatest pleasure so Cicero assumes that the variation is a ‘sweet motion on the senses’ (dulcis motus sensibus) and that it is another aspect of kinetic pleasure: it is what happens when someone drinks although they are not thirsty. Cicero does not care to insist on any distinction between the pleasures of drinking when thirsty and the variation of pleasure in drinking when not thirsty. Modern commentators tend to worry about whether either or both are genuine Epicurean kinetic pleasures, but for Cicero both are clear enough cases of sensory motions. And that is all he needs for his argument.

It is worth pausing for a moment to consider what, precisely, this ‘variation’ might be. The precise nature of this variety or complexity of pleasures once painlessness is reached is not always considered in any detail. But there are two distinct possibilities. First, the variety might be a phenomenological variety – a heterogeneity sometimes stressed as an interesting characteristic of pleasures generally. Alternatively, this variety may lie in the different causes of painlessness. [1] Cicero appears to support the latter view at Fin. 2.10: voluptas etiam varia dici solet cum percipitur e multis dissimilibus rebus (‘Pleasure is usually said to be varied when it is perceived from many unlike things’). But again, it is important to bear in mind that this is Cicero’s own attempt to understand what he says is an obscurity in Epicureanism on the basis of the ‘natural’ understanding of the Latin varietas. Torquatus’ initial introduction of the idea at Fin. 1.38 appears to contrast the differentiation of pleasures ‘by variation’ from the differentiation of pleasures in terms size or magnitude (‘ut postea variari voluptas distinguique possit, augeri amplificarique non possit.’), a contrast which might well point in the direction of qualitative variety. For what it is worth, a first look at the uses of ποίκιλημα and ποικίλος in Philodemus and Epicurus – words cognate with the term for variation used in KD 18 – suggests that it is linked primarily with notions of complexity or qualitative variety as in, for example, the great variety of directions of atomic movement. [2]

Yet another twist, suggested to me this week by Philip Hardie is that the Epicurean stance on variatio is perhaps inspired in contrast with a common literary conceit that variety and complexity in a text or in the language used in a text are prime methods of increasing the audience’s pleasure. I found, for example, Dion. Hal. Comp. 11 and 19 from the first century BC but it might well be a much earlier idea also.

[1] For this view, see Bailey ad KD 18.

[2] See Usener’s Glossarium Epicureum s.vv. Note also Plut. Non posse 1088C.