Wednesday, June 25, 2008


I've just picked up a copy of the Bompiani re-issue of Ettore Bignone's L'Aristotele perduto e la formazione filosofica di Epicuro. I read it last when writing my PhD but reckon it's now worth revisiting, particularly in the light of some recent work on, for example, Aristotle's Protrepticus. You never know, it might even spark some more useful thought on something that has been bothering me for a while: the brief quotation from Epicurus' On choices at DL 10.136 (= Us. 2) ...
“ἡ μὲν γὰρ ἀταραξία καὶ ἀπονία καταστηματικαί εἰσιν ἡδοναί• ἡ δὲ χαρὰ καὶ ἡ εὐφροσύνη κατὰ κίνησιν ἐνεργείᾳ βλέπονται.”
(The text itself is disputable, but this is a reasonable stab at what it might have been. It's what Marcovich has, though that might not be thought evidence either way. You might read ἐνεργείαι instead of ἐνεργείᾳ, if you like.)

Anyway, I think it would be a bit odd if this had nothing to do with Aristotle. The other thing buzzing round my head at the moment is Burnyeat's proposal (in the latest OSAPh) about the role of the kinēsis / energeia distinction in Aristotle's works and, in particular, its place in NE 10. It must be right that part of what NE 10 wants to do is respond to a Platonic presumption that pleasure is a kind of incomplete process. And that is, obviously, something which Epicurus would be interested in too. I'm not sure yet whether these various bits and pieces will eventually fit together, but we'll see.

And good on Bompiani again for reissuing Bignone. They're doing some useful things. How about a reiusse of Giannantoni's I Cirenaici?

Friday, June 20, 2008

Pleasures and pains of philosophy

There's a recognised difficulty concerning Socrates' account of the pleasures of the philosophical life in Republic IX. The argument around 585 seems most plausible if its aim is to show that the process of satisfying an intellectual need by adding to the immortal soul knowledge of eternal, true, and unchanging Forms, is exquisitely pleasant. It is less plausible as an argument that the possession of philosophical truths is a consistently and long-lasting pleasant state.

If so, however, Socrates may have shown that becoming a philosopher ruler involves these supreme pleasures. He does not show that living as a philosophical ruler also does. Indeed, since this knowledge is not of a sort that would need ever to be re-learned, as it were, these pleasures, however good they are, appear to be a once-in-a-lifetime offer. [1]

Is this a problem? I'm not sure. Perhaps a life which as a whole contains such pleasures at some point in its duration, whatever the later hedonic state of the person, will always as a whole be preferable on hedonic grounds, to a life without such pleasure. Still, we can wonder what the affective life of a philosopher ruler would be like. We are told that in his harmonious soul even the pleasures of the appetite and spirit will be the best they can be (586e4ff.) but what about intellectual pleasures?

I'm not at all sure. I suppose even a philosopher ruler might have new things to learn if his hobbies should turn to a bit of mathematics just to fill in the off-duty hours. And perhaps the active recall and deployment of knowledge has its own pleasures. I can't see that the Republic says very much about this. Socrates is more forthcoming, however, about the discomfort that intellectual achievement involves and it seems to me that there is a very interesting story to be told about Plato's account of the affective aspect of philosophical learning. Certainly, it is disconcerting, even painful, to be made to re-evaluate previously-held opinions and perhaps even to discard wholesale one's general grasp of the world. And it is fairly clear that whatever the other details, a philosopher ruler will only achieve this exalted state after a lengthy and gruelling educational process which involves a dizzying re-consideration of the nature of reality, values, wisdom, expertise, authority, and all manner of other topics the grasp of which informs our everyday business. That is surely part of the message of the Cave analogy which, among other things, emphasises the pain of the ascent.

Socrates repeatedly notes the pain and discomfort felt by the man on his way up out of the cave as the new bright light and the journey take their toll (ἀλγοῖ 518c8; ἀλγεῖν 515e1; ὀδυνᾶσθαι 515e7). (Note also the reference to the philosopher’s ‘birth pangs’ as he struggles to grasp each thing’s nature (490a–b). Once he has achieved the goal of his intellectual desire he then would understand and truly live and be nourished and, in this way, be relieved of his pain’ (γνοίη τε καὶ ἀληθῶς ζῴη καὶ τρέφοιτο καὶ οὕτω λήγοι ὠδῖνος 490b6–7).

Is this consistent with saying that even the process of learning philosophical truths is exquisitely pleasant? Perhaps. Socrates might wish to distinguish between two processes: one painful and the other pleasant. The pain is caused by the sudden realisation of prior ignorance or misapprehension, the sudden recognition of a previously unnoticed lack (much as in many of the ‘early’ dialogues Socrates’ interlocutors voice annoyance and anger at being reduced to aporia). Certainly, there is evidence from other dialogues that the conscious feeling of pain might be linked by Plato not merely to a lack, but to a perceived lack. Not everyone who does not understand higher geometry is concerned by this absence; someone who recognised the lack and, more important, saw that the possession of what is missing would be beneficial, certainly might be so pained. A philosopher, after all, is someone who loves wisdom, desires it and so on. Becoming a philosopher involves recognising what one lacks, valuing it, and striving to possess it.

[1] See e.g. Gosling and Taylor, The Greeks on pleasure, 1982, 122–3.

Sunday, June 15, 2008

Suicide Sunday

That's the charming name of today in Cambridge: the Sunday immediately prior to May Week (in June, yes...) I suppose the title has something to do with the fact that the examination results will begin to be published in earnest next week. It also might have something to do with the fact that many of our fine students will probably feel like death before the end of the day.

That is because Suicide Sunday is a day packed full of garden parties (mostly involving drinking), punting parties (with drinking), breakfast parties (drinking) and the like. Many of the college 'sporting' (i.e. drinking) societies [1] will be holding garden parties today and a lot of students will more or less be doing a tour of these fine events, beginning around 10am and seeing how far through the day they can last. Addenbroke's Accident and Emergency department must love it.

The best advice is, unfortunately, to avoid central Cambridge from midday at the very latest. It is fortunately easy, however, to spot any potential revellers. The uniform, in force for at least the last 15 years is, for men, the following:

Blazer (perhaps a little soiled), shirt (at least one button undone), 'society' tie, shorts (kakhi and knee length), deck shoes or flip-flops, bottle of vodka, sunglasses.

The uniform for women is less strict, but is usually a dress which would not allow the lady concerned into the Royal Enclosure at Ascot.

In part, much of this is youthful exuberance and, for the most part, the students have been working long and hard for their recent exams. But I have in the past ventured out on this day and not enjoyed having to avoid large groups of wobbling students attempting to fill up at Sainsbury's. And there was a very unfortunate occasion when my parents came up to take me out to lunch and take home some of my stuff when we were treated, sitting at the Anchor, to an impromptu display of naked bridge jumping into the Cam... The chaps were terribly polite as they got out, but it was certainly enough to put you off your Ploughman's...

[1] The Facebook page for the relevant group from my own college is here. Just for information...

Monday, June 09, 2008

God and pain - again

I've gone back to thinking about a passage in Sextus Empiricus M 9.162ff. in which Sextus asserts that if god is wise (has phronesis) then he is virtuous; and if he is virtuous he must know what sort of things goods, bads, and indifferents are (it's an anti-Stoic argument in origin) and therefore he must know what pain is like by nature. But he cannot know this without experiencing pain (no one who has not suffered gout can know what it is like to suffer gout; gout sufferers offer very different explanations of what it is like etc.) and therefore if god is wise he is corruptible. (Some of my earlier thought on this are here and here. I've probably changed my mind a bit now.)

I'm still wondering what the argument can tell us about Sextus' conception of the privacy of pain (not much, I think, but it does suggest that he would not reach for the sort of explanations of the privacy of pain which occur very readily to modern philosophers of mind and that itself might be interesting). But I'm also wondering about the legacy of this argument in later theology. It's clear that there are arguments over the possible compatibility of omniscience and other sorts of perfection. For example, we might compare this thought with a concern raised by Richard Francks, which he relates to a demand to ascribe to god omniscience ‘in a strong sense’:

‘My knee hurts, and I am aware of the fact. If a perfect physiologist examined my knee he would know it too. But there is a difference between my awareness and his. What kind of difference? I do not know anything which he does not know. On the contrary, he knows much more about my pain than I do-'I only know it hurts'. I do not even want to say that I know it better than he does. And, provided he is giving me his full attention, I do not want to say either that I am better aware of my pain than he is. ut there is still a difference between me and him: we know what we know in completely different ways. We might say: we know the same thing from different points of view. The question then is: is it enough for God to be the perfect physiologist, or must he somehow 'feel my pain'? I think he must, because if not, then there is something which I know and he does not, viz. not my pain, but my view of my pain. Of course, God 'knows just how I feel', but that phrase is no more comfort here than elsewhere: his knowledge remains theoretical, derived, whereas mine is perceptual, immediate. Mine is not therefore better, but it is different. If God's knowledge of my pain is only that of the perfect physiologist, then I have an awareness, a perspective, which God lacks. And that contradicts the spirit of the first requirement.’ [1]

Franck’s reaction to the argument, as far as I understand it, is that god’s omniscience can be preserved by god’s immanent omnipresence: god does have my perspective on my pain because he is ‘in me’ and therefore can know it as I can, ‘from the inside’ as it were. (I wonder what a Stoic would make of that.) I have also found some other discussions of problems raised by the tension between divine omniscience and experiential knowledge, particularly of pain, in Sarot 1992, 70–77. [2]

My question, though, is whether the Carneadean (probably) argument in Sextus is behind more recent discussions. I haven't seen it referred to anywhere. It might, perhaps, have come through the Latin tradition but the closest we get to this particular argument in Cicero Nat. deorum is, I think, (i) the argument from Carneades at 3.32ff. in which he argues that every living thing which perceives must also perceive pleasure and pain and therefore be liable to perishing and (ii) the argument at 3.38 which tries to show that god has no need of the virtue of prudence (prudentia, which must correspond to phronesis in Sextus' version) since he can experience nothing evil. (ii) is, clearly, the analogue of Sextus' argument but in Cicero it is extremely compressed and is different insofar as it turns on god's having no need of practical wisdom rather than on god's being incapable of having practical wisdom.

[1] Francks, R. 1979. ‘Omniscience, omnipotence, and pantheism’. Philosophy 54: 395–9, at 396.

[2] Sarot, M. 1992. God, passibility and corporeality. Leuven

Tuesday, June 03, 2008

Two things

First, Jelly off of StoryMakers and SpringWatch has a blog. It's good.

And second, here's Bonnie Tyler. All together now.. '(Turn around!) Every now and then...'

Pleasure again

Over at Smooth Motions, I've been joining in their interesting discussion of the Epicurean analysis of pleasure. There are also some interesting questions about the relative strengths of translations of Epicurean texts.

Monday, June 02, 2008


Sorry for the thin posting recently. Today is a brief bit of breathing space in-between last week's May Week seminar on Aristotle De anima 1 (on which below) and the serious business of marking end of year exams. We do the latter in quite a rush so that all the results can be out and agreed by the beginning of July. And since in Classics we still manage double blind-marking it makes the whole process rather intense. Still, I'd rather be marking them than taking them. But all the same, spare me a thought this weekend as I collapse under a pile of scripts...

Last week's seminar was really good. I don't think I'd sat and read DA 1 carefully through as a unit before and it is surprising what it looks like if you do. By the end of the week, I think it's fair to say that there were lots of unanswered questions. For example, isn't it a bit odd for a work On the soul which says it deals with the various views of Aristotle's predecessors not once to mention the Phaedo? We wondered whether that dialogue might be at the back of A.'s mind here and there (and must surely be part of the background of the refutations of the harmonia-theory) but it gets no direct and clear treatment on its own. Did Aristotle think it was not a work of natural philosophy of the soul in the right manner?

Besides generating perplexity, the week was as usual an excellent chance for us on the home team to benefit from having a number of visitors come along and share their thoughts. They are usually much better prepared and informed about the text than we are but I hope they get something out of it as well.

And I've found something that should help out with the post-marking evenings. I've given up trying to compete with my family's scores at Wii bowling (for which my three year-old appears to have some uncanny talent) and have instead discovered this. (Note that the video contains 'Cartoon violence' and 'Comic mischief'. This is not a joke... The website explains: 'Cartoon Violence - Violent actions involving cartoon-like situations and characters. May include violence where a character is unharmed after the action has been inflicted; Comic Mischief - Depictions or dialogue involving slapstick or suggestive humor' . Good grief.)