Thursday, September 30, 2010

On power ballads

Yesterday, discussion in college turned to power ballads.  These are generally easy to recognise and perhaps best exemplified by this classic (Tyler 1982):

We were wondering what the defining characteristics of this type are but found it difficult to come up with a set of necessary and sufficient conditions. Most display one or more of the following characteristics:
  • A quiet, perhaps slow, start that leads into a loud chorus section.
  • A solo of some kind - usually either on lead electric guitar or saxophone.
  • The song must express some kind of deep emotion.  Many are plangent in some way, referring to stories of heartbreak, loss, or sorrow.  Many express regret or longing.
  • There is usually a stirring key change late in the song.
  • The singer must deliver the song earnestly and with a barely-perceptible crack in the voice every so often in order to demonstrate the depth of feeling involved.
There are clear rules for the videos of any such power ballad.  If located indoors, they have to involve billowing curtains, preferably in a large and empty house.  It must be night-time.  And there must be a lot of candles.  If located outside, again night-time is the default option.  There should be a wide open space for the singer to occupy, lit by flaming torches or burning vehicles.  There will in both cases be the occasional close-up of the singer, perhaps in slow motion, as he/she closes his/her eyes and turns away in deep but barely expressed emotional turmoil.  Many examples are used in film soundtracks and therefore clips from the film may be interspersed throughout the video.

On reflection, I wondered what became of this genre.  What was the last power ballad (not a cover version or a remix) to be in the 'hit parade'?  Answers on a postcard to...

Wednesday, September 29, 2010

Charging and paying for it

Here is a good argument to show why it is important to charge for philosophical discussions and also also important to pay for a bit of philosophical teaching.  Antiphon attacks Socrates with this dilemma (Xen. Mem. 1.16.11-12, Marchant's translation):
πάλιν δέ ποτε ὁ Ἀντιφῶν διαλεγόμενος τῷ Σωκράτει εἶπεν: ὦ Σώκρατες, ἐγώ τοί σε δίκαιον μὲν νομίζω, σοφὸν δὲ οὐδ᾽ ὁπωστιοῦν: δοκεῖς δέ μοι καὶ αὐτὸς τοῦτο γιγνώσκειν: οὐδένα γοῦν τῆς συνουσίας ἀργύριον πράττῃ. καίτοι τό γε ἱμάτιον ἢ τὴν οἰκίαν ἢ ἄλλο τι ὧν κέκτησαι νομίζων ἀργυρίου ἄξιον εἶναι οὐδενὶ ἂν μὴ ὅτι προῖκα δοίης, ἀλλ᾽ οὐδ᾽ ἔλαττον τῆς ἀξίας λαβών. [12] δῆλον δὴ ὅτι εἰ καὶ τὴν συνουσίαν ᾤου τινὸς ἀξίαν εἶναι, καὶ ταύτης ἂν οὐκ ἔλαττον τῆς ἀξίας ἀργύριον ἐπράττου. δίκαιος μὲν οὖν ἂν εἴης, ὅτι οὐκ ἐξαπατᾷς ἐπὶ πλεονεξίᾳ, σοφὸς δὲ οὐκ ἄν, μηδενός γε ἄξια ἐπιστάμενος.

“Socrates, I for my part believe you to be a just, but by no means a wise man. And I think you realise it yourself. Anyhow, you decline to take money for your society. Yet if you believed your cloak or house or anything you possess to be worth money, you would not part with it for nothing or even for less than its value. Clearly, then, if you set any value on your society, you would insist on getting the proper price for that too. It may well be that you are a just man because you do not cheat people through avarice; but wise you cannot be, since your knowledge is not worth anything.”
If Socrates is honest then since he does not charge for a chat  it must be that he does not consider his conversation to be worth anything. But in that case, if Socrates is honest then he cannot be wise. If he is wise and his conversation is worth something, then he is not honest because he does not charge for it. Socrates is therefore either wise or honest, but cannot be both.

Someone dishing out a bit of philosophy for free is either an idiot or is dishonest. And you wouldn't want to learn philosophy from an idiot. And it's unsettling to learn it from someone who is dishonest about its value.  (Socrates replies in 1.16.13 that just as there are right and wrong ways to go about bestowing beauty, so too there are honourable and shameful ways to dish out wisdom.  It's pretty seedy to sell one's beauty even if its rightly thought to be something valuable; so too it's a dirty business to sell wisdom.)

Friday, September 24, 2010

Don't think too much...

I cam across this, quoted in Christopher Hamilton's book Middle Age.  It's from the 'Lord Chandos letter' (1902) by Hugo von Hofmannsthal (full text here; some info here).  I wondered if it might also describe the possible effects of having an overly critical approach to ethical notions -- just imagine what it would really be like to have a sceptical view about the truth of common ethical judgements and then not be able to leave it at the door when listening to everyday chat...
Gradually, however, these attacks of anguish spread like a corroding rust. Even in familiar and humdrum conversation all the opinions which are generally expressed with ease and sleep-walking assurance became so doubtful that I had to cease altogether taking part in such talk. It filled me with an in­explicable anger, which I could conceal only with effort, to hear such things as: This affair has turned out well or ill for this or that person; Sheriff N. is a bad, Parson T. a good man; Farmer M. is to be pitied, his sons are wasters; another is to be envied because his daughters are thrifty; one family is rising in the world, another is on the downward path. All this seemed as indemonstrable, as mendacious and hollow as could be. My mind compelled me to view all things occurring in such conversations from an uncanny closeness. As once, through a magnifying glass, I had seen a piece of skin on my little finger look like a field full of holes and furrows, so I now perceived human beings and their actions. I no longer suc­ceeded in comprehending them with the simplifying eye of habit. For me everything disintegrated into parts, those parts again into parts; no longer would anything let itself be en­compassed by one idea. Single words floated round me; they congealed into eyes which stared at me and into which I was forced to stare back-whirlpools which gave me vertigo and, reeling incessantly, led into the void.

Tuesday, September 21, 2010


Lots of people paint views of Cambridge.  I like this one a lot, in part because it is not of the usual suspects.  And because I cycle along this street nearly every day.

Image (c) Monika Umba

It's by Monika Umba, and you can see some more of her work on her website here.  We're lucky to have some of her paintings at home: two decorative pieces and a lovely picture of the North Brink in Wisbech that I got as a birthday present.

Friday, September 17, 2010

Warburton v. Ladyman

... on Radio 4's Today this morning.  (The BBC website has a longer account of Warburton's position here.)  'Philosophy bites' is a good thing, but I am not convinced that academic philosophers have an obligation to engage the wider public in all that they do. Nor is it true that all philosophy can be made accessible.  Nor am I convinced that 'the core' of philosophy is  'how we live: moral questions, political questions'.  So a score-draw, I reckon.

Thursday, September 16, 2010


It feels properly autumnal now and today was more or less the last day of the summer 'research period' I can call my own.  Tomorrow is a college Open Day, next week I have some interviews to do and then the Southern Association for Ancient Philosophy meeting.  After that, we are into the preterminal week.

Still, I've been plugging on with a paper on 'Comparing lives in Laws V' and making a bit of progress.  I'm going backwards now through the text trying to track discussions of self-control and akolasia for the next section.  Fortunately, we'll be reading book two in the Thursday seminar next term so I will have some time to mull over that section properly.  No doubt I will have some more questions about it, though, and they may find themselves posted here.

The new Cambridge diary is here and filling up...  So the madness is about to begin.  (Yes, I know it only lasts for nine weeks or so but it feels much longer, I promise...)

Thursday, September 09, 2010


The Open University is advertising for a Chair in Classical Studies.  Details here.  Note the emphasis in the advertisement on reception studies, couched in the horrid second-person address that these ads sometimes use:
You will be a leader in research who can build on the Department’s achievements in reception studies and develop research into the bond between the study of the ancient world and the creation of knowledge and culture in recent and contemporary societies.

Tuesday, September 07, 2010

A balanced life

I’m looking at bit of Laws V where there is an argument for the choiceworthiness of a virtuous life on the grounds that it is more pleasant than a vicious life. As part of that argument the Athenian distinguishes three kinds of life: one with large and intense pleasures and pains (call this a Calliclean life) one with mild pleasures and pains (call this a ‘quiet’ life) and a third, what the Athenian calls a ‘balanced’ or isorropos life: 733c-d. This is the bit I’m interested in right now:

ἐν ᾧ δ’ αὖ βίῳ ἰσορροπεῖ, καθάπερ ἐν τοῖς πρόσθεν δεῖ διανοεῖσθαι• τὸν ἰσόρροπον βίον ὡς τῶν μὲν ὑπερβαλλόντων τῷ φίλῳ ἡμῖν βουλόμεθα, τῶν δ’ αὖ τοῖς ἐχθροῖς οὐ βουλόμεθα.

As is the case for the other two kinds, of such ‘balanced’ lives we prefer those in which what is dear to us predominates and not those in which what is harmful to us predominates. It is often thought that this is a life that is balanced in the sense that neither pleasures nor pains predominate. But Saunders argues that this cannot be correct since the Athenian is quite prepared to identify preferences even within this category of life between such lives in which what is ‘dear to us’ predominates and those in which ‘what is hostile’ to us predominates. Rather, on his view a ‘balanced’ life is one in which it is neither the case that both pleasures and pains and numerous, intense, and large, nor that both are few, mild, and small [1]. Another advantage of this interpretation is that it the Athenian to give an exhaustive classification: a life will either be a ‘Calliclean’ life, or a ‘quiet’ life, or it will be a balanced life, this latter being understood simply as a life that is of neither of the two first kinds. On Saunders’ view, it seems that most lives will in fact turn out to be ‘balanced’ in this way since in most lives it will be the case that some pleasures and some pains are mild, some intense, some large and some small.

I like this reading but I am wrestling with two worries about it. I wonder if anyone can help.

[A] On Saunders’ reading, such a life is balanced because it falls between two extremes. But in his comments it is not clear whether this does in fact allow a range of lives that will count as balanced in this way and make or whether it denotes a particular life ‘half-way’ between the other two kinds that will allow there to be other lives that a not ‘balanced’ but nevertheless also fail to be one of these extreme kinds. He writes: ‘The equal-balanced life must then be that life which is equal- or well-balanced in the sense that it is balanced equidistant from two polar states: it does not topple over either to emotional extremes (life A [= my ‘Calliclean life’]) or to near ἀπάθεια (life B [= my ‘quiet life’).’ Here the notion of being ‘equidistant’ suggests a rather specific hedonic profile. However, in the very next sentence, he adds: ‘The feelings of a man who lives a βίος ἰσόρροπος are moderate (cf. 728e), but obviously this moderation does not prevent them from varying in number and intensity etc. over a limited range; and it is in this limited range that there is scope for pleasures to outweigh pains and vice versa.’ So there is some degree of variation allowed within the set of balanced lives.

[B] Saunders assumes that when in 733d1 the Athenian describes us distinguishing between balanced lives on the basis the preponderance of ‘what is dear to us’ and ‘things that are hostile to us’, he is referring respectively to pleasures and pains. This is perhaps a reasonable assumption given the general thrust of this passage and the careful exposition of basic hedonic preferences so far. However, I wonder whether it is right. Just a little later, at 733e1, the Athenian appears to distinguish between what is dear to us (to philon) and what is pleasant (to hēdu). This is rather important since, if balanced lives  are distinguished by some other criterion than their pleasantness, then we are once again at liberty to understand the balance in question as indeed an equivalence between the pleasures and pains in such a life.

[1] Saunders, T. J. 1972. Notes on the Laws of Plato. BICS supplement 28, University of London Institute of Classical Studies, 25-7.

Wednesday, September 01, 2010

Under the helmet

Does it really matter who 'is' The Stig?  No.  No more than it matters that we know who 'is' Batman in the latest film.  Sure, the guy concerned wants to make a bit of money with his book (and some lawyers have made plenty of money from the case) but I really don't think that anyone who watched and enjoyed Top Gear, and enjoyed the teasing references to the mysterious bloke who never spoke and never took off his helmet, was particularly interested in genuinely finding out the secret identity behind the character.

Because that is what The Stig is: a character.  A role.  I was perfectly happy to think that it was a whole series of different people.  In fact, I probably assumed it was just because that would have been more convenient.  Less helpful for the comparative assessment of different cars round the same track, but that was hardly a scientific experiment anyway.

So, Ben Collins can write his book and I hope the BBC will just continue with another new Stig.  He can regenerate like the Doctor, perhaps.  But I can't help feeling a little bit patronized by the coverage.  As if we didn't all know that there was a jobbing former racing driver in the costume...