Monday, March 29, 2010

Faster, stronger, boulder

The Faculty of Classics has been undergoing a makeover. The 'foyer' area has been enlarged and some new offices created on the ground and first floors. Perhaps more importantly, the library is now bigger and there is at last some free shelf space for all the new books we are going to buy. And we have some rolling shelves for squashing epigraphers. (For the general idea see here.)

And outside between Classics and Fames (Fames! I'm gonna live forever! etc.) there is a new paved area with 'landscaping'. This involves a big (well, waist height) boulder and a standing monolith thing. (See blurry pic below. Click on it for a bigger but still blurry pic.) There's another one off picture to the right.) Bit of a challenge for the local yoot/skateboarders et al. But probably not a bad spot on a sunny day to sit down (probably on the boulder and not the monolith) and contemplate things academic.

Wednesday, March 24, 2010

Yet another reason to like Aristotle

I've been reading for a seminar next term and went back to NE 4.8. Here it is in W. D. Ross' translation. (There's an interesting discussion in S. Halliwell, 2008, Greek Laughter (Cambridge), 307–31.) What pleases me most is just the general point that Aristotle is sure that there is a kind of proper wit that will be displayed and enjoyed by a good person. I like that. Beats the idea that virtue is po-faced and serious. Of course, you can overdo the joking...
Since life includes rest as well as activity, and in this is included leisure and amusement, there seems here also to be a kind of intercourse which is tasteful; there is such a thing as saying- and again listening to- what one should and as one should. The kind of people one is speaking or listening to will also make a difference. Evidently here also there is both an excess and a deficiency as compared with the mean. Those who carry humour to excess are thought to be vulgar buffoons, striving after humour at all costs, and aiming rather at raising a laugh than at saying what is becoming and at avoiding pain to the object of their fun; while those who can neither make a joke themselves nor put up with those who do are thought to be boorish and unpolished. But those who joke in a tasteful way are called ready-witted, which implies a sort of readiness to turn this way and that; for such sallies are thought to be movements of the character, and as bodies are discriminated by their movements, so too are characters. The ridiculous side of things is not far to seek, however, and most people delight more than they should in amusement and in jestinly. and so even buffoons are called ready-witted because they are found attractive; but that they differ from the ready-witted man, and to no small extent, is clear from what has been said.

To the middle state belongs also tact; it is the mark of a tactful man to say and listen to such things as befit a good and well-bred man; for there are some things that it befits such a man to say and to hear by way of jest, and the well-bred man's jesting differs from that of a vulgar man, and the joking of an educated man from that of an uneducated. One may see this even from the old and the new comedies; to the authors of the former indecency of language was amusing, to those of the latter innuendo is more so; and these differ in no small degree in respect of propriety. Now should we define the man who jokes well by his saying what is not unbecoming to a well-bred man, or by his not giving pain, or even giving delight, to the hearer? Or is the latter definition, at any rate, itself indefinite, since different things are hateful or pleasant to different people? The kind of jokes he will listen to will be the same; for the kind he can put up with are also the kind he seems to make. There are, then, jokes he will not make; for the jest is a sort of abuse, and there are things that lawgivers forbid us to abuse; and they should, perhaps, have forbidden us even to make a jest of such. The refined and well-bred man, therefore, will be as we have described, being as it were a law to himself.

Such, then, is the man who observes the mean, whether he be called tactful or ready-witted. The buffoon, on the other hand, is the slave of his sense of humour, and spares neither himself nor others if he can raise a laugh, and says things none of which a man of refinement would say, and to some of which he would not even listen. The boor, again, is useless for such social intercourse; for he contributes nothing and finds fault with everything. But relaxation and amusement are thought to be a necessary element in life.

Sunday, March 21, 2010

Hedonism in Würzburg

Conference, 15-17 April, details here.

Here's the flyer, which has a picture of my favourite Boscoreale cup with a little pig on it.

Tuesday, March 16, 2010

Adv Col

I'm going to Lyon next month for this (click on the pic for a nice big version). I like the gladiators; they strike an appropriately combative tone. (I mean for the text; I'm sure we contributors will all get along fine.) There's a little more info here.

Sunday, March 14, 2010

Feet on the ground

It's Cambridge's Science Festival, which is always great for the kids. While wandering about the various things yesterday, I saw for the first time the Anthony Gormley sculpture installed outside the McDonald Institute. Here it is. And here is some blurb telling you about it.

Thursday, March 11, 2010

Plutarch, Cons. ad uxorem 610D

Here is an interesting argument pointed out to me by Roy Sorensen, who is working on some ‘symmetry arguments’ about death and the comparison between pre-natal and post mortem times.

Plutarch, Consolation to his wife, 610D:
πειρῶ δὲ τῇ ἐπινοίᾳ μεταφέρουσα σεαυτὴν ἀποκαθιστάναι πολλάκις εἰς ἐκεῖνον τὸν χρόνον, ἐν ᾧ μηδέπω τοῦ παιδίου τούτου γεγονότος μηδὲν ἔγκλημα πρὸς τὴν τύχην εἴχομεν, εἶτα τὸν νῦν καιρὸν τοῦτον ἐκείνῳ συνάπτειν, ὡς ὁμοίων πάλιν τῶν περὶ ἡμᾶς γεγονότων. ἐπεὶ τὴν γένεσιν, ὦ γύναι, τοῦ τέκνου δυσχεραίνειν δόξομεν ἀμεμπτότερα ποιοῦντες αὑτοῖς τὰ πρὶν ἐκείνην γενέσθαι πράγματα.

Try to transport yourself in thought and stand often in the time when this child was not yet born. Then we had no complaint against fortune. Then compare the present circumstance with that: how our affairs have again become like those then. My dear, we will seem to be complaining about the child’s birth by making things before she was born less difficult than these.
This is a kind of symmetry argument aimed to show that grief at a child’s death might be tempered by considering the time before the child was born and comparing it with the present time after the child’s death.

We begin with this question: Was the time before the child was born a time when we might have a complaint against fortune? (I suppose the point is: Was it reasonable for us to complain against fortune that we were childless before the child was born?)

If we say no, then the argument continues that our current state – childlessness – is much the same as it was then. And so we should similarly have no complaint against fate.

The obvious retort is that this is crazy. Of course the time now is not like the time before the child was born because we have now lost a child. Something good has been taken away. The time now is worse than the time before she was born, even though in both we were childless.

But if we say that we are now in a worse position than we were before the child was born then it seems that we are regretting the child’s birth. Things were better before we had a child.

But again, this is weak. Yes, things might have been better before we had a child but that is because the child has died. Things were better still when the child was alive and well.

But then we have a choice, as Plutarch goes on to show in the subsequent text. Is it better to have had a child and now be bereaved or never to have had a child at all? If the latter, then we do in effect say that we have been harmed by having the child. And that is surely wrong. If the former, then we should take consolation from this and recognise that our current pain is more than outweighed by the good that the child’s life brought.

Saturday, March 06, 2010

Most pointless reference to ancient philosophy of the day award...

... goes to Jacques Peretti's article in today's Grauniad guide (yes, I did buy the paper again, but I promise it was only for the mini tv listings thing that fits nicely in the spot next to our telly). He writes, on the question whether video games are any good or not:
I kicked off with a philosopher called Ren Reynolds, who says that the attitude of the gaming technophobe/snob (that's me) versus the gaming world and its believers (that's you) really has its roots in a fundamental disagreement between Plato and Aristotle. Plato believed games were frivolous and merely shadows on the cave wall: they were a distraction from reality. Aristotle, on the other hand, believed games were deadly serious, and their playing taught us important lessons about real life. Ren said that if Plato was around today, he'd be railing against the internet, while Aristotle would have his own Facebook page.
Thanks for that. Spot the daft reference to the cave simile in Republic VII combined with something from the Woefully short introduction to some stuff about Plato and that mixed in with something about that painting, you know, where one bloke points up and the other points down so they, like, disagree about the real world and stuff. Good grief. (Actually, Aristotle does have a facebook page. But so does Plato. To be honest, I don't think it's really them.)

For what it's worth. Just imagine how much fun Socrates would have had with Chatroulette. Almost as much fun as these people.

Wednesday, March 03, 2010

Ethics, ancient ethics, religion, etc.

Here is a piece by Lord Sacks, from the Times of 27 February. The article concludes like this:
Nowadays the very concept of personal ethics has become problematic in one domain after another. Why shouldn’t a businessman or banker pay himself the highest salary he can get away with? Why shouldn’t teenagers treat sex as a game so long as they take proper precautions? Why shouldn’t the media be sensationalist if that sells papers, programmes and films? Why should we treat life as sacred if abortion and euthanasia are what people want? Even Bernard Williams came to call morality a “peculiar institution”. Things that once made sense — duty, obligation, self-restraint, the distinction between what we desire to do and what we ought to do — to many people now make no sense at all.

This does not mean that people are less ethical than they were, but it does mean that we have adopted an entirely different ethical system from the one people used to have. What we have today is not the religious ethic of Judaism and Christianity but the civic ethic of the Ancient Greeks. For the Greeks, the political was all. What you did in your private life was up to you. Sexual life was the pursuit of desire. Abortion and euthanasia were freely practised. The Greeks produced much of the greatest art and architecture, philosophy and drama, the world has ever known. What they did not produce was a society capable of surviving.

The Athens of Socrates and Plato was glorious, but extraordinarily short-lived. By now, by contrast, Christianity has survived for two millennia, Judaism for four. The Judaeo-Christian ethic is not the only way of being moral; but it is the only system that has endured. If we lose the Judaeo-Christian ethic, we will lose the greatest system ever devised for building a society on personal virtue and covenantal responsibility, on righteousness and humility, forgiveness and love.
This seems to me to offer a peculiar view of classical ethics and the classical world generally. Is the claim really that Athens did not last very long because it did not have an appropriate (i.e. Judaeo-Christian) ethic? Hmmm. How long did Rome last? It was not 'extraordinarily' short-lived. And if we can say (pretty conservatively) that Greek and Roman antiquity lasted from, say, the 6th c. BC to the 4th c. AD then it made it through a millennium. The survival of a society or of a religion for that matter seems to me not to be entirely dictated by that society or religion's 'correctness' in terms of its ethical views. Lots of other things might well be important.

And it's pretty odd to claim that the 'Athens of Plato' (not sure what that is; the Athens of the time when Plato lived?) did not have some purchase on personal virtue, responsibility, forgiveness, and love. Humility? Perhaps not. But I'm not convinced that it is a particularly positive thing of itself anyhow. And do we really now find ourselves in a situation where we have adopted the civic ethics of Athens? I don't think so. Of course matters of political and civic value have pride of place in the media and in political discourse. But there is no reason to think on that basis that the notions of personal responsibility, inter-personal relationships, integrity, sincerity and the like have no place at all in our modern lives, just as there is no reason to think that they had no place in antiquity. Nor do I think that the notions that we have of those important ethical concerns necessarily derive from a Judaeo-Christian background.

But here is perhaps the more important point. It's not particularly helpful to look back to Plato, say, as if he stands as some kind of clear and straightforward 'non-religious' model for ethical thinking. We might well want to point out important distinctions between Judaeo-Christian religion and Platonic theology but it is clear that in many ways Plato's conception of value and of a good human life is dependent upon a rich notion of the divine. The same goes, with some further differences, for Aristotle too. (Perhaps the Epicureans might be the kind of people Lord Sacks could really get angry with. but lets leave those aside for now.) We can perhaps take eudaimonism as an interesting framework but eudaimonism as such seems to me to be compatible with religious and non-religious views, so far as I understand that contrast. So it is not a straightforward choice between 'secular' Greek ethics based on personal desires, well-being and the like and a 'religious' ethics based on duty, humility and the like.

We shouldn't treat the history of ethics in so simple a manner because it will make the important discussions about the future of our ethical lives more impoverished. (Similar thoughts occurred to me some time ago when this blog hosted an interesting debate about ID and ancient philosophy. The posts are here, here, and here.)

Tuesday, March 02, 2010

Philodemus on Death

I've just received my copy of W. Benjamin Henry's edition and translation of Philodemus On Death. It looks extremely useful. I'm always impressed by the amount of work that goes in to producing an edition of this sort and by anyone who is able to make good sense of the scrappy papyrus remains. I hope it encourages more good work, philosophical work in particular, on this text.

You can order the book via Amazon (click on the image) or directly - and more cheaply - from the Society of Biblical Literature (link here).