Sunday, December 18, 2011

Media stuff

Here's are the two first salvos in my vain attempt to become the Professor Brian Cox of ancient philosophy:

An In Our Time episode on Heraclitus here.

And an interview for Peter Adamson's History of Philosophy with no Gaps on Epicureanism.

Coming soon: a 12 part TV series in HD on early Milesian cosmology...

Friday, December 16, 2011

Christmas music

There are some good Christmassy songs. I like the sad ones. Some of them are good bad songs. Like this one (it's a bit quiet, but it's important that you watch the excellent video):

And then there are some good good songs. Here is Galaxie 500 singing about snow.

Saturday, December 10, 2011


I spent yesterday down at KCL for a day seminar on death organised by the Philosophy and Medicine project.  I had only to talk for a few minutes to introduce the Epicurean arguments against death being a harm, but I think it was of some interest.  But for me the highlights were listening to some of the medical practitioners there who had some profound and humane things to say about the end of people's lives - times that are often distressing, painful, unwanted, and difficult.  To spend time and to dedicate yourself to the care of people at the end of their lives, and then to be able to reflect critically and with humour and sensitivity about the proper demands of such circumstances seemed to me to be extremely impressive.  The discussion then ranged across law, anaesthetics (something I had thought very little about), literature, general practice, and palliative care, as well as philosophy.

I had some indirect experience recently of how the NHS might medicalise the end of someone's life and it did seem to me that it is something that needs attention.  Perhaps, as someone remarked yesterday, doctors have reluctantly and without all the necessary preparation assumed a role as the closest attenders of the dying that used to be filled by priests or by a more extended family.  It was sometimes difficult to turn attention away from tests and treatments and pain regimes and focus on the profound truth of someone ending a life.  But I think it can be done.

Monday, December 05, 2011

Hot topics

The Leiter blog would like to know what the 'hot topics' are in Greek and Roman philosophy these days.  Are there any?  If you have any ideas you can tell everyone about them here.

Sunday, November 27, 2011

Coming to terms

This will be the last week of the Michaelmas term.  It is always very busy.  In addition to the usual week's teaching (lectures, supervisions, MPhil seminar, research seminar, B Club) and meetings (College executive body) in our wisdom we choose this as the week for the first examiners' meeting of the year to prepare for the Tripos exams in the summer and also the submission of the first MPhil essays for marking.  It is also the week to meet and talk to all my philosophy students in Corpus and my tutees, to go over the term and set work for the vacation.

It is also the week before the admissions interviews for next year's undergraduates begin.  That means that there is no slack whatsoever for things to spill over into the next week because we will be busy making decisions and interviewing candidates.

This term has been particularly punishing.  I've taken on more teaching than I should and lost a few days to an -- excellent, it has to be said -- conference in the middle.

But more than that, I have been struggling day by day since my Mum died in October.  The funeral was difficult, of course, but that was an acute sadness.  Worse than that is the fact that there has been a constant feeling of sheer exhaustion dogging me ever since we heard she was ill in September.  Perhaps I should have stopped and taken some time off.  But, strangely, I have felt better at work than at home, talking to people who aren't my family about things not to do with my family, and thinking about things that are more disconnected from the loss.  The weekends are the hardest.  And now Christmas...  I'm not the most festive of people in any case, but I really don't want Christmas this year.  It will be strange, no doubt, and sad for us all.  As will every birthday without her, and every new year, and every milestone her grand-daughters pass.  We'll all stick together and we'll get through it.  But the mince pies don't seem very appetising right now.

Monday, November 21, 2011

Cicero, De Finibus 2.105

Here’s the relevant bit: 
quid, si etiam iucunda memoria est praeteritorum malorum? ut proverbia non nulla veriora sint quam vestra dogmata. vulgo enim dicitur: 'Iucundi acti labores', nec male Euripides— concludam, si potero, Latine; Graecum enim hunc versum nostis omnes—: 'Suavis laborum est praeteritorum memoria.'
 Rackham translates:
What if the memory of past evils be actually pleasant? Proving certain proverbs truer than the tenets of your school. There is a popular saying to the effect that ‘Toil is pleasant when ‘tis over’; and Euripides well writes (I will attempt a verse translation; the Greek line is known to you all): 'Sweet is the memory of sorrows past'. 
 Cicero is criticising the Epicureans’ insistence that memory of past psychic pleasures can counteract present physical pains. He notes that not everything that was painful in the past is painful to remember. He translates a line from Euripides (taken usually to be 133 Nauck 2nd edition). The Greek, found at Arist. Rhet. 1370b4 and at Plut. Quaest. Conv. 630E is: ἀλλ’ ἡδύ τοι σωθέντα μεμνῆσθαι πόνων. 

Anyway, I was checking what some commentators say about this. Madvig says (I think; the pdf is a bit blurry): 

nosti omnes Cicero dixit, oblitus videtur, quot sermoni interesse finxisset; nam ut intellegatur: vos omnes Epicurei, quemadmodum Gaius [sic?] volt, fieri non potest, quom, cur illi versum esse sententiae plane contrarium praeter ceteros memoria retinerent, nulla caussa fuerit.’ (This is the from the 1839 edition I found on the internets; I have checked later editions.) 

It seems to me that Cicero could mean ‘all you Epicureans know the line’. If he does, then he poses a dilemma: either they remember the line but seem to have ignored the sentiment or they do not remember the line, in which case their powers of and control over their memory leaves something to be desired. It might also be interesting to wonder whether Cicero has quite remembered the line himself: the σωθέντα in Aristotle’s quotations does not appear in his version. Perhaps he’s being super clever and anyone who does remember the Euripides line in the original will also note that Cicero’s memory is less than accurate here.

Friday, November 18, 2011

Corbett Lecture 2011

Yesterday was the Faculty's annual Corbett lecture.  This year's speaker was Julia Annas, and her lecture was: 'Changing from within: Plato's later political thinking'.  You should be able to listen to it here and download a handout here.

Friday, November 11, 2011

Keeling over

I was at the UCL Keeling colloquium at the beginning of the week.  It was an excellent conference and it made me think about what makes a conference good.  I think there are various possibilities, and they aren't by any means all related to the excellence of the content of the papers or talks being presented.  I certainly don't like conferences that are too big.  I like to think that I've spoken to or met everyone there, more or less, by the end.  That way it feels like a properly shared social enterprise.  And I don't like conferences that are too long.  Three days is plenty, usually, because any less isn't really long enough to feel properly immersed and much longer is too exhausting if you're thinking hard.

In the end, my thoughts about good conferences came down on other characteristics that are important to a gathering's success.  It's important to have time outside the formal bits to chat, make friends, gossip about jobs and the like (lots of all of those at the Keeling) and, perhaps most of all, to make the job a more interpersonal one.  Fortunately, my field is small enough that over time we do mostly get to meet each other properly.  And it seems to me important to remember that, alongside all the high-minded stuff about pursuing the truth and the importance of following an argument wherever it leads, it's important to remember that the article you're reading and criticising what written by a person, after all.  And putting faces and voices and personalities to the names in journals and on book-shelves is rather useful too.  We can still engage critically and robustly with one another's work, of course, but writing that footnote that begins 'Pace X...' or 'As X mistakenly claims...' feels very different once you've had dinner with X and talked about his or her kids or shared a joke.

Wednesday, November 02, 2011

CFP: Truth, falsehood, and deception in ancient philosophy

Here is a call for papers for a conference in Cambridge next spring.  It is organised and run by some of our excellent graduate students and will be the second such event.

20th-21st April, 2012

The history of logic, philosophy of language, ethics and metaphysics are suffused with the themes of truth, falsehood and deception. We welcome work focusing on said issues, broadly construed. Papers may focus on particular thinkers, individual texts, or broader traditions from the pre-Socratics up to and including Philoponus. Diachronic studies are also welcome. The conference is aimed at advanced graduate students and junior researchers (those who are within 3 years of their PhD). We invite abstracts of up to 500 words (for papers of up to 3500 words). Depending on the quality of submissions, we aim to allow for 6-8 papers. Each paper will be followed by a brief response. To submit a paper, please send an electronic abstract of 500 words to the committee by 5th January 2012. Notification will be made by 27th January. Abstracts should be in .pdf format, and prepared for blind review. Please include a one-word pseudonym (such as your mother's maiden name) in the file name of your .pdf. Please email submissions and questions to Matthew Duncombe. The conference is kindly supported by the University of Cambridge, Faculty of Classics.

More information can be found here.

Monday, October 31, 2011

Movember 2011

I shall not be repeating my brave 'tache-growing exploits this November.  In part, this is because I have to give a paper next week and I don't think the audience would appreciate being presented with a nine-day old fuzzy upper lip.  But it is still a good idea and a good cause.  If you fancy donating, perhaps donating again this year, then you can do so here.

Tuesday, October 25, 2011


I've been asked to write a (very) brief foreword to a new edition of Guthrie's The Greek Philosophers.  I should confess I hadn't really spent much time with the book before but I'm enjoying reading through it now.  It certainly rattles along.  And he is a wonderfully opinionated writer.  I like (but don't really approve of) his dislike of Parmenides and 'tiresome' Eleatic logic and some of the comments here and there are also good fun.  Here he is rejecting the idea that Anaxagoras' Nous might be material.  After all, doesn't he call it 'katharos' and 'leptos'?
‘In reply to this it is surely pertinent to ask what other epithets were available to the poor man?  It is a clear case of thought having outrun the resources of language.’ (55 n.1)
Other things are more jarring, however.  Guthrie regularly resorts to explaining deficiencies or oddities in the early philosophers by pointing out that the poor chaps were still too close to 'primitive' magical or superstitious ideas.
 ‘One idea which the Greeks at this stage found it difficult to absorb was that a word might have more than one meaning. Their difficulty no doubt had something to do with the proximity of the primitive magical stage at which a word and its object formed a single unity’ (47). 
Worse, he sometimes supports this by noting that anthropologists have found similar notions in modern 'savages'....)  For example, when wondering about Anaximander and the implication that according to him the whole cosmos is alive, Guthrie comments that this is a notion ‘to which anthropologists have found parallels among savage people all over the world’ (30–31).  Oh dear.

Monday, October 17, 2011


No posts for a bit.

ἡδὺ πανταχόθεν ἡ φίλου μνήμη τεθνηκότος.

Friday, October 07, 2011

Rude health

Leiter comments on the strength of ancient philosophy in the US here.  I'm not sure we can say the same thing about the UK, unfortunately, perhaps as a result of a decline in publicly-funded graduate places and also as part of a more general slide.  But I'd need to think about that.  

I also wondered about Leiter's comment:
It's an interesting question when the profession will come to realize that the kind of revolution in scholarship on ancient philosophy wrought by Owen and Vlastos fifty years ago has been going on in scholarship on 19th-century European philosophy for a generation now, and that the fruitful philosophical connections with many areas of contemporary interest are at least as plentiful there.
It's undeniable that Owen and Vlastos made a difference to the way ancient philosophy was perceived by philosophers and to the way it was done.  Does anyone think they still have a strong direct influence on the work being done now or are we already two generations on?

Thursday, October 06, 2011

Lectures, day 1

The Cambridge peloton was much worse than this this morning, mostly because of an influx of students who don't really know where they are going and haven't ridden a bike since they were nine.

Monday, October 03, 2011

At the deep end

We start term a bit later than most UK universities, and the term only lasts for a full eight weeks of lecturing, but once it starts it gets going very quickly.  Yesterday, the new first years arrived at the college and within two hours were all gowned up and photographed.  Three hours later they were in the hall having a formal matriculation dinner (with pudding in kilner jars...  yum).

And this morning they have to run around sorting out all they need to get going with work tomorrow.  So we don't really do 'freshers' week'.  Or, if we do, we pack it into two days.  It's all a bit manic and I really don't know how anyone gets through it intact.  But perhaps because there really is no time for anyone to sit in a corner of an unfamiliar room and get lonely most people do fine.

As for me, I've seen about half my tutees, my philosophy students get going tomorrow, and the MPhil seminar begins on Wednesday.

So, I've mostly been fielding emails for the last week.  And haven't had much time for my own research.  But I've been thinking quite a lot about Philebus 41e-42d.  It all seems very complicated or perhaps I've just confused myself about something that is much more straightforward than I think.  But I have signed up to do a little talk at a new discussion group with some of the college's other fellows; we realised that we spend a lot of time together, mostly arguing in meetings about the cost of various things, but don't really have much of an idea what the others get up to in the secrecy of their own office or lab.  I'm going to introduce the argument against weakness of will at the end of the Protagoras, with marshmallows.  It's not quantum physics (that's slated for next term) but it's a start.

Friday, September 23, 2011

2011 Keeling Colloquium

Here is the programme:

The 9th S.V. Keeling Colloquium in Ancient Philosophy 
November 7-9, 2011, University College London 
‘Moral Psychology in Ancient Thought’ 

Department of Greek and Latin, UCL, Room 106, Gordon House, 29 Gordon Square, London WC1H 0PP 

Monday 7th November

1.30-3.15 Jessica Moss (Oxford), ‘Bare Urges and Good-Independent Desires: Appetites in Republic IV’; Matthew Evans (Michigan), ‘The Blind Desires of Republic IV’
3.15-3.45, Tea and coffee
3.45-5.00 MM McCabe (KCL), response to Moss and Evans, and question time
Session Chair: Fiona Leigh (UCL)
5-7 pm Reception, Seminar Room, First Floor, Department of Philosophy, UCL, ALL WELCOME

Tuesday 8th November

10.30-11am, Tea and Coffee,
11-12 noon, Rachel Barney (Toronto), ‘Virtue, Intellectualism, and the Method of Hypothesis’
12-1pm, Terry Irwin (Oxford), Response to Barney and question time
Session Chair: Jenny Bryan (UCL)
1-2.15pm, lunch break
2.15-3.15pm, James Warren (Cambridge), ‘Memory, Anticipation, Pleasure’
3.15-4.15pm, Anthony Price (Birkbeck), Response to Warren and question time
Session Chair: Peter Adamson (KCL)

Wednesday 9th November

10.30-11am, Tea and Coffee
11-12 noon, Raphael Woolf (KCL), ‘Courage and Pleasure in Aristotle's Ethics’
12-1pm, Sarah Broadie (St. Andrews), Response to Woolf and question time
Session Chair: Gail Fine (Cornell & Oxford)
1-2.15pm, lunch break
2.15-3.15pm, Daniel Russell (Arizona), ‘Two Mistakes about Stoic Ethics’
3.15-4.15pm, David Sedley (Cambridge), Response to Russell and question time
Session Chair: Fiona Leigh (UCL)

Attendance is free and all are welcome, especially students; registration is not required. Any queries to be directed to the convenor, Fiona Leigh, Philosophy, UCL.

Wednesday, September 21, 2011

False fear

And someone often pictures himself losing a large amount of money and experiencing many pains as a result. And also he contemplates himself in this internal picture taking particular pain in the situation. (After Plato, Philebus 40a9–12). 
I’ve wondered before whether there can be false pains. And it seems to me that Plato would think that there can be, even though he is more regularly noted as holding the view that there are false pleasures. In the Philebus, Socrates makes ‘hope’ one of two species of anticipation. In 32b9–c2 Socrates asserts that the anticipation (prosdokēma) in the soul alone of a pathos of pleasure is itself pleasant and that the anticipation of something frightening and painful is itself distressing. The most reasonable way to read this and the examples that follow, it seems to me, is that in Socrates’ view hope is an expectation of a future pleasure and therefore itself pleasant, while fear is an expectation of a future pain and is therefore itself painful. 

Further, it is clear from 36c10–11 (cf. 40e2–4) that Socrates thinks there can be true and false fears, alongside true and false opinions and anticipations (prosdokiai: this latter may here be being used for what he earlier classified as hopes, which alongside fears are one of the two species of anticipations, or else is just standing for the whole class). We can therefore infer that there are false pains of anticipation as well as false pleasures, although it is only the pleasures that Socrates wants to examine in depth as part of his account of a good life. 

So I wonder whether Socrates would think it better to have true or false pains of anticipation in one’s life. Here we come across the familiar problem of deciding just what is false about the false pleasures of anticipation he does consider, whether what is false is that the hoped-for event (getting lots of money) does not in fact occur or whether when it occurs it is not enjoyed as it was expected to be. Leaving that unresolved, we can wonder about false fears: Is it better to take pain in the expectation of things that either do not occur as expected or are not as painful as expected (false pains of anticipation)? Or is it better to take pains in the expectations of things that do occur as expected or are as painful as expected (true pains of anticipation)? I think it is clear that, of the two, the second would be preferable for Socrates, even if he would prefer not to have any pains of anticipation at all even to this option. Why? I suppose because the true pains of anticipation are experienced by someone who (depending on the preferred interpretation of the cause of the falsehood) either is capable of predicting accurately what painful things will occur (he can accurately predict losing his money) or is capable of predicting accurately what things that will occur will be painful (he can accurately predict that losing his money will be painful).

What's more, I suppose that the very same capacity or trait of character that is responsible for an agent being free from the mistake that generates false pleasures of anticipation will make the same agent free from the mistake that generates false pains of anticipation.  When this person takes pleasure in anticipating some future experience, we can be sure that that future experience will be pleasant as anticipated.  And when this person is pained in anticipating some future experience, we can be sure likewise that that future experience will be painful as anticipated.

Sunday, September 18, 2011

Lost in translation

I've just had the exciting news that a collection I wrote a piece for has now been translated into Portugese by a Brazilian publisher.  What's more fun is that I wrote in English and the piece was first kindly translated by one of the editors into French. And I suppose it's that French version that has now been translated again.  I hope I've got better with each new version.  Here's the new volume.  Click to go to the site:

And here's the French version (a bargain).  Click the link below or go to the PUF site here:

Tuesday, September 13, 2011


I've been reading a bit about the Stanford Marshmallow Experiment.  Here is a little video of some children thinking about temporal neutrality and the bias to the nearer future.  Or just about marshmallows.

What's particularly interesting is how results from these experiments correlate with results of tests on the same individuals up to forty years later. Here are some relevant papers (paper one (pdf), paper two).

Tuesday, September 06, 2011

Setting up

I have bought a new PC.  For some reason I hang on to my computers for longer than I should and by the end the poor things are coughing and wheezing away, gummed up with 7 years of updates and really not up to the stuff they are trying to do.  But now I have a young new eager PC.

Anyway, it was much less grim a process setting up the new machine.  (Dropbox makes a lot of it easier, although Thunderbird seems not to want to let you configure a mail account manually until you ask nicely and it tries and fails to search automatically.)  I also got hold of a new copy of Office 2010 for a bargain price from these people: very quick and very nice they were too.

Right.  Bring on the new term.

Wednesday, August 31, 2011

Deadline day

At 11pm BST the football transfer deadline is reached and there will be no more buying and selling players in the Premiership or Football League until the turn of the year.  You can follow all the 'excitement' on sites like this one.  So, while I am supposed to be doing something else, I wondered whether it would be a good idea to run academic appointments in the same way.  Reports of the form: 'Just spotted: Dr X currently of University Y arriving at University Z for a final lecture presentation test...'  'University P is happy to let unsettled lecturer Q go provided it can lure Dr R as a replacement...'  I think it would be quite fun.  We'd probably all have to hire academic agents to get on the phone and tout us around (or pretend to tout us around in order to arrange a better deal where we are) and it might be a bit stressful to go home and announce that I've been moved to a university the other side of the country and need to be fit to give a first lecture next Saturday, but it might be worth a try...

Regrets.... I've had a few

Here is a very interesting paper by Dan Moller on 'Anticipated emotions and emotional valence' (Philosophers' Imprint 11, 9 (July 2011)'.  It's interesting to me because I am (still) wondering about the treatment of anticipation and memory in Plato, especially in the Philebus and it made me wonder what Plato might have to say about the experience of, say, regret.  In particular, I wonder whether he would welcome Dan's useful distinction between the feeling of regret and the associated sensations it provokes.  I doubt it.  Or he would perhaps claim that even absent pain and the like, the thought that one has made a mistake of the sort it is reasonable to think an object of regret is itself bad and to be avoided.  Why?  Perhaps it is just bad to be the kind of person who does such things. Perhaps regret is a sign that one is not the kind of virtuous agent one would like to be.  (I guess he would allow even a virtuous to live with 'pro tanto' regret: the thought that even the right decision had certain negative consequences.)

By the way, what is the ancient Greek for ‘regret’? I’ve done a quick search on μεταγιγνώσκω and related forms and it doesn’t quite capture it. Later, μετάγνοια/η does mean ‘remorse’ or ‘repentance’ but in classical texts I’m not sure the verb often means more than ‘change one’s mind about’ in a way that may or may well not also suggest an accompanying affective response (see e.g. Pl. Phaedr. 231a4).  Perhaps μεταμέλεια is the better bet (as in e.g. Arist. NE 1110b19...)

Anyway, on the subject of regret:

Wednesday, August 17, 2011

Damascian sarcasm?

I've just found this comment in Damascius' lectures on Plato's Philebus §171.  Damascius is listing the various possible forms of false pleasures.  After those experienced by people in dreams or by the insane he gives this example:
ἀπὸ τῶν ἐν ἐλπίσι κεναῖς· ὃ καὶ οἱ πεπαιδευμένοι πάσχουσιν ἀρίστας πολιτείας ὑπογράφοντες καὶ ταύταις μὴ παρούσαις ἐφηδόμενοι.

Next: those that come from empty hopes.  This is what educated types experience when they sketch out ideal constitutions and take pleasure in them although they are not real.
Westerink's note assures the reader that Damascius certainly cannot have been making a sarcastic remark about Plato himself, who may, we can suppose, have taken a certain amount of pleasure in thinking about ideal yet unrealised constitutions.  Instead, Westerink sees a reference to some otherwise unknown contemporaries of Damascius.  I don't know enough about Damascius to judge his sense of humour (I suspect he may not have had one) but I like the comment all the same.

Monday, August 15, 2011

Middle age

Here is Miranda Sawyer on being middle-aged and perhaps thinking about having a crisis about it.

I think there are two kinds of problem here and they are sometimes conflated.  That's not such a bad problem because they are also clearly related to one another.  Let's call them:

1.  The problem of lost youth


2. The anxiety of comfort

Grand names for pretty mundane things, but they are, I think, distinct.  The problem of lost youth arises when you realise that you are not the young thing you once were.  This means not only that you have to accept that a lot of things you once might have thought were aimed at you (fashion, new technology, music) are not in fact aimed at you but also, perhaps more frightening, that you are now more like your parents were when you were a striving and objecting youth than the current striving and objecting youth.  (Spending my life teaching and talking to people aged 18-25ish makes me sometimes forget this fact but sometimes it reminds me of it starkly and violently.  Also, as my own kids grow up I think I will be more comfortable in the thought of not being a young thing myself.)  In part, this problem is also to do with a loss of possibilities.  I won't now ever be an Olympic athlete or professional footballer.  I won't ever be the charismatic guitarist in a challenging but popular new band.  (These weren't ever genuine possibilities, but now they are definitively ruled out not only by my sheer age but also because I don't think I'd want them any more.  The loss of those desires is something that is itself a little sad.)  Anyway, wrapped up in the problem of lost youth is a connected bundle of thoughts about loss of vigour, or sexual potency, of potential and of energy.

The anxiety of comfort, on the other hand, is a feeling you get when you realise at some point in your life that you have a job, a family, a house (and mortgage or rent) a car to tax and MOT etc.  These often impinge on my thinking in the guise of problems and difficulties but they also stand together as a reminder that I have already acquired and achieved various things.  I don't think any more about what it will be like to have a place of my own for the first time.  I don't aspire to the various things that I already have achieved.  True, we can replace these with other things to aspire to (a better job, a bigger house) in a never ending chain.  And such desires might well keep away for a while the anxiety of comfort by replacing it with a different kind of unfulfillable need.  But this is only ever temporary.  No.  The problem here (and it might be odd to think of it as a problem, but I reckon it is) is that at a certain point at least in the West and in certain parts of Western societies we really do have more or less all that we ever really wanted and more than we ever really need.  We can retain ambitions and hopes but, materially, all is well.  You can go and buy a sports car for weekends and jeopardise your comfort in various ways, but all in all, things are pretty good.  I think this is itself a cause of anxiety since I at least am not very good at appreciating what is excellent about comfort.  I tend to find it dull, boring, routine.  The thought that I might be doing for the rest of my professional life more or less what I do now is strangely irritating.  But why?  I quite like it.  It's what I spent years trying to do...  Some people, eh?

Anyway, that's what I think is the problem.  The two are related because part of what we miss in youth is the very precariousness and uncertainty that is gone.  And it is removed by the attainment of those very things that generate the irritating comfort.  

In other news, here's a greeting from the excellent 'someecards'

Tuesday, August 09, 2011

New essays on ancient Pyrrhonism

Brill have published (or perhaps are just about to publish) a volume of essays on ancient Pyrrhonism (click on the pic for details).  I wrote one of the essays.  It's, as usual, a pricey volume (€97.00/$133.00) but you might be lucky enough to be able to get online access to pdfs of it all via this site.  I tried to log in using my Cambridge Raven account but it doesn't seem to work.  Other people might have more success.  I haven't read all the other contributions yet.

1. Introduction Diego E. Machuca
2. A Pyrrhonian Plato? Again on Sextus on Aenesidemus on Plato
Mauro Bonazzi
4. The Cyrenaics versus the Pyrrhonists on Knowledge of Appearances
Tim O’Keefe
5. What God Didn’t Know (Sextus Empiricus AM IX 162–6)
James Warren
6. Skepticism and Everyday Life
Filip Grgić
7. Sextus Empiricus on Skeptical Piety
Harald Thorsrud
8. Sextus Empiricus’ Style of Writing
Stéphane Marchand
9. Moderate Ethical Realism in Sextus’ Against the Ethicists?
Diego E. Machuca
10. Is the Pyrrhonist an Internalist?
Otávio Bueno

Thursday, August 04, 2011

Purely belter

We were discussing at lunch whether there have been any really good football films.  Escape to Victory?  Surely not.  Anyway, here was my suggestion: Purely Belter.  Perhaps it works because it doesn't make the mistake of including choreographed football in it, but it's still a football film without doubt.

Here is the trailer:

And here is the bit where they steal Alan Shearer's car.

Wednesday, August 03, 2011

A request

In a couple of weeks it will be time for the A level results (well, A2 results, I suppose).  There's been an unusual amount of real news recently so perhaps we will be spared the usual nonsense, but I would like you to send me any links to articles about the following:
  1. How terrible it is that so many students now get the top grades and how this shows that standards are slipping.
  2. How terrible it is that so many students who get the top grades did not get offers for undergraduate courses at Cambridge or Oxford.
It would be best of all if these two points were made in the same article or, failing that, the same edition of a paper.  But I'll take any examples of either.

And, as ever, do also look out for the classic photo op of (mostly girls) students 'leaping' with joy on receiving their results.  (Best illustrated here; it has already started.)  No doubt people at the Torygraph are praying for hot weather to last until the middle of the month.

Monday, August 01, 2011

Summer summer summertime (summertime)

Unlike the vast majority of jobbing classicists, I didn't go to the Cambridge Triennial last week.  I went here instead and had a lot of fun doing random things like clay pigeon shooting.  It's an interesting thought to wonder what the introduction of shot guns would have done to improve the Triennial... 

But now I'm back at the desk and face the familiar summer chores.  We need to prepare for incoming graduates and undergraduates, write or rewrite or revise the lectures for next year (I've never managed to work out how people write lectures during term; I really need to have them mapped out pretty fully before the teaching proper begins or I'd never keep my head above water), send off those articles I'd promised and badger people for chapters they've promised me (you know who you are...)  All this while trying not to miss out on the kids being home from school for the next few weeks.  And while trying to navigate a path through the hordes of tourists in Cambridge.  It was nearly impossible to move on Silver Street on Saturday and the coaches seem to think they can double park along Queen's Road to allow the backpacked ones to get on and off.  Grrrr.

Here are the Sundays. Harriet Wheeler is lovely.  And so is this song.

Wednesday, July 20, 2011

Conference news

Here's a plug for a conference in St Andrews in November (click the picture for a bigger version).  You can find some more information here.  If you're feeling brave, you can leave St Andrews and go straight down to London for the Keeling colloquium starting on Monday 7th...

Monday, July 18, 2011


I'm in St Andrews to do a PhD viva.  The internal examiner has just taken me for a walking tour through the showers and sunshine and I saw this.  It's very pretty.  And it's very quiet here.  Makes Cambridge in July seem like a buzzing metropolis.

Sunday, July 17, 2011

Spend, spend, spend

I spent the morning wondering what I would have done with a £165 million Euro lottery win.  Not easy.  After totting up the cost of a new house, new car (this one) and money for family, trusts for the kids etc., I reckon I'd still have a good £100+ million left at least.  Now, you need to put some of that to work so you can have a guaranteed income enough not to be worried but then there's still plenty to play with.  Probably enough to found a decent new Cambridge college and certainly enough to do a lot for a current one.  So, what else would be on the list, specifically concerning my day job and my concern for the health of my own area of research?

There would be plenty to make regular and substantial donations to various charities.  But there are some specific things that would be worth doing too.

Endow a research fellowship, probably alternating between classics and philosophy for new postdoctoral researchers.  Perhaps also endow a university lectureship (we've enough professors) provided that didn't mean the university could think it didn't need to keep funding the ones we have already.  Probably best to negotiate a B.O.G.O.F. deal here.  They promise to keep funding one, and we'll fund another.

A big chunk of hardship funding for undergraduates.

What else should go on this list?

Friday, July 15, 2011


The Cambridge Faculty of Classics will be hosting the Triennial Conference, 'A celebration of classics', on 25-29 July.  You can find out all about it here and even read a programme of events (pdf here).  There's quite a lot of ancient philosophical stuff going on, if that's your thing.  And Cambridge will be looking nice, despite the enormous numbers of tourists and annual scaffolding boom.  Here's the poster:

Friday, July 08, 2011

Football and philosophy

Here is an interesting piece on aesthetics and football written by Stephen Mumford in the Times Higher.  (He has a book coming soon; perhaps I should wait until I've read the full account, though given its £75 price-tag I might not manage to.)  He is right to claim that there is something aesthetically pleasing and engaging about sport.  On the other hand, it seems to me that his advocacy of non-partisan viewing is problematic, at least for football.  True, I can and do enjoy watching games between two sides with which I have no particular connection.  The World Cup is great just because I can indulge myself in watching such matches.  On the other hand, it is extremely difficult not to adopt one of the two sides, often for no particular reason, and take on a supporter's role.  It is difficult to remain disengaged sufficiently to have no partisan feelings whatsoever.  Of course, it is possible simply to enjoy watching the skill on display but this is a contest after all and not a performance or improvised display.  The teams display the skills they have in order to win the game.

It is also surely the case that partisanship opens up a deeper and broader range of experiences in watching than disengaged aesthetic appreciation.  Watching sport is often a shared experience, shared often by groups who arrange themselves and display themselves as comrades.  Let's distinguish watching a football match on the sofa and home from sitting or standing among a group of supporters of a given team at the ground itself.  The reason it is worth going to the ground is the intensity of the shared experience.  It does matter, at least for those 90 minutes, whether the goalkeeper makes a save and whether a pass finds its intended recipient.  We choose to make it matter and because we surrender in that way we are able to experience the joy at a goal or the despair at losing.  

So when Mumford writes...
The purist and the partisan can see different games because one regards it aesthetically while the other sees the contest primarily as something to be won. The partisan would far prefer to see their team win a dull game 1-0 than to lose 3-4. And keenly contested tackles that are appreciated by the purist will for the partisan be either a show of superior strength when they win them or outrageous fouls committed by brutes when they lose them.
...I think I would contest the sense of the term 'purist' here.  It is a different perspective, for sure, to watch from a non-partisan viewpoint.  But it is not a purer appreciation of a game of football.  A game my team wins (perhaps because it is not a common occurrence) is not really a dull game.  A 1-0 win can be nervy (if the team scores early I then spend the time desperately willing the ball away from my team's penalty area; I applaud an almighty clearance over the stand if it relieves the pressure) or amazingly uplifting (a late goal, no matter how scrappy).  That seems a pure appreciation of football to me.

Thursday, July 07, 2011

Deep Wilson

Open Days today and tomorrow.  Perhaps more on those later.  For now, here's what I listened to as I walked to work.  I think you should listen to it too.

Friday, July 01, 2011

Aristotle sets hears a-flutter

Browsing some Aristotle today I came across this in De Partibus Animalium 3.6. He is discussing the lungs and making a case that they are for the sake of respiration. As part of the discussion he dismisses the idea that lungs are there to cope with the ‘jumping’ of the heart. His argument for this is interesting because it seems to offer some evidence for his distinction between human and animal psychological capacities (669a17-23):
τὸ δὲ πρὸς τὴν ἅλσιν εἶναι τὸν πλεύμονα τῆς καρδίας οὐκ εἴρηται καλῶς· ἐν ἀνθρώπῳ τε γὰρ συμβαίνει μόνον ὡς εἰπεῖν τὸ τῆς πηδήσεως διὰ τὸ μόνον ἐν ἐλπίδι γίνεσθαι καὶ προσδοκίᾳ τοῦ μέλλοντος, ἀπέχει τ’ἐν τοῖς πλείστοις πολὺν τόπον καὶ κεῖται τὴν θέσιν ἀνωτέρω τοῦ  πλεύμονος, ὥστε μηδὲν συμβάλλεσθαι τὸν πλεύμονα πρὸς τὴν ἅλσιν τῆς καρδίας.
Here is a translation by William Ogle (1912):
It has been said that the lung exists as a provision to meet the jumping (halsis) of the heart. But this is out of the question. For man is practically the only animal whose heart presents this phenomenon of jumping, inasmuch as he alone is influenced by hope and anticipation of the future. Moreover, in most animals the lung is separated from the heart by a considerable interval and lies above it, so that it can contribute nothing to mitigate any jumping. 
 See Hippoc. Morb. Sacr. 17 (§XX in the Loeb) for the idea that the phrenes jump and cause palpitations as a result of unexpected excessive pleasure or distress (εἴ τι ὥνθρωπος ὑπερχαρείη ἐξ ἀδοκήτου ἢ ἀνιηθείη, πηδῶσι [αἱ φρένες] καὶ ἅλσιν παρέχουσιν).

This is the bit that interests me: only humans have hope (elpis) or expectation for the future (prosdokia); this is why only humans experience their heart ‘jumping’. This suggests that hope and expectation here are being understood to have some rational component or source.  What exactly distinguishes them from the kinds of forethought that non-rational animals are capable of?

Tuesday, June 28, 2011

In the meantime...

Phew.  Tripos examining finished.  So now there is just the PhD on my desk to read, the interminable college and Faculty meetings and I'll be completely exhausted just in time for the summer 'research period'...  And for some reason at the moment I can't sleep.  Perhaps it's the muggy atmosphere, the noisy birds outside the window or the sheer excitement of it all.  Let's hope it sorts itself out soon.  Still, all that means I have not much interesting to tell you.  So in the meantime here is Moz at Glasto doing one of his old tunes.

If you ever need self-validation, just meet me in the alley by the railway station...

And here it is from 1985, with a much better guitarist and a snazzy hat.

Monday, June 20, 2011

Formatting woes

I've just spent an hour trying to follow the 'consignes de présentation' for a journal.  I'm resigned for now to have to spend a bit of time mucking about with commas and dates and the like for bibliographical things.  I've tried using Mendeley or EndNoteWeb but each time I've tried it has been much more effort to get the stuff into a database and then put in the codes than to just type it in myself.

But this time the annoyance came from having to convert my English formatting of inverted commas and footnote references placed after punctuation to a continental European format with « and » and footnote references before punctuation.  I've probably missed some so I hope my editor will forgive me.  Is there, however, any handy automated way to do all this?  I did the Find-Replace thing for the inverted commas but couldn't work out how to differentiate between them at the end of a quotation and when they are used as a possessive in e.g. 'the Cyrenaics'...' so I had to do much of that manually too.  Groan.

Tuesday, June 14, 2011

Friends like these...

Well, it's good to see my old guys winning praise, but here's Tom Hodgkinson in the Independent...  He ends his article:

Plato, Aristotle, Epicurus and the rest can be read with great ease by anybody, and they are just as relevant today as they were 2,300 years ago.
Lets leave the relevance bit for now and think about the first clause.  You can read them, I suppose, with ease even if not with 'great ease'.  There are good translations.  But try Aristotle's Metaphysics.  If you liked his Ethics, you'll love that.  Or the second part of Plato's Parmenides...   I'd like to think there's more to them than what an easy read can give you.  Otherwise, I'm out of a job.

Epicurus and premature death

I’ve just read an interesting paper by Kirk Sanders in a new collection edited by him and Jeffrey Fish: ‘Philodemus and the fear of premature death’. [1] In part of the article, Sanders is interested in whether the Epicureans give a satisfactory response to the fear that one might die prematurely, before one’s life is complete. I discussed this a bit in my 2004 book (ch. 4) but I think there is a gathering consensus that Philodemus certainly did address this concern and may well have said something interesting about it. 

I think there are two general questions here:

1. Did any Epicurean give an account of a complete life which shows that a person has a good reason to continue to live on once a complete life has been attained? What is that good reason?

2. If the Epicureans agree that there is a sense in which it might be bad to die prematurely (however they understood the notion of prematurity), would it not be correct for an Epicurean student therefore to be anxious about this prospect? But if the student is anxious, then he cannot attain ataraxia. And if he has not attained ataraxia then he will not live a complete life. Note that this is no mere empty fear; the student has a reason to fear premature death based on a correct understanding of what constitutes a good human life.

Regarding 1., Sanders has a persuasive case for saying that Philodemus, at least, thought we have reason to continue to live at least as long as it takes to become ataraxic, although he also perhaps thought that it was necessary in addition to live for at least some time in that state before a life could properly be called complete.

Sanders also has an interesting argument against the problem in 2.

‘In response, it should first be noted that Warren’s claim that premature death ‘is not to be feared if and only if one has attained ataraxia' is too strong. While it is true that premature death is only possible for one who has not yet attained ataraxia, not every possible evil is itself a reasonable object of fear. In order for a fear to be rational, it is required that one be justified in judging its object to be not only a genuine harm but also imminent’ (p. 231).

Since it is not the case that the young should think their death imminent they have no justified reason to fear premature death. And, Sanders suggests, this will be true for all but the very aged or infirm.

'Imminent' here does not mean 'impending' or 'near at hand'.  If I know I will be struck down by an agonizing illness in forty years time I think I might reasonably fear that.  (Sanders'  example in the bit following the section I quoted concerns it being irrational to fear dying in a plane crash because such crashes are so infrequent). In that case, the important point is whether it is likely that a person will die in the period between the present and a later attainment of ataraxia.  A young student worried that she is not yet ataraxic but might be struck down tomorrow in an accident will presumably be told that such an event is vanishingly unlikely. Yes, if that unlikely event does happen then her life will be incomplete and her death premature. So she should take care crossing the road and try not to get into dangerous situations. Fortunately, Epicureanism is something that you can work on at any time in your life. And if you’re smart then the Epicurean goal is something relatively quick to attain. This rather special fear of premature death, looked at from another perspective, is just one more reason to want to become a wise Epicurean.

[1] K. R. Sanders, 2011, ‘Philodemus and the fear of premature death’ in J. Fish and K. R. Sanders eds. Epicurus and the Epicurean Tradition, Cambridge: CUP, 211–34.

Monday, June 06, 2011


Last week, rather than our usual Mayweek reading seminar, the B Caucus played host to a conference in honour of Malcolm Schofield.  It was an excellent meeting: lots of good papers and lots of good chat in between papers.  I got to meet up with some friends I hadn't seen for a long time and lots of philosophy was done or gossiped about.  The proceedings should make for a really good volume eventually.  (Here is a programme in case you're interested (.doc file).)

But now, after what was an exhausting week, I have to turn to the piles of exam scripts due to land on my desk.  I may be gone for some time...

Wednesday, June 01, 2011

Bob Sharples Postgraduate Studentship Fund

You may already have seen notice of this elsewhere.  But I hope you don't mind my posting it here nevertheless.

Bob Sharples Postgraduate Studentship Fund

The Department of Greek and Latin at UCL has created a postgraduate studentship fund to honour the memory of Professor Bob Sharples. The fund will offer bursaries to deserving postgraduate students whose special area of interest lies in an aspect of ancient Philosophy (at either MA or PhD level). The Fund has been established in recognition of Bob's scholarship and research interests, and in order to support postgraduates at a time when many are struggling to find the funds to continue their study of the ancient world beyond their first degree.

Anyone wishing to donate can contact the Departmental Office at (0207 679 7522), or donate online at

Select 'Greek and Latin' from the menu, then 'B. Sharples Postgraduate Studentship Fund'. Donors (UK taxpayers) are encouraged to use Gift Aid to increase the value of the donation.

Those who wish to donate through the post can download a UCL Gift form from

Wednesday, May 25, 2011

What matters... that it's still only one REF output.  And perhaps it should really be listed as a multi-author work.

Plato: Complete Works added to show scale

Thursday, May 19, 2011

Love of knowledge fail

I think there is a lot in this paragraph from R. C. Roberts and W. J. Wood, Intellectual Virtues (Oxford, 2007, p.159-60) that I would endorse. But I think it also shows that I am insufficiently discriminating...
The proper lover of knowledge will value some knowledge more than others because some knowledge is more worthy. People differ as to the kinds of truths they take an interest in, and the differences can be differences of intellectual virtue, according to the quality of the goods the people care about. Individuals who are concerned about the truths they read in Science magazine, or the Atlantic Monthly, the National Geographic, the New York Review of Books, or Books and Culture, are in this respect more virtuous than people who are most interested in the truths they read in People magazine or the gossip columns, because the truths that are found there are mostly trivial or even salacious and invidious (that is, the truths aren't vicious, but it is less than virtuous to care about them, or to care much about them). This may sound elitist, but if it is, this is an elitism we cannot avoid. Surely anyone acquainted with intellectual culture knows the distinction between important and trivial knowledge. The aim of liberal arts programs in colleges and universities is not just to transmit a bit of the higher kind of knowledge to their students, but to nurture in them a discriminating end love of knowledge and thus to create in them a distaste—or at any rate, a limited patience—for trivial knowledge. It would be elitist not to spread this kind of education as broadly as possible through the population, but the aim of such an education is properly elitist. It is to produce people with a taste for what is excellent, and this will necessarily distinguish them from people who lack this taste. The right attitude of the educator is what Michael Platt has called “elitism for everybody”.

Wednesday, May 11, 2011

An odd asymmetry

Most people who deny the symmetry of pre-natal and post mortem non-existence think that pre -natal non-existence cannot be a harm but post mortem non-existence can.  But is it possible to turn this around, deny the symmetry of pre-natal and post mortem non-existence, but hold that post mortem non-existence cannot be a harm while pre-natal non-existence can.

Imagine that post mortem non-existence cannot be harmful. For example, if we accept the deprivation account of the harm of death, perhaps we think that death cannot harm a person by preventing his experiencing goods that he would have experienced had he died later because we live in a world in which a person cannot die later that he will. If there is no possibility of a person dying later than he in fact will then it is not true that he could have experienced more by dying later.

I am wondering if this might be compatible with an asymmetrical view such that pre-natal non-existence might be harmful because it deprives a person of goods he would have experienced had he been born earlier. But I’ve found it difficult to construct a scenario to illustrate this position.

Imagine a case in which it is necessary that my first child will die on 31 December 2080. Perhaps there is a huge asteroid heading for the Earth that will destroy it on that day. There is nothing that could or can be done to prevent this.

I do not yet have a child. My partner and I donate sperm and an egg which produce an in vitro zygote. We can choose to have the implantation now or in a year’s time. (Imagine that this process is unfailingly successful and that I have no other children in the meantime.) In that case, would we be doing harm to the child by waiting?

As the asteroid enters the atmosphere would the child have a reasonable complaint that she was not born a year earlier?

Here it seems that the answer will depend on whether we think that the two possibilities, namely (a) first child = (zygote implanted now + life in our family + death on 31 December 2080) and (b) first child = (zygote implanted next year + life in our family + death on 31 December 2080) , are two possible lives of the same person.

If these are two possible lives of the same person then this seems to point to a possible harm of pre -natal non-existence consistent with an asymmetry between it and post mortem non-existence.

True, this asymmetrical view would be relevant only in cases where some mechanism such as the asteroid here sets a determined time for death. And perhaps the child ought rather to complain that the asteroid has cut short her life rather than that her parents did not have her sooner. I suppose the question then is which we are inclined to think is the more contingent factor.

Is there a way of fixing the scenario so that it removes any possibility of dying later that might muddy the waters?

Wednesday, May 04, 2011


I'm looking again at the 'symmetry argument' used by the Epicureans as part of their contention that death is not to be feared.  Death is not to be feared, they say, because post mortem non-existence is a mirror image of pre-natal non-existence and since pre-natal non-existence is not harmful (precisely: they say that it was not harmful, sc. at the time before birth) so too death, post mortem non-existence is not harmful.

The literature on this argument is pretty tangled so I'm trying to sort out a taxonomy of views.

Here is what I have so far.  I'm trying to find some labels for the different possible views.

Symmetry of pre-natal and post mortem non existence? Pre-natal non-existence a possible harm? Post mortem non-existence a possible  harm?
EpicureansY N N
'Symmetrists'Y Y Y
'Asymmetrists' N N Y
??? N Y N

The stance taken by the Epicureans and their modern defenders is clear. The other two major camps in the more recent debate, however, agree with one another that death can be harmful and in this regard they disagree with Epicurus; but they then each retain one of the other two claims made by the Epicureans and deny the other. Their differing respective stances on the symmetry or otherwise of the two periods of non-existence accompany different conclusions about pre-natal non-existence. Those I shall call the ‘asymmetrists’ offer a package which combines the generally accepted anti-Epicurean claim that death can be harmful with a premise that the Epicureans do accept, namely that pre-natal non-existence cannot be harmful. They therefore need to identify some relevant different between the two periods of non-existence. The ‘symmetrists’, in response, reject the proposed distinction between these two periods and, while therefore accepting the Epicurean symmetry premise, conclude against the Epicureans that it is possible for pre-natal non-existence to be harmful. Note that these two camps are not here distinguished in terms of whether we do or should take a symmetrical attitude or not to these two periods, but rather in terms of whether, irrespective of the attitudes we do or should take, the two periods are indeed alike in terms of their potential for harm. Symmetrists on this count may therefore accept that we do have asymmetrical attitudes to the two periods while thinking that the two are in fact symmetrical in terms of their harmfulness.

A question: the fourth possibility is one which denies the symmetry and thinks that pre-natal non existence is a possible harm while post mortem non existence is not.  Has anybody ever held this view?  (I imagine not: it would seem to hold that we had better make as many babies as we possibly can as soon as we can since any delay to coming into existence is a possible harm but we need not worry too much about them afterwards since death is not a possible harm.)  What can I call it?

Thursday, April 28, 2011

KD 5 again

I’ve been thinking a bit more about Usener’s supplement to Kyria Doxa 5. It concedes that someone might like justly but not wisely. In that case he will not live a pleasant life however just his life is. On this view, the Epicureans do not take the paradoxical line preferred by the Stoics and other philosophers in the Socratic tradition of arguing that only the wise man will be truly just. Their account of the virtues is different in so far as it is primarily concerned with accommodating the virtues into their picture of the best life rather than appropriating them as the Epicureans’ sole property. If to live justly is simply to act in certain ways, obey the law, respect one’s neighbours’ possessions and so on, then it certainly is not the case that only the Epicurean will live justly. Hence the statement in Kyria Doxa 5 that someone might well live honourably and justly (but not pleasantly) while lacking the practical wisdom that is the root of the Epicurean’s choices. Other people can be said to live justly, to display temperance, or to fight and die courageously. And it might suit the Epicureans very well to prefer this rather thin account of what it means to live in accordance with a particular virtue since then they will be better able to say that an Epicurean too will meet the relevant criteria for living justly and honourably . However, they will go on to say that the Epicurean will live in such a virtuous fashion as part of his general programme of living so as best to attain his natural final good and his living justly and so on will be a consequence of the application of his prudential reasoning to matters of choice and action. So an Epicurean will act consistently in these ways because his acting justly, for example, flows from a deep-seated and basic commitment to the principles of the hedonic evaluation of possible choices. 

None of this should be taken as a defence of Usener’s construal of Kyria Doxa 5. There are clearly sufficient textual difficulties with this part of Kyria Doxa 5 to make us wary of basing any significant claims about the Epicureans’ attitude to the virtue on any proposed reconstruction or emendation of the text. Nevertheless, it is not obvious to me why the Epicureans would need to claim that only the Epicurean wise man is just and this is something they perhaps ought be inclined to jettison if needed. In the case of piety, for example, they do have a clear and distinctive positive message to convey that would lead them both to dismiss the charge of atheism and make the controversial claim of sole possession of that virtue. But there is less pressure for them to take such a stand in the case of the other virtues bar wisdom. And conceding that someone might succeed in living justly, for example, simply by living in accordance with certain rules of interpersonal behaviour might well make more palatable their claim that an Epicurean hedonist will in fact live justly at all.

Saturday, April 23, 2011

KD 5

I've been thinking about the Epicureans and their conception of virtue.  Here is the text of Kyria Doxa 5 as printed in Von der Muehll’s edition:
[1] οὐκ ἔστιν ἡδέως ζῆν ἄνευ τοῦ φρονίμως καὶ καλῶς καὶ δικαίως <οὐδὲ φρονίμως καὶ καλῶς καὶ δικαίως> ἄνευ τοῦ ἡδέως· [2] ὅτῳ δὲ τοῦτο μὴ ὑπάρχει, [οὐ ζῇ φρονίμως καὶ καλῶς καὶ δικαίως ὑπαρχει] οὐκ ἔστι τοῦτον ἡδέως ζῆν.
We can divide the Saying into two parts, labelled [1] and [2] above. The first part is the less problematic both textually and philosophically. The words in angled brackets <οὐδὲ φρονίμως ... δικαίως> were supplied by Gassendi and his conjecture was confirmed by the version of the saying inscribed in the lower margin of Diogenes of Oinoanda fr. 37 Smith. 

The second part of KD 5 is more difficult. The MSS reading is difficult to construe. Furthermore, the words in square brackets [οὐ ζῇ ... ὑπαρχει] do not appear in the counterpart of this saying in the Vatican Sayings (VS 5: οὐκ ἔστιν ἡδέως ζῆν ἄνευ τοῦ φρονίμως καὶ καλῶς καὶ δικαίως. ὅπου δὲ τοῦτο μὴ ὑπάρχει, οὐκ ἔστι τοῦτον ἡδέως ζῆν.); they are therefore deleted by Von der Muehll, who is followed by Marcovich. What is left behind after the delection is not very elegant.

Bailey and Usener offer attempts at reconstruction so as to produce something that adds more to the overall sense of the Saying.

Usener offers the following:
ὅτῳ δ’ ἓν τούτων μὴ ὑπάρχει οἷον ζῆν φρονίμως, καὶ καλῶς καὶ δικαίως ὑπάρχει, οὐκ ἔστι τοῦτον ἡδέως ζῆν.
His text is followed by Hicks in his Loeb edition (bar replacing οἷον ζῆν with Bignone’s ἐξ οὗ ζῆν), who translates:
Whenever any one of these is lacking, when, for instance, the man is not able to live wisely, though he lives honourably and justly, it is impossible for him to live a pleasant life.
Bailey offers:
ὅτῳ δὲ τοῦτο μὴ ὑπάρχει, οὐ ζῇ φρονίμως καὶ καλῶς καὶ δικαίως , <καὶ ὅτῳ ἐκεῖνο μὴ> ὑπάρχει οὐκ ἔστι τοῦτον ἡδέως ζῆν.
He translates:
And the man who does not possess the pleasant life, is not living prudently and honourably and justly, [and the man who does not possess the virtuous life], cannot possibly be living pleasantly.
Bailey raises various grammatical difficulties for Usener’s construal. But his most serious objection is philosophical rather than philological. On Usener’s reconstruction of this part of the Saying, as is made clear in Hicks’s translation, we are offered for our consideration the possibility that someone might live honourably and justly without living wisely. Such a person is then said not to be able to live pleasantly. The possibility is not offered in counterfactual terms; rather, it is simply stated that such a life will not be pleasant, not that it would not—per impossibile—be pleasant. And such a life without phronēsis will not be pleasant even if it is a life lived honourably and justly. It therefore seems that while phronēsis might be a sufficient condition for the possession of all the other virtues, it is not a necessary condition for the possession of any or all of them. If this is right, then it is a rather striking concession on the part of the Epicureans. There are good reason to think that, at least according to the account in Ep. Men. 132, the derivation of both the virtues and a pleasant life from phronēsis makes impossible a just but unwise life. For this and other reasons, Usener’s reconstruction is unlikely to be correct. 

But I wonder whether the concession that it is possible to live justly and honourably without Epicurean phronēsis is a concession that could be strategically very useful in the broader debate between the Epicureans and their critics.  More when I've thought that through a bit more.

Monday, April 18, 2011

Fen landscapes

There are those, I am told, with a taste for desert landscapes.  I think I have a taste for fen landscapes and an aesthetic sense that goes along with it.  We drove back from Hunstanton today due South as the sun set and the landscape was glorious.  Not sparse or barren.  Neat divided patches of chocolate brown earth tilled in neat rows; bright green shoots all uniform and closely packed; swathes of violent yellow rape; a huge sky of grey then later blue then later rays of pink and white.  Beautiful.

It may also be why I love the paintings in Fitzwilliam College by Anthony Dorrell: the Black Earth cycle (click the link to 'paintings' and browse the lot.

Monday, April 11, 2011

Thursday, April 07, 2011

Lego ergo sum!

Right.  I think I can put away the writing for a bit and try to recharge the batteries before next term.  (The University doesn't do bank holidays, by the way, and we aren't even getting a day of for Kate'n'Wills' wedding.  Booo!)

Anyhoo.  This is why I love the internets: lots of pictures of lego versions of historical figures arranged in roughly chronological order.  Not many philosophers, alas.  But here is René Descartes:

Friday, April 01, 2011


I've been trying to make use of one of the golden weeks between the end of the university term and the end of the school term to get on with thinking about my paper for the UCL Keeling Colloquium later in the year.  I've decided to talk about memory and anticipation, but more specifically about how ancient philosophers thought about the pleasures and pain we can experience as a result of recollecting or anticipating other pleasures and pains we have/will experience.  I've found it all a bit tricky, in part because like a fool I have ended up trying to say something about Plato, Aristotle, and some Hellenistic philosophy all in 25ish pages, but I think that now I can see a thread to follow and I've identified the central texts to worry over.  If it works, I think it should be interesting...  Now I just need to put my ragged draft away for a bit and come back to it with a sense of distance and perspective...

Thursday, March 24, 2011


In Part X of Hume's Dialogues, Demea says this:
Ask yourself, ask any of your acquaintance, whether they would live over again the last ten or twenty years of their lives. No! but the next twenty, they say, will be better.
I'm reading an interesting exploration of this offer. What if this were not in place of the next ten or twenty years but in addition to it? Of course, in reliving this time you really will relive it: there will be no memory of what is to come, so to speak, when you go back; instead, things will turn out just as they did and you will have no prior knowledge of how they would. Still, let's say this adds on and extends your life. If the last ten years have been good overall (contain more good than bad, perhaps) then surely we should want to take up the offer; it would make our lives longer and better.

Here's Avishai Margalit setting out the offer in The Ethics of Memory (Harvard, 2002, 131-2):
Suppose that what you are offered is to repeat the last ten years of your life exactly as they were, with no traces of memory from your previous experience of those ten years.  Assume that the ten years that you are going to relive, if you accept the offer, are ten years added to your life and no a substitute for what awaits you. You will spend the rest of your life from from the exact point you are in now, with the same state of mind and memories that you now have.  Assume, further, that the last ten years in your life were not particularly bad, perhaps even reasonably food.
We should assume that the whole world colludes in this: events repeat in the news, my family and friends equally repeat those ten years.  So it is not as if only I am going back and reliving the time; we're all in it together as far as my life is concerned.  All the same, I don't think I would be keen.  Why not? For one, notice that it is not obvious that I can be sure I am not already doing so.  But that is also why it does not appeal since it also makes no real difference so far as my own conception of my life and its value is concerned whether or not I repeat the ten years, indeed whether or not I am in a succession of such loops.  If a longer life with more goods is a better life then this seems to be a case in which I see no reason to hope for a longer and better life is this is the means by which it becomes longer and better.  If a life is to be improved, therefore, it seems that I want it to be improved in a way that makes it a longer and better continuous set of events, with no such 'loops'; if we take a narrative view of a life, it want it to have more chapters in it and not just in the sense of containing two or more chapter twos, however good that chapter is.

Monday, March 21, 2011


I was interviewed on Friday for Peter Adamson's excellent The History of Philosophy with No Gaps podcast.  Since (unlike Epicurus) he's not leaving any gaps and since we were talking about Epicurus, it will probably be a while before it's my turn to appear.  But I thought it was worth giving it a plug anyway...

Friday, March 18, 2011

Academic virtues

In this week's Times Higher Frank Furedi makes the case for the importance of 'academic judgement', which he thinks is close to what Aristotle meant by phronesis.  Here is the article.   In part, I think his claim rests on there being no sensible way of making academic judgements (by which he means things like exam marks, reports on journal submissions or book typescripts) susceptible to simple and clear rules of evaluation.

While you're there, read the reply from William Evans, who compares academic judgement with that employed by (i) sports referees, (ii) judges, (iii) newspaper editors.  He's interested in areas where there is some later right of appeal but accepts that even there eventually the chain of appeal-able judgements must come to a stop.  Should academic judgement be more open to this?  Sure, it would be horribly inconvenient for examiners, editors, and the like.  And in some ways I do think it makes little sense.  If a journal rejects a paper I submit and gives me the reports to read, sometimes I do think that the reader hasn't understood a point or that their objection is unfounded.  But should I be able to point that out to the editor and ask for another opinion?  Is this analogous to an appeal if a footballer is sent off harshly by a referee?  (Seems not very much like that.)  And just gathering more opinions on my article isn't going to help; mostly, this will just point out other ways in which the article might be pruned/expanded/improved etc.  Should I be able to continue until a majority of readers think the article is publishable, whatever the other quibbles?  Do we need a 'higher' opinion, then?  Whose would that be?

And while we're wondering about academic virtues of judgement, should we not also wonder what the character virtues are that we would similarly think we cultivate in ourselves and our fellow academics?  (It seems to me that this is not a simple question, nor is it a silly question; Aristotle seems to have got it right that matters of excellence in practical reasoning are not entirely separable from excellences of character...)

Monday, March 14, 2011

On the history of philosophy

And, in particular, the question: Why would anyone think it a good idea to do a PhD dissertation on a topic in the history of philosophy?  Here's a letter to prospective graduate students from Bob Pasnau at Colorado that tries to make a case in favour (pdf file).

Any thoughts?  I wondered myself about the following paragraph.  It might well be true of programmes and departments in the US, but I was less convinced that it is true of the UK, in part because of differences in the way that graduate places are assigned and also because often the division of labour between philosophy and other cognate departments may be different.
First and foremost, it is both easier to get into a good PhD program if you focus on history, and easier to get a job.  Almost every PhD program wants graduate students in history, and every department, no matter how small, needs faculty to teach the historical core.  There are, however, many fewer candidates for these positions.  Even the very top PhD programs in the history of philosophy receive only an handful of candidates seeking to study in those areas, and it is not unusual for there to be roughly as many jobs in the history of philosophy as there are plausible candidates.
He goes on to point out (rightly) that a dissertation in this history of philosophy does not shackle you to historical study for the rest of your career.  And there are other arguments that I think are more positive, including the observation that historians of philosophy tend to wield the principle of charity and do the best for the people they read, while it is often the case that in dealing with our contemporaries we are inclined to offer the least charitable interpretation of what they write...