Monday, January 31, 2011

Vlastos online

Yes!  Listen to an interview with Vlastos from 1981 here.  And then listen to Montgomery Furth from 1987 here.

Sunday, January 30, 2011

It's the clever ones you need to worry about...

Phew.  Lots of teaching at the moment so I'm not able to think very much about the sort of philosophical things I like to blog about.  But here's a gem of an argument from SE PH II, which we are reading in our Thursday seminars.  He's offering arguments against there being a kriterion  -- here, against 'human' being the answer to the question of the kriterion 'by whom...'.  He is here thinking about whether a particular type of person, the wise man, would be a good answer.  No, it turns out unsurprisingly... (PH II.42):

ἵνα δὲ καὶ κατὰ συγχώρησιν δῶμεν, ὅτι οὐδεὶς τοῦ ὑποτιθεμένου συνετοῦ συνετώτερος οὔτε ἔστιν οὔτε ἐγένετο οὔτε ἔσται, οὐδὲ ὣς πιστεύειν αὐτῷ προσήκει. ἐπεὶ γὰρ μάλιστα οἱ συνετοὶ φιλοῦσιν ἐν τῇ τῶν πραγμάτων κατασκευῇ τοῖς σαθροῖς παριστάμενοι πράγμασιν ὑγιῆ καὶ ἀληθῆ ταῦτα δοκεῖν εἶναι ποιεῖν, ὅταν τι λέγῃ οὗτος ὁ ἀγχίνους, οὐκ εἰσόμεθα πότερόν ποτε, ὡς ἔχει τὸ πρᾶγμα φύσει, οὕτω λέγει, ἢ ψεῦδος αὐτὸ ὑπάρχον ὡς ἀληθὲς παρίστησι καὶ ἡμᾶς πείθει φρονεῖν ὡς περὶ ἀληθοῦς, ἅτε δὴ συνετώτερος τῶν ἀνθρώπων ἁπάντων ὑπάρχων καὶ διὰ τοῦτο ὑφ' ἡμῶν ἐλέγχεσθαι μὴ δυνάμενος. οὐδὲ τούτῳ τοίνυν συγκαταθησόμεθα ὡς ἀληθῶς τὰ πράγματα κρίνοντι, διὰ τὸ οἷόν τε μὲν εἶναι αὐτὸν ἀληθῆ λέγειν, οἴεσθαι δ' ὅτι δι' ὑπερβολὴν ἀγχινοίας τὰ ψευδῆ τῶν πραγμάτων ὡς ἀληθῆ βουλόμενος παριστᾶν ἅ φησι λέγει. διὰ ταῦτα μὲν οὖν οὐδὲ τῷ τῶν ἁπάντων ἀγχινουστάτῳ δοκοῦντι ὑπάρχειν ἐν τῇ κρίσει τῶν πραγμάτων χρὴ πιστεύειν.

Here is Bury's translation:

And even should we grant, by way of concession, that no one either is, way, or will be more sagacious than our hypothetical sage, not even so is it proper to believe him.  For since it is the sagacious about all who, in the construction of their doctrines, love to champion unsound doctrines and to make them appear sound and true, whenever this sharp-witted person makes a statement we shall not know whether he is staring the matter as it really is, or whether he is defending as true what is really false and persuading us to think of it as something true, on the ground that he is more sagacious than all the other men and therefore incapable of being refuted by us.  So not even to this man will we assent, as one who judges matters truly, since though we suppose it possible that he speaks the truth, we also suppose that owing to his excessive cleverness he makes his statements with the object of defending false propositions as true.  Consequently, in the judgement of propositions we ought not to believe even the man who is thought to be the most clever of all.

I like this for two reasons.  First, I like the snide characterisation of smart arses who are so clever they take particular care to provide the most obscure and crazy conclusions as a sort of badge of honour: their intellect encourages them to take up perverse causes (I like the phrase 'excessive cleverness', ὑπερβολή ἀγχινοίας).  Second (and this is the better argument) Sextus does not need to insist that all smart-arses are in fact perverse or deceitful.  Rather, given that they are by definition smarter than us ( this is why they might be handy kriteria) we have no way of being sure whether they are telling the truth.  They may insist on their correctness, but how are we to be sure?  The rest of us are just not smart enough to be able to tell whether smart people are telling the truth.  The mere possibility that they might be deceitful is enough to throw everything they say under suspicions.  Now, you might want to try to argue that wisdom has some direct connection with veracity and benevolence but that too is quite a tall order.  And if you try to persuade me that you do have a good argument that I should believe because you're clever and have worked it out, then, I would feel a suspicion about that too...

Monday, January 17, 2011

σωτηρία τοῦ βίου

I’ve been thinking about the description of the ‘measuring art’ at the end of Plato’s Protagoras as the ‘saviour of our life’ or perhaps the ‘preservation of our life’ (356d3: σωτηρία τοῦ βίου). Does anyone know of any specific discussion of this term? [Update: Ah! How could I have forgotten Nussbaum in FOG ch. 4? That's my next port of call.]  Anyway, this is as far as I have got on my own.

A quick glance at the use of the term sōtēria in other authors suggests that it is mainly used in cases in tragedy, for example, when a character hopes or despairs for their lot. Here sōtēria is something wished for. It is simple survival. A similar use can be found in Thucydides. A broader meaning of ‘preservation (sc. of one’s current state)’ can be found in other writers such as Aristotle.

Commentators have rightly wondered whether the measuring skill is offered to Protagoras in part because Socrates cheekily alludes to the sophist’s most famous pronouncement that ‘man is the measure’. But Socrates’ use of the term sōtēria here for his proposed art of measurement is  another allusion to another originally Protagorean idea, this time taken from earlier in the dialogue itself. As part of his great speech, Protagoras had told a story of how Epimetheus set about arranging a division of powers between the various new species of living creatures. sōtēria occurs there too.

320e3: To some animals he gave claws or horns and to others he gave some other means for their sōtēria.

321b6: Those species who were preyed upon by others he made more numerous for the sōtēria of the species

321c8ff.: As a means of sōtēria for mankind, Prometheus gave them fire and technical skill (entekhnos sophia sun puri).

Here, sōtēria seems also to mean survival or preservation. Some animals have claws in order not to starve; others are numerous so that they do not become extinct through predation. Humans were able to survive despite their lack of physical defences against predation and the elements due to their intellectual abilities.

This is interesting to me because the measuring art at the end of the Protagoras is often compared with a hedonic calculus and imagined to be a means of maximising pleasure over a life. This maximising role does not seem to me to be well captured in the term sōtēria, which would seem rather to suggest that the measuring art is there to prevent us from falling prey to our own ignorant or unthinking appraisal of goods. Socrates is perhaps, in that case, cleverly turning the possibility of akrasia or, rather, the ignorance often mistakenly taken to be akrasia, into a threat to our lives as pressing as the need to avoid hunger, cold, thirst, and the attentions of naturally much better armed creatures.

Wednesday, January 12, 2011

Kenodoxia on the move

I know you busy people are often desperate to read this blog on your mobile device.  Well, now you will automatically access a stripped-down mobile version of the site, which should be easier and quicker to navigate around.  I think this barcode thing will point you to it.

Monday, January 10, 2011

January Sales

are usually rubbish.  The only one I've been to this year started today: the Cambridge University Press Bookshop Sale (now in the old Past Times store on Green Street) ...  Bargain prices (£3 for every pbk, £7 for every hbk; cash payment only) and new stock coming every day for the next week or so.  What did I find?  Not much.  I bought the new edition of Reading Greek, because I haven't ever really felt like paying full price for it, and nothing else.

That's not to say that everyone was so restrained.  I was there for about ten minutes.  At least half of the crowd in there (you can't really see the fog on the windows in the photo, but it was really steamy...) were lugging piles of a dozen volumes each.  It was, as a friend has just remarked to me, like the academic version of the Next clothing store's Boxing Day Sale: a bit of a feeding frenzy.  The commonest tactic was to grab as many volumes as possible off the shelves to be squirreled away and sorted in a corner, just in case someone else got them in the meantime.

I might go back later in the week when the stock is refreshed and try again.  After all, CUP books are so monstrously expensive that it would be mad not to.  But then again, I do have a lot of books already and I do remember when a poor and needy graduate student thinking it a bit rich that lecturers who could more or less afford to buy books when not in the sale snapped up stuff that I couldn't otherwise afford...

Thursday, January 06, 2011

Some geeky things and some e-texts

I've been playing about with my new Kindle.  Some of the pdfs from places like are perfectly fine while others won't work.  I think the pdfs need to be 'flattened', but I don't have the full version of Adobe to do it.  Does that sound plausible?

In other news, does a natty tool to embed on web pages.  Here's a bit from Burnet's OCT of Plato (vol. 3 - one of the pdfs that my Kindle won't handle, incidentally):

Click to make it full screen and then browse away.

And here, for those coming to the Thursday seminar this term, is Mutschmann's Teubner of Sextus Empiricus PH II:

Monday, January 03, 2011

Sextus and natural philosophy

I've just had the good news that CUP have agreed to publish the proceedings of the 2007 Symposium Hellenisticum on Sextus Empiricus M 9 and 10 (Against the physicists).  The other good news (to my mind, at least) is that the volume won't have an alliterative title like some of its ancestors (Justice and Generosity etc.)  In part, this might be because there was no such obvious title.  But they had sometimes been a bit groan-inducing anyway.

I've got a piece in the volume (on the last section, on coming-to-be and passing-away) so I can't say whether it is a good collection or not.  But I hope it will at least be interesting. M 9 and 10 are full of good material and together the chapters will form something like a running commentary on the lot.

Sunday, January 02, 2011

A domestic indifference argument

Happy New Year everyone.

I've just about managed to get through the Christmas/New Year period.  There is a bit of a backlog on the email that's making feel a bit anxious about work and I've quite a lot of lecturing and teaching to do next term that I've yet to turn my mind to (lectures on: Plato's Crito, Early Greek Philosophy: Thales to Heraclitus, a set of Intensive Greek classes and the ancient philosophy MPhil seminar) but just as you think the holidays are coming to an end the school lobs in an INSET day and prolongs it just a little more.  I need to get thinking about the January Admissions Pool, as does my wife who is also a Director of Studies at one of the colleges.  But here's the issue.  The kids are off school so need to have at least one of us around.  What's more, there's no more reason for me to go to work and Sara stay at home than there is for Sara to go to work and me to stay at home.  And since at least one of us has to stay at home, the upshot is that we both do.  

The logic may not be impeccable [1], but it tends to be the practical outcome.

[1] I suppose it also needs at least the premise that 'go to work' here means to go in for a full day.  We do sometimes have to 'top and tail': swap over at lunchtime.  But sometimes you need to a full day to achieve anything worthwhile and the disruption caused by the relay is a distinct disadvantage.