Wednesday, May 30, 2012

Genius loci

This afternoon I was the examiner present at the start of the Part II (third year, finals) Aristotle paper in the Corn Exchange.  An examiner has to be there for twenty minutes in case there are any questions about or problems with the paper.  The hall was mostly full of the Part IB (second year) English students doing the Shakespeare paper, each with a clean copy of the Complete Works on the desk and a stern warning on the front of the examination paper: 'DO NOT ATTEMPT TO CONSULT THE GLOSSARY'...  But there was a column of heroic Aristotelians at the very edge of the hall.

Anyway, I think it was having to do this that made me feel anxious all morning and in fact I felt quite sick at lunchtime.  As if it was an odd physiological memory of being a student taking the exam.  I had taken nearly all my own exams in that same place and, 17 years or so ago, I was sitting the B2 Aristotle paper there.  Anyway, the smell of the bins outside the Corn Exchange on a hot May day, the sounds of the desks and chairs scraping and clanking and, finally, the noise of two hundred question papers being turned over at exactly 1.30pm by the clock hung on a wooden post on the stage at the front of the hall...  It all made me feel quite ill.  After twenty minutes I escaped along with an examiner who will have to plough through what must be a huge pile of Shakespeare scripts, thankful that I didn't have to take the paper.  But I will be back on Monday to begin the Part II Plato paper and will probably feel the same again.  Horrible.

Wednesday, May 16, 2012

Aristotle's sex life

Aristotle can sometimes say some surprising things. This is one of my favourites. In NE VII.11 he is giving a list of reasons why you might think that pleasure is not a good thing in a human life. (He doesn’t endorse these entirely, but runs through them nevertheless before showing why they might not be as compelling as you’d first think.) One of the reasons is that pleasures might be an impediment to thought. You can imagine a po-faced Platonist thinking something like this if he has been reading the Phaedo in a lazy way and not quite got the idea that there can be pleasures had from thinking too. But at least some kinds of pleasure might get in the way of a good think. And then Aristotle gives an example:
 οἷον τῇ τῶν ἀφροδισίων· οὐδένα γὰρ ἂν δύνασθαι νοῆσαί τι ἐν αὐτῇ. (1152b17–18)
  (… as with the pleasure of sex: no one could have any thoughts when enjoying that.) trans. C. Rowe.
I like to imagine Theophrastus sitting in the audience and being a bit taken aback… (I don’t know why I think this might bother Theophrastus; he just seems like that kind of person.  And I don't think I’d get away with a comment like this in a lecture. Just imagine the questionnaire returns.) It’s a reasonable point, I suppose, if you add some further thoughts. If sex is a natural human activity and sex is very pleasurable and it is impossible to think properly while having sex then perhaps there is a tension between at least some parts of our nature and our wonderful intellectual capacities.

Still, is it just me or does this conjure up all sorts of other images? Perhaps Aristotle had tried it out. (‘Hang on, darling, I’m just wondering about a first figure syllogism…’)  And I suppose if you do manage to do a bit of demonstration while having sex, you perhaps are not really engaging properly in either activity.  Anyway, it's a shame he doesn't come back to this in 10.5 when he explains how his account of the way in which activities each have a characteristic pleasure explains various phenomena like this.

Wednesday, May 09, 2012


We are reading the Theages in our Thursday seminar.  One of the first issues that we put on the agenda was the question of authenticity.  A lot of readers think it just doesn't 'feel' like Plato, even if there is no particular obvious other bit of evidence that will show conclusively that he didn't write it.  I have to introduce the next section at tomorrow's meeting (124c-127a).  One of the interesting bits there is the use of a line of Euripides, which goes something like: 'tyrants get wise though association (sunousia) with the wise' (125b: σοφοὶ τύραννοι τῶν σοφῶν συνουσίᾳ).  Apparently a scholiast on Aristophanes Thesmophoriazusai (ad 21) says it comes from a play called Ajax at Locrus.

Anyway, I'm more interested by the fact that the line also appears at Republic 568a-b.  Coincidence?  You decide!  Let's see what the learned types make of this tomorrow but for now I'm wondering whether more than one of these short sometimes suspect dialogues have a similar connection to the more central works, particularly the Republic (e.g. Clitophon)Perhaps these are 'satellite' works that can stand alone but are knowingly put together with a view to a more well-know, demanding, and central work.  They are intended to be read alongside that larger work.  As far as authenticity goes, this can go either way: perhaps they are dialogues inspired by that large work, composed after Plato as 'spin-offs' from his original; or perhaps these are Plato's work too, like DVD extras.

Tuesday, May 01, 2012

My first demiurge kit

Look: with this construction kit you can make triangles to make simple solids to make elements to make worlds.  Warning: understanding of perfect intelligible paradigms not included.