Monday, June 25, 2012

Why knowing things is good

I’ve been thinking about some uplifting Epicurean sayings about pleasure and philosophy [1].
Here’s the first, Vatican Saying 27:
Ἐπὶ μὲν τῶν ἄλλων ἐπιτηδευμάτων μόλις τελειωθεῖσιν ὁ καρπὸς ἔρχεται, ἐπὶ δὲ φιλοσοφίας συντρέχει τῇ γνώσει τὸ τερπνόν· οὐ γὰρ μετὰ μάθησιν ἀπόλαυσις, ἀλλὰ ἅμα μάθησις καὶ ἀπόλαυσις. 
Bailey translates:
‘In all other occupations the fruit comes painfully after completion, but in philosophy pleasure goes hand in hand with knowledge; for enjoyment does not come after comprehension, but comprehension and enjoyment are simultaneous.’ 
Compare Diogenes of Oinoanda fr. 33.VI.11–VII.10 Smith for the idea that the pleasure and the cause of the pleasure can be simultaneous: we do not eat and then afterwards experience pleasure because of eating nor do we ejaculate and then later experience pleasure because of that [2]. In these cases what causes the pleasure and the pleasure itself are simultaneous.

This Saying is mostly concerned with pointing out that knowledge and pleasure come about simultaneously (at the moment I come to know something I simultaneously enjoy knowing that something). Knowing is just all by itself something pleasant. I don’t need to wait for that knowledge to be useful or to lead to some later pleasure; it’s pleasant all by itself and the pleasure occurs as soon as something is known. So, like the Diogenes of Oinoanda fragment, it might well be aimed at dispelling the idea that the Epicureans think that knowledge—like virtue—is good only in a crude way because of some later pleasure that it might produce. Instead, they want to say that knowledge is good because it is pleasant immediately and all by itself. The chronological claim is perhaps best understood as a claim about the nature of the value of knowledge. Knowledge is intrinsically pleasant and therefore valuable; knowledge does not have to wait to cause some later pleasure for it to be valuable.

The Epicureans clearly feel some pressure to recognise a value of knowledge that is not merely contingent on its producing some later pleasure while still holding firm to their hedonist axiology. Perhaps the idea is this: It is not pleasant to know some trigonometry just because it will allow me later on to build a house efficiently and live in a secure and water-tight dwelling. Yes, it will do that. But knowing that the square on the hypotenuse is equal to etc. etc. is just pleasant all by itself. Or, if we want a more specific example of some Epicurean ‘philosophy’, perhaps it is not pleasant to know that lightning is not caused by divine anger just because that will allow me to live a life free from superstitious anxieties. Yes, it will do that. But knowing that lightning is caused thus-and-so is just pleasant all by itself. (Compare Ep. Hdt. 78–9 and Ep. Pyth. 86 which also stress the necessity of a sufficient knowledge of such things for living a good life.)

It is still the case that the value of knowledge lies in its being pleasant, of course, but its pleasantness is intrinsic and inseperable. The Saying does not say whether it continues to be pleasant to know something. A lot would depend on the precise meaning of gnōsis and mathēsis. For example: if the latter means ‘learning’ in the sense of the event of coming to know something, then it will not follow that just because this is all by itself pleasant just when it happens, it will continue to be pleasant to have learned something. But the sense of the event of coming to know something makes best sense of the claim there need be no time-lag between the mathēsis and the pleasure. (This is not a common word in Epicurus. Nor is the cognate verb common. But compare SV 74: ‘In philosophical shared inquiry the one who is beaten gains more according to how much more he learns [prosemathen].’) The former, however, gnōsis, is more likely to mean an on-going state of knowing or understanding. (See, for example, its use in Ep. Hdt. 78–9). (It’s a familiar problem with ancient philosophical claims for the pleasantness of knowing that it is sometimes unclear whether they mean that it is pleasant to come-to-know or to continue-to-know, or both. And the reasons for making either claim or both claims might have to be different.)

[1] I’ve been thinking a bit about Epicureanism again lately because Pamela Gordon very kindly sent me a copy of her new book, The Invention and Gendering of Epicurus (Ann Arbor, 2012): very interesting it is too.

[2] For a recent discussion see D. N. Sedley, ‘Diogenes of Oenoanda on Cyrenaic hedonism’, PCPS 48 (2002), 159–74

Friday, June 15, 2012

Stale cava

It's a busy time here, what with all the marking and grading and reading and registering and writing reports and agreeing marks and viva-ing and chasing scripts from other examiners or students or finding someone has answered some question here and not there and so on.  I don't think I've been able to think about any of my own work for at least two weeks because I've been squinting at other people's handwriting or leafing through bundles of printouts.  Soon, soon, I promise myself.

And it's raining most of the time.  Which at least washes away the smell of stale cava from the pavements when it has dripped off a pale undergraduate who has emerged blinking from an examination hall to find some 'hilarious' friends ready in ambush with poorly-aimed sticky fizzy wine.

I'm not in the best of moods.

On the other hand, the work I've read is pretty impressive given all that our students have to do and the slightly eccentric method by which we decide to grade their achievements.  Some clever things, some hard work and only occasionally the feeling that what I'm reading is the complete and undigested contents of a rapidly-acquired superficial acquaintance with information that should have been thought about properly.  So hooray for the students who work hard and are clever.  Not that this means I won't curse them in the coming week as they roam the street in be-blazered and chino-shorted gangs, bumping into respectable civilians and imagining that they really are quite the most important people here.  They will all leave soon.

And then.  And then I have a year of sabbatical to do some proper reading and writing.

One last moan.  CUP have at last produced Myles Burnyeat's collected papers.  Two volumes.  Nice paper and sturdy binding (certainly feels sturdier than some recent OUP things).  But £75 per volume.  £75, for pity's sake.  That's £150 for about 740 pages of things.  I'd been saving up credit from reading and refereeing work for the Press, but this has now blown a big hole in my account.  £150.  Really!  (But, the good people at amazon will do you a deal on the two volume set -- see below -- and I am pleased to see that unlike some other volumes of this kind it has the handy marks that indicate the pagination in the original publication.  That's a very good thing.)

Wednesday, June 06, 2012

Summer wardrobe

I like a good philosophical t-shirt and there are some good ones here, including some ancient types.

Jazz hands!

I'm supposed to be marking exams at the moment so I shouldn't be mucking about on the interweb.  But look!  Anyhoo, here is something funny: