Category Archives: Classics General

Flatulence on the Rise: Aristophanes’ Clouds

I’ve just finished a draft of a short popular article for Omnibus, a journal for sixth-formers (ages 16-19) in the UK who are interested in Classics.  The piece, which will be out in January 2015, is on how Aristophanes thematizes ‘up’ and ‘down’ in his representation of Socrates’ Thinkery in the Clouds.

Just who is more cuddly?

This isn’t the first time I’ve treated the character of Socrates in the popular imagination.  In this circumstance, however, I am reminded of Heraclitus’ saying, that ‘the road up and down is one and the same’ (DK22B60), which hints at the point of the article.  Here is a preview, and the entire article is available on my web page:

In the history of philosophy, fewer first appearances are more memorable than the fantastic introduction of Socrates in Aristophanes’ Clouds, first performed in Athens in 423 BCE.  Gliding aloft in a basket, propped up by a crane, Socrates asks the simple buffoon Strepsiades, who has come to learn the philosophic arts, ‘why do you call on me, mere creature of a day?’ (Clouds 223).  At once, the audience knows that this strange man isn’t fit for terrestrial pursuits; he ‘walks on air, and studies the sun from above’, so as to mingle his peculiar cleverness with the ether (Clouds 225).  He’s trying to figure out what goes up, and what’s going down, which he wouldn’t be able to do from the ground.  Socrates’ special location, high up in his heroic chariot, also grants him conversational intercourse with the divinities – those lovely ladies known as the Clouds – which lights Strepsiades’ fire, his jealousy brewing.  For the comic action of the play to start, Socrates must descend to Strepsiades’ level and cool the old stallion off; once Socrates orders Strepsiades to ‘sit down on the holy bed’ in order to be initiated into his school of philosophy, the Thinkery, his arrival on earth is complete (Clouds 253).  The audience is now ready to see this ‘wise guy’ (sophos) in action…


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Laughter by Mary Beard

Mary Beard has written up a very stimulating and clear discussion of theories of laughter, which I encourage all readers to have a look at.  It does a nice job summarizing some of the main lines of thought on a tremendously difficult subject – one that, in my opinion, philosophers neglect all too often, especially given its historical significance as being considered an essential activity that differentiates humans from other animals.  I suspect that this is a case, however, in which Occam’s Razor doesn’t easily apply – attempts to reduce to a single overarching law of laughter are insufficient, but perhaps this is in part because the term ‘laughter’ lies somewhere between the general and the specific.  Would ‘humour’ work better, I wonder?

Click on this picture to follow the link to Mary Beard’s ‘What’s So Funny?’

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Northern Association for Ancient Philosophy 2014 – University of Leeds

The Northern Association for Ancient Philosophy Annual Meeting 2014

Department of Classics, University of Leeds

Monday April 7th – Tuesday April 8th 2014

Venue: The Brotherton Room, Special Collections, Brotherton Library
Monday April 7th
Parkinson Court, Parkinson Building, University of Leeds
Dr Brian D. Prince (Faculty of Philosophy, Oxford)
“The Forms as Powers in Plato’s Phaedo.”
Professor Mario-Jorge de Carvalho (Department of Philosophy, New University of Lisbon)
“A ‘Radiological’ Approach to Pausanias’ Speech (Plato’s Symposium).”
4.30pm-4.50pm: tea
Mr Nicolo Benzi (PhD candidate, Department of Classics and Ancient History, Durham)
“The semantics of noos, noein and their derivatives in the poetry of Xenophanes and Parmenides.”
5.50pm-6.20pm  Business meeting
Evening: Conference Dinner — University House, University of Leeds
Tuesday April 8th
The Justice, Ethics and Conventions of War in Ancient Thought
with the centenary conference: ‘Classics and Classicists in WWI’, April 8th-10th 2014
Professor Neville Morley (Department of Classics and Ancient History, Bristol)
“Might and Right: Thucydides on the ethics of deterrence and pre-emption.”
11.15am-11.45am coffee
Professor Malcolm Schofield (Faculty of Classics, Cambridge)
“Deciding ethically: Cicero on war and tyrannicide (and other problems).”
The ‘Classics and Classicists in World War I’ Centenary Exhibition opens Monday April 7th 1.00pm at Special Collections, The Brotherton Library, Parkinson Building.
For information on NAAP 2014 and Classics and Classicists in WWI:

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Reflections on Plato’s Academy Conference

The conference on Plato’s Academy, which took place this past week at the University of Athens, organized chiefly by Paul Kalligas (Athens), Chloe Balla (Crete), and Vassilis Karasmanis (Athens), was, in this writer’s opinion, an unqualified success.  Overall, the papers and discussion forced the many excellent scholars who participated to obtain greater precision in several areas of interest, of which I will discuss four [[1]].

Plato in the Shadow of Aristotle?

Plato in the Shadow of Aristotle? The New Plato Bust in the Acropolis Museum

First of all, there were heated debates concerning the interpretation and influence of Plato’s philosophy among his successors in the 4th and 3rd Centuries BCE.  This was an important theme in various papers, especially those of John Glucker (Tel Aviv), who cast doubt on the possibility that interpretive models associated with the so-called ‘Tubingen School’ could be justified by evidence from antiquity, and of Katharina Luchner (Munich), who supplied a very careful stylistic analysis which showed how the Seventh and Thirteenth Letters represented diverse appropriations of Plato’s philosophy through rhetorical and doctrinal presentation.  In this vein, too, the stylometrical and historical analyses of the works of contested authorship by Harold Tarrant (Newcastle, Australia) were a welcome addition, forcing us to think more about not just the importance of later Platonist dialogue-writers such as Philip of Opus, but also the role that these figures played in the institutions that helped to shape the reception of Plato’s philosophy.  Individual figures associated with the Early Academy were also featured: István Bodnár (Budapest) presented a good case for the differentiation between two camps in the Early Academy with regard to the formulation and use of the mathematical sciences (astronomy and harmonic theory); Henry Mendell (CSU-Los Angeles) expanded our understanding of the actual observations of celestial objects by the astronomers from Cyzicus (including Eudoxus), highlighting their role in providing empirical evidence for Aristotle’s use, while at the same time casting doubt on Eudoxus’ importance within the Academy; and John Dillon (Dublin) aimed to elucidate the applied ethics of Polemon, which differentiated him from his senior colleague, Xenocrates, whose dialectical approaches to the precepts of Pythagoras and Triptolemus I discussed in my own contribution.  A brilliant and, in many ways, charmingly paradigmatic teacher-student debate exploded between Vassilis Karasmanis (Athens) and Michalis Sialaros (London), who took opposing sides on the issue of whether Euclid could be considered a product of Plato’s Academy, with the issue left in the balance at the end (although I probably lean against Euclid’s Platonic inheritance, but not necessarily for the reasons Sialaros pointed out).

A second ‘hot topic’ of the conference was the articulation of Platonic doctrines and schools in the late Hellenistic and Roman Republican periods.  Oliver Primavesi’s (Munich) intrepid analysis of the manuscript tradition of Alexander of Aphrodisias revealed a new testimonium for Eudorus of Alexandria’s metaphysics, which focused on the relationship between the material principle and the Forms.  David Sedley (Cambridge) argued compellingly that Carneades’ atheistic sorites arguments presented not an attack on the Stoics, but rather an example of a particular mode of Academic disputation on various topics.   Several hetairoi of Sedley focused especially on the history of the Academy in the 2nd and 1st Centuries BCE.  Myrto Hatzimichali (Cambridge) presented a careful analysis of Philodemus’ approach to writing about the scholarchs of the Academy, focusing on both historiographical and philosophical elements.  Mauro Bonazzi (Milano) and Georgia Tsouni (Bern) obtained mostly divergent conclusions (to my eye) of the philosophical and doctrinal underpinnings of Antiochus of Ascalon, extending some of the conclusions they reached in their earlier contributions to The Philosophy of Antiochus (ed. Sedley, Cambridge 2012) by thinking more about the sociology and competitive philosophical milieu of Antiochus’ ‘Old Academy’.  The dilemma of Antiochus’ Platonism remains difficult to solve, if stimulating to contemplate.

There was a palpable sense of symbiosis between Hatzimichali’s paper and that of Matthias Haake (Münster), who provided a most compact discussion of the political and social history of the Academy in Athens (with appeal especially to inscriptional evidence) from the mid-4th Century BCE until its ‘end’ (or one of its many ‘ends?’ – as Bonazzi’s paper encouraged us to contemplate) with Sulla’s arrival in Athens in 86 BCE.  It is my hope that they will use one another’s discoveries to nuance their own contributions, if the papers go on to be published.  And Paul Cartledge (Cambridge) provided a thoughtful, if finally aporetic, discussion of the social and political influence of the ‘members’ (scare-quotes in original) of the Academy in the political culture of the Greek world, topped of with a comparative analysis between the Academy and the RAND Corporation.  Cartledge’s paper was a fit dedication to the late Trevor Saunders, who did so much to encourage us to think about Plato’s Laws beyond Plato.

They told us the one on the left was Plato, but I rather think it's Plocrates (h/t to Christopher Rowe)

They told us the one on the left was Plato, but I rather think it’s Plocrates (h/t to Christopher Rowe)

Finally, two papers in particular encouraged us to think about possible allusions to academic practices embedded in the dialogues of Plato.  Thomas Szlezák (Tübingen) sought to extract evidence for unwritten doctrines from within Plato’s dialogues, and there was a vigorous debate concerning the authority and status of the enigmatic statements concerning what cannot be said at the present moment by Plato’s speakers; and the ever-effervescent Alexander Nehamas (Princeton) showed that the way in which Plato works out the consequences of Zeno’s claim in the Parmenides that ‘all is not many’ through dialectical exercises in the second half of the work, which might point to actual practice in logic.

We were able to visit the new Acropolis Museum, where we saw new copies of busts of Plato and Aristotle – as well as the homunculi versions of Plato and Socrates you see above – and had a short tour of the park known as the Academy, where the photo associated with my gravatar to the left was snapped (extemporaneous photo by Henry Mendell of me lecturing in Plato’s Academy, actually at the 4th Century Peristyle building that I fantasize was the location of  Plato’s Academy).  

I admit to having fought back a tear or two while standing there, and the generous dogs who occupied the park didn’t mind at all.

[[1]] Unfortunately,  I had to leave early in the morning on Sunday and sadly missed what I’m sure were terrific papers on the archaeology and material culture of the Academy by Manolis Panayotopoulos Tania Chatziefthymiou (Athens), Effie Lygkouri-Tolia (Athens), Ada Caruso (Rome),  Voula Bardani (Athens), Daniela Marchiandi (Torino), Angelos Matthaiou (Athens), Ismini Trianti (Ioannina), and Stephen Miller (UC-Berkeley).

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Landy on Girard and His Acolytes

My friend Josh Landy at Stanford has, with characteristic pizzazz, demolished Girardian hermeneutics in a recent article (published in the online journal Republic of Letters).  I encourage everyone to take a look at it: whether you agree with Landy’s arguments or not, it is laugh-out-loud good (notice that I did not use the acronym: now that I’m living in the UK, where acronyms multiply like rabbits, I refuse to use them except for business purposes).

Girard and Material Monism

I met Girard only once, at Stanford, and I would tend to agree with Landy’s characterization.  He did betray a lack of detailed knowledge and sensitivity to nuance in his reading: when he spoke about the Dionysiac aspect of Ancient Greek culture, he used Euripides’ Bacchae in a perplexingly straightforward way, as though Bacchae were, simply put, an evidentiary means by which one could induce broader general traits of the ‘Ancient Greeks’ and obtain an objective grounds for dismissal of Greek ‘immorality’.   He obviously knew nothing about, for example, the material evidence of Bacchic-Dionysiac communities (e.g. from burials) or textual evidence (e.g. from the Derveni Papyrus) which complicates the story much further.  Hmmphh.  It always struck me as odd that, while, as Landy notes, Girardian interpretations are meant to be ‘generative’, they are strikingly reductive at the same time.  See above about acronyms, which, too, generate without limit (if you doubt this, come to the UK), but often reduce the content to something easy to recognize, if virtually impossible to explain (and possibly obscuring what lies underneath).  Landy closes the article by comparing Girard’s ‘scientific’ approach to literature with material monism, eliciting the ghost of Thales.

My only real disagreement with Landy lies in his dismissal of Kill Bill 1.  The aristeia scene at the end is simply uncanny.  And if we’re forced to take sides…Cindy Crawford any day of the week.

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The One-man Symposium Show of Lucian

Silenus and his Mask

Slow going is the proper term to describe this new project.  I’m trying to investigate the reception of Plato’s Symposium in the ancient world [[1]].   This is already a challenge, since there is very little information concerning commentaries and adaptations of Plato’s Symposium in the philosophical tradition: Calvenus Taurus (T 5 Lakmann) complained that the lazy budding philosophers of his day only wanted to hear about Alcibiades’ revelry; Plutarch might have written his own version of the Symposium, which would have focused on, among other things, obtaining a definition of love (e.g. F 135 Sandbach); Porphyry appears to have written a commentary on it, of which one testimonium survives (177 T Smith).  But very little by way of philosophical commentary on Plato’s justly celebrated work is extant, or even hinted at, in the ancient world.

On the other hand, so-called ‘literary’ receptions of the Symposium are somewhat plentiful: witness, for example, Lucian’s Symposium, also known as the Lapiths, which begins by exploiting Alcibiades’ late entrance:

Philo: All sorts of tomfoolery, so they say, happened yesterday to you guys at the dinner party at Aristaenetus’  house: some philosophical speeches were made, thanks to which a quite substantial quarrel arose.  Unless Charinus was lying, it all came to blows, and the party was broken up by bloodshed.

Lycinus:  Where did Charinus get hold of this information, Philo?   He didn’t eat with us!

Philo: He said he heard it from Dionicus, the doctor.   I suspect that Dionicus was one of the guests.

Lycinus: True enough; but he wasn’t even there for all of it from the beginning: he came in quite late, when the battle was half over, right before it came to blows. So I’d be surprised if he could say anything specific about it, since he wasn’t there for the beginning of the quarrel which ended in bloodshed.

(Lucian, Symposium or The Lapiths 1)

Obviously, Lucian is exploiting the trope of distancing the account through establishment of narrative registers found at the beginning of Plato’s Symposium (172b-174a); but he innovates by making Dionicus arrive late, like Alcibiades, and casting him as a doctor, like Eryximachus.  Moreover, at the end of the story, after the dispersal of the dinner party, he stands in for Socrates too, who tucks in his friends before leaving for the Lyceum (223d):

Lycinus: The bridegroom, after his wound had been dressed by the doctor Dionicus, was carried home, head bandaged, in the carriage in which he was planning to carry his bride – bitter was the wedding he celebrated!  As for the rest, well, Dionicus treated them to the best of his ability and they were carried off to bed, most of them puking in the streets.

Sounds like a Thursday night in Newcastle!  At any rate, it is somewhat striking to see Dionicus take on so many masks here: the person who told Phoenix the story of Agathon’s party, Eryximachus, Alcibiades, and finally Socrates.   Maybe that’s part of the reason why Lycinus quotes the famous closing lines of several plays of Euripides (Alcestis, Andromache, Bacchae, Helen, and Medea) at the end of Lucian’s work (Symposium 48):

Many are the shapes of divine things,

And many are the things the gods bring to pass unexpectedly,

As things expected were not brought to completion.

πολλαὶ μορφαὶ τῶν δαιμονίων

πολλὰ δ’ἀέλπτως κραίνουσι θεοί,

καὶ τὰ δοκηθέντ’ οὐκ ἐτελέσθη.

Like Proteus, or a mime performer, Dionicus combines many of the shapes of those heroic figures of the Symposium‘s literary past into one character, a kind of syncretism that – in itself – counterbalances the squabbling and outright brutal warfare demonstrated by the philosophers whom he was left to tend to at the end of the work.  Like the Silenic Socrates who, according to Alcibiades (215b; cf. 217a), is full of “statuettes of the gods” (ἔνδοθεν ἀγάλματα ἔχοντες θεῶν) – and whose speech adapts and comes to contain all the others that come before – Dionicus embodies many of characters who participated in the paradigmatic Platonic Symposium.  Lucian’s is a unique (I think) model of intertextual syncretism in the ancient literary tradition that reinterprets Plato’s masterpiece of literary and philosophical composition on its own terms.  But perhaps I’m wrong, and people can point me to other texts?

[[1]]  It is worth citing, among others, Richard Hunter’s Plato’s Symposium (Oxford, 2006) as well as Harold Tarrant’s Plato’s First Interpreters (London, 2000) as major studies that deal with the reception of Plato’s Symposium.

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Socrates Redivivus Iuvenis

Infancy Gospel of St. Thomas

OK, I got really confused at the beginning of this article, when I read in the caption under the picture that *Simonides* said, “with Socrates’ help…Greeks might be able to admit their limitations.”  Uh…do they mean Simonides of Ceos, who died around the time when Socrates was a little boy?  So perhaps, I began to wonder, there is a pseudo-Simonides oral tradition in which Simonides is said to have praised the young Socrates, not unlike the apocryphal Infancy tradition that posited the wisdom and miracles of Jesus.  How had I missed this kernel of biographical evidence for Socrates?  Then I read on and realized my homonymous blunder…

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