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A New Way In to Plato’s Republic…

by on July 23, 2021

By Angie Hobbs, Professor of the Public Understanding of Philosophy at the University of Sheffield
I grew up reading Ladybird books in the 1960s and 1970s, and feel a deep affection for them (and indeed still possess – and use – quite a few on British flora and fauna). So when I was asked if I wanted to write one for the new Ladybird Expert series, I leaped at the chance.
Choosing a topic was easy: in my role promoting the public (and my own!) understanding of philosophy, I have in recent years found myself turning more and more to Plato’s Republic to elucidate topics of urgent current concern. There is so much to learn from, for example, Plato’s brilliant and incisive analysis of how a democracy can be subverted to tyranny by a cynical and opportunistic demagogue, or his scathing exposé of sophists and their peddling of ‘alternative facts’. Deciding on the structure was also easy. The Ladybird Expert format is strict: precisely 24 pages of text (in a font which allows for ca. 270–290 words per page) and accompanying illustrations.
One of the UK’s classic Ladybird children’s books
Plato is a superb teacher. Starting with the fundamental questions, ‘Why should I be just? What’s in it for me?’, he guides us seamlessly through the ethical and political ramifications and shows how they can be answered only by exploring their roots in psychology, epistemology, metaphysics and aesthetics. All I had to do was trust the basic structure of The Republic itself, add a couple of introductory pages on Plato’s life, times and work, plus a conclusion on the abiding influence of The Republic in a wide variety of fields and its acute relevance for us today.

Can drinking ever be a virtue?

by on July 22, 2021

We, here, at Classical Wisdom like to address the important stuff. We strive to tackle big issues, philosophical inquiries and historical investigations.
We also like to have a good time.
That’s why wine exists (in moderation, of course).
But it’s not just something to do… or consume… it’s been literally interwoven into innumerable cultures and histories… for thousands of years!

Book Review: “How to Tell a Joke,” By Michael Fontaine

by on July 21, 2021

Written by Ben Potter, Contributing Writer, Classical Wisdom

As Michael Fontaine’s latest book How to Tell a Joke: An Ancient Guide to the Art of Humor comes hot on the heels of his fascinating How to Drink: A Classical Guide to the Art of Imbibing, one might reasonably expect the Cornell professor’s next installment to be something along the lines of How to Play the Lyre to make up a student-friendly compendium entitled How to Throw an Amazing Party!

However, much like How to Drink was not a ‘how to’ guide to drunkenness (quite the opposite, in fact), How to Tell a Joke is not a step-by-step manual on the construction of clever puns nor on how to maximize your comic timing. Instead, and similarly to How to Drink, it is a guide to what sort of jokes are appropriate and, crucially, what sort of jokes are not. For ‘appropriate’ we could easily substitute the word ‘effective’ as the two treatises that make up this book, from Cicero and Quintilian, are excerpts from longer works both about how to be a top quality orator: On the Ideal Orator and The Education of the Orator, respectively.

Marcus Tullius Cicero, by Bertel Thorvaldsen, copy of Roman original, Thorvaldsens Museum, Copenhagen

Both men also break down the different types of jokes, why different reasons jokes are funny, and even the different consequences of humour in different scenarios. That this is all of those things and not a ‘how to’ guide on making people laugh is stressed within the closing lines of Cicero’s dialogue:

The Lost City of Thebes

by on July 19, 2021

By Sean Kelly, Managing Editor, Classical Wisdom
I’m sure like many of you, I’m a huge fan of Greek tragedy. For many people Sophocles’ Oedipus Rex can be their first exposure to the world of Ancient Greek literature, and the Classical world in general. More than two and a half millennia since its first performance, the play itself and its reputation endure undiminished. More than a masterpiece, the play can be an entry point into one of the most compelling branches of Greek myth: the Theban cycle. 
These stories tell the tale of Oedipus and the Riddle of the Sphinx, his warring sons locked in bloody civil war and, of course, his headstrong, rebellious daughter (and half-sister!) Antigone. All these myths center around the ancient city of Thebes, one of the most prominent and important in Greek myth. The city itself was a real place. One of power and might too: the city defeated Sparta, founded cities, and was a key player in ancient politics. 
Yet, the city vanished. What happened? How can a city so important simply disappear? Like the Riddle of the Sphinx, perhaps we can untie this mystery… 

In Search of Cleopatra: The Early Years

by on July 16, 2021

By Mary Naples, Contributing Writer, Classical Wisdom
Before apocryphally rolling out of the carpet and into legend, Cleopatra (69 BCE-30 BCE) already had a storied past. The twenty-one-year old and her thirteen-year old brother-husband Ptolemy XIII (62 BCE-47 BCE) ruled together for close to two years before said brother—under the influence of his overly ambitious advisors—successfully banished Cleopatra from Alexandria. Prudently using her mastery of the Egyptian language—the first Ptolemy to do so in the nearly three-hundred-year-old dynasty—Cleopatra mounted an army to defeat Ptolemy. It was only shortly thereafter that she had the legendary encounter with Caesar. Yet most of what has been penned about Cleopatra was drawn after her stars became aligned with those of ancient Rome; written from the decidedly biased perspective of the Romans. Time and again we know Cleopatra as the subversive siren from the corrupted East who seduced two of ancient Rome’s greatest generals.
What could account for so much ire against the Egyptian queen? The truth is that in order to justify an unpopular civil war against his rival Mark Antony (83 BCE-30 BCE), Gaius Octavius “Octavian” (later Augustus—63 BCE-14 CE) launched first a propaganda campaign then a full-scale war against Egypt by painting Cleopatra as an Eastern harlot who seduced Antony with her blend of depraved sorcery.  Octavian’s crusade against her soon took hold in the rank imaginations of the xenophobic and misogynist Romans. In his Odes, Horace calls her a “fatal monster,” Sextus Propertius refers to her as the “whore queen” in Elegies and in Lucan’s Poems she is termed “Egypt’s shame.” Yet what is never mentioned about the Egyptian queen is that she didn’t have a drop of Egyptian blood. In fact, her lineage derived from a Macedonian Greek, celebrated as a hero in ancient Rome, whose military accomplishments were the ambition of every Roman leader.
It is an irony that forasmuch as the Romans glorified Alexander the Great (356 BCE-323 BCE), they heaped an equivalent amount of scorn and disdain on Cleopatra who was not only Alexander’s political heir but may very well have been his biological heir as well. Founding member of the Ptolemaic dynasty, Ptolemy I Soter (367 BCE-83 CE) was one of Alexander’s three most trusted Macedonian generals and by some accounts, his half-brother as well. Although vilified within Greek city states, polygamy was practiced in the Greek kingdom of Macedonia, especially amongst the ruling class. Phillip II (386-336 BCE), Alexander’s father, had several wives and many children; Ptolemy was the son of one of his multiple wives. Alexander even had a sister named Kleopatra, which in Greek means “glory of the father.” Truth told, Cleopatra was a common name amongst queens in Ptolemaic Egypt; Cleopatra, its final queen, was number seven. Alas, Cleopatra’s link to Alexander continued after her demise; the Hellenistic period begins and ends with the deaths of Alexander and Cleopatra.