Skip to Content

Category Archives: Philosophy

[post_grid id="10007"]

Do Philosopher Queens Exist?

by October 17, 2020

You know how it goes… all ancient men hated women. Right?
And Socrates… well, he was a terrible husband. So surely that means he wouldn’t have anything nice to say about the ‘fairer’ sex.
And then, there is the Woman Question...
It’s a scene in Plato’s Republic…. The debate between Glaucon and Socrates is over what women’s nature, role, and political position in the human community is or ought to be.
The solution is notoriously unsatisfying.
Painting of Socrates

Aspasia and Socrates

Indeed, most readers across time and space have found reasons to quarrel with it, whether by attempting to explain that Plato did not mean women to study philosophy after all, or by considering that the caveat of women’s relative weakness undermines the whole of the text’s treatment of women.
But what if…. Socrates (aka Plato) actually wished to educate women?
Perhaps even… gasp… with the goal of creating a Philosopher Queen?
It is this point that one of our Classical Wisdom Symposium speakers – the Assistant Professor at St. John’s University, Department of Philosophy, Mary Townsend – addresses in her excellent book The Women Question in Plato’s Republic.
It’s a book that may make you rethink your views on the Republic… and indeed Plato himself!
In the words of Emily Wilson, Professor in the Humanities at the University of Pennsylvania and British Classicist famous for her Odyssey translation:
“Townsend’s book should be required reading not only for classicists and ancient philosophy scholars but also for political theorists and people interested in gender studies more broadly.”
Listen to Mary speak live on… Pleonexia.
What is Pleonexia??
First, let me ask – why are we humans almost never satisfied with what they have?
Even after major successes, why do we continue to find new avenues of desire?
The examples of this are endless… but we know in our hearts of hearts that we are all guilty of this.
Well, fortunately for us, Plato wrote many works that explore aspects of our desire for more, always more, the kind of wanting that was known as “pleonexia” in ancient Greek.
In fact, Plato shows us a way to transform our Pleonexia into a pursuit for the highest possible version of what we want: the Good Itself.
Make sure to sign up for our upcoming Symposium (One Week Away!) to learn all about Pleonexia and our desire for more…
NB: Our wine option has closed, but that doesn’t mean you have to miss out! In fact, you can get either the One Day or Two Day Pass HERE (now discounted!)
IMMERSE Yourself in the Ancient World… For a Weekend of Wit & Wisdom

Is Aristotle Relevant to Democracy?

by October 15, 2020

It’s time to take a philosophical deep dive…
We all know Aristotle is one of the great pillars of ancient philosophy… we also know that’s he’s not particularly easy to read.
Nonetheless, his Politics stands as one the seminal works on the topic… but two and half thousands years later, we have to ask:
Is Aristotle relevant to modern democracy? Is it time for a revival of Aristotle’s Political philosophy and theory?
Aristotle at Freiburg

Bronze statue, University of Freiburg, Germany, 1915

This is what Adriel M. Trott, Chair and Associate Professor in Philosophy at Wabash College, Indiana and one of our Classical Wisdom Symposium speakers, has set out to prove.
While the history of political philosophy is a series of configurations of nature and reason, Aristotle’s conceptualization of nature is unique because it is not opposed to or subordinated to reason.
Adriel M. Trott, who focuses on ancient, continental and political philosophy, uses Aristotle’s definition of nature as an internal source of movement to argue that he viewed community as something that arises from the activity that forms it rather than being a form imposed on individuals.
Using these definitions, Trott develops readings of Aristotle’s four arguments for the naturalness of the polis, interprets deliberation and the constitution in Politics as the form and final causes of the polis, and reconsiders Aristotle’s treatment of slaves and women.
And she does this all to show that Aristotle is relevant for contemporary efforts to improve and encourage genuine democratic practices.
Something, I think we can all agree, is a very important topic at this time.
You can discover for yourself Adriel’s insights and Aristotle’s relevancy in her latest book: Aristotle on the Nature of Community.
Described as, “a fresh, substantial, and engaging contribution to the ongoing Aristotle revival in political philosophy and theory” by Stephen Salkever, Journal of the History of Philosophy – Aristotle on the Nature of Community is a thoughtful and provocative re-reading of Aristotle.
You can get your Own Copy Here.
But wait! There’s More! Adriel M. Trott has written extensively on Aristotle…
In her first book, Aristotle on the Matter of Form: A Feminist Metaphysics of Generation, Adriel M. Trott allows us to think anew with Aristotle… not just about form and matter, but also body and soul, male and female, and much else. Informed by and responding to feminist engagements with these issues, Trott challenges binary models of these couplets, often attributed to Aristotle, to show us innovative possibilities for thinking how we come to be and what we might become.
All Classical Wisdom Symposium Attendees will get an additional 30% OFF “Aristotle on the Matter of Form”
You can also catch Adriel M. Trott LIVE at the Inaugural Classical Wisdom Symposium… Make sure to check out all the details below!
(You may have noticed that the option to buy the Wine Included ticket has now closed… but don’t worry! You can still enjoy the full two day conference, watch the presentations and panel discussions with our One Day or Two Day pass.)

Can Marcus Really Help?

by October 8, 2020

Marcus Aurelius is a pop icon. Well, almost
Don’t get me wrong – I’m definitely a fan of this up and coming trend. I like to think of him as a gateway drug to philosophy and the classics.
I’m also not one of ‘those’ classics lovers who only like obscure references and lesser known historical figures. Just because Marcus Aurelius is popular, doesn’t mean he doesn’t have something to contribute. In fact, I think he is enjoying success for the very reason that he is so relevant, despite being basically a king who died over 1800 years ago.
I know some ask, how can a Roman emperor be helpful to us in the here and now? What does his life have to do with ours?
Well, more than you might first imagine.
It’s actually something that cognitive psychotherapist and one of our keynote speakers at Classical Wisdom’s Inaugural Symposium, Donald Robertson, explains eloquently in his widely successful book, How to Think Like a Roman Emperor.
As many of you know, Marcus Aurelius was the final famous Stoic philosopher of the ancient world and The Meditations, his personal journal, survives to this day as one of the most loved self-help and spiritual classics of all time.
Marcus Real

Modern super realistic depiction of Marcus Aurelius from https://cesaresderoma.com/

In How to Think Like a Roman Emperor, Donald Robertson weaves the life and philosophy of Marcus Aurelius together seamlessly to provide a compelling modern-day guide to the Stoic wisdom followed by countless individuals throughout the centuries as a path to achieving greater fulfillment and emotional resilience.
How to Think Like a Roman Emperor takes readers on a transformative journey along with Marcus, following his progress from a young noble at the court of Hadrian―taken under the wing of some of the finest philosophers of his day―through to his reign as emperor of Rome at the height of its power.
An impressive feat, of course… but what does his life have to do with us, you may ask?
Robertson does an excellent job in showing just how Marcus used philosophical doctrines and therapeutic practices to build emotional resilience and endure tremendous adversity…. He goes even further to guide readers by applying the same methods to their own lives.
Combining remarkable stories from Marcus’s life with insights from modern psychology and the enduring wisdom of his philosophy, How to Think Like a Roman Emperor puts a human face on Stoicism and offers a timeless and essential guide to handling the ethical and psychological challenges we face today.
And let’s be honest… we could all use a bit more emotional resilience these days!
You can also watch Donald speak LIVE at the Classical Wisdom’s Online Symposium, taking place October 24-25.
Donald Robertson will be speaking LIVE at our Classical Wisdom Symposium both in his own presentation on Politics and Anger in Marcus Aurelius and on the panel discussion: What power does the individual have in Politics?
Make sure to check out all the details of our Symposium below!

Corruption in the Classical World

by October 2, 2020

Written by Ronan McLaverty-Head, Contributing Writer, Classical Wisdom

The barbs traded between Demosthenes and Aeschines in 4th century BC Athens would not be out of place on cable news today. After their attempt to draw up a treaty between Athens and Philip of Macedon, Demosthenes and Aeschines fell out spectacularly. Demosthenes accused Aeschines of corruption of the highest order—treason (παραπρεσβεία γραφή “false embassy”)—claiming that Aeschines had been bribed by Philip.

Aeschines countered with an ad hominem, claiming that Timarchus, who had backed Demosthenes, was allegedly a male prostitute whose reputation as such invalidated him. Demosthenes replied by accusing Aeschines of a further raft of deceit. Demosthenes tried to prove bribery, but lacked sufficient evidence.

Here we have one of the major problems with accusations of corruption: they are intended to denigrate an opponent. Effectively, they are character assassinations and should often be taken with a pinch of salt. However, the point here is not so much whether Aeschines was in fact corrupt but that Athenian society clearly had a view of something that counted as corruption: bribery.

Demosthenes Practicing Oratory by Jean-Jules-Antoine Lecomte du Nouy (1842–1923)

“As for the question of bribery or no bribery, of course you are agreed that it is a scandalous and abominable offense to accept money for acts injurious to the commonwealth … the man who takes them and is thereby corrupted can no longer be trusted by the state as a judge of sound policy” (Demosthenes, On the False Embassy).

Views on corruption in ancient Rome were similar. In 70 BC, Cicero made his name as a lawyer in a series of speeches in the corruption trial of Gaius Verres, the former governor of Sicily. Cicero’s charges against Verres included embezzlement and extortion.

As is often the case with Cicero, it is sometimes difficult to separate his rhetorical flourishes from the facts, but again, what matters here is that his audience already considered embezzlement and extortion to be practices unbefitting a public official. As Frank H. Cowles says, Verres “stood for the whole corrupt system.”

Demosthenes leaving the Assembly in shame after his first failure at public speaking, by Walter Crane

Concern about corruption went to the very top of Roman society. Emperor Alexander Severus (AD 208 – 235) indicted an imperial official who had received money for peddling influence at court. This practice was known as fumum vendere – “smoke-selling” and the punishment was grimly appropriate: a fire of wet logs was set around the accused and he suffocated to death.

“Thereupon Alexander ordered him to be indicted, and when all the charges had been proved by witnesses … he issued instructions to bind him to a stake [and] ordered a fire of straw and wet logs to be made and had him suffocated by the smoke, and all the while a herald cried aloud, ‘The seller of smoke is punished by smoke’” (Historia Augusta: Life of Severus Alexander).

(Ironically, Severus Alexander, when campaigning against Germanic tribes, tried to buy peace by engaging in bribery. This alienated many in his army and eventually led to his overthrow.)

Manuscript Pal. lat. 899 which contains the Historia Augusta. Source: heidelberg.de

Any modern reader of the classics might conclude that the ancient world mostly turned a blind eye to what we would consider to be corruption, given that the subject doesn’t come up all that often. Such a conclusion, however, would be mistaken.

Why is this? First of all, in both the ancient and modern world, corruption is often quite difficult to prosecute. Second, what we might see as corruption may not have been corruption when judged by classical standards. Officials were often unsalaried and the charging of fees was a way of collecting income and managing access to an official’s time.

Similarly, a whole system of patronage—you scratch my back, I’ll scratch yours—could be bypassed by those without connections by the exchange of money. “Bribery” was in this sense a social leveler.

Does such a thing count as corruption? Much depends on who benefits. Cicero’s admonition still rings true:

“Let those who are to preside over the state obey two precepts of Plato: one, that they so watch for the well-being of their fellow-citizens that they have reference to it in whatever they do, forgetting their own private interests; the other, that they care for the whole body politic, and not, while they watch over a portion of it, neglect other portions” (Cicero, On Moral Duties).

Ultimately, Demosthenes was right: corruption is “injurious to the commonwealth.” As a recent UN panel concluded, modern high-level corruption in the form of tax evasion and money laundering costs society $500 billion each year: “We’re all being robbed, especially the world’s poor.”

Alas, Cicero’s salus populi is not yet suprema lex.

Epicurus and The Pursuit of Happiness

by September 30, 2020

Written by Lydia Serrant, Contributing Writer, Classical Wisdom

We’ve all been there. Fear, anxiety, depression, existential dread…these are common side effects of the human condition and part of life experience.

No matter where you have found yourself in history or what may be happening in global society, anxiety, depression and other mental and emotional challenges present themselves to us all at some point in our journey through life.

Greek philosopher Epicurus (341 – 270BC) recognized the suffering within himself and his fellow men and women. He established the Epicurean school of philosophy that promoted the Art of Simple Living.

Bust of Epicurus

Epicureanism went on to become one of the most influential philosophies in ancient times. It is known mostly for the Forty Principle Doctrines – a guide for how to live the happiest possible life.

However, if reading through 40 doctrines seems too overwhelming, or you’re just short on time, the Tetrapharmakos a.k.a ‘The Four-Part Remedy’ is a great place for any budding Epicureanist or happiness seeker to start!

You Have Nothing to Fear from God

In the Hellenistic period, the gods were all-seeing, all-powerful entities that made puppets of mankind. It was widely believed that if one angered the gods, it would result in torture and punishment during life and after death.

Epicurus, in contrast, did not believe that humans could do anything to anger the gods. He argued that they were too mighty to be troubled by the actions of mortal men. Instead, Epicurus believed the gods to be role models for humanity and argued that one should try to reach their level of happiness and self-empowerment.

Rome During the Decadence, Thomas Couture, 1847

Epicurus’ idea was that good should be done for the good itself, not because of the threat of punishment. He saw guilt as an obstacle to true happiness.

If one wishes to achieve a calm and serene mind, then actions that incur guilt should be avoided at all costs.

For Epicurus, the gods exist not to be feared, but emulated.

Don’t Waste Time Worrying About Death

Death. There is nothing more final. It has long been argued that the burden of humanity is to live with the knowledge that we will one day succumb to death. The end of our lives is one of the biggest anxieties for us all, and for many, this fear can limit one’s ability to live a full and happy life.

Epicurus did not believe in an afterlife. But whether you believe in an afterlife or not, his advice about death is useful:

“Death means nothing to us…when we exist death is not yet present, and when death is present, we do not exist.”

Good point, Epicurus! Whatever you believe in, death brings to us a different state of consciousness. There is no way of knowing how we will perceive death, as no one has come back to tell us what happens.

The Last Day of Pompeii, Karl Bryullov, 1828

For those who are worried about missing out on future events after death, the Epicureans say that’s the same as worrying about all the events you missed out on before you were born.

At the end of the day, all we can do is live a full life in the present. Everything else is beyond our control.

What is Good for You is Easy to Get

The Epicureans consider humans to have very basic needs, and say it is our desires that cause us the greatest suffering.

To survive and do well, all a human needs is food, shelter and interpersonal relationships, all of which are relatively easy to get. Simple foods that give nutrition and energy are much easier to come by than a Michelin star meal.

It is our desire for more that causes needless anxiety. This is especially relevant to today’s consumerist society, constantly bombarded with advertisements that tell us we are nothing without the finest house or the newest gadgets.

What is Terrible is Easy to Endure

How’s that?

After much observation of nature, the Epicureans concluded the following about pain and suffering:

  1. Pain and suffering are either brief or enduring
  2. Pain and suffering are either mild or chronic
  3. Pain that is both chronic and enduring is the rarest kind

Human Suffering by Leo van Aken, 1890

So, terrible things may not be a walk in the park, but they may not be as bad as you may think, or at least last as long as you fear. The Epicurean logic is that if your pain is terrible then it won’t last for very long, and if it does last long it will be mild or you will grow accustomed to it.

This is perhaps one of the most controversial doctrines of the Tetrapharmakos. But it does have a point: we live in a world that has limits. All humans, animals and conditions have a limit, and the same can be said for the nature of suffering. It is a better use of energy to understand it than it is to worry about it, because at the end of the day, suffering cannot be avoided. Many things occur that are outside of our control. However, if one understands the nature of suffering, one may better avoid unnecessary pain, or at the very least, be able to accept when pain and suffer unexpectedly arise.

How to Deal with Change: Advice from the Stoics

by September 4, 2020

Written by Lydia Serrant, Contributing Writer, Classical Wisdom
‘’You have power over your mind – not outside events. Realize this, and you will find strength’’ ~ Marcus Aurelius
Are you finding yourself struggling with both expected and unexpected changes in your life? Change is common to the human experience, and no one understood this better than the ancient stoics.
Stoicism was a philosophy that spread throughout ancient Greece and Rome from the 3rd Century BC and was popular among all classes of society for around 400 years.  The three most prominent stoics of the time were Seneca the Younger, a playwright and empirical advisor; Epictetus, who rose from slave to teacher; and last but certainly not least, Marcus Aurelius ‘The Philosopher Emperor’ who ruled Rome between 161-180CE.
The stoics were no strangers to unwelcome change. Stoics had their fair share of opponents and more than once found themselves on the wrong side of the law. Emperor Nero particularly opposed the Stoic thinkers, despite the fact that he was once a student of Seneca. Those that Nero did not sentence to death were banished from Rome, where they further developed Stoic philosophy in exile.
Death of Seneca

The Death of Seneca, by Manuel Domínguez Sánchez.

During his exile in Corsica, Seneca wrote that his change in circumstance was not at all that bad. Seneca believed that change is nothing but a change of place, mentally or physically. And you will often find people in the same place of their own free will.
According to Stoic Philosophy, it is a state of mind, rather than circumstance, that creates the true challenges and adversities associated with change.
Common resistance to change
The problem with change is that most of the time, we like things the way they are. Even if your life is not a comfortable one, most people prefer to stick with the ‘Devil They Know’ than to venture out into the great unknown.
It is tempting to cling to daily rituals. Having systems and routines in place provides a sense of security. We are not taught to see the growth that can be had in change, instead, we are told to try to get things ‘back to normal’ as closely and as quickly as possible.
Seneca

The Death of Seneca, Simon Francios Ravenet I , 1768.

The Stoics knew that without change, none of us would exist. The universe itself had to undergo several stages of change before Life itself could be allowed to exist. Marcus Aurelius wrote that ‘Change is natures delight’ meaning that change is actually woven into the universe. We humans are built for change and embracing new challenges is an opportunity for growth and development.
“Frightened of change? But what can exist without it? What’s closer to nature’s heart? Can you take a hot bath and leave the firewood as it was? Eat food without transforming it? Can any vital process take place without something being changed?
Can’t you see? It’s just the same with you—and just as vital to nature.” ~ Meditations, Book VII.18
Most of the fear around change is that we often fear that change is bad. Seneca once wrote, ”We are more often frightened than hurt, and we suffer more in imagination than in reality.”
Most often it is our thoughts, rather than the change itself, that is the source of our resistance to change.
Bust of Marcus Aurelius

Bust of Marcus Aurelius

As humans, we have a tendency to run scenarios through our heads before the event itself actually happens. This is great for preplanning and strategy, however, we run into problems when our minds automatically run through the ‘worst-case’ scenarios that may or may not actually happen.
Most fears around change come from our in-built aversion to suffering and our tendency to over-plan for suffering avoidance.  Suffering and change are often linked – or at least we perceive that they are always linked. But don’t worry, the stoics have a remedy for that too!
Change and Suffering
The relationship between change and suffering is often described in two phases. Firstly, that we suffer in our anticipation of change and the shift away from our routine or the anticipation of loss (e.g., a loved one, a job, a home).
The second phase is the reaction to a change that has already happened. It is about coming to terms with a loss (person or circumstance) and the anticipation of finding balance or carving a new path for ourselves out of the chaos.
aurelius on horse

Rome, Italy. Piazza del Campidoglio, with copy of equestrian statue of Marcus Aurelius. The original is displayed in the Capitoline Museum.

The stoics overcome this by reminding themselves about how relatively small and unimportant we are as individuals. Sounds harsh and counterintuitive right? Yes. But when you consider the grand tapestry that is life and universe, our part is rather small.
“Consider the lives led once by others, long ago, the lives to be led by others after you, the lives led even now, in foreign lands. How many people don’t even know your name. How many will soon have forgotten it. How many offer you praise now—and tomorrow, perhaps, contempt.” ~ Meditations, Book IX.30
This is what today’s society refers to as the ‘Ego check’. In other words, who are we to expect to go through life without any changes or challenges?
Epictetus advises that we play fate at its own game. Instead of resisting and battling change (which is a waste of time if the change has already occurred), we should learn to embrace change and make an opportunity out of adversity.
This is easier said than done of course, but you’ll find that working this mindset into your daily life will make the process of change run a whole lot smoother.
Epictetus

Artistic impression of Epictetus, including his crutch.

Improving your relationship with change
“It’s not what happens to you, but how you react to it that matters’’ ~ Epictetus
The bottom line, according to the stoics, is that the best way to deal with change is to try to change your mindset. Happiness depends more on values than the current state in which you reside.
Of course, basic needs must be met such as food and shelter, but the Stoics argue that change itself is not able to deprive you of the ability to endure.
Change has changed people for the better. It was exile from Sinope that lead Diogenes of Sinope to Athens where he went on to become one of the founders of the Cynic School of Philosophy. Had he remained in Sinope he likely would have continued his life as a banker and his name would have disappeared into obscurity.
No matter the circumstance brought about by change, your place in nature and your virtues still remain. Even in the most challenging of times, true friends will not refuse to associate with you and change does not stop you from associating with new people. In other words, the change may come as a pleasant surprise, if you keep an eye out for silver linings.