Jerzy's Reviews > Practical Philosophy: The Greco-Roman Moralists

Practical Philosophy by Luke Timothy Johnson
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May 09, 2015

really liked it
bookshelves: philosophy

I picked this up just to get a frame of reference for Seneca's letters (Listy moralne do Lucyliusza) and Epictetus' manual (The Art of Living: The Classical Manual on Virtue, Happiness and Effectiveness). I had started reading them with no context after getting those books as gifts.

The first few (general) lectures here really did give me a good context for Seneca and pals. They helped me understand the kind of world they lived in; their views of God or Providence; how the Stoics differed from the other main schools of thought on morality; and why they spend so much time not just presenting own ideas but actually defending them and bashing the other schools.

The later lectures on individual philosophers (including Seneca and Epictetus) are more mixed. The lecturer is fine, but I don't feel I'm learning how to be a better person in practice---just learning who said what (which, ironically, Epictetus makes fun of). So I'm finishing this course more out of pseudo-OCD rather than real interest.

The final lecture did tie the course together nicely, reminding us of how much these philosophers' focus on wisdom and living well differs from the usual fare in philosophy before and since. The three-part division of philosophy into physics (what's true about the world/nature?), logic (how do we know what we know?), and ethics (how should we live?) historically tended to stress the first two over the last one, or to treat the last one as a theoretical exercise. The philosophers in this lecture series are often ignored today because they did not found new schools or contribute novel ideas to physics and logic, nor is their use of language particularly interesting as literature---but their actual practical advice is fascinating and often very helpful. The importance that they assign to character and duty is refreshing, pragmatic, and inspiring. So although they say nothing new, the way they say it is still a helpful kick in the pants :)

(They were also nearly unanimous about dissing the Epicureans, though that seems largely based on common misinterpretation of Epicureanism and not always on its actual content... at least based on the little Epicureanism I know from reading The Swerve: How the World Became Modern.)

Anyway. For each lecture, the course booklet lists recommended readings by that philosopher---and I think I'd get a lot more out of it (but also spend a lot more time!) by reading those passages primarily, with this audio course as just a supplemental commentary. Maybe I'll come back to this someday and really dig deep, but that's not why I started listening this time, and I don't have that level of dedication right now :)


Notes to self on what I learned:

Empire was important. Earlier Greek philosophers (Socrates, Plato, Aristotle and their pals?) lived in Greek city-states, where you felt a citizen of your city rather than of the Greek nation, and it was possible (at least for free male citizens) to have a say in how it was governed... So it was indeed practical to philosophize about politics.
But folks in this course lived in the Roman Empire, which had been an authoritarian top-down government for centuries for most of them---so it was taken for granted that philosophizing about politics was useless (and dangerous to your well-being).
Instead, they [at least the Stoics?] focused on changing yourself. It's a weird mix of deep optimism and deep pessimism: You can handle anything life throws at you! But that's NOT saying you can ACCOMPLISH anything---in fact you shouldn't even bother to try changing the culture or government around you. Rather, you can survive, and if you don't then it's OK because death is no big deal. It's very much like the Hitchhiker's Guide cover: Don't Panic. Even if it seems that terrible things are happening---it can't actually be so terrible; nature & the gods would never deal you anything you can't handle.

Also, sounds like only (?) the Stoics and Epicureans held that women had rational minds and could learn/study philosophy as well as men.

I had heard before of Diogenes, the Cynic philosopher who carried a lantern in daylight ("looking for an honest man") and had wicked burns for Alexander the Great ("Can I do anything for you, philosopher?" "Sure, step out of my sunlight!"). But apparently after giving rousing speeches on the importance of virtue above all and trying to get the audience out of their unexamined comfort zone... he'd end the talk by pooping or masturbating in public. Voila, the great minds of Western civilization, ladies and gentlemen! Apparently many of these *moralist* philosophers didn't think highly of *civility* as such.


Early in the course, the lecturer quotes from Isocrates, "To Demonicus". He uses this as an example of sensible, commonplace advice and the kind of themes these moral philosophers tended to cover (but it's not one of the great philosophers trying to argue something new). It illustrates how philosophy was seen as a kind of rigorous training; and how many of the schools encouraged students to memorize succinct maxims and to learn by imitating the examples of good people.
Nay, you must consider that no athlete is so in duty bound to train against his competitors as are you to take thought how you may vie with your father in his ways of life. But it is not possible for the mind to be so disposed unless one is fraught with many noble maxims; for, as it is the nature of the body to be developed by appropriate exercises, it is the nature of the soul to be developed by moral precepts.

But Isocrates and most people of the time were very concerned with reputation, unlike many of the major philosophers in this course, who focused on virtue first and foremost, even if the virtuous thing to do misleadingly gives you a bad reputation.


Some good stuff from Plutarch:
* "Character is habit long continued." The things you do repeatedly, be they virtues or vices, are your character. Nice way to think about it.
* Plutarch wrote about the many possible significant meanings of a lonely letter "E" carved into the wall at Delphi. As the lecturer says, for example: "It might mean the number 5, since it is the 5th letter of the alphabet, and 5 can keep you busy for a long time as to its significance." :P It sounds to me like a great example of apophenia!
* Plutarch interprets the old Greek and Roman polytheistic religions' stories as being allegorical, so that he can finagle a way to draw good moral lessons from what otherwise seems scandalous or immoral if you take it literally. He also wants to be able to educate children on this great cultural trove of stories without them drawing the wrong conclusions. The Jewish thinkers mentioned in earlier lectures felt the same about many Biblical stories. But, in both cases, they don't just drop the institutional religious stuff itself entirely (which Enlightenment thinkers did, arguing that religion is just meant to get us to act morally, so we may as well intrinsically act morally without the middleman). Plutarch and the Jewish thinkers value the rituals and traditions of their religions, refusing to discard them just because they may seem arbitrary now. I feel like our modern world is still addressing such issues today: How do we teach classic literature that contains scenes/language/characters which seem seriously wrong now (like the ruckus about editing the language in Huck Finn)? Or how should we interpret the Bible's anti-homosexuality passages, now that many people no longer see it as sinful? If you take the whole Bible literally, why aren't you going around stoning adulterers etc.? Reminds me of The Year of Living Biblically: One Man's Humble Quest to Follow the Bible as Literally as Possible whose author concluded there's no way to follow Christianity or Judaism fully literally: even the most hard-core self-proclaimed literalists end up just choosing the parts they like.
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Reading Progress

May 9, 2015 – Started Reading
May 9, 2015 – Shelved
May 9, 2015 – Shelved as: philosophy
June 16, 2015 – Finished Reading

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