Why We Study the Ancients

First, we are seeking the truth concerning both other metaphysical realities and the soul, since of all realities it is immediately most appropriate to us; secondarily, [we seek] the opinions of those who have reached the pinnacle of knowledge. I therefore believe that is is necessary to give a careful examination to Aristotle’s treatise On the Soul. Plato has handed down many blessed doctrines on the soul, but interpreters of Plato have investigated and explained them sufficiently and in harmony with each other. After Aristotle had completed his treatise On the Soul, as Iamblichus who is the best judge of the truth thought, a great deal of controversy arose among those explicating Aristotle’s doctrine not only concerning the interpretation of Aristotle’s text but especially also concerning the metaphysical realities themselves.

I have therefore decided to investigate and record the coherence of the philosopher both with himself and with the truth, avoiding controversies with others, while seeking clear confirmation for his opinions on doubtful points from Aristotle’s clear doctrines and words. And in every way and to the best of my ability I will adhere to the truth about the metaphysical realities under the guidance of Iamblichus in his own writings on the soul.

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What is Tradition For?

Consider an antique telescope. There are two different ways of “looking,” with respect to this scientific instrument. I could look at the telescope: making the telescope the object of my study, inquiring into how telescopes were made in the 19th century, the materials used, the curvature of the lens, the mechanisms (or lack thereof) for making fine adjustments, etc. This might even become part of a detailed history of telescopes, or of the institution of astronomy over the centuries.

Or I could pick the telescope up, take it outside on a clear night, and look through the telescope, using the telescope as it was intended by its makers, to study the planets and stars. This latter project will, from time to time, require me to attend to the instrument itself: adjusting the focus, cleaning the lens, setting it up correctly in its stand so that it’s stable and ready to work. But none of these things are in the end, the goal, the telos toward which they are directed and from which they acquire their meaning. They are all in the service of allowing me to observe the heavenly bodies as they course through the night sky.

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Message in a Bottle

Today, we remember Proclus, who died in Athens on this date, in 485 CE.

It’s quite possible, by mistranslating a few words here, a few key phrases there, for modern readers to ignore the Gods in the works of Plato, Aristotle, and so many of the other philosophers of antiquity. It’s quite possible, with only a little bit of squinting, to look past the deep and genuine piety that informed these great thinkers.

Not so, when it comes to Proclus. The Gods—who are at once the source and summit of all being, and the immortal divine persons we approach in prayer and devotion—cannot be ignored in Proclus’ work, no matter how hard you squint. Proclus thus provides us a vital key, which can open for us the brilliant and inspired words of Plato, and indeed of all the thousand years to Hellenic philosophy and theology, of which Proclus was the inheritor. And this is a vital key, in the most literal sense of “bringing to life” the tradition which has been handed on to us.

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Wonder and Inquiry

“Son of Klinias, I think that you are wondering…”

Plato’s Alcibiades—the first Platonic dialogue that students in late antiquity, following the Iamblichean curriculum, would read—begins with Socrates speaking these words. From this manifest appearance of wonder comes the invitation to philosophy. Yet for Socrates, and for the Platonist following his example, philosophy never displaces wonder, never undermines the encounter with the cosmos which is philosophy’s own fons et origo, as we see throughout Plato’s portrayal of Socrates, and especially in the Parmenides and the Phaedo.

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Paying for Philosophy: Protagoras and the Gift Economy

The standard line in modern presentations of the history of Greek philosophy is that the Sophists were really horrible because they charged a fee for their teaching, but Socrates was really wonderful because he gave his teaching away for free. There might be a grain of truth to this, and it’s something that Xenophon in particular really plays up. But the picture may be a little more complicated.

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Is Obedience a Virtue?

It is sometimes claimed that obedience, toward both Gods and humans, is a virtue. That seems wrong to me, and I’d like to explore the reasons why. As usual, I’m trying to develop my own understanding by thinking out in public in this forum, and I eagerly welcome respectful criticisms, objections, questions, and suggestions which might help me further my thinking on the issue.

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From Anger to Pity

How should the philosopher, the person making progress toward wisdom, respond to wrongdoing? What is the appropriate response when someone behaves badly toward me?

In Discourses 1.18, Epictetus answers that if we must have any response at all, it would be far more appropriate to respond to wrongdoing with pity, rather than anger. But why? There are two lines of argument (which I will address in the opposite order of how he presents them).

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Appropriations of Stoicism; or, the Place(s) of Ethics in Philosophy

Recent discussions in real life, and in several corners of the internet, have got me thinking about the seemingly quite widespread appeal of Stoic philosophy as a “plug and play” system: the way in which the ethical or practical bits of the ancient Stoics are so often taken as if they can stand alone, apart from wider systematic concerns. As one blogger recently relates, this sort of modular Stoicism is something you can learn in a weekend.

On the one hand, this is certainly true, nor is it an entirely new phenomenon. Roughly 1,500 years ago, the Platonist philosopher Simplicius was using Epictetus’ Handbook as an introductory text for his students. The subsequent centuries have seen elements of Stoic ethics taken up enthusiastically by Christians and other atheists who by would no means be willing to adopt traditional Stoic views in physics and theology.

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