Publication - "Philosophy and Commentary: Evaluating Simplicius on the Presocratics"

My paper about the role played by Simplicius and the late antique commentary tradition in Presocratic studies has been published in 'Platonic Pathways'.

Reference

Parsons, B (2018). ‘Philosophy and Commentary: Evaluating Simplicius on the Presocratics’, in: Finamore and Layne (eds). Platonic Pathways: Selected Papers from the Fourteenth Annual Conference of the International Society for Neoplatonic Studies. Gloucestershire: The Prometheus Press. pp 227-242.

Abstract

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No fully extant text of Presocratic philosophy has survived antiquity. Occasionally, there are significant new discoveries such as the Strasbourg papyrus of Empedocles, but, as Runia commented in 2008, “even the students of early Hellenistic philosophy are better off” when it comes to source material. The modern scholar of early Greek philosophy is reliant on source books published in the shadow of the Diels-Kranz that collect together fragments and testimonia from later sources. Much of what we know about the Presocratics comes from Plato and Aristotle, but also from the Neoplatonic tradition, in the form of the explicit influences that the Presocratics had on particular Neoplatonic thinkers, and the wealth of verbatim fragments preserved in Neoplatonic texts.

This paper discusses the reception and transmission of early Greek philosophy through the lens of Neoplatonism, focusing on Simplicius’ commentaries on the works of Aristotle. Many of the fragments and testimonia that we have today come from Simplicius. However, there are issues surrounding our reliance on Simplicius’ commentaries. Why does Simplicius include extended references to Aristotle’s predecessors in his commentaries on Aristotle? Does the tendency to harmonize the doctrines of Plato and Aristotle in Neoplatonic works, known as the harmonization hypothesis, extend to Simplicius’ reportage of the Presocratics? The paper evaluates Simplicius’ contribution to Presocratic scholarship and asks what implications there are for our reading of the Presocratic fragments we receive from Simplicius.

This Week In Tutorials: Knowledge as Virtue in the Meno, and Greek 'Ostracism'

This week, the philosophers read Meno 77a-78c and 86c-89c, and the classicists on Greek World 1B had their first tutorial, on 'Ostracism and Ostraka'. 

The philosophers had to evaluate the paradox presented by Socrates in Meno 77a-78c, and to analyse the claim that virtue is knowledge in Meno 86c-89c.

The classicists focussed on exploring the social function of ostracism; discussing the social tensions and perception of class in fifth century Athens; and practicing using a variety of kinds of evidence for the Greek World – political writings, dramatic works, and material evidence.

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The paradox as formulated in the Meno 77a-78c is that we desire only good things; no one desires bad things. It is also popularly formulated as no one does wrong willingly - wrongdoing is the result of ignorance. This is a paradox because we see people around us desiring bad things or doing wrong all the time. For Socrates, it is self-evident that people only desire good things, because nobody wants the pain or other bad consequences of bad things. Therefore, when we see people who do wrong, this must be out of ignorance.

I asked the philosophers if there was any connection between this paradox and the claim that virtue is knowledge in Meno 86c-89c. Knowledge is that which is always beneficial, Socrates argues; in fact, the canonical virtues require knowledge to be good - for instance, courage without knowledge can manifest as brash, unwise action. Knowledge is how we know what is good. 

The students noticed that this relied on quite defined notions of 'good' and 'bad'. Many of them expressed that they felt like 'good' and 'bad' is more relative than Socrates portrays it. This tension helped me connect the topic of the tutorial to next week's tutorial, where we'll be looking at Plato's theory of Forms. For Plato, there is a thing which is good that we can have knowledge of through reason. 

Later in the week, I taught the first tutorial for Greek World 1B, on 'Ostracism and Ostraka'. I am teaching this course for the second time this semester. The experience of reviewing my notes and teaching materials from last year is an interesting one - I've improved upon my Powerpoint, and found that different aspects of the set reading stand out to me. It's been a great opportunity to reflect on my past practice and how I've improved over the last year.

The practice of 'ostracism' was where the Athenians could vote to expel a fellow citizen from the city for a period of ten years. These votes were recorded on pottery shards known as 'ostraka'. This leads to an interesting tutorial setup, where written texts and material evidence are brought together to explore the social function of the practice. On the one hand, we have Aristotle's Constitution of the Athenians 22.1-7, where he discusses the history of ostracism. On the other hand, we have vast hoards of surviving material evidence, and the inscriptions upon them. In the discussion, we explored different motivations behind Athenian ostracism; the students argued well for whether they thought overall that it was more of a political or social institution.

This Week in Tutorials: Definition and Translation in Plato's Meno

I taught my first tutorials for Greats: From Plato to the Enlightenment today. The aim of our discussion of Plato's Meno 70a-79d was to examine the definitions of virtue given in the Meno, question “definitions” and the possibility of making definitions, and practice discussing and evaluating texts from the history of philosophy.

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The dialogue opens abruptly with a conversation between Socrates and Meno, a young aristocrat from Thessaly. The discussion is centred on virtue, or excellence (ἀρετή), and the question of whether virtue can be taught. For many of the Sophists, the belief that virtue can be taught was key to the education they provided. However, in the Meno, the question is whether virtue is the result of teaching, nature, or practice (70a). 

But first, Socrates asserts, before we can decide whether virtue can be taught, we must define what virtue is (70a-71d). We must know what the thing that we are dealing with is before we can discuss whether it has certain qualities, such as if it is teachable. Socrates invites Meno to attempt a definition of virtue.

Definition, we find, is a tricky business. Meno offers up three different interpretative strategies. In one, he gives examples of virtue: the virtue of a man and woman (71e). However, Socrates objects on the grounds that you cannot define virtue by providing a litany of examples of it. Meno's second and third attempts are objected to in similar ways. In the 73c, Meno offers a definition of virtue as the ability to rule, and at 78c as the ability to get good things. Both of these definitions, Socrates objects, are at the same time too broad and too narrow: there are cases of virtue they don't include, and cases of less than virtuous action that they do include.

Along with the issue of definition, reading the Meno requires us to engage with the issue of translation. Some students in the class brought along copies of the text other than the prescribed translation. On two different occasions today, students offered up their alternative translations along with the interpretative consequences of their translation. The following case is the one I want to look at in detail:

ἀρετή as virtue or excellence 

How do these different translations affect our interpretation of the Meno? The problem of definition revisits us: just as Socrates says that we must define ἀρετή to decide whether it is teachable, we must make a move to definite ἀρετή in order to translate it. 'Virtue', for the students, may be laden with moral connotations from when we studied virtue ethics last semester. Already, students wanted to introduce Aristotle as a contributor to our discussion. 'Excellence', on the other hand, isn't so strictly moral. We might say that someone is an excellent vet, meaning that they are skilled at diagnosing and treating sickness in animals. What would be the strictly moral sense of being a good veterinarian? Plato's usage of ἀρετή in the Meno seems to stand between these two translations: on the one hand, there is mention of canonical virtues, such as justice and moderation, but on the other hand, the definitions that Meno gives that hint at ἀρετή as doing something well, whether that is ruling or obtaining good things, look more towards the idea we have of 'excellence'. 

Beyond the philosophical problem here is the pedagogical problem: how far should I take first year undergraduate students down the 'alternatives in translation' rabbit hole, in a course taught entirely in translation? Would ἀρετή benefit from the 'eudaemonia' treatment, i.e., being generally left untranslated? It's easy to get distracted by the different ideas we can get from the text with the different translations in mind, and there's only so much time.