Wednesday, February 27, 2008

More Cynicism-

Some more thoughts provoked from the last discussion with the B3 team:

What did Antisthenes think about pleasure and pain? There are snippets of information here and there. For example:

DL 6.2: He thought that pain (ponos: perhaps 'toil' or 'hard work' would be a better translation, but ponos often carries the connotation of discomfort or pain) is good (for which claim he pointed as support to the example of Heracles). Apparently he got this idea from Socrates' hardiness.

Saying that pain is good does not, of course, require you to think that pleasure is bad. There are plenty of texts which talk of pain/ponos being instrumentally good. And it might be instrumentally good in the sense that it allows you to win greater pleasure in the long run.

But there are other texts which offer the stronger claim that pleasure is for some reason not to be pursued.

DL 6.3: He said he'd rather be mad than feel pleasure.
DL 9.101: Epicurus thought that pleasure is good; Antisthenes thought that it is bad.

The second of these is perhaps less compelling because it is clearly part of a set of doxographical divisions and categorisations which by their nature cannot always capture more subtle views. Anthisthenes is a nice contrast with the hedonists. Other texts appear to ascribe to him distinctions between pleasures and also the claim that some - perhaps those that are worked for, or deserved - ought to be pursued. (E.g. Stob. 3.29.65: you should pursue pleasures 'after' (meta) ponos but not those 'before' (pro); cf. Stob 3.6.43 and 3.18.26 on the proper attitude to 'everyday' pleasures; Athenaeus 12 513a even says that Antisthenes thought pleasure to be good, at least pleasure 'of the kind that is not later regretted'.) The sources may be a bit jumbled here. Still, there is no doubting that he thought some, perhaps even all, pleasure is best avoided.

Then there is the depiction of Antisthenes in Xenophon, esp. Symp. 4.39:
καὶ πάντα τοίνυν ταῦτα οὕτως ἡδέα μοι δοκεῖ εἶναι ὡς μᾶλλον μὲν ἥδεσθαι ποιῶν ἕκαστα αὐτῶν οὐκ ἂν εὐξαίμην, ἧττον δέ· οὕτω μοι δοκεῖ ἔνια αὐτῶν ἡδίω εἶναι τοῦ συμφέροντος.

And all these things seem to me to be so pleasant that I wouldn't wish to enjoy each of them more, but less. Some of them seem to me to be in this way more pleasant than is beneficial.
Antisthenes has been describing his frugal lifestyle and the way in which he can make do with very little. He has accustomed himself sufficiently to a life free from luxury that he takes great pleasure from his modest house and simple life. Most important, these things provide him with pleasure. Of course, it is possible to think that this is once again pleasure of a different sort from the pleasures rejected in e.g. DL 6.3, perhaps like Diogenes' pleasures in despising pleasures. But that doesn't seem too convincing since Antisthenes' point appears to be that he too enjoys being warm, not being hungry, sex and all the other things we might think of as simple and obvious cases of pleasure. More to the point, his last comment in Xenophon surely points to him being aware of a problem similar to that raised for Diogenes' views. Antisthenes is concerned that he is enjoying the frugal life too much. Perhaps it's time for some advanced training in frugality or a bit more ponos. This is not quite like the problem faced by Diogenes: Antisthenes is not concerned that he is taking pleasure in the very fact of his being ascetic. Rather, he is concerned that his asceticism is in a way self-defeating. His avoidance of luxury has made his frugal life now appear luxurious to him.

Thursday, February 21, 2008

Cynic pleasure

I've been trying to piece together what the Cynics think about pleasure, but it's not at all easy. Here’s a first set of thoughts.

Diogenes Laertius (6.71) says this is the view of Diogenes of Sinope:

καὶ γὰρ αὐτῆς τῆς ἡδονῆς καταφρόνησις ἡδυτάτη προμελετηθεῖσα, καὶ ὥσπερ οἱ συνεθισθέντες ἡδέως ζῆν, ἀηδῶς ἐπὶ τοὐναντίον μετίασιν, οὕτως οἱ τοὐναντίον ἀσκηθέντες ἥδιον αὐτῶν τῶν ἡδονῶν καταφρονοῦσι.

(1) For even the despising of pleasure is itself the most pleasurable, when we are accustomed to it; (2) and just as those who are accustomed to a life of pleasure find it unpleasant when they pass over the opposite, so those whose training has been of the opposite kind derive more pleasure from despising pleasure than from the pleasures themselves (trans. Hicks, lightly modified; I've added (1) and (2) for reference).

I think I can understand (1) although it is clearly phrased in a deliberately paradoxical fashion. I suppose it says that after a time the very practice of denying yourself indulgences can become something pleasant. Perhaps you begin to take pleasure in the fact of your self-control. You begin to enjoy the state of mind you reach now that you are no longer busy pursuing pleasure. We might even say that there are two kinds of pleasure involved here: (a) pleasure of the sort that most people enjoy, and (b) pleasure of the sort enjoyed only as a result of disdaining pleasures of type (a). Now, here’s a thought: Pleasures of type (b), we must further suppose, must be somehow sufficiently different from pleasures of type (a) as to be acceptable and not deserving of a similar kind of meta-disdain, for fear of a regress. (You can imagine a particularly hard-line ascetic scolding a student who dares to say that he is in fact taking pleasure in his disdaining pleasure...) This seems like a coherent thought, though not a very persuasive one. I suppose the idea behind (1) as a whole is that it allows a response to an objection based on the notion that the life Diogenes recommends on other grounds (e.g. that it is a ‘natural’ life) looks inhumanly devoid of pleasure. Not so, comes the reply, since the disdain of pleasure can itself provide pleasure. But in that case, pleasures of type (b) cannot be so different from pleasures of type (a) that they won’t do as an answer to this kind of objection.

What about (2)? The analogy appears to be between a hedonist who feels disgust when forced into temporary asceticism and an ascetic who, we are told, takes less enjoyment from an indulgent night out than from a night in despising pleasure in the way elaborated in (1). In both cases, the life one is accustomed to makes it unpleasant to live, however temporarily, in an alternative way. So the hedonist will feel that his very way of life is being denied and will find it unpleasant, that is to say less choice-worthy in terms of what he finds valuable, namely pleasure. But Diogenes also wants to say that the ascetic, on the other hand, if made to life the life of a hedonist, will find that life unpleasant compared with his own. But is this why he doesn’t want to live such a life? Presumably not; because it is not, I suppose, in order to experience the pleasures of disdaining pleasures (as in (1)) that the ascetic takes up his asceticism.

Monday, February 18, 2008

Every day is like Sunday...

.. well, it isn't. One of the few things Moz gets wrong. Partly, this is because yesterday was good for two reasons which are not common to every other day.

1. I discovered that new Portishead, Tricky and Massive Attack albums are due this year. Hooray. I briefly indulged in remembering my MPhil year in 1995-6 when we watched This Life and watched them listening to Portishead before doing the same ourselves. And then I remembered how Alex, Mark, and I could do an excellent a capella version of the This Life theme tune -- esp. that guitary bit just before the end of the opening credits.

2. Robert Carlyle was in the new BBC Sunday drama, The Last Enemy, ('Look! See how bad ID cards will be!) and got through the whole first episode without saying a word. He just looked a bit moody, typed a bit while sitting in an anti-surveillance cage-thing, and did that thing when he flexes his jaw muscles with his mouth closed and his cheek wobbles a bit. Menacing. I don't think he's really a baddie, though, because in BBC drama things these days the baddies are the ones wearing the suits.

Friday, February 15, 2008

Sources for a new Diogenes Laertius

Nick used the following anecdote last night to illustrate a point in Plotinus. I can't remember quite what the Plotinian point was, but this made me laugh. Robert rightly wondered if it had the air of a Diogenes Laertius anecdote. So in good Laertian style, I got this version from Wikipedia (which DL would surely have loved. He could have submitted rubbish poems on various people...).

The Life of A. J. Ayer (extract)

Rogers [1] says of Ayer: At a party that same year [2] held by fashion designer Fernando Sanchez, Ayer, then 77, confronted Mike Tyson harassing the (then little-known) model Naomi Campbell. When Ayer demanded that Tyson stop, the boxer said: "Do you know who the fuck I am? I'm the heavyweight champion of the world," to which Ayer replied: "And I am the former Wykeham Professor of Logic. We are both pre-eminent in our field. I suggest that we talk about this like rational men". Ayer and Tyson then began to talk, while Naomi Campbell slipped out.

It is not know what the two men talked about. It is unlikely that Tyson as a result of this meeting became Ayer's akoustês...


[1] See Rogers, Ben A.J. Ayer: A Life, Grove Press, 1999, p. 344.
[2] 1987.

Wednesday, February 13, 2008

Pest control?

I should be used to seeing slightly odd things around college, but this is something new. For the past couple of days, Old Court has been home to two birds of prey. They looked pretty comfortable despite the fog this morning. I shall do some research and find out why they are here...

UPDATE: I am told they are here to scare pigeons.

Monday, February 11, 2008

Platonic polemic

I'm afraid I haven't been up to much that is blogworthy recently, but I have been thinking about a paper I'm giving this summer at a conference on Plutarch and philosophy, on Non posse and Plato's Republic. I more or less fell into the topic since I've been thinking about Republic IX and also about Epicurean hedonism and this Plutarch text seems to me to be a nice way of bringing the two topics together. There is always the danger, I suppose, that my preoccupations have me seeing things in the Plutarch that are not necessarily that prominent or significant, but I'll live with that. There's definitely something in it, though, and more than the obvious links between e.g. Non posse 1091D-E and Rep. 584dff. (For example, it seems to me that Rep. 586a-b lies behind a lot of Plutarch's polemic, coupled with the familiar Epicureans-as-pigs idea.)

Anyway, the overall point is going to be something like this: Plutarch uses the work to bash the Epicureans over the head with Plato's Republic. They are completely wrong about pleasure, the soul, the body, what humans are, what the value of knowledge is, death, the gods -- in short, all the important stuff of philosophy. But it's a clever way of doing this because Plutarch uses all sorts of quotations and cues from the Epicureans themselves as a way of damning them and also because it seems to me there is good reason to think the Epicureans had already had a go at Plato's Republic themselves. Certainly, Plutarch's annoyer-in-chief, Colotes, had stuck the boot into the myth of Er. No wonder, then, that Plutarch reaches for the Republic for his material in retaliation. He likes turning the tables in this way: Adv. Col. is an exercise in showing that not only was Colotes wrong in his criticisms of earlier philosophers, but the criticisms really apply to the Epicureans themselves and not their opponents; Non posse, its companion-piece, on this view is an exercise in showing how the Epicureans' serious misunderstanding of the nature of human beings and the proper nature of pleasure shows that far from offering a recipe for a pleasant life, they in fact deny us all proper and fulfilling experience of pleasure.

That's the line, anyway. Now I just have to write the thing and that, I tend to find, is where things get tricky and the text gets in the way of all the neat and tidy points I want to make. Ho hum.

Wednesday, February 06, 2008


Me: How was playgroup today?

Daughter #2: I bumped into ____. We were running. We crashed together just like Earth and Theia.

I only got the last bit because we've been watching Earth: Power of the Planet over and over. But in case you're wondering, it's explained here.

Sunday, February 03, 2008

Perhaps Callicles was right...

Well, we now know just why it feels so pleasant to scratch an itch... Read the Times report here. (And thanks to JB for the link.) The picture, by the way is of Robert Arneson 'Pablo Ruiz with Itch' 1980, Nelson-Atkins Museum of Art, Kansas City, Missouri. Found on (Click on the picture for more details and for the photographer's credits.) Does he look like he's enjoying it?