Week Five: Homer, Socrates & Plato Walk Into a Bar. (My Intro to Ancient Philosophy)

This weekend I delved into the world of Ancient Philosophy by attending a one day introduction course at the University of British Columbia, focusing on Ancient Greek thought.

Although I’ve always enjoyed Greek mythology for the stories alone, I have never read or been taught anything about philosophy. The entire field of study was a complete mystery to me, and one which I’d rather unfairly lumped in with ‘navel gazing’. On reading the course description, I decided I needed to set my preconceptions aside and actually learn something about the subject I’d subconsciously maligned. In short, it was time to get my introspection on.

The Thinker, only with more clothes, because it’s not that sort of blog. Unless I’m life drawing.

The Thinker, only with more clothes, because it’s not that sort of blog. Unless I’m life drawing.

Our teacher, Matthew, was a pleasant young professor from UBC, with floppy, Hugh Grant-esque hair and a rather snazzy blazer/shirt/jumper combo. Evidently he was popular with the Continuing Studies crowd, many of whom had attended his lectures before and had plenty of nice things to say about him. Some of them more than others. As we went around the class introducing ourselves, the compliments grew bolder, and increasingly fervent. One lady, who I’ll call Kirsten, was particularly effusive. With shining eyes and earnest lips, she gushed,

“Well Matthew, I was in another of your classes, and you were so knowledgeable and inspiring, I signed up for the class as soon as I saw that you were teaching it. It almost didn’t matter what the class was, I just think you’re great, and would listen to you read the phonebook.”

Blimey. Not to be outdone in the accolade competition, the lady two seats along from Kirsten piped up,

“I would listen to you read the phonebook backwards!”

Surreptitiously I glanced at the class agenda in case I’d missed the section on ‘Advanced Brown Nosing’. Matthew graciously took it all in his stride, and I wondered whether this was a regular occurrence for him. And, if so, whether he was actually married, or just wore a wedding ring as a defense against his enamored students.

We started with an overview of  ancient philosophy, and the epic poets. In extremely simple terms, it was believed that hubris (i.e. arrogance, and harming the dignity of others) always yields nemesis (retribution). Now, partly because I like anthropomorphizing things, but mainly because I’ve been watching a lot of Sherlock recently, I’ll give an example of this using eponymous detectives series.

WARNING: SERIES 2 SPOILERS BELOW.

In one episode (The Reichenbach Fall), arrogant Sherlock destroys the dignity of a reporter who wants a scoop by basically humiliating her and calling her a hack (hubris). This eventually contributes to his downfall by his nemesis, Jim Moriarty, who gives the journalist an exposé of Sherlock, painting the detective as a fraud who set up the crimes he supposedly solved.

Hubris-NemesisBut did the ancient philosophers believe we humans are responsible for our own actions, or are we merely puppets of the gods?

The Greek poet, Homer, believed that mankind were warned of the consequences of their actions by the gods via their messenger, Hermes, but ultimately had free agency for their actions. In keeping with the Sherlock analogy, John Watson (the Hermes of our story) warns Sherlock early on in the episode that, although the media are on his side right now, they can and will turn on him if he’s not careful. Sherlock is given all the facts by John, but ultimately seals his own fate by acting against his friend’s advice, and ridiculing the journalist whom he sees as insignificant.

Which, in this scenario, means John Watson is a Greek god.

Q.E.D., John is basically a Greek god.

SPOILERS FINISHED!

It was time for a break, which Kirsten took as an opportunity to present Matthew with what looked like a beautifully wrapped book, complete with gift bag. Move over, Reading-the-Phonebook-Backwards-Lady! Matthew can only have one #1 Fan, and it’s Kirsten.

After the break, we moved on to the Sophists (teachers of knowledge, for a fee), Socrates, and his trial. From my understanding of the class, there appeared to be some fundamental opposition between the beliefs of the Sophists, who believed that might made right, and Socrates, who believed a leader could not really be defined as a leader unless he put the interests of his people first.

Socrates himself was an interesting character. He refused to write and publish any works (we can thank his student, Plato, for a lot of what we know about him), claimed to know nothing, and was described as bizarre yet captivating by his friends. In short, he sounded like the sort of bloke whom you remember being fascinated by, but ultimately regret inviting to your birthday party after he systematically alienates each and every one of your guests. You see Socrates was in the habit of approaching people in the street, and questioning them on whether they were living a good life. Then questioning some more, until they finally broke down and agreed with whatever point he was making. Which I’m sure was amusing for anyone not on the receiving end, but did him no favours at his trial, when he took the same approach with the jury.

Sadly, for all his eloquence, Socrates lost his trial and was sentenced to death for impiety, corrupting the young, and generally being a smart arse.

I feel there’s a lesson to be learned there, somewhere.

VERDICT: I really enjoyed my introduction to ancient  philosophy, and will definitely be doing some more research on the subject. I particularly want to learn more about Socrates, and maybe even tackle the Iliad and the Odyssey. If anyone has an Idiot’s Guide to Philosophy they can lend me, please let me know!

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4 comments

  1. Terrific. I love the Sherlock analogies.

    1. Thank you! I really enjoyed your post on why we shouldn’t worry about crushes, and look forward to reading more of your blog.

      1. Well that’s very kind! Thank you, too, and ditto 🙂

  2. […] commit ritual suicide by Hideyoshi after somehow upsetting him. Given the somewhat similar fate of Socrates, I’m beginning to suspect that being an innovator in ancient times was more hassle than […]

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