A Forum for and the Background of the Mediation of Dialogue in Ancient and Modern Academies

Monday, 24 November 2014

At Home in My History of Philosophy Class. Or, Is It Psychology?

Nothing, Lucilius, is ours, except time. We were entrusted by nature with the ownership of this single thing, so fleeting and slippery that anyone who will can oust us from possession.
Seneca, Epistle I.

There are erratic motions in the Canadian skies, no kidding. Had Plato paid a visit, he would have come to think again about the bad world soul hypothesis...The weather cannot be predicted and changes from one minute to the next. I kind of like it, as long as I am in my office when the wind blows. And the wind can really blow here, no jokes nor any comparison to gentle summer Greek gusts. Far from it.

I miss the European culture, but I grasp the opportunity to experience some here and there, so no complaint. For example, I spent a day in Europe, well, to be sincere the day was spent in some of the relevant parts of the Metropolitan Museum in NYC after a wonderful conference and quite interesting chats with young colleagues I got to know there. So much Cézanne and a bit less Theotokopoulos, while no Da Vinci (at least no painting of his) in the Met. The structure of the museum made me feel a bit awkward: for example I started in a room with ancient stuff and ended up in one with cubistic paintings. Oh my dear Europe. My dear Greece has to wait for Christmas.

Leisure for research has been found after the first frantic time on the new continent, a leisure of which I happily avail myself, but I wish to devote the following few lines to my history of philosophy class that takes place in a liberal arts context...From Socrates and up to Al-Ghazali, I have been presenting and we have been discussing philosophy as taking care of the soul and curing the soul, focussing on the disease diagnosed by the philosophers and schools, and on the method of the cure they proposed. A wide range of possible pathologies of the soul emerged, and reason was the pharmakon the Greeks launched in the markets of the world back then. The limits of the reason were pointed out by the Stoics, and then with the aid of faith in Augustine and al-Ghazali.

To focus on the therapy of the soul attracted many of the young people I have had before me. And so I felt like having a double responsibility when teaching. There have been many memorable moments in our journey so far. I would like to preserve two of them in the written word and my memory: their reaction to the Sceptic "cure" and to a problem I formulated after our having dealt with the Hellenistic Schools.

Some preliminaries: We very often tend to accuse the younger generation for not reading (a lot of) texts, which is basically true, their being kids of the age in which we bring them up. But what do we do, as educators? For, this is the right question to ask. And which is the argument we usually add when talking about the young people who do not attend the lectures and seminars? We will say that they do not do that although they pay so much money for their liberal arts education. Skipping the minefield of the liberal arts education and the high tuition fees for now, is this the best we can offer as an argument? I very much hope for my students that, if they learn something from us, it will not be this ruthless translation of every thing into money and budgets. And I do nurture my hope while I encounter my students, on the basis of what I encounter. Admittedly, a couple of them came to the lecture on the history of philosophy with the wish to examine whether philosophy is useful and effective in any way. This they revealed. They did not explicate that they wanted to see with their eyes, hear with their ears, and, if possible, grasp with their hands, the evidence for philosophy's power. After six lectures, these very few students dropped the class. And who of us can say anything against their argument and attitude, since we bring them up in the imperium of empiricism? For my part, I was happy that the few students left after Aristotle's Protrepticus, that is after our having discussed about the right standards with the aid of which we can evaluate the usefulness of philosophy.

Most students have been following the lecture. I had presented the Epicureans and the Stoics (the Letter to Menoeceus and the Handbook respectively), had given some examples from cognitive behaviourist therapy for the Stoic cure proposal, and then turned to the historical background of the Sceptics, as the third main Hellenistic school we had on our "therapy of the soul" agenda. While I was exposing the Sceptics' diagnosis of the disease, their proposal for cure and the way they understood happiness and how it is reached, I noticed an alienation in the atmosphere of the lecture hall. It could not go unnoticed.  I had the impression that every one wanted to go out, close the door and turn to their every-day context with a sigh of relief. At the end of the lecture, some students left some feedback, as usual. Having been unable to pin point the reasons for their own frustration, caused by the radicalness of the Sceptics and their thin notion of happiness, they wrote down: "perhaps give more real life examples and cite shorter texts on power-point". Well, the latter I am decided not to do, since one of the reasons I make use of power point is to read texts with them. By the end of the year, they will have become more familiar with reading various philosophical texts. Yes, reading texts.

I did not need a lot of motivation to start thinking about "real life examples" and deliberate what to do to make the young students use and apply what we had learnt. Thus next time, and after having explained why it makes perfect sense that every one had been irritated in the previous lecture, I came up with a thought experiment in our lecture "Cave". I invited them to imagine that a best friend is suffering from deep depression and they dearly wish to help their friend. They have money only for one therapist and there are three in town, so no need for a long-distance call. Their names are -guess who!- Epicurus, Epictetus and Sextus Empiricus. "Whom are you going to call? And can you give me three reasons?" At first most of them had a very surprised facial expression. "Are we in the right class?" "We asked for real life examples; right. Okay: "I missed the bus, the next will pass" could not be a paradigmatic example for the philosophical cures we have dealt with, but this goes too far, doesn't it?" perhaps some of their question marks while they were staring at me for a prolonged moment. The initial awkwardness gave its way to very motivated and lively discussions (I prefer discussions and leave debates for politics). I was dumbfounded, to say the least, by the groups' written answers. Not only had these very young people gotten the theory, but they had been able to apply it with remarkable subtlety to a very special case, which definitely goes beyond philosophy. Most would call Epictetus. Next time I started my lecture by presenting their answers on the power-point, as it suited.

Afterwards I was motivated to prompt my students to follow the "Stoic Week", organised by Exeter University, a wonderful initiative and fruitful collaboration between philosophers and psychologists. I asked them to thereby answer the question, for themselves: What kind of era are we in so that the Stoics become that trendy? I do not need to answer such questions for my students. Especially after my experience with the above radical "real life example", I am very much confident that they are able to answer such questions. What is a liberal arts education, after all, other than liberating? The students are able to liberate themselves. I just take some intellectual pleasure in experiencing, if I am lucky, some part of this liberation and see (with my eyes and hear with my ears?) that my research (like on time and pleasure) may have good influence on and resonance with young people and not only be appreciated in conferences and journals. After this delight, I turned to a text, in which Plotinus places the Epicureans and the Stoics on his spiritual ladder.

Let me see if I live up to students with so critical minds and if I can make them understand and experience what understanding is by the end of the year. For sure by then, if not already now, they will know that following any trend does not "pay off" at all, unless they make it theirs.

One of the Cézannes at the Met. One of the paintings that will become of relevance to our WT reading of Merleau-Ponty's "Eye and Mind".