Ancient Philosophy Week Looks Back

In a time when much of academia tends to focus on contemporary research, Pomona Philosophy Professor and Chair of the Classics Department Richard McKirahan aimed to highlight the importance of the study of ancient scholars in Ancient Philosophy Week, which he organized last week. Beginning Monday, Oct. 24, the event featured four speakers who discussed topics ranging from Plato to self-actualization. Jointly sponsored by Pomona’s philosophy and classics departments, Ancient Philosophy Week concludes today with a lecture from U.C. Berkeley’s Tony Long, who will speak about philosophical happiness at 4:15 p.m. in Pearsons Hall Rm. 101.

Philosophy major Daniel Moerner PO ’13 praised the department’s willingness to acknowledge the relevance of ancient philosophy through the lectures.

“In terms of the importance of the classics to philosophy, for 1500 years you had to engage with Aristotle and his notions of logic to understand any of philosophy,” Moerner said. “All the serious questions we have in philosophy—who we are in the world, questions of ethics—all of that is still rooted in ancient thought.”

Moerner also commended the event for drawing more attention to a field of study that he said has become less visible at Pomona over the years.

“When Professor [Stephen] Erickson was in school 50 years ago, he told me the classics department was the primary department in college; now it’s in the basement at Pearsons,” Moerner said. “In 50 more years, philosophy might be stuck in the basement, which is a depressing thought.”

“I imagine they’re interested in getting more people interested in ancient thought,” he added. “Ancient philosophy classes are really segregated from the rest of the department… but I think [Ancient Philosophy Week] encourages more dialogue with [academics in] contemporary philosophy.”

According to McKirahan, the event grew from a revision he published in 2009 of A. H. Coxon’s The Fragments of Parmenides, first published in 1986, that documented the life and works of the fifth-century B.C.E. philosopher Parmenides, the founder of the pre-Socratic, so-called “Eliatic” philosophers and a major thinker in western philosophical history. When McKirahan’s edition won ForeWord Reviews’ 2009 Book of the Year in Philosophy, he was inspired to rekindle interest in the value of ancient philosophical texts at Pomona.

“In math or physics, you don’t read the history of math or physics,” McKirahan said. “And some people think philosophy is like that—you just do the current stuff. But philosophy, unlike math or physics, really cares about its past.”

“Then I thought, if a book on ancient philosophy is winning Book of the Year, maybe we ought to put that into the foreground,” he added.

Ancient Philosophy Week featured both local scholars and visiting academics from large universities. Although Pomona’s philosophy department holds a lecture series every year, Ancient Philosophy Week is the first dedicated to the historical study of the discipline.

On Monday, Claremont McKenna College (CMC) Professor Suzanne Obdrzalek presented her dissertation on the ideas of contemplation and self-mastery in Plato’s Phaedrus, which recounts two speeches given by Socrates. In the first, he argues against love as a source of madness, and in the second, he recants and affirms love’s divine nature. Obdrzalek challenged previous interpretations of the dialogue as less ascetic than other Platonic works, instead revealing in the text an emphasis on rationality as a force that must conquer desire and “lower parts” of the soul.

McKirahan spoke Wednesday about wisdom and self-restraint in another of Plato’s works, the Protagoras. He was followed on Thursday by visiting professor Malcolm Schofield of Cambridge University, who considered the role of infancy and childhood in classical philosophy.

Today, Professor Long of the University of California, Berkeley, will present his research on eudaimonia—a term in ancient Greek philosophy that describes the concept of self-actualization and happiness.

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