Virtue, Happiness, and the Greeks: Burdened Interpretations

tessman-burdenedI’m currently involved (along with some other members of the POT blog) in an online reading group on Lisa Tessman’s book Burdened Virtues, and while there’s a lot in the book that I admire, I want to grump here a bit about some of the things that Tessman says in ch. 3, which is where we currently are in the book. (The main focus of the book is on how to understand what Aristotelean-style virtue ethicists see, and what Tessman rather forlornly longs to see, as a harmonious and mutually reinforcing relationship between virtue and well-being, in the context of oppressive social structures that impose often devastating costs on those who attempt the sorts of resistance to oppression that virtue seems to require. That’s an interesting and important topic, but – be warned – I say virtually nothing about it in the present post.)

Despite the occasional perfunctory acknowledgment (e.g. at p. 62, n. 15) that views on which morality and flourishing can come apart were “quite thinkable within the ancient Greek context,” Tessman nevertheless persists in treating ancient and modern views as divided by some deep conceptual gap; hence she contrasts the “contemporary meaning of the word happiness” with the “ancient Greek understanding of … eudaimonia or flourishing” (p. 57), as though conceptions of eudaimonia centered on wealth or subjective pleasure or the amoral pursuit of power were alien to the ancient Greek context. But in fact the virtue-centered conception of eudaimonia common among philosophers in the broadly Socratic lineage (e.g. Plato, Aristotle, the Stoics) seems by no means to have been automatically congenial to Greeks generally; indeed in Plato’s dialogues Socrates’ interlocutors often react with puzzlement or disbelief or even mockery to his insistence that morality and self-interest cannot come apart.

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A Birthday Thank-You to My Mother

Today would have been my mother’s 96th birthday.  (She died at 91.)

The other day, while indulging in my usual frustration over how my college students are so often ignorant of so many things that I was familiar with well before high school, it occurred to me that a substantial portion of those things were material I learned not in school or even through my own reading, but from my mother – not in any didactic setting, but informally.  For example, I first learned about Versailles and Pompeii through my mother’s recollections of her own school projects on those topics; the mnemonic “SPA” (to recall the chronological order of Socrates, Plato, and Aristotle) she likewise recalled from her school days.

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Thank You For Your Swervice

I’m puzzled by a feature of much of the scholarly discussion of the Epicurean swerve.  So many of the discussants seem to be assuming that there must be a swerve corresponding to each human free action.  I don’t see why.  If indeterministic swerves occur, then every atomic motion – not just the times when the atom swerves, but also the times when it doesn’t – is going to be an instance of indeterministic motion.  And I take it that it’s the causally undetermined nature of the atomic motions underlying our actions that’s crucial to Epicurus’s account, not their specifically being swerves.  (And this seems to me to be true regardless of what stance one takes on the much-debated questions as to the precise nature of the relationship between human actions and underlying atomic motions and how the indeterminacy of the latter serves to guarantee the freedom of the former.)

Nor Custom Stale Her Infinite Variety

Every time (or nearly every) that a new artistic style or movement emerges (in literature, think e.g. of romanticism or naturalism or modernism; in painting, think of impressionism or cubism or abstraction), it’s accompanied by two narratives.


One narrative comes from defenders of the Older Art. The burden of this narrative is that the Newer Art is not merely inferior, but pernicious – that it represents a betrayal of the very principles of art itself. Think of the hostile reviews of the first Impressionist Exhibition in Paris (such as “Wallpaper in its early stages is much more finished than that”); or the singers who refused to learn Wagner’s operas because they were “unsingable”; or the Vienna Musikverein’s initially rejecting Schönberg’s Verklärte Nacht because it used “nonexistent” chords; or the literal violence that broke out in the theatre at the first production of Victor Hugo’s play Hernani for its violation of the rules of classicism.

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Groundwork Books!

Continuing the San Diego bookstores series, I chat with Jack Ran of the Groundwork Book Collective, a radical left-wing bookstore on the campus of UCSD. Topics include running a bookstore as an egalitarian collective; participating in wildcat strikes; surviving arson attacks; the dynamics of anarchist/Marxist cooperation; conflicts with the university administration; what campus leftists owe to Donald Trump; and the joys of reading Proudhon, Kevin Carson, and Shawn Wilbur.

If I seem a little sleepy during the video, it’s because I’d gotten very little sleep the night before. I blame capitalism.

The Long Arm of the Law Merchant

In my latest Agoric Café video, I chat with economist Bruce L. Benson about polycentric mercantile law in medieval Europe and among the Plains Indians; whether private law can work outside of small homogeneous communities; causation vs. correlation in the gun control debate; the perils of scissors-and-paste history; the abolition of criminal law; the incentival perversities of the reservation system; the inevitability of the state; and what intellectual debt he owes to the u.s. military.

Ragnarok Lobster

What do Good Morning America, the Australian Outback, Mary Poppins, David Friedman, Lawrence of Arabia, and a balloon voyage to a lost colony of Vikings at the North Pole have in common? Get the answers in this video, as I take you on a journey BEYOND YOUR IMAGINATION!!!

Secrets of the Musketeers

Why is it called “The Three Musketeers” rather than “The Four Musketeers”? Was Alexandre Dumas really the author? Was Auguste Maquet the author? Was the novel based on real people and events? Was it based on a previous novel by somebody else? Were there any sequels or spinoffs? Do all the existing translations suck? Was Dumas racist against blacks? Was he black himself? Was d’Artagnan more of a villain than a hero? Did he fight Cyrano de Bergerac? Are the publishers of Dumas’s works guilty of literary fraud? And finally, and most importantly, is the “Three Musketeers” candy bar actually made out of musketeers? If these questions have got you tossing and turning all night – get fast, fast relief with this one weird video!

Tomfoolery in the Overhead Compartment

The Agoric Cafe is serving once again!

In my latest video, I chat with globetrotting, gunslinging, contraband-smuggling libertarian scholar Tom G. Palmer on the legitimacy of self-defense; the militarisation of police; prison abolitionism; the wars on drugs, guns, and gays; the economics and ethics of bounty hunting; the French liberal demystification of the state; lawlessness vs. anarchy; the perversities of the FDA and CDC; Afghan libertarianism; hatred as a treacherous muse; how to sneak a photocopy machine into the Soviet bloc; and the height of the sky.