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Alexander Nehamas

Alexander Nehamas chairs the programme in Hellenic Studies at Princeton. His books include The Art of Living: Socratic Reflections from Plato to Foucault.

Not Rocket Science

Alexander Nehamas, 22 June 2000

Our century has been distrustful of beauty. Our philosophy follows Kant, who found beauty only in a contemplation of nature and art which yields an ‘entirely disinterested satisfaction’, pleasure bereft of desire. In literature and the arts, Modernism prized what is difficult, discomforting and edifying. As the gap between high and low culture became ever wider, the beauty which mattered to intellectuals, when it mattered to them at all, came to seem different in kind from the beauty which mattered to the world at large, and, for that reason, irrelevant and empty: the higher the pleasure it provoked, the less like pleasure it seemed.‘

Iris Murdoch

Alexander Nehamas, 4 March 1999

The first thing Alzheimer’s disease took away from Iris Murdoch was her luminous powers. At a conference in Israel in 1994, she was unable to answer her audience’s questions. In 1995, she completed, with great difficulty, her 27th novel, Jackson’s Dilemma, in which readers found several errors and inconsistencies; it was to be her last. Her philosophical work had already stopped. To a friend’s question about her writing, she replied that she felt she was ‘sailing into the darkness’. Then the disease deprived her of the ordinary abilities to function on her own. John Bayley, who had been married to her for more than forty years, had to dress and undress her, feed her and bathe her, reassure her and watch over her constantly to make sure she came to no harm. In its advanced stages when he wrote this book, Alzheimer’s gradually eroded her most basic individual characteristics.‘

Dream on

Alexander Nehamas, 17 July 1997

Adebate about language is currently raging in Greece. Should Classical Greek be a required part of the school curriculum, or should it be optional? Should the works of the ancient authors be taught only in the original, or should students study them in Modern Greek translation? The debate is intensely political. Conservatives insist that an education in Classical Greek is indispensable to educated Greeks, who cannot know their heritage and history without it. Liberals and radicals argue that such an education is reactionary, reinforcing an emphasis on the past and on the separateness of Greece from the rest of the world, particularly the West. It is easy to overlook the idea that is common to both sides in this debate: that reading Homer, Pindar, the tragic poets, the historians, Plato and Aristotle is an essential part of all Greek education. The debate presupposes that this literature, which few Greeks can now read in the original and many are unwilling to read even in translation, is their literature. Everyone agrees it should be taught; the only question is in what form.

Swallowing goldfish

Alexander Nehamas, 10 December 1987

The state of elementary, intermediate and higher education in America has been a serious cause for concern in recent years. Diverse groups and individuals have issued scathing reports on the low quality of current educational schemes, dire warnings about their potential consequences, and mostly vague recommendations regarding their reform. Allan Bloom’s The Closing of the American Mind, described on the New York Times best-seller list as ‘a critique of liberal arts education during the past twenty-five years’, has been widely considered as a distinguished part of this broad critical movement. Nothing could be further from the truth.

Untheory

Alexander Nehamas, 22 May 1986

The ancient quarrel between philosophy and poetry which Plato described, and in which he took part, is still being fought. Poetry today has become, more generally, ‘rhetoric’, ‘fiction’, ‘literature’, ‘literariness’, ‘narrative’ or ‘writing’. It has even found an ally within the enemy’s ranks – the recent anti-philosophical philosophy sometimes known as the New Pragmatism. And though it has now become more pervasive, though the tables appear to have been turned against philosophy, and though the issue no longer seems to be simply the proper domain of each practice, the war between philosophy and poetry goes on. While Plato would have denied that, strictly speaking, poetry is a practice or an ‘art’ (a techne) at all, poets today have struck back by arguing that philosophy itself is a species of poetry. Philosophy differs from the rest of fiction, the argument continues, only by its bad faith. For it is the only branch of literature which deceives itself into claiming that, unlike the others, it can give correct and final answers to deep, serious and substantive questions – to ‘the perennial problems’. Philosophy, the poets claim, is rhetoric which has forgotten that it is rhetoric; it believes it has a theory and methods which can do more than persuade, which can, some day at least, lead us to the truth.’

The Sponge of Apelles

Alexander Nehamas, 3 October 1985

Thales of Miletus, with whom histories of Western philosophy conventionally begin, was said to have been so concerned with the heavens that he fell into a well while he was gazing at the stars. Ever since then (ever since they have existed, that is) philosophers have been objects of amusement and subjects of satire. For one thing, philosophical views often seem intolerably abstruse. For another, their sheer number, the sheer multiplicity of different equally abstruse views on the nature of the world or on the form of the good life, can itself constitute the ground of suspicion and criticism. And so, of course, it has.

Different Stories

David Hoy, 8 January 1987

In the Birth of Tragedy Nietzsche maintains that life and the world are justifiable only aesthetically. The world is to be understood the way an artwork is, and life can become an artwork. If...

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