Classically Inclined

November 10, 2015

A seasonal Movember post on philosophical facial hair

Filed under: Research — lizgloyn @ 4:06 pm
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Tis the season for people to start doing extravagant things with their facial hair – yes, Movember is upon us. It will not surprise you to learn that the question of whether to beard or not to beard was also asked in antiquity, in particular in terms of whether a philosopher should have a beard or not. If you think of the statues of philosophers you see in museums, or at least the statues that are represented as being of philosophers, they tend to have a prolific growth of facial hair to their credit. For some in antiquity, possessing a beard was seen as a defining characteristic of being a philosopher – beardedness somehow became equated with possessing wisdom.

Alas for those currently cultivating their facial foliage, it turns out that the connection isn’t quite that simple. This post is a quick round-up of some things that the Roman Stoics have to say about what’s going on with beards, gender and wisdom.

The division between those with beards and those without isn’t just between the wise and non-wise – it’s also seen as a dividing line between men and women, although again, having a beard isn’t in and of itself enough to make you a man. Having a beard is described as natural or according to nature. The Stoics are very keen on the idea that if something is according to nature, then it’s also in accordance with virtue, which makes the deliberate distinction between men and women caused by facial hair something to be valued. In Musonius Rufus’ On Cutting The Hair (Discourse 21), he compares the beard to the crest of the cock or the mane of the lion. Epictetus uses the same imagery in Discourses 1.16.12, again to emphasise the difference between the male and the female of the species.

There are always those who aren’t so happy with their stubble, which turns out to be a sign of a deeper existential malaise. In Discourses 3.1, Epictetus critiques a young man for depilating himself and confusing the natural boundary between the genders. However, he then goes on to remind his victim that he is not human by virtue of his hair, but by virtue of his moral purpose (proairesis). While the young man’s attitude to his bodily hair is a symptom of his confusion about how the world works, he needs to do more than cultivate a healthy beard to address the underlying problem. Indeed, while Epictetus attacks the youth for his excessive personal care regime in this discourse, in Discourses 4.11 he expresses a different view – he would rather have an over-coiffured youth come to learn philosophy than one with ‘his moustache reaching down to his knees’, because at least he would be able to point the first student in the correct direction of what is good and beautiful (to kalon).

The Roman philosophers are also aware of the tension between the beard as an emblem of the philosopher and the fact that simply having a beard is not enough to make one a philosopher. Epictetus says that his beard and his rough cloak identify him as a philosopher to the young man attacked for depilation (3.1.24). He lists growing a beard, along with composing philosophical treatises, as one of the marks of philosophising which Epicurus demonstrated but attributed to the flesh (sarx) rather than his moral purpose (proairesis; Discourses 2.23.21). He implies that a philosopher should reject the threat of having his beard shaved, even if such an action could result in the philosopher’s decapitation (Discourses 1.2.27). Yet  in Discourses 4.8, he parallels philosophy to music and carpentry to illustrate that simply taking on the attire of a trade is not enough to make one a practitioner of that trade. The beard signals an affiliation with the philosophical life, but it holds no guarantee that its wearer will actually be living in accordance with that philosophy.

Epictetus’ comments reflect anxiety about balancing what is according to nature with the requirements of society and the line between acting like a philosopher and merely looking like one. Seneca makes a similar observation early in the Epistulae Morales, when he encourages his addressee Lucilius to continue with his philosophical studies (5.1-3). He draws a distinction between moral improvement and simply adopting the trappings of so-called philosophers; Lucilius should not deliberately present himself in a way that arouses comment. Among the things Seneca discourages him from are an outspoken hatred of silver, a bed put on the earth, messy dress sense, uncut hair – and a more unruly beard. The danger of this sort of thing is that it puts off precisely the people whom the philosophers want to reach most: the decision to look so out of step with the world around them means ‘ordinary’ people run a mile from any philosophy that seems to require them to behave so outlandishly.

Given the various attempts at facial hair that will be materialising over the coming months, and the varied range of responses they are sure to generate among the friends and acquaintances of Movember participants, I suspect the power of the beard to overstep the common boundaries of good taste is about to be tested to its limits once again. Perhaps we might bear in mind the warning that just to wear the beard isn’t the same as having the inner disposition associated with it. The Movember Foundation focuses on four key areas of men’s health – prostrate cancer, testicular cancer, poor mental health and physical inactivity. If you are participating in Movember, or somebody you know is, then take Seneca’s advice and think about the hidden ways in which you’re committed to improving those problems, which will last beyond the application of the razor on 1st December and the eventual donning of the charity Christmas jumper.

July 6, 2015

June is busting out all over…

Filed under: Research — lizgloyn @ 6:28 pm
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…and it’s taken me until July to blog about it. Such is the life of a new mum. I type this with infans in his sling, finally having the nap he has resisted all day, while I reflect upon the changes and developments that have happened in my life over the last twelve weeks.

Arguably the most significant of these is the arrival of the new small person, who is growing and thriving at a slightly alarming but very encouraging rate. We’ve all got the hang of the basics now, so it’s a matter of doing the day-to-day living, which is demanding but rather less intense than the first six weeks or so. That the final output of my maternity leave, when it finishes in September, should be a happy, cheerful and generally content baby looks like a goal that is on track.

However, I will happily own up to the fact that the itch to get back on with research work has already returned, reinforcing my personal conviction that a year’s worth of maternity leave would have had me climbing the walls. I’ve already been surprisingly productive – I finished off the science fiction piece, have done more work for the Family Archive project, and have sorted out the edits to an article about writing for the Companion to the World of Roman Women that started off as a series of blog posts on here.

Most importantly, however, last week I signed and posted back my contract with Cambridge University Press for a book provisionally entitled The Ethics of the Family in Seneca.

As you will probably have guessed, this is going to be the book version of my PhD thesis, and I’ve spent the time since submission in 2011 working on getting the manuscript into a good enough shape for publication. In fact, I’m still working on revising the manuscript, as those of you who follow me on Twitter will know, but now there’s an end date for the manuscript to be finished, and everything feels more… real.

When I graduated, I said that my life goals for the next few years were a baby, a book and abode. It looks like the most elusive of those three is finally getting closer. I may write more about the process of getting here at some stage, but right now, I’m going to go and help infans (who has woken up since I started writing this post) practice rolling onto his side.

May 6, 2015

New publication: In A Galaxy Far, Far Away: On Classical Reception and Science Fiction

Filed under: Research — lizgloyn @ 9:57 am
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Following on my recent blog post about science fiction, classical reception and fannishness, I’m glad to announce that the final piece has now been published!

You can read In A Galaxy Far, Far Away: On Classical Reception and Science Fiction over at Strange Horizons.

Ultimately, I’m very pleased indeed with how the piece turned out. As I explained in my preliminary blog post, this is quite a big shift away from some of my usual stomping ground, and I’ve really appreciated the opportunity to get familiar with the territory. That’s because I have another project on tap that looks like it will make really good use of the sort of material that I got to use and get familiar with for this piece – but that’s another story for another time. Until then, enjoy this overview of the state of the field, and do let me know what you think!

April 8, 2015

Posted Elsewhere – A very modern family archive

Filed under: Research — lizgloyn @ 11:15 am
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I should have flagged this up when the post went up, but better late than never… I have another post up on the Family Archive project blog, this time exploring the link between my own experience of family archives and the sentimental things that turn up in ancient deposits.

I don’t think this answers the question I posed in my previous post for the project about why sentimental (and thus ‘inexplicable’) material gets kept, but it’s certainly a place to start.

March 16, 2015

Why calling Seneca a hypocrite isn’t very helpful

Filed under: Research — lizgloyn @ 8:52 am
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“There’s a review of Emily Wilson in today’s paper,” said G, waving a copy of the Observer.

“There’s a what?” I said, groggily, looking up from my yoghurt and about to rush off to church choir practice.

He passed the paper over, and lo and behold, it was a review of Emily Wilson’s Seneca: A Life, which in its online incarnation appears to have gained a new title – in the print edition of the Observer, the title is “A great Stoic and a serious hypocrite”, which sums up the attitude of the review rather better.

Reading the review had the effect of waking me up, mainly by making me rather cross. For several reasons. But the one G picked up on when he asked “so, is Seneca a hypocrite?” is the one on which I’m going to base this post. Seneca has had a long history of being accused of hypocrisy, starting in antiquity – Dio Cassius regales us with some particularly scandalous tales, including that bit about Seneca nearly bankrupting Britain by calling his loans in, and the usual ‘pandering to freedmen’ stuff that the Claudian period generates because Claudius actually set up a system of governmental officials who (shock horror!) weren’t senators. But Cassius Dio is writing at least a hundred years after Seneca’s death, and appears to assume that working the imperial system then was like working it in his period, when the political and moral ground had undergone some really big shifts. So that’s problem number one – the juicy evidence for Seneca’s hypocrisy comes from someone writing much later, with a bit of an axe to grind.

But the fair question remains of whether Seneca compromised his philosophical beliefs by working with Nero, and by retaining his status as a member of the senatorial elite. There are two good reasons grounded in Stoic doctrine that show attacking him on these grounds rather misses the point.

One. The Stoics had a doctrine of indifferents. That is, they said the only important thing was virtue. Everything else – good and ill health, good looks, wealth and poverty, marriage and bachelorhood, and, well, everything else – was an indifferent. Having or not having a particular indifferent did not make the slightest bit of difference to your ability to achieve virtue (and thus happiness). They complicated this a bit by then saying that some indifferents were preferred; that is, if everything was equal and your pursuit of virtue was not harmed by either choice, then it made sense to select one of the pair rather than the other. So if you had the choice between health and being poorly, for instance, you’d take health. Similarly, if you had the choice between wealth and poverty, you’d take wealth, providing the way of getting the money didn’t involve you doing something morally dubious (betraying a friend, for instance, or killing an innocent person). Stoicism doesn’t support a push towards compulsory poverty, like the later Franciscans or the earlier Cynics. The only ethically problematic thing about having money is becoming too dependent on it, forgetting that it’s an indifferent like any other, and starting to pursue it for its own sake.

But what, for instance, if your money came from, oooh, supporting a tyrant? And being part of that tyrant’s inner circle? Let us for a moment put aside the fact that Nero’s first few years of rule are generally credited with being not too bad, which sort of undermines the view that Seneca knew he was supporting a corrupt regime from the get-go. OK, there’s an ethical problem here – Seneca’s wealth and influence derives from his support of an emperor of dubious habits. Yet on what grounds would we call him a hypocrite? Hypocrisy is claiming to hold certain character traits and standards but not living up to them; hypocrisy is criticising other people for behaving in the way one happily does oneself. So we need to find evidence of Seneca presenting himself as morally superior to other people in his presentation of Stoic philosophy, and boom, there’s our evidence for hypocrisy.

But this is emphatically not what Seneca says anywhere in his extant work. The yardstick for moral achievement within Stoicism is the wise man or sage, who has got perfect grasp of reason, thus only makes rational decisions, and so is perfectly happy. The sage is famously rarer than a phoenix. Seneca never claims to be a wise man – in the On the Blessed Life, he explicitly says “I am not a wise man” (non sum sapiens). He never claims to have reached moral perfection. When he writes to his addressee Lucilius in the Moral Letters, he’s very careful never to claim ethical superiority – he has been doing this Stoicism thing for longer, which gives him a bit of an edge on knowing the material, but he’s still fallible and capable of making mistakes and irrational choices. When somebody is so open about his own moral faults and failings, even if not specifically the ones which revolve around his relationship with Nero, it’s a bit difficult to find the leverage to justify the charge of hypocrisy.

Basically, going back to this old chestnut as people have a depressing tendency to do demonstrates the importance of reading Seneca’s philosophical convictions against the historical background to get a better understanding of what’s going on in his actions and the decisions he makes. It’s not a neat answer, and it’s not a comfortably judgemental answer (because we all feel better when we can castigate someone else’s failings – well-known sayings about eyes, planks and motes come to mind). But it is one that recognises the complexity of the man and does him justice.

March 10, 2015

Classics and sci fi – some initial thoughts

Filed under: Research — lizgloyn @ 2:59 pm
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As some of you will have picked up on Twitter, one of my current research and writing jobs is for a short-ish piece on the current state of the field of classical reception studies and science fiction for Strange Horizons (the lovely people who, as you’ll remember, published my short article on crossing borders in classically influenced fiction). This isn’t entirely new ground for me, as that piece shows, and I’m thinking quite a lot about sci fi and fantasy in general as part of the monsters project. But being asked to do a review piece is a first for me, and also involves trying to get a sense of the state of a field that I have hitherto been on the edges of rather than deeply involved in.

I’m very lucky to know some of the people who are at the forefront of moving various conversations around sci fi and classics forward, and who are being very generous with their time, knowledge and expertise as I try and put this together. However, one of the problems with coming to this as I am is that – well, let me make a confession. I don’t think I’m really a fan.

I don’t mean I’m not a fan of science fiction, broadly defined – it’s a fun genre, and while I do lean more towards fantasy (allowing that the border between the two genres is extremely fluid), sci fi does some interesting and cool things. I’ve been trying to read some more of the sci fi landmarks since attending the Swords, Sorcery, Sandals and Space conference, at least in part because I felt I was missing out on a whole chunk of the discourse by not knowing the major texts to which papers and participants were referring. (So I’ve since read the Asimov Foundation trilogy, for example, and got a brief review of Slow River into the Times Higher Ed.) But the problem is that I’m coming to this as an adult who wants to be informed about the field, not as someone with the kind of all-encompassing hunger and passion I remember from my younger years who falls in love with a series or a writer and commits whole-heartedly to their work. I’m talking, and I say this with affection, of the sort of devotion you get in Trekkies. Or indeed in devotees of Buffy and Angel. (Some of these issues are similar to those we encounter when using the personal voice in academic work.) The closest I come, if I’m honest, is probably my irrational fondness for Hope Mirrlees, and while Lud-in-the-Mist is a starter for one, it’s not exactly an in-depth familiarity with the broad sci fi canon.

So the biggest challenge for me in writing this particular piece has been overcoming good old imposter syndrome. There are other problems too, of course. I’m drafting so I’m not too worried about the tone I’m taking yet, just getting words on the page will do, but there are issues about the right sort of way to write for a venue like Strange Horizons. It’s obviously not an academic journal, but neither is it this ‘ere blog, where I can be as informal and chatty or technical and jargony as I feel like being. I’m wondering about structure and organisation, and the sorts of things that readers will take for granted and that I need to spell out (the usual concern when writing for a non-academic audience, compounded by said imposter syndrome which assumes that every reader will already know everything I have to say, which is clearly nonsense). But most of all, it’s having the courage to have a go – after all, if I wasn’t up to it, I wouldn’t have been asked.

Now that the writing is underway, it’s actually turning out to be quite fun, and I’ve read a lot of really interesting stuff along the way. So keep an eye out for the final piece, which should appear in April or May some time, and you can judge how successful it’s been for yourself!

March 7, 2015

Posted Elsewhere – Family archives and the Romans

Filed under: Research — lizgloyn @ 6:52 pm
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In case any of you are interested, I have a post up on the Family Archive project blog thinking about the idea of family archives and how it relates to the Romans. Do pop over and take a look!

I’m still puzzled about what family archive practices look like in Rome itself, rather than Greco-Roman Egypt – I’m particularly interested in the so-called ‘sentimental’ material, kept for no readily apparent reason, and how that gets transmitted down through the generations. But that’s another story for another blog post…

March 2, 2015

On disliking conclusions

Filed under: Research — lizgloyn @ 12:07 pm
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As most of you know, I am currently wrestling with revising a book manuscript. This involves a good deal of looking at conclusions, and as such is making me remember just how much I dislike the blessed things.

There’s a lot to be said for the elegant conclusion – it distils the wisdom of a chapter or article into one or two crystal clear sentences that provide the icing, as it were, on the argumentative cake. But the bad conclusion is far easier to write – one which just recaps what has been said throughout the piece without really taking it through that rhetorical transmutation that creates a satisfying conclusion. The irony, of course, is that while I may chastise students in my marking feedback for offering conclusions which rehash the points they have already made, my first (and second and third and fourth) drafts of scholarly work often contain conclusions which do exactly the same – even when I think I’ve managed the requisite compositional alchemy.

This is something I’m particularly aware of at the moment because I’m trying to rewrite the conclusion to the whole book – not just offering a neat summary for a chapter, but a neat tie-up for over 100,000 words’ worth of point. Despite my best efforts, I’m still offering a rehash of previous points in quite a procedural manner (albeit less so than the original PhD conclusion, of which frankly the less said, the better). Finding the right words to be the last words of the book is also phenomenally difficult. My current strategy is to move into the personal voice, but I would be the first to admit that this is a strategy born out of desperation rather than of conviction. It’s also not quite coming out right just yet – there’s something too colloquial and apologetic about it, which is another risk of conclusions. While you think you have stated your case firmly and authoritatively, it often turns out that you’ve actually underplayed your own original contribution to a debate or the most significant consequence of your own argument.

I don’t think I have any tips for writing conclusions, other than being prepared to write, rewrite and rewrite again, and getting as many pairs of eyes on a conclusion as possible to tell you if you are doing yourself justice. But I am rather surprised at the difficulty of writing the conclusion for a book, if only because I had rather assumed it would be like writing a mini-chapter or article rather than concentrated last-blessed-paragraph syndrome. But maybe I’m unusual in finding conclusions such a particular bugbear. If anyone has any great ideas for avoiding the pitfalls and putting together that glittering wit and glitz that is the hallmark of a fine conclusion, I’m all ears.

January 26, 2015

The Family Archive Project: Advisory Board meeting

Filed under: Research — lizgloyn @ 1:18 pm
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Last week was an exciting one for the Family Archive Project, as we had our first advisory board meeting. It’s the first time the project team have all been in the same physical space since the original AHRC sandpit, and for me it was the first time meeting our advisory board members, who are more senior academics with experience of doing This Sort Of Thing plus a representative from the National Archives, one of our project partners. The meeting served as an opportunity to update the advisory board on the progress that has been made so far, get some advice from them about things we felt could benefit from their input, and also ask them whether they had any thoughts or suggestions for how we should be approaching the project. It was really energising to be sitting in a room of people who were keen about the project – I’ve been getting more and more enthused since I spent a day in the British Library t’other week and realised that there’s something genuinely interesting here that doesn’t seem to have been picked up on (for perfectly good reasons) on the classical side, and the advisory board meeting reinforced that mood.

Two major things came out of it for me. The first was that the unique strength of this project is the chronological scope that the research team bring to the issue, and the possibilities that this opens up for interrogating contemporary practice and building new frameworks for understanding how people approach family archives, both consciously and unconsciously. I think we’d all appreciated that this was something special about the project as we put it together, but hearing other people articulate it certainly brought it home to me. The second was the potential that this work has for making a difference not only to other academics but to people in society more broadly, and how important it is to make sure that we’re keeping track of the needs of the communities and groups we’re working with. At the moment, we’re only operating on a comparatively small scale, but it’s something that simply hadn’t occurred to me before.

A side issue, but no less important, that we spent a bit of time discussing was how we are actually going to write the two articles we hope will come out of this work, beginning with one based on our historical case studies. We found working on the grant proposal through shared documents on Google Drive worked rather well, and I’d assumed we’d try that approach again; one thing the advisory board suggested was that one person took responsibility for calling time on the collaborative drafting process and then gave the article a coherent authorial voice before asking for feedback from everyone on the neatened result. Collaborative writing is not something that my field of the humanities tends to play with very often, although some people find it very productive; certainly it’s not something I’ve ever done. Given that there are four of us on the project team, I think we all appreciated some advice from people who have had more experience producing collaborative writing about what works and what doesn’t!

The next big milestone, other than getting a research assistant appointed for the project and setting up our focus groups, is getting together the meat of the case study article and working out what shape that would best take. Obviously because of oncoming maternity leave, I want to get on with that sooner rather than later – so I can see plenty more reading and note-taking ahead of me in the next few months. I’m looking forward to it.

January 15, 2015

New publication: review of The Oxford Anthology of Roman Literature

Filed under: Research — lizgloyn @ 9:31 am
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In the general spirit of ‘every little helps’, I’m delighted to share that my notice/short review of The Oxford Anthology of Roman Literature has appeared in the latest edition of The Classical Review. This was quite a fun one to write, mainly because of trying to get as much information as humanly possible into five hundred words and still provide a fair and accurate impression of what the book was about!

The bonus of the piece being quite that short is that it fits on one page of the journal and thus the preview page is essentially the whole thing! If you’re interested, you can read it here.

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