Saturday, January 31, 2015

JESUS CHRIST (6/4 BCE – 30/33 AD)

“We should all give our shirts to the poor,
If you won’t even tithe, you’re a boor.
Give a hand to the weak,
And encourage the meek,
Or miss out on Gods heavenly tour.

Note: This is my irreverent rendition of what is probably Jesus’s most philosophical work, the Sermon on the Mount (Matthew 5-7).  George W. Bush famously said, in response to a question while on the Presidential campaign trail in 2000, that Jesus was his favorite philosopher.  Perhaps Bush was thinking of the Sermon on the Mount.  If so, then it might have helped if Bush had actually read it.  (I believe that the Sermon says something about turning the other cheek and not judging others lest one be judged, which are just those precepts the Bush administration followed when it engaged in pre-emptive war against Iraq in 2003, killing thousands of young conscripts and innocent civilians in the absence of any compelling evidence of weapons of mass destruction under Saddam Hussein’s control.)  I have to say that I like the idea of helping, and identifying with, the poor and the weak.  This Christian message continues to resonate today.  But the tone of this limerick is irreverent, because Jesus does not make clear whether the motive for helping the weak should be a desire for salvation (which, as I see it, would be the wrong sort of motive) or a commitment to the right and the good (which, on my view, would be the right sort of motive).    

Friday, January 30, 2015


When I first started composing limericks, I knew that some enterprising philosophers (including a graduate student at UNC, Larisa Svirsky, at had been writing some and posting them on the internet (thank you, Larisa!).  What I didn't know is that one philosopher in particular, Richard E. Aquila, had completed the truly Herculean task of writing an entire history of Western philosophy in limericks, and had published the result as a book, Rhyme or Reason: A Limerick History of Philosophy (University Press of America, 1981).  The book contains, I kid you not, 403 limericks.  I counted them all.  (Let me know if I miscounted, Richard, please.)  Many of the poems are combined into narratives.  As I read this book, with respect to some philosophers I almost lost track of the fact that I was reading poetry.  It's a stupendous achievement, one that dwarfs my one-a-day limerick vitamin project.  For those of you who like philosophy, poetry, and humor, look for this book in your local library (it's out of print), and ask University Press of America to re-issue it.    

In Professor Aquila's honor, I have composed a bonus limerick, and am sharing it with you:

Let's thank the great Richard Aquila,
The ultimate theory distilla.
For me, Rhyme or Reason
Is brilliant, no teasin':
Eclipsing sublime Friedrich Schilla.


““Don’t judge!” is the smartest position
To take on the human condition.”
So the skeptic averred,
Wanting this, her last word,
To serve as a sure proposition.

Note: Pyrrho of Elis and his followers (Pyrrhonian Skeptics, notably Aenesidemus and Sextus Empiricus) strove for a kind of mental tranquility that could be produced, they thought, by putting appearances and/or thoughts in opposition, creating a kind of equipollence that leads to mental stasis or suspension of judgment that is itself tranquility-conferring.  Pyrrhonian Skeptics railed against dogmatism.  The main problem for any Pyrrhonian, of course, is that if she wants to preserve the internal consistency of her theory, she will need to suspend judgment about the truth of her own philosophical theory (or whatever it is that is supposed to serve as the ground or basis of her recommendations for achieving tranquility of mind).  She will then be a Skeptic who suspends judgment about the truth of Skepticism.  Some Pyrrhonian Skeptics might think that the best way around this problem is not to put Skepticism forward as a theory or recipe (thanks to UCSD graduate student, Andrew Wong, for this suggestion), but to simply deploy Skeptical arguments that are designed to produce equipollence in response to any dogmatic claim.  Skepticism now becomes no more than a method for producing mental tranquility.  But now the problem is that if you ask the Skeptic why she is trying to produce tranquility or what she thinks the best way of producing tranquility is, she will not be able to offer you a theory in reply.  This is a strangely unsatisfying philosophical stance.    

Thursday, January 29, 2015

EPICURUS (341-270 BCE)
’Twas an old Epicurean sheep
Who thought death was no different from sleep.
As he lay down to die
To his friends he did cry,
Boy, I sure hope that nap ain't too deep!

Note: According to Epicurus, we only have reason to fear painful or unpleasant experiences.  But we all cease to exist when we are dead.  It follows that, when dead, we do not experience anything painful or unpleasant.  Hence, there is no call for us to fear death.  Lucretius (99-55 BCE) defends Epicureanism in On the Nature of Things.  There he explicitly draws an analogy between death and sleep.  Of course, thanks to my Jewish upbringing, I know that there is something profoundly mistaken about Epicureanism.  But it turns out to be difficult to explain exactly what the nature of the error is.  Oy, as if there weren’t already enough to worry about…

Wednesday, January 28, 2015


If your impression’s cataleptic,
That will make Sextus quite dyspeptic.
But if what you’re seeing
Is not guaranteeing,
Then its advantage to the skeptic.

Note: The Stoic school (which met at the porch in the Athenian agora) began and flourished in the 3rd century BCE, under its first three leaders, Zeno of Citium, Cleanthes, and Chrysippus.  According to the Stoics, some of our (sense) impressions (in part because of their vividness and coherence) can be recognized as true reflections of a mind-independent reality, while others (e.g., incoherent or hazy dreamlike states) are not.  Impressions of the former kind Stoics called “cataleptic impressions”.  But Stoics were criticized by Skeptics (including Sextus Empiricus, 160-210), who thought that some impressions Stoics wanted to categorize as non-cataleptic (e.g., vivid and coherent hallucinations) were in fact indistinguishable from the cataleptic ones.  

Tuesday, January 27, 2015


To make Aristotle eudaimon
What’s needed is reason and backbone,
Discharging each duty,
Friends, wealth, kids, and beauty,
And lastly a gleaming new iPhone.

Note: (This limerick is dedicated to my colleague, David Brink, from whom I have learned so much about ancient Greek ethics.)  Eudaimonia is the Greek word for doing well or faring well, usually, but also somewhat misleadingly, translated as “happiness”.  According to Aristotle, eudaimonia requires both (a) rational activity in accordance with virtue (including courage, or "backbone") over a complete life and (b) “external goods”, themselves of two kinds: those that make the expression of virtue possible (as in the possession of wealth and friends, which make beneficence actualizable), and those that don’t (e.g. beauty, having good children).  There is a Yiddish saying: Without luck, nothing will succeed.  Ergo: Aristotle spoke Yiddish.

Monday, January 26, 2015


“It’s matter and form that make substance,
Bronze shape is a statue, for instance.
But form’s own existence
Needs matter’s persistence:
This breeds theoretic resistance.

Note: According to Aristotle, individual substances (such as President Obama and the Eiffel Tower) are things that are neither said of nor present in anything else.  (By contrast, for example, tallness can be said of Obama and is present in him, so tallness is not a substance.)  These substances are matter-form composites (hylomorphism).  So, for example, every statue is composed of matter (whatever it was made out of, say a lump of bronze) and form (the statue’s shape, which is what makes the statue the statue that it is).  But the form of a substance is not separable from its matter: if the lump of bronze ceases to exist, so does the statue’s shape.  This makes sense in the statue case.  But Aristotle also claims that human beings are substances, that a human being’s form is its soul and its matter is its body (or flesh, blood, and bone).  If form is not separable from matter, it follows that the soul of a human being is not separable from the human’s body.  This becomes a serious issue for Christians in the Middle Ages (Scholastics) who want to preserve the possibility of life after death within the main lines of Aristotelian metaphysics.

Sunday, January 25, 2015


Arete’s a great Cyrenaic,
Her theory is very prosaic.
What’s good is just pleasure,
Of wellness the measure,
Without getting too formulaic.

Note: Arete of Cyrene (an ancient Greek colony in Northern Africa, now in Eastern Libya) was the daughter of Aristippus, whom Plato (in the Phaedo) lists among those who were not, but who would have wanted to be, at Socrates’ side when he drank the hemlock in 399 BCE.  Aristippus moved to Athens, taking Arete with him, and founded a school (of Cyrenaics), heavily influenced by some of Socrates’ statements, including the claim that the good is pleasure (a claim that Plato attributes to his character “Socrates” in the Protagoras).  Arete learned Cyrenaic philosophy from her father, and later married and gave birth to a son, whom she called “Aristippus” in honor of her father and whom she (contrary to existing customs) taught herself.  It is thanks to Arete’s son that we know as much as we do now (which isn’t much, unfortunately) about the Cyrenaic school.  And we have her to thank for the fact that her son was so well trained in philosophy.

Saturday, January 24, 2015

PLATO (429-347 BCE)

“Human heads are both large and quite small,
It’s not thanks to what’s small that you’re tall.
If you think that your wig
Makes you bigger than big,
Then you're wrong, and your theory must fall.

Note 0: I made a small change to this limerick, following a judicious correction offered by Margaret Dancy, whose limericking powers exceed mine by a long shot.  Thank you, Margaret!

Note 1: In the Phaedo, Plato’s mouthpiece, Socrates, claims that as a young man he used to believe that causes were material things, that the cause of human growth is eating and drinking, and that the cause of X’s being taller than Y is X’s head (because X is taller “by a head”).  Now, he says, he no longer accepts this.  One of his reasons is that the human head is small, and nothing that is small can be the cause of anything big (or tall).  At bottom, Plato is articulating a theory of causation that was taken for granted by philosophers (and scientists) for almost two thousand years.  According to this theory, nothing can make something else have a certain property unless it has that property itself.  The favorite example of this was heat: only hot things can make other things hot (by transferring heat to them).  Importantly, nothing cold can make something hot, and nothing hot can make something cold.  (The first person to draw my attention to this important theory of causation was Russ Dancy, my former colleague at Florida State University.  When I was a mere babe of an assistant professor, he ran a fantastic seminar on Plato's Parmenides that I attended, and I was hooked on Plato forever.)

Note 2: Actually, looking back over old emails, I found a (meter-wise imperfect) limerick I wrote for Russ and Margaret Dancy in 2009.  This blog gives me the opportunity to share it with you, as a token of gratitude to both of them:

There was an old man called Parmenides
Who was given to writing inanidies
He once said, "The One
Is not many, my son,"
Which gave Plato no end of anxiedies.

Note 3: Plato's Parmenides features the character Socrates.  But this time Socrates gets his comeuppance.  After Socrates has sketched out the Theory of Forms for which Plato is famous, Parmenides outlines five main criticisms that, to all appearances, doom the theory.  But then Parmenides changes tack and claims that there is a way to rescue the theory from the criticisms (well, maybe not from the fifth one, commonly known as The Greatest Difficulty), and proceeds to run through a series of roughly 180 arguments, divided into eight (or nine) sections, about the form of unity: The One.  The start of the first argument is: "If The One is (alternative translation: if it is one), The One would not be many, would it?"  This seems kind of nutty, but it all makes sense in the end.  It took me a couple of years to figure it out.  For more on this, see my contribution to the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy on the Parmenides:  Masochists among you might also try looking at my Plato's Forms in Transition: A Reading of the Parmenides (Cambridge University Press, 2007).  None of this would have been possible without the kind of careful interpretive work to be found in Russ Dancy's Plato's Introduction of Forms (Cambridge University Press, 2004).

Friday, January 23, 2015

Physics Limericks

For those of you interested in limericks of all sorts, not just philosophical ones, I came across this webpage full of great physics limericks created by David Morin (physics lecturer at Harvard): 

Bonus! A Limerick from Seth Lerer

Professor Seth Lerer, ex-UCSD-Dean-of-Arts-and-Humanities-extraordinaire, author, scholar, polymath, winner of more awards than you can shake a stick at, and once known as "Seth Lerer", sent me this poem for the ages:

A philosopher once known as Sam,
Wrote: "I limerick, and therefore I am.
Though you'd think this task reckless,
It is far from feckless.
It's philosophy -- hardly a scam."

Thank you, Seth.

PLATO (429-347 BCE)

For Plato the soul is tripartite,
Three parts in perpetual dogfight.
If appetite’s naughty,
Then reason gets haughty,
And drags spirit round without respite.

Note 1: In Book 4 of his masterpiece, The Republic, Plato (now using the character “Socrates” as his mouthpiece) argues that the soul has three parts: Reason (the reasoning and planning part, whose function is to control the other two parts for the sake of the good of the whole soul), Spirit (the part responsible for anger, whose function is to assist Reason in controlling the third part of the soul), and Appetite (the part responsible for base desires, for such things as food, drink, and sex).  In a virtuous soul, Plato says, the three parts harmonize with each other, with Appetite and Spirit both accepting Reason’s rightful rule, and Appetite subordinating itself to Spirit’s strictures.  But in a vicious soul, the three parts are at odds with each other, with each claiming the mantle of the soul’s ruler.  For the sake of the soul’s good, we have to hope in each case that Reason wins the battle for supremacy.

Note 2: "Respite" should be pronounced with the accent on the first syllable and as rhyming with "tripartite" and "dogfight".  For those of you in the UK, this will not be a stretch.  For those of you in the United States, pretend that you are a Shakespearean actor or something.

Note 3: A former UCSD graduate student and all-around good guy, Per-Erik Milam, writes with fascinating news.  It appears that recent psychological studies give us reason to believe that poetry can be used to affect philosophical intuitions (that is, considered judgments at all levels of generality, but usually about particular cases, such as whether to turn a runaway trolley away from five innocent persons onto a track where one innocent person is trapped) via unconscious mechanisms.  Perhaps, suggested Per, I could achieve immortality by turning my philosophical papers into verse.  I love the idea (which has been tried before: Hector Monro, "The Sonneteer's History of Philosophy", Philosophy (1980): 363-375 -- thanks to Irwin Primer, Professor Emeritus of English Literature, Rutgers University, for the reference; and Richard E. Aquila's Rhyme or Reason: A Limerick History of Philosophy, University Press of America, 1981).  But I think I can go one better.  So here goes:


What a sneaky idea! You are right
That for justice and truth I must fight.
A small favor I'd ask
To accomplish the task:
A fat check in the mail by tonight...