Prof. Angie Hobbs FRSA is Professor of the Public Understanding of Philosophy at the University of Sheffield, a position created for her. Her chief interests are in ancient philosophy and literature, and ethics and political theory from classical thought to the present, and she has published widely in these areas, including Plato and the Hero. Her most recent publication for the general public is Plato’s Republic: a Ladybird Expert Book. She contributes regularly to radio and TV programmes and other media around the world, including many appearances on In Our Time on BBC Radio 4 and programmes on ancient Greek philosophy for Cosmote History. She has spoken at the Athens Democracy Forum, the World Economic Forum at Davos, the Houses of Parliament in London, and the Scottish Parliament. She was a judge of the Man Booker International Prize 2019 and was on the World Economic Forum Global Future Council 2018-9 for Values, Ethics and Innovation.
How did you become interested in philosophy?
I initially felt very torn between philosophy and literature. I had always loved all forms of literature – poetry, drama, novels, short stories – and in my teens I also started to become fascinated by many of the big philosophical questions (studying Lucretius De Rerum Natura (On the Nature of Things) in VIth Form in particular got me interested in free will and determinism). So, when I went to Cambridge University when I was 19 to read Classics I was, as I say, initially very undecided about what I wanted to concentrate on. But then I discovered Plato’s Symposium – a glorious, vibrant, witty and profoundly moving dialogue about the nature of erotic love – and I realised I did not have to choose! Plato is a great artist as well as a great philosopher, and in studying him I could satisfy both my passions. But it wasn’t just Plato with whom I fell in love – I quickly became intrigued by all the ancient Greek and Roman philosophers: the Presocratics, such as Heraclitus, Parmenides and Zeno; Aristotle; the Epicureans, Stoics and Cynics; Cicero, Seneca and Epictetus; the wild and wonderful world of the Neoplatonists such as Plotinus and their Renaissance inheritors, such as Ficino … For me, ancient philosophy is quite simply the gift that keeps on giving!
What’s the most important concept or idea that you teach people?
I find the ancient Greek concept of eudaimonia hugely important and helpful. It is perhaps best translated as ‘flourishing’ (literally it means ‘protected by a beneficent guardian spirit’) and is more objective than our concepts of happiness or pleasure: it is about the actualization, the fulfilment, of all our various faculties – intellectual, imaginative, emotional and physical. It can offer us a secure framework for what it might mean for an individual or community to flourish, even in those situations where feeling happy – let alone feeling pleasure – is neither possible nor even appropriate. In challenging conditions, an ethical approach based on eudaimonia encourages us to ask: ‘How can I nevertheless best actualize my faculties in ways which further both my good and the good of the community, as far as circumstances allow?’
What do you think is the most important piece of practical advice that we can derive from your work?
Although I find a number of features of Stoic philosophy troubling – such as the belief that everything has in fact been providentially arranged for the best if we could only see the bigger picture – I do still find much of Stoic ethics very useful and sustaining, particularly in times of radical uncertainty, such as during a pandemic. I have found especially valuable the mental exercises which encourage
a) focusing on the few things that you can control (such as your response to events and to the behaviour of others);
b) paying attention to the present and enjoying those aspects of it that you can enjoy, and not wasting time and energy fearing the future or regretting the past.
Do you have a favorite quote that you use?
‘Philosophy begins in wonder’ (Plato Theaetetus 155d).
What advice would you give someone who wanted to learn more about what you do?
My website angiehobbs.com is kept up-to-date with my publications, TV and radio programmes, podcasts, webinars, talks and so on (it also contains contact details). I also advertise forthcoming events and post links to past ones on Twitter @drangiehobbs
Suppose you were able to give a talk or workshop at the original location of Plato’s Academy, in Athens.
I would find it absolutely thrilling and deeply moving to give a talk or workshop at the original location of Plato’s Academy. One of the main reasons Plato chose to write in dialogue form is because he wanted thoughtful philosophical conversation and vigorous debate to continue throughout the generations. Plato lives!