I try to get my students, and my readers, to focus on two contrasts. The first is the sharp difference between the evidence at our disposal and what we then go on to do with that evidence, how we handle it.
Brad Inwood is a professor at Yale University, a specialist in ancient philosophy with particular emphasis on Stoicism and the Presocratics. His major works include academic books such as Ethics and Human Action in Early Stoicism, The Poem of Empedocles, Reading Seneca: Stoic Philosophy at Rome, Seneca: Selected Philosophical Letters, and Ethics After Aristotle.
How did you become interested in this area?
By serendipity, I stumbled into a course on the philosophy of science during my freshman year at Brock University, in Ontario. The combination of historical perspective, then so prominent in the philosophy of science, and epistemological critique captivated me. So even when I became a Classics major, I made sure to take an introduction to ancient philosophy – I was hooked! My main interest philosophically has always been in explanation, which helped me find Aristotle as my first enthusiasm in the field. Stoicism came later, by an even stranger set of accidents. I have a deep appreciation for how much luck has contributed to my interests and development.
What’s the most important concept or idea you teach people?
I try to get my students, and my readers, to focus on two contrasts. The first is the sharp difference between the evidence at our disposal and what we then go on to do with that evidence, how we handle it. The second is the distinction between explanatory theories and the arguments we use to test them, to confirm or refute them. I think both of these contrasts are essential to doing good history and to doing good philosophy. I hope I manage to teach this to people; I certainly try.
What do you think is the most important piece of practical advice that we can derive from your work?
There is so much practical advice that we can get from ancient philosophy, and it’s hard to choose. I guess the most important is clearly expressed in ancient Stoicism, though many of the ancients adhered to it: “follow nature”, or as Chrysippus put it, “live according to one’s experience of what happens by nature”. I take this to mean that we should live according to a critical, rational understanding of how the world works and should try not to let our emotions get in the way of doing so.
Do you have a favorite quote that you use?
Again, there is an embarrassment of riches. I currently favour a gem from Epictetus: “For wherever it locates the “I” and “mine”, that’s where the human animal necessarily inclines.” But for years it was Seneca: “We go where reason, not truth, has led us.”
What advice would you give someone who wanted to learn more about what you do?
Time for a commercial plug: read my short little book, Stoicism: a Very Short Introduction (OUP 2018). That’s the quickest way into “what I do”. What I “do” is, in my own view, a combination of research and teaching, and that introductory book is meant to be a fusion of those two activities.
Suppose you were able to give a talk or workshop at the original location of Plato’s Academy…
I guess I would feel something of the awe expressed so wonderfully by Cicero when he wrote about visiting the site of Plato’s Academy. Here is what he put into the mouth of Piso at the beginning of book 5 of the De Finibus:
I am reminded of Plato, whom we learn was the first to make a habit of debating here. Not only do these gardens remind me of him, but they seem to put the man himself before my eyes. Speusippus debated here, and so did Xenocrates and his student Polemo – in fact, that is the very seat he once sat in over there.
Cicero’s response to this effusion is to think of his own intellectual hero, the sceptical Academic Carneades:
…although everywhere in Athens the very places provide reminders of so many great men, still, what moves me right now is that alcove over there. Not long ago it was occupied by Carneades – I imagine that I am seeing him now, for I know his image well. I think that the very seat he sat in is bereft of his great intellect and laments the loss of his powerful voice.
Cicero reminds us that the Academy was not just Plato’s school, but provided a stimulus to the development of Hellenistic philosophy, especially the critical epistemology of the Academic sceptics who in so many ways were true heirs of both Socrates and Plato. It would be hard not to be overwhelmed by those historical memories, just as Cicero was so many centuries ago.