The world is in a state of upheaval at the moment, and we’re all looking for things to make us feel less anxious. Maybe Classics can help.
Today’s interview is with Leigh David Cobley
Is there a source from the ancient world that you find yourself coming back to when you want to feel better?
Most of what I research on antiquity is a bit grim, but confronting the terrible nature of existence also has its comforts! It’s ancient philosophy I come back to, the idea that it can be lived as well as studied and that it’s a form of training (askesis) to deal with the things that life can throw at us. If I had to pick just one source it’d be Aristotle’s Nicomachean Ethics.
When did you first come across this text?
I skimmed it a few times when I was younger, but as Aristotle says in the work, philosophy is wasted on the young! I only got to know it properly a few years ago when I was visiting a friend in Thessaloniki. We spent evenings jamming on the lyre and discussing philosophy. I’d packed my Loeb as I knew we’d be visiting Aristotle’s school at Naoussa and when we drove up there we couldn’t resist doing a few recitations. It’s such a wonderfully quiet place, perfect for contemplation and peripatetic countryside walks!
Can you tell me a bit about this text and its context?
The work’s title supposedly refers to Aristotle’s son, so maybe he also had difficulties bringing his kids up, though most parents wouldn’t go so far as to write philosophical tracts to rein their kids in! Unfortunately, all of his actual books are lost and the surviving text is really a collection of lecture notes from the Lyceum, his school at Athens. The work goes in and out of philosophical fashion, but has recently been an influence on the virtue ethics of writers like Alasdair MacIntyre and Martha Nussbaum.
What is it about Aristotle that appeals to you most?
Maybe it’s his observation that happiness (or however you prefer to translate eudaimonia) is an activity rather than a state. It’s not so much being happy that’s important as doing something happily. Life has its ups and downs so we can’t expect to remain in a constantly happy state. Human beings are complex organisms with many emotions, but if what we do gives purpose to our lives, they will be rewarding nonetheless.
And finally… what do you do, outside of Classics, to cheer yourself up?
I’ve always been into languages, so Greek was just an extension of that. I live in a cosmopolitan city so it’s easy to meet people from different backgrounds and in Europe meeting up on a terrace for drinks and language exchanges is an everyday thing. More than any specific text, it’s the active use of languages which I find cheers me up. I’m not very talented at it, but I have the patience to persevere and not feel embarrassed by making mistakes, which are a natural part of language acquisition. The same goes for Classical languages. For instance, I recently started a Greek blog to practice my writing. It’s hardly Attic prose, but it’s a very productive learning process as I gradually realise how much I still don’t know from a real world need to communicate and take the grammar from there. Aristotle said that the activity of contemplation is true happiness, but he was most likely a monolingual Greek. Maybe if he had taken the time to pick up some of those supposedly “barbarian” languages he would have done things even more happily still.
Leigh David Cobley (M.A. Classical Studies) is an artist, musician and philologist specialising in recreating the memes of antiquity. His blog is an ongoing project to practice writing Ancient Greek and produce materials for beginner students. His YouTube channel documents his other classical comfort, learning to play an Ancient Greek tortoise shell lyre. He can be followed on Twitter @LeighDCobley.