Tanner Lectures explore ancient philosophies as ways of life

Scholars respond with their own questions about Platonist philosophy.

L.A. Cicero Jaclyn Maxwell and John Cooper at the Tanner lecture discussion

Ohio University Professor Jaclyn Maxwell, left, listens as Princeton Professor John Cooper, this year's Tanner lecturer, responds to her question at the second Tanner lecture discussion on Friday.

We learn from historian Jaclyn Maxwell, by way of Porphyry's biography, that the third century BC philosopher Plotinus didn't eat much. That he was kind and respectful. That he lived in a bustling environment and ran a school with no admission policy in the house of a wealthy widow. This was his life as a philosopher.

Maxwell, a professor at Ohio University, spoke at Stanford last week as part of the annual Tanner Lectures. She talked about how Plotinus and other philosophers felt about non-philosophers. She asked, "Was philosophy as a way of life possible or meaningful to people other than the full-time philosophers? In other words, was happiness or well being achieved by thinking about the Forms only available to philosophers?" Maxwell pointed out that she herself is not a philosopher but a historian, and that non-philosophers can and do contemplate the nature of the universe, the nature of the Self, and the meaning of life.

Her questions and reminder underscore the purpose of the Tanner Lectures on Human Values, which is "to advance and reflect upon scholarly and scientific learning relating to human values. This intention embraces the entire range of values pertinent to the human condition, interest, behavior and aspiration."

John Cooper's Tanner Lecture

The Center for Ethics in Society collaborates with The Office of the President to host the Tanner Lectures. The 2011-2012 Lectures concluded with a stimulating discussion of John Cooper's lecture on ancient philosophies as a way of life.

Cooper, an author and professor of philosophy at Princeton, presented two lectures: Ancient Philosophies as a Way of Life: Socrates and Platonist Philosophy as a Way of Life: Plotinus. They were followed the next day by discussions between scholars, faculty and students. Anthony Long, a classics professor at the University of California, Berkeley, and Jaclyn Maxwell, history professor at Ohio University, kicked off a discussion of Cooper's second lecture.

Long began his comments with a warning: Plotinus is fascinating and exceptionally difficult. "He is difficult in Greek, in translation, and, above all, in his highly abstract and dense patterns of thought."

The Tanner Lectures were established by the late American scholar, industrialist and philanthropist, Obert Clark Tanner.