Renowned classicist Martha Nussbaum spoke to hundreds of sophomores at this semester’s Contemporary Civilization Coursewide Lecture this past Friday, addressing the resonance of Hellenistic philosophy and her own emotional ties to the texts.
The lecture at Roone Arledge Auditorium, titled “The Arbitrariness of Canons: The Neglect of Hellenistic Philosophy and Why it Is a Bad Thing,” focused on the importance of classical Greek philosophy in modern education.
Although attendance was mandatory for those enrolled in Contemporary Civilization, many students were absent from the event. This Friday marked the beginning of the weekend before Rosh Hashanah, and many students had already left to prepare to celebrate the holiday at home. Known to many Columbia students for her essay “Citizens of the World,” a staple of many University Writing classes, Nussbaum is the Ernest Freund Professor of Law and Ethics at the University of Chicago.
Nussbaum praised Contemporary Civilization and said that it was good to see a group of students come together to discuss the classics.
She views the ancient philosophers as paragons of human achievement. “I think we badly need to look back these models created by the Greeks,” she said.
She specifically mentioned the Stoic, Skeptic, and Epicurean schools of thought and said that they had a profound impact on later philosophers and thinkers, including Kant, Descartes, Hume, and Adam Smith. The classical texts make “the heart of the great books curriculum,” she said.
During the question and answer session that followed her one-hour lecture, one student asked Nussbaum why she considered the mentioned philosophers to be germane today.
Nussbaum answered that Skeptic theories of emotion and the unconscious were similar to modern psychological models, for example, and that many of the philosophers were ahead of their time, acting as the forerunners of women’s liberation.
Sriharsh Gowtham, CC ’08, enjoyed the lecture. Nussbaum’s focus on lesser-known philosophers “might make me braver in expressing my own opinion against Plato, Aristotle, and Cicero,” he said. Others were less impressed. Though Jason Resnikoff, CC ’08, thought Nussbaum was very well informed and eloquent, “There was nothing too mind-blowing,” he said. “A lot of it I could have looked up online.”
The biannual lectures are meant to supplement readings done in Contemporary Civilization, a class required of all Columbia College students. The speakers are chosen by the Core Office committee, which is headed by Philip Kitcher, the James R. Barker Professor of Contemporary Civilization.
Kitcher was sympathetic to the students who had to miss the lecture for the holiday preparations, and said that although the department was aware of the conflict, Friday was the only day Nussbaum could attend.
“When dealing with such extremely prestigious people, you don’t get to specify the time,” he said. “[Columbia is] vulnerable to the schedule of the people we invite.”
Students who missed the lecture will be able to review what they missed. Recordings of the lecture will be available at Butler Library for all students. Some professors, including Kitcher, will take time to hold make-up sessions for their classes following the Jewish holidays.
Next semester’s speaker will be Daniel Boyarin of Berkeley, who will discuss Jewish theology.