Fifteen Eighty Four

Academic perspectives from Cambridge University Press


Ancient freedoms and modern insights – Myles Burnyeat’s public philosophy

David Sedley, Carol Atack, Malcolm Schofield

It is difficult to think clearly about freedom. The multiple strands twisted together over time to produce the modern concept result in a tangled notion. That was Myles Burnyeat’s claim, in ‘Ancient Freedoms’, a lecture he first gave in the 1990s and which is now published for the first time in Explorations in Ancient and Modern Philosophy, Volume 3. Burnyeat set out ways in which the historical study of such key philosophical concepts can disentangle different layers of meaning within them. His title for the lecture series, ‘The Archaeology of Feeling’, conveys the kind of exploration he envisaged: one revealing along the way both past versions of key concepts, and moments of evolutionary change and disruptive innovation.

Since Burnyeat first presented this work, freedom has become even more central to political discussion. Its contemporary analysis has been informed by Isaiah Berlin’s distinction between ‘positive’ and ‘negative’ kinds of freedom, exhibited by different forms of modern political regime. But this distinction has not resolved all the complexities of a concept which ranges over the lives of individuals, the organisation of communities, and the relationship between these two. Burnyeat takes his audience back to classical antiquity, where he identifies a different distinction between senses of freedom, going beyond Berlin’s distinction of political senses. He argues that it had both the political sense of being a free citizen as opposed to an enslaved worker, and a metaphysical sense, that of having free will or being a free agent. He pinpoints the third-century BCE Stoic Chrysippus as responsible for a shift in the philosophical sense of ‘freedom’. Chrysippus was responsible for an act of ‘lexicographical effrontery’ which transformed the usage of the concept by applying the political term in a quite different context, the individual capacity for independent action. Burnyeat concludes that ‘Chrysippus’ definition does for “freedom” what Aristotle did for “slave”’; it becomes a quality inherent in the individual rather than a socially constituted status, just as Aristotle controversially argued that some humans are, by nature, suited to enslavement.

In bringing new explorations of ancient thought to modern debates, Burnyeat saw himself as following in the footsteps of James and John Stuart Mill, both of whom contributed to a nineteenth-century re-positioning of Plato’s philosophy in British thought, away from Neoplatonism, and focusing on the Republic as a key text. Burnyeat shows that that process had some surprising moments. In ‘The Past in the Present’, for example, he notes the connection between Benjamin Jowett’s correspondence with his friend Florence Nightingale about the social position of women, and his conviction that the Republic’s radical proposal of equal education for both sexes offered a blueprint for reform in his own society. Burnyeat would himself continue that process in his 1997 Tanner lectures ‘Culture and Society in Plato’s Republic’, re-interpreting Plato’s account of the way the experience of culture shapes the soul for a twentieth-century audience, while drawing parallels between the public funding of Athenian tragedy in the past and the imperilled public-service broadcast media of the present.

While many of the papers gathered in Explorations in Ancient and Modern Philosophy volumes 3 and 4 testify to the penetrating insights Burnyeat delivered for specialists in ancient philosophy, the lectures and papers he intended for more general and non-specialist audiences demonstrate his belief that a historical approach can illuminate contemporary debates.

Explorations in Ancient and Modern Philosophy by Myles Burnyeat
Explorations in Ancient and Modern Philosophy by Myles Burnyeat

About The Authors

David Sedley

David Sedley is Laurence Professor of Ancient Philosophy Emeritus at the University of Cambridge and a Fellow of Christ's College. He was an editor of Classical Quarterly and Oxfor...

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Carol Atack

Carol Atack is a Fellow of Newnham College, Cambridge. She is the author of The Discourse of Kingship in Classical Greece (2020) and an associate editor of Polis. She previously wo...

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Malcolm Schofield

Malcolm Schofield is Emeritus Professor of Ancient Philosophy at the University of Cambridge and a Fellow of St John's College. He was co-editor with Myles Burnyeat and Jonathan Ba...

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