My Conversation with Agnes Callard

She is a philosopher at the University of Chicago, here is the transcript and audio.  We covered Plato and Socrates, what Plato is on about at all, the virtues of dialog and refutation, whether immortality would be boring, Elena Ferrante, parents vs. gangsters and Beethoven vs. Mozart, my two Straussian readings of her book, Jordan Peterson, Shakespeare’s Hamlet, the best defense of reading the classics, and the Agnes Callard production function (physics to classics to philosophy), all in suitably informationally dense fashion.

Here is one excerpt:

COWEN: I have a friend who’s interested in longevity research…and he tells me there’s maybe a 10 percent chance that I actually will live forever due to possible scientific advances. I’m skeptical, but let’s just say I were to live forever. How bored would I end up, and how do you think about this question?

CALLARD: [laughs] I think it depends on how good of a person you are.

COWEN: And the good people are more or less bored?

CALLARD: Oh, they’re less bored. One thing is that you’re kind of having to live with yourself for a very long time if you’re immortal, or even just live for a couple thousand years, and a bad self, I think, is hard to live with. By bad, I don’t just mean sort of, let’s say, cruel to people or unjust. I also mean not attuned to things of eternal significance.

I think you can get by in a 100-year life not being too much attuned to things of eternal significance because there’s so much fascinating stuff out there, and one can go from one thing to the next and not get bored. But if we’re talking about eternity, or even thousands of years, you’d better find something to occupy you that is really riveting in the way that I think only eternal things are.

I think that what you’re really asking is something like, “Could I be a god?” And I think, “Well, if you became godlike, you could, and then it would be OK.”

COWEN: Let me give you a hypothesis. You can react to it. That which is cultural, say, listening to music, I would get bored with, even though wonderful music maybe continually will be created. But those activities which are more primeval, more biological — parenting, sex, food, sleep, maybe taking a wonderful shower — that are quite brute, in a way, maybe I would substitute more into those as an immortal? Yes?

CALLARD: I don’t see why you wouldn’t get just as bored of bodily pleasures.

COWEN: You’re programmed for those to be so immediate and riveting, right? You evolve to be maybe an 80-year-old being, or perhaps even a 33-year-old being, so you are riveted on things like reproduction and getting enough sleep. And that stays riveting, even when you’re on this program to live 80,000 years.

CALLARD: I think that at least some of those activities stay riveting for us over the course of our lives because their meaning changes…


COWEN: Let’s turn now to your new book, Aspiration: The Agency of Becoming. There’s a sentence from the book. Let me read it, and maybe you can explain it. “Proleptic reasons allow you to be rational even when you know that your reasons aren’t exactly the right ones.” What’s a proleptic reason?

This was my favorite part, though perhaps few of you will get the joke:

COWEN: On aspiration, what do you think of Jordan Peterson?

CALLARD: I had this odd feeling. He only became known to me quite recently, in the past couple of weeks. I was listening to him talk, and I was thinking he sounds a little bit like Socrates, but not Socrates. I was like, “Who is that? Who is he reminding me of?” And it’s Xenophon’s Socrates.

Here you can buy her just-published book Aspiration: The Agency of Becoming.  You cannot follow her on Twitter.


Fantastic discussion.

I would say there is zero chance that anyone will live forever due to possible scientific advances. I think that the very same people who have been saying for decades that a cure for cancer is right around the corner if you just give us a couple hundred million or so for research are the same people promoting this scam.

Totally different people, actually

And yet playing the same game...

I really hope you mean the extended interview. The excerpt, above, was just sad. It not only reflected poorly on TC but on his guest. Makes me wonder if TC believes in supernatural forces, since it would be hard to explain such nonsense if it came from a rational mind.

Please explain "the joke" to us lesser (im)mortals...

In contrast to Plato’s Socrates, who is committed to “follow the argument wherever, like a wind, it may lead us” (Plato, Republic 394D), Xenophon’s Socrates strives always to send his conversation partners away with some nuggets of practical advice which they may put to use right away.

*from an online encyclopedia

I assumed this had something to do with the idea that Xenephon was a dullard. But I say it's better to be a dullard than than to be the author of *The Repulbic*.

And I see that we still live in the Repulbic of no comment editing.

Talking of Plato -

Notwithstanding all his fame, I think he is still underrated based on my reading of parts of the Republic.

For instance, in Book 2 of the Republic you see a very early formulation of two very key modern ideas which are usually credited to Thomas Hobbes and Adam Smith.

These are a) State of Nature b) Division of Labor

I have never seen anyone credit Plato for either of these two theories. Yet you do see Plato formulate both these theories in very very explicit terms in Book 2 of the Republic in the dialogue between Glaucon and Socrates.

Plato is the earliest theorician Wikipedia mentions on this matter:

As I understand it, the point of of early modern state of teachings is that individuals have rights that they posses by nature and that can only be transferred to the political community by their consent. While book 2 may be describing some sort of pre-political life, do you think Plato is saying something about the rights of individuals in such a condition? I don't see it.

Let me go back home and dig up the passages in Republic. They clearly describe what Hobbes phrased as "nasty, brutish and short" and how rights solely emerge from the consent of others.

A generous offer: I look forward to your report of what you find.

"rights solely emerge from the consent of others": of course - man is a social animal.

So here it goes. Book II of The Republic. Translation by GMA Grube.

The words interestingly are uttered by Glaucon. Not Socrates. So I am not sure if Plato, a moralist, would subscribe to the amoral "state of nature" conception of justice. But it is clear he did think through it and voiced it through the mouth of Glaucon (and not Socrates).

It took another 1800 years for hold of religion to wither away to the extent that Hobbes felt comfortable embracing the atheistic "state of nature" philosophy. It is not that Plato had not thought of it. But he disapproved it like most of the god-fearing old masters did.

"They say that to do injustice is, by nature, good; to suffer injustice, evil; but that the evil is greater than the good. And so when men have both done and suffered injustice and have had experience of both, not being able to avoid the one and obtain the other, they think that they had better agree among themselves to have neither; hence there arise laws and mutual covenants; and that which is ordained by law is termed by them lawful and just. This they affirm to be the origin and nature of justice; --it is a mean or compromise, between the best of all, which is to do injustice and not be punished, and the worst of all, which is to suffer injustice without the power of retaliation; and justice, being at a middle point between the two, is tolerated not as a good, but as the lesser evil, and honoured by reason of the inability of men to do injustice. For no man who is worthy to be called a man would ever submit to such an agreement if he were able to resist; he would be mad if he did. Such is the received account, Socrates, of the nature and origin of justice. "

"No man would keep his hands off what was not his own when he could safely take what he liked out of the market, or go into houses and lie with any one at his pleasure, or kill or release from prison whom he would, and in all respects be like a God among men. Then the actions of the just would be as the actions of the unjust; they would both come at last to the same point. And this we may truly affirm to be a great proof that a man is just, not willingly or because he thinks that justice is any good to him individually, but of necessity, for wherever any one thinks that he can safely be unjust, there he is unjust. For all men believe in their hearts that injustice is far more profitable to the individual than justice, and he who argues as I have been supposing, will say that they are right. If you could imagine any one obtaining this power of becoming invisible, and never doing any wrong or touching what was another's, he would be thought by the lookers-on to be a most wretched idiot, although they would praise him to one another's faces, and keep up appearances with one another from a fear that they too might suffer injustice. Enough of this. "

This is the classical conventionalist teaching which holds that all right or justice is by convention or agreement, not by nature. Although the account sounds similar to a social contract theory, you can see that conventionalism cannot be the same as any state of nature teaching intended to clarify the natural rights of individuals. It seems to me that there are no individual rights in Plato, and that that is what is at stake in the idea of a state of nature.

Within Plato's text, the important thing to see is that Glaucon is simultaneously holding that "all right/justice is conventional" and that there is something like a right of the stronger, such that when the weak band together and constrain the strong, they are doing him an injustice. Glaucon is, without his knowing it, confused about whether justice has a natural basis.

I never claimed that Glaucon is talking about "natural right" here.

I don't think Hobbesian "state of nature" discussed natural right. It focused on the essential "self preservation" driven base of human nature, and how laws and covenants emerge from mutual consent to prevent a life that would otherwise be nasty, brutish and short.

Glaucon anticipates Hobbes by over 1800 years.

Chiming in to endorse shrikanthk's reading...

The social contract theme comes out clearly in Thrasymachus' speech in Book 1: "Those who reproach injustice do so because they are afraid not of doing it but of suffering it" ( 344c). Of course, Glaucon's challenge in Book 2 is a reformulation of Thrasymachus' critique of conventional morality, so the social contract theory/conventionalist conception of justice is certainly at the heart of Glaucon's charge. But it's Thrasymachus, not Glaucon, that anticipates the Hobbesian point--and let's not forget Thrasymachus was a living, breathing Greek. This conception of justice was likely circulating.

There's another philosopher whose ideas are foreshadowed here: Thrasymachus argues that a person with immense daring who tramples the law will be able to achieve wealth, power, and happiness. "Injustice, if it is on a large enough scale, is stronger, freer, and more masterly than justice" (344c). Of course, this person can achieve power through cheating only in a society where everyone else refrains from cheating, hence Thrasymachus' definition of justice as "the advantage of the stronger." This foreshadows Nietzsche's ubermensch.

The division of labor/Adam Smith point is a good one too. Here's text for that:

"I think a city comes to be because none of us is self-sufficient, but we all need many things. Do you think that a city is founded on any other principle? ... And because people need many things, and because one person calls on a second out of one need and on a third out a different need, many people gather in a single place to live together as partners and helpers. And such a settlement is called a city" (369b-c).

What's interesting is that Plato and Smith are apparently agreed about the spontaneous efficiency that can emerge through *unregulated* division of labor and exchange, but they disagree about whether or not the division (and marketplace) can deliver a moral education. Smith seems to think it can, but Plato famously thinks only a philosopher king can do that.

Thanks Brennan.

However I would say Glaucon gets closer to the social contract than Thrasymachus.

But yes, it is not that we stumbled on something. I was checking the wiki page on Social contract. And it quotes the same Glaucon passage that I did, and agrees that marks the origin of social contract theory.

These are good comments.

Note that I did not dispute the social contract point, but your original claim was about the state of nature. I asked, what is the point of the state of nature? In Hobbes, the point is to ground the "right of nature," which he conceives of as an a right possessed by individuals apart from political authority or contract, and then his natural laws on top of that - just see Leviathan Ch. 14.

But this isn't at all the point of either Thrasymachus' or Glaucon's views on the origin of justice, which they (think they) regard as wholly conventional. So I think it is misleading to attribute a state of nature teaching to Plato.

Beyond this, the term "state of nature" comes from Christian theology, in opposition to the state of Grace. Surely that too limits the sense of attributing the concept to Plato.

Agree that social contract and division of labor are there to some extent, and Nietzsche himself is not shy about his debts to pre-Socratic conventionalism.

Isn't the claim that "rights solely emerge from the consent of others" precisely the opposite of what early modern state of nature teachings are trying to establish?

In my view, no.

I think the idea of natural right is something that comes up in the writings of Locke. Not so much Hobbes. Also I don't think natural right is directly linked to "state of nature".

See Leviathan Ch 14, which comes directly after the state of nature teaching in 13. Hobbes's "natural laws" are founded on the "right of nature."

"Oh, they (good people) ’re less bored. One thing is that you’re kind of having to live with yourself for a very long time if you’re immortal, or even just live for a couple thousand years, and a bad self, I think, is hard to live with."

That is why I like my own companionship so much. Takes one good person to know a good person.

+1 Brazilian

As we say, being Brazilian is winning first prize in the lotery of life. Not all lotery winners end up well, but such is life.

Well, better than sounding like Aristophanes' Socrates!

NO! This is an insult! The Power of Jordan Peterson compels you to take this back! The Power of Jordan Peterson Compels you! The Power of Jordan Peterson Compels you!

I wish you could have followed up on the aspiration/Stephen Daedalus discussion with the question of whether or not someone too focused on a very abstract kind of goal/good can do extreme damage to the rest of their lives/goodness because it becomes a specialized blindness that causes them to forgive their jerkiness in all other domains. I often see this in great/prominent artists, scientists, politicians, etc.

This specialized blindness is sometimes referred to as 'moral licensing'. I agree that this would have been an interesting followup.

" . . . a little bit like Socrates, but not Socrates . . . (id est) Xenophon's Socrates."

So contemporary historians of philosophy continue to contend that Xenophon understood Socrates only poorly and that his portraiture does not coincide with the actual Socrates (just as y81 intimates above that the actual Socrates cannot possibly be thought to coincide [or vice versa] with Aristophanes's version of Socrates), which leaves Plato's account to be valorized.

Haven't clicked on the transcript or on Callard's title's link: how much treatment does she (or her contemporaries) give to the historiography of Socrates's career?

Is the enduring convention of relying on Plato's accounts of Socrates today much else than a formal repudiation of historians' or dramatists' contributions to perceptions of philosophy and philosophers? Does this convention endure because of the explanatory powers imputed to philosophy itself or because of those explanatory powers (still) imputed to history and historiography?

As I understand it, there are four extant accounts of Socrates’ life / oeuvre / project.

Plato’s dominates because of his intellectual power and voluminous writings and seriousness. And the fact that Plato had the academy and educated the likes of Aristotle. But clearly Plato’s account is tendentious to the highest degree. I’d like to know more about Xenophon.

Visit your local library.

A funny non-sequitur. No one has mentioned the true, historical, Socrates in this discussion.

There is a saying that aging is a process of substituting complex pleasures for simple ones.

We start off enjoying things like food and sex and sleep, but as we get older and more sophisticated, pleasures become less direct and more involved in subjective experiences, such as observing our children grow up, or taking part in a collaborative project, or perhaps in having unusual emotional experiences, like ecstatic rituals and drug-induced psychological explorations. I imagine an immortal would eventually outgrow even those things, and start finding extreme pleasure in large complex multi-generation projects, such as (say) terraforming Mars. A society composed of people who literally have thousands of years to plan and execute projects would be playing a very, very, long game in terms of payoffs. You could spend a thousand years designing genetically engineers plants and animals and people that could survive on Mars. You could take a spaceship at light speed to another star.

Nice idea. Could very well be correct.

Nitpick of Tyler's original question: given the universality, I'm pretty sure humans are hardwired to like music. It's form varies based on the culture one was raised in, sure, but the response to it is biologically programmed, so I doubt someone would really tire of it, just like people don't get bored of eating pizza as they age, either.

I am extremely bored of pizza. French fries too. There was an actual moment in the last 5 years or so, where I realized that I found french fries boring. They were probably my favorite food when I was 16.
I ate far more than a lifetime's share of pizza as a undergrad and grad student, too. I've had that experience. I'm done with pizza.

Don't get me wrong, pizza still tastes okay. But tastes good and not-boring are two different things. It's kind of like how certain foods are acquired tastes - you enjoy them not for the immediate sensory pleasure that you get from your taste buds, but for what unusual flavor notes bring to mind or for mouth feel.
Of course all that is just about novelty. Eventually I imagine I'd have tried just about every novel food in existence, and so eating novel foods would get boring. I'd still eat, and I'd still eat something that tastes okay, but I'd probably just eat foods that made me feel healthiest, because I'd want to enjoy being healthy so I could experience other things.

You would seem to be the exception that proves the rule.

When you're older you might understand. I doubt I'm that unique.

Come to think of it, my grandma doesn't eat anything, either, so maybe it's a female thing.

Well run of the mill pizza is boring. But the crust is merely a canvas that can be "painted" on so no reason one cannot make very interesting pizzas to sample.

But it's all still going to be bread and cheese cooked in a hot oven. The dominant flavors are always going to be bread and cheese. I'll grant that you can make it a bit less boring by putting unusual toppings and different kinds of sauce on tho.

Also, I should sadd that much of the complexification of pleasure comes via what you could call "second order" pleasures. That is, vicariously enjoying experiences that you can't have any more by watching other people have them. Like showing someone else one of your favorite films and watching them enjoy it for the first time. Everyone gets that one right? What fanboy hasn't gotten a thrill out of showing (say) Lord of the Rings: Fellowship of the Ring to someone who has never seen it, so you can vicariously enjoy the experience of seeing it for the first time again? Same thing with all sorts of other stuff.
If people were immortal we'd probably end up with third and fourth and nth-order experiences like that. 18th order grandparent gets to enjoy watching his 5th generation descendants start their first commune, and end in hilarious disaster (everyone tries to start a commune somewhere in their mid-200s, hahaha).

What is so asinine about the whole "immortality would be boring" argument is that, first, life is what you make of it. Different people do different things. People who like to go out and do things, who like to try new stuff and do different things will never be bored. Second, the argument presumes that everyone is the same and that we should all make the same decision (and choice) about whether to pursue radical life extension. This is also stupid. Why should my choices be limited because someone else "can't handle it"?

And it hadn’t been tested. I’d like to know what those seniors who lived to 110+ think of it all. Are they bored? What do they do to occupy themselves? (Don’t say shuffle board.) How have their tastes changed every decade after 70?

As I age, I’m becoming less interested in ephemeral sporting events (re leagues with an endless regular season) and more interested in food and wine. (I’m late 40s.)

"People who like to go out and do things, who like to try new stuff and do different things will never be bored". Maybe, but is there infinitely "new" things to do ? Because you need infinitely many of them to keep you busy fe eternity.

There are plenty of activities which are potentially infinite.

Self-control, that's Xenophon's interpretation of Socrates and Peterson's advice to young men. I suppose living forever does require a bit of self-control.

Cowen's friend Peter Thiel is interested, and invests, in longevity (for himself especially). Maybe the most important lesson from Jesus is that making enemies and living forever (on this earth anyway) are incompatible.

"By bad, I don’t just mean sort of, let’s say, cruel to people or unjust. I also mean not attuned to things of eternal significance."

Hilarious! In other words, people who don't waste their time on pointless philosophical questions (unlike me!) are, what is the word for it? BAD!

I think without defining the underlying definition of the nature of the longevity the discussion misses much. Will it matter if someone lives forever, or a few thousand years, as the equivalent of a healthy very 70 year old today or if they are more like a 30 year old (close to prime of life)?

Or maybe does that technology allow the brain to continue forming the connections a young child's does but still with the capacity and knowledge (and memory?) or an adult?

By God, one could look forward to drinking a 1,000 year old claret. Hurray!

I know this is probably a troll but actually the average of the consensus around here seems to be that Eternity would be well spent making your own claret and then waiting 1000 years to drink it with your friends.

CALLARD: I had this odd feeling. He only became known to me quite recently, in the past couple of weeks. I was listening to him talk, and I was thinking he sounds a little bit like Socrates, but not Socrates. I was like, “Who is that? Who is he reminding me of?” And it’s Xenophon’s Socrates.

A lovely little put down from a professional philosopher to an amateur who has achieved popular success. I mean that is how Old School academics used to do it.

Quite a good CWT. I recall your recent observation (realization?) that you appreciate people more as you get to know about them. I wonder if this has changed the format and tone of the show. The initial conversations seemed clever and collegial but mechanical. They now seem to breathe more and are perhaps also warmer. Maybe I'm reading too much into it, or maybe your research and strategy have changed. Maybe all of the above. Anyway, thanks again.

Probably my new favorite Conversation with Tyler. The previous #1 was the interview with Fuchsia Dunlop.

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