My Conversation with Emily Wilson

She is a classics scholar and the translator of my favorite edition of Homer’s Odyssey, here is the audio and transcript.  Here is part of the CWT summary:

She and Tyler discuss these [translation] questions and more, including why Silicon Valley loves Stoicism, whether Plato made Socrates sound smarter than he was, the future of classics education, the effect of AI on translation, how to make academia more friendly to women, whether she’d choose to ‘overlive’, and the importance of having a big Ikea desk and a huge orange cat.

Here is one excerpt:

COWEN: Let’s jump right in on the Odyssey. I want you to explain the whole book to me, but let’s start small. Does Odysseus even want to return home?

WILSON: [laughs] He does as the poem starts. As the poem starts, he spent the last seven years on the island of a goddess called Calypso, originally, the poem implies, quite willingly. So, it seems as if he’s changed his mind about whether or not he wants to go home. But as the poem begins, he does want to get back home to Ithaca, to his wife, Penelope, and his son, Telemachus.

COWEN: Do you think he means it? Or is he just self-deceiving? Because he takes the detour into the underworld. He hangs around with Circe for many years. There’s a contrast with Menelaus, who acts as if he actually does want to get home. Who’s lying to whom in this story?

WILSON: Odysseus, of course, is lying all the time, so it’s very hard for the reader to get a firm grasp on what are his motives. Also, when he tells Calypso that he desperately wants to get back home, it’s very striking to me that he doesn’t give his motives. He says to Calypso, “You’re much more beautiful than my wife is, and you’ve promised to make me immortal. It’s a great offer, but I want to go home.” He doesn’t explain what is it that drives that desire to go home.

And you’re quite right: he makes many detours. He spends another year, quite willingly, with Circe, another goddess. So it seems as if he’s easily distractible from the quest, for sure.


COWEN: Should we consider electing politicians by lot today? Is it such a crazy idea?

WILSON: I think it’s a great idea.

COWEN: Great idea?

WILSON: Yes, yeah.


COWEN: Now, you have another well-known book. It’s called Seneca: A Life. On reading it, this is my reaction: why are the Stoics so hypocritical? Seneca spends his life sucking up to power. He’s very well off, extremely political, and possibly involved in murder plots, right?

WILSON: [laughs] Yes, that’s right. Yes.

COWEN: What is there about Stoicism? Marcus Aurelius is somewhat bloodthirsty, it seems. So, are the Stoics all just hypocrites, and they wrote this to cover over their wrongdoings? Or how should we think about the actual history of Stoicism?

WILSON: I see Seneca and Marcus Aurelius as very, very different characters. Marcus Aurelius was militaristic, bloodthirsty, and an expander of the Roman Empire. He was happy to slaughter many barbarians. He was fairly consistent about thinking that was a good idea, and also fairly consistent in associating his dream of culture and military imperialism with Stoic models of virtue.

Whereas Seneca was very much constantly unable to fully act out the ideals that he had. One of the reasons he’s so interesting as a writer is that he’s so precise in articulating what it means to have a very, very clear vision of the good life and to be completely unable to follow through on living the good life.

COWEN: But why would you accumulate so much wealth if you’re a true Stoic?

You can buy Emily’s translation of Homer here, and she is now working on doing The Iliad as well.


So much Stoicism recently at this blog. I think people become Stoics after they accumulate wealth or power. For those who don't follow the significance, Silicon Valley is Stoic central, the Cicero Institute (founded by Palantir founder Joe Lonsdale) being the latest manifestation.

Not true. Epictetus learned from Musonius, famous stoic philosopher, when he, Epictetus, was a young slave. According to Wikipedia, "He (Epictetus) lived a life of great simplicity, with few possessions". President Captain Bolsonaro is leading a renewal in interest in Stoic thought in Brazil.

rayward thinks whatever the last NYT article he read tells him to think.

So who controls the New York Times controls Americans?

Who controls the British crown?
Who keeps the metric system down?

We do, we do!

Boutique open pannanum ada patti oru article pls

All trolling aside:

That nytimes author is horribly mixing up the current English definition of the word “stoic” and the ancient philosophy of Stoicism.

Where do they find these people, and more importantly how in the hell did the article make it past an editor??

It's the 21st century. They needed a female translatoress of Homer. Next, the LBGTQ . . .

They can't help themselves and there is no one to stop them.

Meh, I was prepared to dislike her on multiple grounds: her parents, the feminism aspect, and I forget what the third thing is. Well the interview was interesting and her Odyssey is solid. (And hey at least I’m not going full Ray Lopez and asking if she can actually read Ancient Greek, lol. She’s an excellent classicist.)

@Hmmm - I can't imagine she's that dense. However, if you're not kidding, the next logical question along those lines is to ask if she even reads ancient Greek? Or did she just base her translation on an existing English translation?

Not Emily Wilson, who’s an accomplished and brilliant classicist and translator. Obviously.

Rather, The nytimes author of the piece rayward attempted to link.

A working answer to the where-are-the-editors question is that the editors all were let go on buyouts and replaced with people who lacked enough experience to develop good judgment in these matters. (To the extent there even ARE news editors; certainly there are no copy editors in newsrooms.)

My local paper runs lots of articles that would not qualify as news in the traditional sense but that reflect the interests AND viewpoints of "reporters." As one who used to toil in those fields, I see the lack of background, the obvious unasked questions and the gullible acceptance of anything said by an appealing interview subject. The result is a flimsy edifice that embarrasses itself.

This is compounded by a new generation of theoretically educated elites (including at the Times) who don't know what they don't know -- economics, history, arts, religion, philosophy, arithmetic and, all too frequently, where the bodies are buried in government agencies.)

Even 10 years ago, it wasn't this bad, and my fear is that we have not hit bottom yet. I have no idea how or whether people will get news, basic straight news, in the future.

Isn't there an app for that?

All correct, but the principal problem is that their credibility has not been commensurately damaged.

True, but if the smaller news outlets are struggling even to survive, who will care to invest the energy to hold them to account?

If I were apocalyptically inclined, I would predict that we are entering into a new dark age.

University of Exeter is a better choice for “Stoicism Central.” If someone brings up Stoicism without mentioning virtue, I tend to move on.

Vitally important to disentangle the OG Stoics from the Roman self-help-Stoics who co-opted the cosmopolitan/natural law aspects for personal affirmation. If all is in accord with the imminent rational will of Being, what self-criticism could be coherent or desirable? Alternately, if those barbarians lack it and are yet bound by it, any sense that genocide is more problematic than a stern talking-to is illusory emotional ephemera.

A new translation of the Illiad is always something to look forward to!

Not least because of Prof. Wilson's excellent Odyssey translation.

Similarly, in view of his wealth and leisure Schopenhauer makes an unlikely Schopenhauerian.

Schopenhauer was not particularly wealthy, and it would be misleading to characterize his life as leisurely. And to the extent he was not destitute or servile, neither aspect would contradict his theoretical outlook.

BUT! He is a wonderful hypocrite in many ways. An angry, bitter, impulsive, self-obsessive whose writing represents the apotheosis of the natural-law-Stoic-Kantian tradition seasoned with a flimsy enthusiasm for the Buddha.

Not sure what is Kantian about Schopenhauer ... other than his substituting Will for all the stuff we can’t know (God, soul)

I recollect reading somewhere that thanks to inheritence Schopenhauer did live comfortably and was accused of not practicing his own philosophy. His reply was that a philosopher need not he a saint just as a saint need not be a philosopher.

Anybody know how Professor Cowen chooses the excerpts for these Conversation posts? I have to say the second one hardly grabs the attention. "Great idea?" "Yes"

It's not the most exciting interview.

OTOH, I just listened to Tyler's "Economics v Philosophy" discussion with Agnes Callard at UChicago, which was quite good.

It's easy for us to forget outside academia just how curious the academic culture is. Tyler gets accused of playing footsie with lefties in order to get invited to cocktail parties, but that's not it at all.

If you believe (as I do) that there is still value at the heart of academia, you need to figure out how to engage these people. Tyler's performance with Callard was masterful and eclectic.

The audience was composed of mostly lefty students with little more than dim mistrust of the whole enterprise of economics, and I suspect they left the room with a fair amount to think about that they hadn't before. All because Tyler could engage these folks respectfully but forcefully. Bravo, sir. You could do worse than travelling the country speaking to groups of students for a living.

I don't know the political views of the students who attended, but we did ask for their major on the signup sheet and the divide was roughly 50% philosophy 50% econ. The ones who came to talk to me about it the next day, who were mostly philosophers, reported enjoying it greatly and going back to their dorms to debate philosophy vs. econ with friends. The rough consensus seemed to be: "He seemed smarter, but you seemed more sincere."

I applaud your efforts Agnes. Very enjoyable and useful conversation.

Go Maroons! (even the meanies.)

Is that available somewhere online?

Why do you consider this translation superior to Fagles'? (Maybe it is; I only ask.)

There's already too many women in academia. Women don't want to compete at measurable producing results, they want to create complex zero sum status hierarchies with unwritten but ever-changing rules, preferably mediated by virtue signalling. If you want academia to actually produce anything you have to accept that women will mostly drop away.

If you want academia to be full of women that don't produce anything useful, well, we've already got the humanities, don't we?

Oh hun, let’s be honest.

When your mom says you’re a late bloomer she’s lying to you.

And that woman got the tenured position over you because your “dissertation” was a collection of printouts from 8chan with the n-word scribbled in crayon all over it.

Of course, its not only women who prefer status signals and virtue signalling over honest engagement ...

Do want to cry? So you want a safe space?

Ironically CMOT's seem to be the only posts in this exchange that don't sound like they come from someone who needs and requests a "trigger warning" on anything challenging (not that I agree with the "Women aren't interested in competing to produce measurable results" thing).

Because he chose hiding at his parents' basement instead?

Tyler there is nothing hypocritical about Stoics seeking wealth and power. Stoicism does not teach one to shun wealth and power. What it teaches is that the wealthy and powerful should keep in mind that they may lose what they have and should not go crazy when that happens. Remaining wealthy is not in our hands but how we mentally respond to changing fortunes is. I think this is quite an impractical tenet but at least the Stoics did not extol poverty and the cloistered life.

I haven't heard the interview, so I don't know if TC said that, but Cicero bears out your point. [Granted, my knowledge of Cicero comes entirely from the very entertaining Harris novels (incidentally, praise for David Rintoul who read them aloud to me; for some reason they were among the rare books improved on audio for me).] He bought a house in the hills, with a city view, as soon as ever he could, and if the novels are anything to go by, he was about as stoical as humanly possible in death.

Peri in the interview Tyler unfairly accuses wealthy Stoics of being hypocritical and wonders why a stoic should be interested in wealth in the first place. The Stoics can be rightly accused of hypocrisy if they got depressed when they lost their wealth.

Makes sense. I live very ascetically, no doubt, compared to the rest of you, more so than I need to; apart from a certain aesthetic preference in that direction, which makes it fairly easy, and its relation to my aversion to dealing with other than a very small number of people, a real motivation is extreme anxiety about change, fear and avoidance of risk. For others there may be - for me, there is no stoicism about it. I agree with you that TC seems to have misconstrued the idea, or perhaps he was trying to set a trap.

Nice interview. Very interesting lady.


Why does she think the argument that the Ancient Greek and Roman world was foundational in the formation of American is bogus? Isn't that a pretty well-established historical fact, with lots of original source documentation?

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