Gwenda-lin Grewal

BA, Sarah Lawrence College. PhD, Tulane University. Andrew W. Mellon Postdoctoral Fellowship, Yale University. Interests in Ancient Greek philosophy, the history of philosophy, and Classical Greek and Latin. SLC, 2009, 2015–

Undergraduate Courses 2017-2018

Philosophy

Love, Friendship, and Philosophy

Open , Seminar—Spring

The word “philosophy” is usually glossed as “love of wisdom,” where “love” comes from the prefix philo-. But the Greek word philia really means “friendship.” Indeed, it would seem strange if the philosopher’s pursuit of truth were to be characterized by an erotic longing. Wouldn’t this lead him to fall in love with truth and so to be prejudiced toward it? Plato, more than any other author, uses the metaphor of erotic conquest to describe the search for knowledge. This course will ask if there is a difference between eros and philia—love and friendship—and whether philosophy’s attachment to truth-seeking is lusty or friendly. We will read Plato’s Symposium (on eros) and Plato’s Lysis (on friendship), as well as Cicero’s essay on friendship and excerpts from Aristotle’s Nicomachean Ethics.

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Philosophy and Conflict: The Idea of War

Open , Seminar—Spring

Plato is the first philosopher to describe war in terms of an art (in the Republic). He does so in a context in which the strongest warriors turn out to be philosophers with special training in gymnastics, geometry, and dialectic. The suggestion seems to be that solving geometrical proofs, resolving philosophical contradictions, and fighting enemies are related pursuits. This appears to be especially true of Thucydides, for whom philosophy and history coincide in one exemplary event: the Peloponnesian War. Since that war was between Greeks and Greeks, Thucydides’ interest is in opposition arising from similarity. We will read his History of the Peloponnesian War, followed by Machiavelli’s The Prince. Machiavelli, too, contemplates potential war within sameness, especially conspiracies on the inside of cities (among which is Machiavelli’s book). The idea that the inside might contain the possibility of further insides suggests that the political problem—a certain tension between “us” and “them”—might be a philosophical problem and, conversely, that the philosophical tension exhibited by contradictions might be somehow political.

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Lucretius: On the Nature of Things

Open , Seminar—Fall

Lucretius was a first-century BC Roman philosopher and poet—the contemporary of Cicero, Catullus, Virgil, and Horace and a follower of the Greek atomist Epicurus. All that remains of Lucretius’ work is a long poem, entitled, “On the Nature of Things.” It is written in epic meter and explores everything from nature and the world to human beings and the soul. Lucretius explains supernatural entities on the basis of natural phenomena. The motivation for this materialism seems to have been to bring human morality back down to earth. We will read Lucretius’ original text with a view to why it was written in poetry and how it might have provoked St. Jerome to claim that Lucretius composed it while drunk on love potion. We will also read the only surviving letters of Epicurus in Diogenes Laertius’s "Lives of Eminent Philosophers," along with several essays by Martin Heidegger on the limits of human thinking and the failure of modern philosophy to comprehend antiquity.

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Philosophical Hubris: The Wish to Be God?

Open , Seminar—Fall

Is philosophy’s interest in first causes a sign of its arrogance? Is the wish to know “god” a wish to be god? To make pretensions to know beyond one’s human situation was, in times past, considered a sign of impiety. Anaxagoras was exiled for atheism, because he imagined that the planets were fiery rocks. Empedocles went around in a purple robe and bronze shoes, announcing that anyone who didn’t understand him was a “fool.” Socrates famously defended himself against impiety by proclaiming that he once heard a third party verify from the oracle at Delphi that Socrates was the wisest man alive. This did not help win the affection of the Athenian jurors, and Socrates was sentenced to death. Is there some justice to these accusations, even if one doesn’t believe in impiety but only in relativism? Relativism means to think it is impossible to know beyond one’s own perspective. One wonders, therefore, if it harbors a certain piety. This course will explore how to distinguish between true truths and self-righteous truths and whether the search for wisdom is motivated by vanity. We will consider not only Plato’s Apology but also St. Thomas Aquinas’s On Being and Essence. While Aquinas is usually considered a pious medieval theologian, a careful reading of his text may reveal a possible link between a humble ignorance of first causes and a megalomaniacal philosophical curiosity. Of course, no study of the vanity of humility would be complete without Nietzsche. We will read The Antichrist and Ecce Homo, which begins with a chapter, called “Why I Am So Wise,” in consideration of Nietzsche’s philosophical trial of himself and his repudiation of Christianity.

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Previous Courses

Philosophy and Fashion 

Open , Seminar—Spring

Do you have to be good-looking to be good at looking? Socrates was ugly and depicted by Aristophanes as an airhead, but Plato takes responsibility (in his second letter) for having designed and beautified him. From the fashion of academic dress to the fashion of academic address, philosophy is more concerned with style than it might look at first glance. If the way things appear is at all related to the way things are, then perhaps fashion—understood as trendy, unexamined opinion—deserves a double take. Style suggests something that is not visible, like a t-shirt with a catchy phrase on it or a Chanel purse. “I’m witty.” “I’m rich.” There is a connection between what you wear and what you think. This course will ask if there is, likewise, a link between self-reflection and narcissism, the real and the rhetorical. To do this will mean to look at the world through the lens of the poetic and to ask whether human agency is a thoughtless production or intelligent design. We will take fashion seriously and, conversely, philosophy playfully. The reading for the course will include Euripides, Plato, Machiavelli, Kant, Gottfried Keller, Charles Baudelaire, and Jules Barbey D’Aurevilly. We will also consider some of the poets of fashion such as Alexander McQueen and Bill Cunningham.

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Philosophy and Law: Plato’s Republic 

Open , Seminar—Spring
Alfred North Whitehead characterized the European philosophical tradition as a “series of footnotes to Plato.” To understand the trajectory of political philosophy, one must thus understand its roots in antiquity. While Plato wrote 35 dialogues, his most famous is the Republic. This course will spend a semester carefully reading the Republic. We will explore topics such as justice and injustice, democracy and tyranny, and poetry and philosophy.
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Pre-Socratics and Post-Socratics: The Enemies of Plato

Open , Seminar—Fall

The turn against the philosophy of Plato led modern thinkers such as Berkeley, Descartes, Nietzsche, and Heidegger to return to pre-Socratics as the true beginning of philosophy. This course will take its bearings by the modern reception of pre-Socratic thinking. Of the pre-Socratic philosophers (Anaximander, Heraclitus, Parmenides, and Empedocles), we have only fragments. We will read these enigmatic fragments along with the modern interpretations of them. Essential to our study will be to examine pre-Socratics both on their own terms and in terms of how they were used (or misused) in the modern dialogue against Plato.

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Philosophy and Law 

Open , Seminar—Fall

Is the lawgiver included in the law? How is it possible to set standards without being subject to standards? This course will consider the problem of the founder not only in terms of political regimes but also in terms of human thinking. Thinking seems to demand that we treat our hypotheses, if only in a provisional way, as if they were grounded in certainty. Morality, on the other hand, requires that we follow rules as if we were our own policymakers. An inquiry into the nature of political philosophy will thus lead us to an inquiry into the nature of law itself. Our study will include works of Plato, Aquinas, Machiavelli, Rousseau, and Kant.

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The Being of Speech

Open , Seminar—Spring

This course will ask if there is a ground of language. That is, is there an overarching structure to all language, or is it simply a game of words? We will consider not only the variety in which languages arise but also grammatical perplexities such as the verb “to be,” the connection between adjectives and nouns, and the Indo-European middle voice. The reading will include Rousseau’s Essay on the Origin of Languages, Aristotle's Poetics, and selections from the works of Parmenides, Heidegger, Wittgenstein, Charles Kahn, Emile Benveniste, and Seth Benardete.

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The Being of Seeming

Open , Seminar—Fall

Do appearances conceal or reveal who we are? Appearances have gained a reputation for being flighty, but this reputation is anything but meaningless. While it has never been more stylish to declare that the surface is shallow, it has never been more necessary to appear on the surface as if you are deep. It is not without motive that we have enthusiastically decided that we can’t judge a book by its cover (How else would we judge it?) or become enraptured by the phenomenon of Facebook. On the one hand, we are afraid that images will rule the world; on the other hand, we cannot help but seek such an end with the self-imaging that is required by our own self-control. This course will consider the reality, or lack thereof, behind the statements that we make through a variety of surfaces—particularly images, clothing, and laws. We will explore the depth of appearance through its connection to the world and our interest in it. Our study will include works of Aquinas, Machiavelli, Plato, Heidegger, Hannah Arendt, and Thomas Carlyle.

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Thinking of Death

Open , Seminar—Year

Being lost in thought can make one dead to the world—and yet, for Plato and Rousseau, this seems to be the life most worth living. The aim of this course will be to shed light on the strange way in which thinking makes one feel most alive when it is constituted by a loss of self. We will explore this puzzle with a careful reading of Sophocles’ Antigone, Rousseau’s Reveries of the Solitary Walker, Plato’s Phaedo, and Plato’s Euthydemus. We will also read selections from the works of Heidegger, Nietzsche, and Parmenides—three authors for whom inscrutable nothingness is integral to our understanding of everything. With these thinkers as our guides, we will plumb the depths of each text to become fascinated by nothing.

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