STOICON ’16: Julia Annas

Julia AnnasHere we are, continuing our occasional, limited series of posts leading up to the STOICON 2016 conference, scheduled in New York City for 15 October. (More info? Here. Tickets? Here. Looking for cheap accommodation with a fellow Stoic? Here.) The idea is to briefly feature each of the scheduled speakers for our talks and workshops so that people can better appreciate some of the leading figures behind the Modern Stoicism movement (is that what it is?), as well as give their reasoned assent to the impression that this is a conference well worth attending.

This week’s featured speaker is Julia Annas, a professor in the Department of Philosophy at the University of Arizona in Tucson.

She has published a number of books, including Intelligent Virtue (Oxford University Press, 2009), in which she presents a new account of virtue and happiness as central ethical ideas, arguing that exercising virtue involves practical reasoning of a kind analogous to what we find when people exercise a practical skill. Annas also wrote Ancient Philosophy: A Very Short Introduction (Oxford University Press, 2011) where she guides her readers through a number of ancient debates, moving away from the presentation of ancient philosophy as a succession of great thinkers, and gicing a sense of the freshness and liveliness of ancient philosophy, as well as of its wide variety of themes and styles.

On the more technical side, Annas’ recent work includes a paper on “Ancient skepticism and ancient religion” and one on “Plato’s Laws and Cicero’s De Legibus.”

Julia has also been the guest on two podcasts about contemporary virtue ethics, Philosophy Bites (episode 259: What is Virtue Ethics for?), and Elucidations (episode 57: Julia Annas discusses virtue ethics).

At STOICON Julia will give a talk on “Is Stoic virtue ethics as off-putting as it seems?” As we would surely agree, Stoic ethics has been found inspiring by many. But when we look at some of the claims that the Stoics make, particularly about virtue, they seem rather off-putting. We find that according to the classic Stoic doctrine only the wise person is virtuous, while everyone else is vicious, since there is nothing between virtue and vice. And  to make things worse, the wise person is as rare as the phoenix. There are no degrees of becoming virtuous: it’s like being one foot under water, which is just as much below the surface as being 20 feet under. According to the Stoics, virtue is the only thing that is good (and vice the only thing that is bad), and it alone is sufficient for happiness. This position appears to be so extreme as to make it seem pointless even to start trying to become a virtuous Stoic. But Julia will examine some of these claims and show how they can be understood to be more reasonable in the context of other claims, and of Stoic theory as a whole. She will also address the issue of why the Stoics did present their ethical views in such very counter-intuitive ways.