Unearthing ancient ideas at Langara’s Philosophers’ Jam

At an upcoming Langara Philosophers’ Jam event, guest speaker Michael Griffin will be sharing his passion for ancient Greek philosophy and offering a chance to gain insights into the question: “Can ancient ideas make us happy?” 

The Jan. 15 public forum will begin with a presentation by Griffin, who is an assistant professor of classics and philosophy at the University of British Columbia, followed by a moderated discussion. Langara’s Philosophers’ Jam dialogue sessions provide exposure to new ideas and the opportunity for discussion without the commitments and time constraints of a for-credit course. The Philosophers’ Jam program, with its emphasis on discussions among audience members, was created as an alternative to other public forums in the Lower Mainland.

“We created an edgier alternative with more controversial issues with a more open context for dialogue. We wanted to foster not only discussions between the moderator and audience, but also between audience members,” says John Russell, chair of Langara’s department of philosophy and one of the creators of the program.

The program was originally intended to be an offshoot of Simon Fraser University’s Philosophers’ Café program, but headed in its own unique direction when the plan failed to come to fruition.

Michael Griffin, assistant professor of classics and philosophy at UBC. | Photo courtesy of UBC

Michael Griffin, assistant professor of classics and philosophy at UBC. | Photo courtesy of UBC

“Initially we wanted to join ranks with SFU and do something along the lines of their Philosophers’ Café, but at the last minute they said they didn’t want to work with us. And they had actually copyrighted the Philosophers’ Café,” Russell explains. “So we came up with the name Philosophers’ Jam and approached Julie Longo, who is the Dean of Arts at Langara. She told us to create something more distinctive, something edgier.”

An ‘art of living’

Griffin explains that philosophy, which fuelled the Renaissance-era frenzy of technological advancements, originally stemmed from a pursuit of fulfillment.

“Philosophy eventually sparked many of the mathematical and scientific breakthroughs of antiquity and the Renaissance, but before all that, it was an ‘art of living,’ a search for a genuinely happy, meaningful and fulfilling human life,” he says.

At the event, he will be introducing ideas spearheaded by Socrates and his successors in their personal quests for happiness.

“Socrates only asked us to try to look for such a life; he said ‘the unexamined life is not worth living.’ His successors tried to provide some answers, some experimental guidelines. I’ll be talking about Socrates’ inspiration, and some of the recipes for human happiness and a well-lived, fulfilling life that his successors offered,” says Griffin.

The modern appeal of ancient ideas

Griffin will also examine these ancient perspectives through a modern lens, with respect to psychology and philosophy. What drew Griffin to these ancient ideas was their comprehensive, multi-disciplinary nature.

“Classical studies gave me a chance to study a bit of everything: some poetry, art and law; some science, math and philosophy; some politics and history; some language and archaeology,” he says.

He explains that such ancient ideas still thrive today, and he enjoys catching glimpses of this legacy in everyday life.

“Even after 2,000 years, those ancient ideas are very alive, underpinning many of our institutions and intuitions; and I was just hooked. Looking at the social world through the lens of history, especially the history of ideas, is almost like seeing the programming language it’s all written in,” says Griffin.

Griffin notes that the timeless, universal relevance of ancient ideas make them an enduring point of discussion – even in the 21st century. He believes that the ancient topics of happiness and meaning, which will be focal points of the upcoming Philosopher’s Jam, are particularly important because they are intrinsic to the human condition.

According to Griffin Greek philosophy is common property because it is neither religious nor secular. Studying ancient ideas about happiness and meaning is especially valuable. They never get old, because they are part of the human condition.

“Ancient ideas are always with us,” Griffin explains.

Griffin will host the next session of the Philosophers’ Jam on Jan. 15 at 7 p.m. in the Employee Lounge of Langara College’s Main Campus, 100 West 49th Ave.. For further details, visit http://www.langara.bc.ca/departments/philosophy/philosophers-jam/index.html