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Translating Values: Clues from Ancient Mediterranean Myth and Philosophy

How can our fundamental values be translated, and shared with empathy and respect? Can our society cultivate a garden of diverse ways of knowing—the insights of the scientist, storyteller, and artist, planted as companions to bear fruit in wisdom, in the best choices we can make individually and together? This session explores clues for these modern questions, rooted in the history and collective experience of the ancient Mediterranean basin—especially in Greece, Rome, and Egypt.

We’ll discover how philosophers in ancient Alexandria, a city of “many peoples” (laoi), including Greek, Jewish, Christian, and Egyptian populations, sought to “translate their gods,” understood as irreducibly unique and different symbols for shared and basic values.  We’ll meet Hypatia, who tried to reconcile Christian and pagan thought as expressing a common philosophical and mathematical insight. We’ll hear of Chaeremon and Philo, who read the intellectual heritage of Egypt and the Pentateuch, respectively, in terms of a common philosophy—even as Philo strove to save Alexandria’s Jewish population from a violent wave of anti-Semitism, and pled their case to the Emperor. 

We’ll explore how the sharing of plural deities across languages and symbol-systems—recognizing, for example, a common spirit in Sumerian Inanna, Egyptian Isis, Greek Athena, and the Christian Virgin Mary, alongside the fundamental uniqueness and value of each distinct symbol—cultivated a philosophical “translation layer” for plural dialogue across political and religious divides, and why that was not, finally, enough to save Alexandria from collapse under the pressures of threatened dictatorship, anti-intellectualism, fundamentalism, and climate change; and whether these events in history can shed light on our experience today.

 

In addition to the basic synchronous session, resources will be made available for asynchronous study of Greek Philosophy and further background readings.

The Presenter:.Michael Griffin is an Oxford-trained classicist and philosopher with a passion for rediscovering ancient ideas and their capacity to enliven modern society. His public dialogues have been reviewed as friendly, accessible, and welcoming. Michael’s books focus on relating Ancient Greek and Buddhist ideas to modern philosophical education and society. With Sir Richard Sorabji, he is co-director of the Ancient Commentators project, described by The Times of London as “a massive scholarly endeavour of the highest importance.”

Michael has addressed the BC Ministry of Advanced Education, the Governor-General of Canada, and the Dalai Lama’s “Mind and Life” symposium, and delivered well-received lectures in Vancouver, Princeton, Oxford, and Milan.

Michael lives in Vancouver with his wife, Angelique, and is Associate Professor of Classics and Philosophy at the University of British Columbia.More about Michael: www.michaeljamesgriffin.com