‘The examined life’: Professor David Sedley

David Sedley
Image credit: David Sedley

David Sedley is the Laurence Professor of Ancient Philosophy, a position from which he is due to retire at the end of the year. We start by discussing the differences between Cambridge, where he has worked for almost four decades, and Oxford, where he completed his undergraduate studies.

“Cambridge has tended, historically, to be a place where the really transformative developments in disciplines occur. Thus, although philosophy has enjoyed a much larger presence at Oxford in the 20th century, the dramatic difference to the history of philosophy that Russell and Wittgenstein made in Cambridge would be hard to parallel.” 

I ask at what stage he planned to become an academic. “Not until the very end of my PhD; it actually never occurred to me that I would be good enough. It kind of sneaked up on me.” Discussing the changes to academia over the last four decades, he tells me: “I think my career really falls into two unequal halves: one before and one after the advent of personal computers in the mid 1980s. They have transformed working methods, productivity, the way one thinks – everything. On a typewriter, if you wanted to make structural changes, you used to do what’s now called cutting and pasting only metaphorically, whereas we used to do it quite literally with scissors, paste and sellotape, along with a bottle of correction fluid. Sometimes your work might end up being published in a sub-optimal form, simply because your patience was exhausted.”

We move on to the visiting professorships he has held at a wide range of American universities. Is the academic atmosphere in the US particularly different? “The American universities use a system where you don’t sign up to take a particular subject. I think that’s a very healthy state of affairs. It means that students are not a captive audience, and the subject actually has to be sold to them in competition with other subjects. I rather regret that the British system demands a prior commitment to reading a specific subject from the moment of admission to the university.”

He now only rarely visits North America, which he thinks is “a sacrifice worth making” for the accompanying reduction in his carbon emissions. The effect of humans on climate change is an issue very close to his heart. "I worry a lot about that, not because I’ll live to see it, but because my children and grandchildren will. It seems to me that it’s an absolutely paramount priority to do something about it now. “The major contribution academics make to climate change is by flying. If you ask what is the worst damage you can do to the planet in a single legal act, the answer is to get on a plane. Who’s going to take a lead and set an example, if the country’s intellectuals are not prepared to do so?”

I suggest that climate change seems a very modern preoccupation for someone interested in how the Ancient Greeks thought we should live our lives. “I can’t honestly say that the study of the ancients helps me to arrive at or to modify any views I might have about climate change. But I do, more generally, feel that there’s a lot to learn from ancient attitudes to morality. Probably the single biggest influence on me has been an idea that you can trace back to Socrates, which is that every time you do something wrong you’re not just damaging others but damaging yourself. I regard that as a wonderful insight, profoundly true.” 

He joined the fellowship at Christ’s college by chance, where he is also to retire as Praelector, but he’s become particularly fond of the college: “I can’t imagine anywhere friendlier.” He’s reluctant to give too much away about his upcoming valedictory lecture, but he plans to call it ‘Godlikeness’. “It will be about the very widespread Greek idea, starting from Plato, that the role of God in human life is a kind of paradigm which you should try to resemble as far as you can. The question of how you can physically resemble a god, bizarre as it may sound, will play quite a large part in it.”

The faculty is also preparing to mark his retirement with a conference in his honour, which raises real emotion: “I’m extremely touched that [my colleagues] should be taking the trouble to set up this conference,” he confesses.

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