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Tragic Ethics

Paul Woodruf is a world-renowned classicist and philosopher, best known for his influential work on Socrates and Plato. As the Darrell K. Royal Professor in Ethics and American Society at the University of Texas, Austin, Professor Woodruff has written a number of acclaimed and fascinating books that apply the wisdom of the ancients to modern life. In The Ajax Dilemma (2011), Woodruff uses the legendary conflict between Ajax and Odysseus as an analytical lens to assess the fairness of lavish compensation granted to top executives in American culture. In The Necessity of Theatre: The Art of Watching and Being Watched (2008), Woodruff defined theatre (including sporting events and social rituals) in the broad terms of its fundamental necessity in society based on the culture of “spectacle” in the ancient world.

For his Athenaeum lecture, Professor Woodruff examines a particular strand of ethics in ancient Greek thought. The wisdom literature of ancient Greece developed over a period of four centuries, disseminating from epic poetry (such as Homer) to variant forms of literature such as tragedy, lyric poetry and the prose histories of Classical Greece. Despite its dispersion in a variety of literature, this tradition for explaining ethics to a wider audience maintained a common understanding of what constituted “the good life”. Plato, on the other hand, rejected this common approach to explaining ethics and Professor Woodruff’s lecture will tease both what tragedy taught a Greek audience about ethics and how and why Plato rejected this tradition.