David Sedley

Laurence Professor of Ancient Philosophy, The University of Cambridge


September 22
8:10 pm, 2050 Valley Life Science Building
1. The Power of Mind: Thales to Anaxagoras

September 29
8:10 pm, 145 Dwinelle Hall
2. Divine Beneficence: Empedocles to Socrates

October 6
8:10 pm, 145 Dwinelle Hall
3. Divine Craft: Plato

October 13
8:10 pm, 145 Dwinelle Hall
4. The Atomist Opposition

October 20
8:10 pm, 2040 Valley Life Science Building
5. Aristotle's via media

October 27
8:10 pm, 145 Dwinelle Hall
6. Teleological Arguments: Socrates to Galen

The public is invited. Please note the different rooms for different dates.


More about David Sedley and his Sather Lectures

The 91st Sather Professor is David Sedley, the Laurence Professor of Ancient Philosophy in the University of Cambridge. Born in London, Sedley completed the traditional Greats course (Literae Humaniores) at Trinity College, Oxford, with First Class Honours in 1969. He carried out his graduate research at University College London under A. A.(Tony) Long, with an extended stay in Naples at the Centro Internazionale per lo Studio dei Papiri Ercolanesi, and received the Ph.D. in 1974 with a thesis presenting a text, translation and commentary of Book 28 of Epicurus’ On Nature. After two years as a Junior Research Fellow at Balliol College, Oxford, Sedley moved to Cambridge in 1975 where he became a Fellow of Christ’s College and University Lecturer, then Reader in Ancient Philosophy (1989), Professor of Ancient Philosophy (1996), and finally Laurence Professor in 2000.

Professor Sedley’s scholarly work has extended over a wide range of topics in Ancient Philosophy. He is an acknowledged leader of international distinction in Hellenistic philosophy. With Tony Long (Professor at Berkeley since 1982), he co-authored the indispensable two-volume work The Hellenistic Philosophers (Cambridge 1987, now also published in German and French translations): by assembling new texts and translations of the fragmentary remains of the competing schools of Hellenistic philosophers and providing philosophically sophisticated analysis of the key ideas and controversies, this study gave further impetus to the revitalization of serious study of the post-Aristotelian phases of ancient philosophy. This book was both preceded and followed by numerous articles and chapters on topics in Hellenistic philosophy, as well as studies of Aristotle and especially Plato. He has also continued since his dissertation to contribute to papyrological publications of philosophical fragments. Professor Sedley’s other books are Lucretius and the Transformation of Greek Wisdom (Cambridge 1998), Plato’s Cratylus (Cambridge 2003, based on the Townsend Lectures at Cornell), The Midwife of Platonism. Text and Subtext in Plato’s Theaetetus (Oxford 2004). He is the editor of The Cambridge Companion to Greek and Roman Philosophy (Cambridge 2003) and has served as an editor of The Classical Quarterly (1986-92), Oxford Studies in Ancient Philosophy (1998-), and other series. Among his previous honors are visiting appointments or invited lectureships at the Institute for Advanced Study in Princeton, Yale, Cornell, and the University of Toronto, as well as a semester at Berkeley in 1984.

The origins of the modern debate between evolutionists and creationists lie in the classical world, and this crucial topic is the focus of “Creationism and its Critics in Antiquity.” In the speculations and debates of the Greeks, unlike the modern controversies, no appeals were made to the authority of scripture, and the battle was fought entirely on the terrains of cosmological science, biology and rational theology. “Many Greeks recognized,” Sedley notes, “that the world is teeming with evidence of beneficial order, from the cycle of seasons down to the minutest details of individual life forms. How is this comprehensively ordered cosmic structure to be explained? The teleological style of answer, that it is all for a purpose, is often assumed to start only with Plato and Aristotle, whose ‘Presocratic’ predecessors are regarded, often admiringly, as materialists or mechanists. My goal in these lectures is to refine and reshape this picture. That the world is at any rate governed by intelligence is in effect the default position of most Presocratics, and individual early thinkers such as Anaxagoras and Empedocles turn out on close inspection to assume, more specifically, that an intelligent creator is a requisite of an adequate explanatory model. Thus creationism is a mode of explanation already well established in the early period. In due course, an entirely new, and far more religious, significance is attached to divine creation by Socrates, who can reasonably be labelled the first anti-scientific creationist, but whose rarely appreciated contributions to the debate are of paramount historical importance.”

These early thinkers, down to and including Socrates, will occupy the first two lectures. The third will focus on Plato's contribution to creationist theory, above all in his Timaeus, a text whose influence was to be pervasive on the entire remaining history of ancient thought, including above all the continuing debate about divine creation. “Whether or not we interpret his account as literally creationist,” Sedley argues, “Plato did more than anyone to put the concept of divine craftsmanship on the map as an explanatory device.” The fourth and fifth lectures will turn to the opposition to creationism. For this purpose, Aristotle (lecture 4) finds himself in the opposite camp to Plato. He tries to show how the teleological benefits of Plato’s craftsmanship model can be retained even if, as Aristotle himself holds, there neither is nor ever has been an actual creative intelligence at work in the cosmos. The other occupants of this opposition camp are the atomists (lecture 5), who both before and after the Timaeus set out to show how any aspect or component of cosmic order can be better explained by the postulation of accident on an infinite scale. The final lecture will focus on the rich body of formal and semi-formal argument that was generated in defense of the creationist position, above all the “Argument from Design.” These arguments stem from a number of major thinkers, from Socrates to Galen, but the central figures of this final lecture will be the Stoics. The series as whole will not be about winners and losers, but about the sheer wealth of the ideas, models and arguments generated by both sides in this classic debate.