Humanities at Large

JHI 2021-22 Fellows' Profile: George Boys-Stones

Submitted by Sonja Johnston on November 30 2021.
JHI Fellows' Profile features current Fellows. Learn more about their time at the JHI and the project(s) they're working on.

George Boys-Stones (FAS Classics and Philosophy; D.Phil. 1995, University of Oxford) is Professor of Classics and Philosophy. A leading scholar of Ancient Philosophy with wide-ranging interests, George has a special interest in the philosophical movements of the post-Hellenistic period. He is the author or co-author of six books, most recently the first complete edition and translation of the Stoic L. Annaeus Cornutus (SBL Press, 2018) and a source book for ‘Middle Platonism’ (CUP, 2018). In addition, he has co-edited four collaborative volumes (2003-2013).

JHI: What are your main research interests?

GBS: Ancient Greek and Roman philosophy – especially the schools that arose after Aristotle in Athens, and around the Mediterranean in the Roman period.

JHI: What research project are you working on at the JHI and why did you choose it?

GBS: My work on the philosophers of later antiquity has made me think for a while that the centrality of Aristotle in the story we tell about ‘Greek ethics’ has led us into some very misleading generalisations. My project starts from a handful of interesting writers in later antiquity who question a core assumption of Aristotelian ethics: that humans are perfectible. The constraints on individual circumstances, they think, always mean that we will fall short of the ideal. But this leads them to reflect much more than any previous thinkers about how, while still caring about virtue, we can find enjoyment in the life we actually have. (Note that this is a position distinct from hedonism: for hedonists, after all, pleasure is just another ideal.) From here, I hope to work my way backwards to show how their approach highlights and addresses tensions and anomalies which we can see right the way back to the origins of Greek ethical theory – including Aristotle himself.

JHI: What experiences are you hoping for while you’re at the JHI?

GBS: Alongside the luxury of the space to think for extended periods without too many outside demands (crucial to working out the foundations for a project like this), I am hoping to learn, and have already learned a lot, about how other people think of pleasure, both as an experience and as a value: of how pleasure grounds human experience, and of how people have negotiated the pull of pleasure and their own sense of right and wrong in different contexts and cultures.

JHI: Share something you read/watched/listened to recently that you enjoyed/were inspired by.

GBS: My film of the year (though it was released in 2018) is Capernaum, which follows an undocumented Syrian boy dealing with life on the streets of Beirut. His ability to maintain a sense of agency and to look for the best in his circumstances resonates with the theme of my project. It is also a very good film (and enters the lists of movies like 400 Blows and Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid which distil themselves into their final frame).

JHI: What is a fun fact about you?

GBS: I am slightly obsessed with winning the crossword competition set fortnightly by the British satirical magazine Private Eye – even though it is largely out of my hands whether I do, and even though I have by now spent many times more than the prize money on sending in entries.