M.F. Burnyeat

M.F. Burnyeat has returned to Robinson College, Cambridge after ten years as senior research fellow in philosophy at All Souls. He is the author of The Theaetetus of Plato, among other books.

Other Lives: The Truth about Pythagoras

M.F. Burnyeat, 22 February 2007

It is hard to let go of Pythagoras. He has meant so much to so many for so long. I can with confidence say to readers of this essay: most of what you believe, or think you know, about Pythagoras is fiction, much of it deliberately contrived. Did he discover the geometrical theorem that bears his name? No. Did he ponder the harmony of the spheres? Certainly not: celestial spheres were first excogitated decades or more after Pythagoras’ death. Does he even deserve credit for his most famous accomplishment, analysing the mathematical ratios that structure musical concordances? Possibly, but there is little reason to believe the stories about his being the first to discover them, and compelling reason not to believe the oft-told story about how he did it. Allegedly, as he was passing a smithy, he heard that the sounds made by the hammers exemplified the intervals of fourth, fifth and octave, so he measured their weights and found their ratios to be respectively 4:3, 3:2, 2:1. Unfortunately for this anecdote, recently rehashed in the article on Pythagoras in Grove Music Online, the sounds made by a blow do not vary proportionately with the weight of the instrument used.

Diary: The Siberian concept of theft

M.F. Burnyeat, 19 February 2004

On the night sleeper from Khabarovsk to Vladivostok I foolishly left my money belt in the loo. An hour and a half later, I realised I no longer had it with me. Panic. I was without passport, credit cards, return plane tickets, $500 and £50, not to mention a quantity of Russian rubles and South Korean won (I had reached Khabarovsk by way of a stop-off in Seoul). The attendant in my coach...

By the Dog: How Plato Works

M.F. Burnyeat, 7 August 2003

Thrasymachus, a well-known teacher of rhetoric, has listened with growing impatience to the discussion of justice in the first Book of Plato’s Republic. ‘What balderdash you two have been talking,’ he says to Socrates and Polemarchus. He cannot wait to astound the company, and win their acclaim, by unmasking justice as nothing but the advantage of the stronger, dominant...

Excuses for Madness: On Anger

M.F. Burnyeat, 17 October 2002

The solution, therefore, is to moderate anger so as to avoid the excesses of Achilles, and to train people to be angry on the right occasions only, in the appropriate manner and degree. Which might mean very angry indeed, especially on the battlefield.

Plato is famous for having banished poetry and poets from the ideal city of the Republic. But he did no such thing. On the contrary, poetry – the right sort of poetry – will be a pervasive presence in the society he describes. Yes, he did banish Homer, Aeschylus, Sophocles, Euripides, Aristophanes – the greatest names of Greek literature. But not because they were poets. He banished them because they produced the wrong sort of poetry. To rebut Plato’s critique of poetry, what is needed is not a defence of poetry, but a defence of the freedom of poets to write as, and what, they wish.’

How do I know?

M.F. Burnyeat, 4 November 1993

Philosophy is alive and well – at least in Australia. Don’t listen to the windy voices who tell the public that metaphysics is dead, its foundational role exposed as an illusion, and that epistemology should never have begun. All it takes to show the futility of such talk is the example of someone who has found a genuine philosophical issue and who is able to discuss it with verve, ingenuity, insight, and a good sense of how the philosophical argument relates to controversial questions in neighbouring fields of inquiry.’

Happily ever after

M.F. Burnyeat, 23 July 1992

In 1989 the National Interest, an American journal, published an article by Francis Fukuyama called ‘The End of History’. It was reprinted around the world in a buzz of discussion. Was Fukuyama right to claim that the End of Communism spells the End of History? Not many people thought that he was.

Good Repute

M.F. Burnyeat, 6 November 1986

‘Aristotle and Plato’, ‘Plato and Aristotle’ – the coupling of names is something we take for granted. They are the two giants of ancient philosophy, are they not, and who but Kant among later philosophers deserves to rank as high as they? Yet Aristotle’s greatness was not always so visible.’


Unfair to Pythagoras

22 February 2007

M.F. Burnyeat writes: Peter Loptson’s letter invites discussion of two ideas or issues which, he claims, Pythagoras is widely agreed to have contributed to the history of philosophy. Let me start with ‘psycho-physical dualist theory’. The idea is that Pythagoras, a believer in the transmigration of souls from one life to another, must have accepted a distinction between the psyche...

Plato’s Gulag

21 May 1998

Charles Simic (Letters, 2 July) is right to see similarity between Plato’s ideas and Stalin’s. With characteristic effrontery, Plato actually cites great wickedness as proof that, given the right education, you can produce people with the talents and virtues needed to rule the ideal city: ‘It is the best endowed souls, is it not, who become outstandingly bad when they receive a bad...


23 July 1992

A printing error made my reply to Charles Fairbanks Jr (Letters, 8 October) say the opposite of what it meant. In my letter I wrote, and meant, the following: ‘My review does not say that Fukuyama himself is a conservative, let alone that Kojève was. On the contrary, I wrote, “there are signs in Fukuyama’s book that he is not firmly convinced that Kojève got everything...

The Sponge of Apelles

Alexander Nehamas, 3 October 1985

Thales of Miletus, with whom histories of Western philosophy conventionally begin, was said to have been so concerned with the heavens that he fell into a well while he was gazing at the stars....

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