Simone Biles, Plutarch and an Olympic trial

The outstanding gymnast Simone Biles has pulled out of several Olympic events, saying: ‘I just don’t trust myself as much any more.’ Many took the view that this was a fashionable ‘mental health’ issue. Ancient Greeks might have come up with a rather different analysis. Plutarch (c. ad 100) is said to have been the author of a letter of condolence to one Apollonius whose son had just died. In it he considered how best one should react to loss in the context of the whole field of human suffering, which Greeks regarded as the common lot of all mankind. For example, Achilles in the Iliad claimed that Zeus possessed

Animal sentience law has finally caught up with Plutarch’s thinking

Almost no ancients cared whether animals felt pain or not. The classical Stoic belief that man’s reasoning capacity elevated him above all other creatures was the intellectual justification. Cruelty to animals could be frowned upon, but only because it might encourage man’s cruelty to man. Descartes (d. 1650) raised the question of whether animals really were conscious and, deciding they were not, concluded they did not feel pain: their reaction to it was purely mechanistic. Behaviourists of the 20th century took the same line. But there is one ancient dissenting voice to that view: the Greek essayist Plutarch (c. ad 100). Now that UK law has legislated that animals are

The link between spick and span, spanking and spoon

I Hoovered on Saturday (or vacuumed as they say in newspapers eager to avoid using a trademark) while my husband was out ‘exercising’. I don’t know whether he attracts dust, like a piece of amber, or produces it, as if by spontaneous combustion in slow motion. Anyway, when he settled in his chair again, he ran his finger rather annoyingly over the table next to him and said encouragingly: ‘Spick and span.’ It’s a curious expression, since neither part seems to have any meaning on its own. The table wasn’t spick. Nor was it span. The earliest known use of the phrase is by Thomas North in 1571, in his