In his 42-year career as a philosopher, John M. Cooper has gotten to know ancient Greek philosophy inside and out. Cooper, who is the Henry Putnam University Professor of Philosophy at Princeton University, will deliver two papers at U of T on Thursday and Friday.

Cooper has also released two collections of his published essays, Reason and Emotion (1999) and Knowledge, Nature, and The Good (2004), and contributed to prestigious philosophical journals like the Journal of Philosophy, the Philosophical Review, and the Review of Metaphysics. In Reason and Human Good in Aristotle (1975), Cooper focused on central questions of practical thinking and achieving the best life for man. The Varsity caught up with him to find out what advice Aristotle would give to students.

The Varsity: The Greek philosophers proposed a proper way of living based on logic and reason. What was Aristotle’s perspective on this?

John Cooper: The basic idea is that unlike contemporary and even historical or modern work in ethics, Greek philosophical work in ethics is not regarded—and this is what I particularly emphasize in my talk on Aristotle—as a theoretical practice. It is practical science rather than theoretical science. What this means for Aristotle is that the very understanding gained by philosophical study of ethical matters is itself the basis for leading that life.

TV: University life is pretty hectic. How might students apply Greek philosophy to their lives, and what would Aristotle or the Stoics say about the kind of character that is required for a university education?

JC: Aristotelian ethics and Stoic ethics differ from each other in interesting ways. I think that they both bring a perspective that you should put [questions about values] in their proper place, to not let yourself get so tied up in some immediate task [or worry too much] about your future as a result of how you do in university.

TV: Critics tend to characterize the Stoics as unemotional and uninvolved. How do you counter this claim?

JC: Once you understand what the Stoics think about emotion, why it is that emotion is bad, you can see that the kind of life they are praising does not lack what we call human attachments or devotion. The Stoic life is not a life that lacks seriously grounded commitments. It’s a life where those attachments are based on reason, not on emotional flights.

TV: What caused the shift in Greek thought, from an emphasis on myth [in the poems of Homer and Hesiod] to philosophy [as represented by Aristotle and Plato]?

JC: I think Socrates had a tremendous amount of influence, together with Plato’s own cultural prestige, in bringing about this shift. Socrates made claims—the sorts of claims that I will address in connection with Aristotle—for the authority of philosophy. And once these claims were made, and Socrates became such an important cultural figure in his own time and much later, then there was a clear indication and presentation of a life devoted to philosophy, treating philosophy as the authority for all of truth.

TV: How do you respond to the dismissal of philosophy as something abstract that doesn’t apply to daily life?

JC: My main work is in ancient philosophy, and it is a matter of careful disciplined thinking. A lot of people don’t care for that and don’t want to take the time to do the disciplined logical thinking that philosophy requires. But that doesn’t mean that it isn’t intimately involved in very practical issues. You have to know who you are, where you are, and make sense of things to have any way of having a decent life at all.

“Aristotle and Philosophy as a Way of Life” takes place Nov. 5, from 4:10 to 6 p.m. at the Jackman Humanities Building, Room 418. Cooper will deliver “The Stoic Way of Life” on Nov. 6, from 3 to 5 p.m, at the Centre for Ethics, 15 Devonshire Place, Room 200.