The Work Harder Handbook by Artists and Classicists Together

With the semester now over, it is time to reflect on what has been for me the most exciting teaching experience of my 10 plus years at Ohio State. Every Thursday, between 12:30-5pm, I have lead two seminars – one unofficial and the other official – each comprising Art MFA and Classics Grad students. The second seminar was Classics 7890: Ancient Philosophical Handbooks: Lessons, Lives, Communities while I dubbed the first one the lunchtime Seminar Seminar. Here is the opening passage from the formal description of the Handbook seminar on the syllabus (the Seminar Seminar had no syllabus):

The ‘Handbook’, ‘Guide’ or ‘Companion’ has become a staple genre within academic publishing. At the same time, there has also been a spate of popularizing books that attempt to make ancient wisdom vividly applicable to contemporary life (e.g. Daniel Klein’s Travels with Epicurus). While in the latter, the personal narrative is exploited as a means to take the uninitiated reader on a journey through ancient ideas, the former maintains a more objective approach to its subject to maintain a core readership within scholarly communities. Yet in antiquity, both of these approaches were employed in tandem to teach and introduce readers to a range of philosophical positions. For some, the philosopher’s life – either in terms of autobiography or biography – was a powerful heuristic tool for understanding ancient ethics, whereas for others, the dynamic between ancient ideas and contemporary communities helped perpetuate a philosopher’s or a school’s core doctrines. In this seminar we will examine the genre of the ancient philosophical handbook that emerged in the Roman Republic and Empire, written in both Greek and Latin, as belated attempts to systematize earlier philosophical thought within antiquity. The course will look at the dynamic between philosophers’ lessons, lives and communities according to different schools (Epicureanism, Stoicism, Platonism) by reading selections from Lucretius’ On the Nature of Things, Cicero’s On Moral Ends, Seneca’s On Clemency and selected Letters, the Tablet of Cebes, Plutarch’s Essays, Epictetus’ Handbook, Alcinous’ Handbook of Platonism, Maximus of Tyre’s Dissertations, Diogenes of Oenoanda’s Inscription, Marcus Aurelius’ Meditations, Apuleius’ On Plato and his Doctrine, the anonymous Expositio of Plato’s dialogues and Diogenes Laertius’ Lives and Opinions of the Eminent Philosophers. Our main focus will be on understanding the limits of the genre of ancient philosophical handbook, highlighting the connections between the philosopher’s life and their lessons, the methodological variety to these lessons and the contexts for their formation and dissemination within ancient communities. We will also be self-consciously engaged with how these texts and their lessons resonate beyond antiquity and can be understood in other forms of creative life and the role of assemblages, anthologies, guides for contemporary groups, collectives and communities.

Each week these two seminars shared the same topics, with the Semina Semina exploring them in relation to the artists’ own practices as well as via other artists and exhibitions. Each week, on Wednesday, I would send out an email attempting to map the topic of the Handbook seminar to the Semina Seminar. Each email would have a book or essay title as a reference point or way in to the topic. Below is the list of topics, reading (for the Handbooks seminar) and email prompt (for the Seminar Seminar), which I have illustrated with the pages of The Work Harder Handbook which we all made at the end of the class, using one of the amazing notebooks created by former OSU MFA Lillianna Marie Baczeski.

By reading this post, you too can sow these lessons, cultivate your lives and grow new communities!

A: Reading Handbooks

1. CRITERIA – “Support the Revolution”

Reading: The Handbook of Handbooks

There is no preparation for our first meeting – we’ll spend the time discussing how we can think about the ideas of lessons, lives & communities at the heart of my Ancient Philosophical Handbook seminar can (or cannot) be applied to art contexts & it will be an opportunity for you all to share stories of your current work. I’ll also be bringing my facsimile of Wallace Berman’s Semina for us all to look at together as well.

2. OBJECTIVES – “Suddenly this Overview”

Reading: Cicero On Moral Ends Book 1; Diogenes Laertius Life of Epicurus (29-34; 117-121)

In the Classics seminar we’re discussing ‘Objectives’ (i.e. how ancient philosophical handbooks present themselves – do they set the scene or get straight to business? How are the lessons framed? etc). Given this, I thought that we could talk about motivations of summaries, synopses, overviews & retrospectives in art contexts. Not just at the exhibition level, but how individual works take on this aim. Come with ideas to share about your own work & that of others.

3. METHODS – “An Arrangement of Pictures”

Reading: Lucretius On the Nature of Things Book 3

In the Classics seminar we’re discussing ‘Methods’ (i.e. what methods ancient philosophical handbooks use to present their ideas & how different methods combined to present the same idea etc). Given this, I thought that we could talk about working, organizing and exhibition methods in your own practices and in artists you admire – how consistent are you/they? Can methods be separated from technique? What non-artistic methods are useful to you & your work? is there any connection between a method used to create an artwork and a method of displaying it in an exhibition? How do you organize your own work – in the studio? beyond?

B: Using Handbooks

4. ENGAGING – “Ecce Occupy”


Diogenes Oenoanda Fragments and Diogenes Laertius Life of Epicurus (35-116; 121-154)

In the Classics seminar we’re discussing the first topic of how we use ancient handbooks called ‘Engaging” (i.e. how do ancient philosophical handbooks engage their readers?). Given this, I thought that we could talk about how artworks make calls to action – in ancient philosophy this would be called a ‘protreptic’ – how do works make demands, cry out for intervention or direct activism? We can think about social practice as well as other manifestations of engaged artistic practice. I am also interested in how older examples of art and activism can be ‘re-activated’ in present conditions.

5. ADAPTING – “A State of Neutral Pleasure”

Reading: Cicero On Moral Ends Books 2-3; Diogenes Laertius Life of Epicurus (1-34) & Life of Zeno (38-83)

In the Classics seminar we’re discussing the second topic of how we use ancient handbooks called ‘Adapting” ( do handbooks adapt philosophical lessons of earlier thinkers? How are these lessons tailored to specific situations?) & so I thought we could think about reference, appropriation, re-performance & re-staging, not just in terms of art history, but also other kinds of events. It might also be a good place for us to discuss the question of artistic commission and public art.

6. LIVING – “Dropout Piece”

Reading: Seneca On Clemency and selected Letters; Diogenes Laertius Life of Zeno (84-131)

In the Classics seminar we’re discussing ‘LIVING’ (e.g. what did it mean to follow out the lessons of an ancient handbook? How did it happen? Did the lives of philosophers following the lessons of others transform into new lessons?) Given this I thought we could discuss the life/art dynamic, with particular focus on when artists ‘drop out’ of the artworld (e.g. Lee Lozano, Cady Noland, Laurie Parsons) and either live their practice or not.

C: Handbooks as Things

7. OBJECTS – “Two Owls”

Reading: Tablet of Cebes; Diogenes Laertius Life of Zeno (132-160)

In the Classics seminar we’re moving onto a new section called “Handbooks as Things” & within this, we’ll be discussing “Objects” (e.g. what were these handbooks and guides like as objects? How were they ‘handled’ by their readers? Were they meant to be memorized? Why were some guides inscribed in stone?) Given this I thought we could discuss the object-hood of art objects, their thingliness and how they – allegorically – stand in place of other stuff).

8. NETWORKS – “Scratching on things I could disavow”

Reading: Epictetus Handbook

In the Classics seminar we’re discussing ‘Networks’ (e.g. how can we glean from the handbooks a network of readers and thinkers? How were they disseminated and to whom? Were handbooks for non-philosophers? ). Given this I thought we could discuss how networks are generated by art works as well as the formation of networks of artists (and others) that stretches beyond a specifically defined community (e.g. how – if at all – do you associate and connect with past MFA students/Classics grads from OSU?).

D: The Timeliness of Handbooks

9. GRIEF – “Necrophilia, Mon Amour”

Reading: Marcus Aurelius Meditations Books 1-6

In the Classics seminar we are moving onto our final topic (yes, I know it’s not even Spring Break yet!) called ‘The Timeliness of Handbooks’. In this section we’ll be discussing a series of broad topics: ‘Grief’, ‘Worlds’, ‘Identities’, ‘Trials’ & ‘Happiness’. For the first topic ‘Grief’ we’ll be asking: how do these handbooks work as consolations in the face of death? How does the philosopher’s death work as a lesson in itself? Given this I thought we could discuss two very specific issues – how an artist’s death transforms the reception of their work & the question of ‘the death of’ a particular art form (e.g. the death of painting).

10. WORLDS – “My Boyfriend Came Back From The War”

Reading: Cicero On Moral Ends Books 4-5; Diogenes Laertius Lives of the Ariston, Cleanthes and Chrysippus

In the Classics seminar we are thinking about ‘Worlds’, asking what world-view do handbooks offer? do they adopt a particular perspective in order to take in large ideas as a whole? We have a range of options for us to discuss, but perhaps one I would like to think about together is how digital culture has become a ‘world’ for your & other artists’ work. Is this online world merely part of the ‘real’ world or is it something else? Where do virtual worlds fit in? What about the immersive, playable worlds of gaming? Speaking of which, here’s some homework for you all:

11. IDENTITIES – “Because She Never Asked”

Reading: Plutarch On Tranquility of Mind; Maximus of Tyre Oration 11; Diogenes Laertius Life of Plato (49-77)

In the Classics seminar, still amid the general theme ‘The Timeliness of Handbooks’, we are discussing the ‘I” word: ‘IDENTITIES’. We’ll be musing on who handbooks leave out and what role women, slaves and foreigners play (if any) in these phallogocentric texts). For our part, I thought we could ask ourselves to discuss shadows, investigations, vanishings, hotel rooms, sleepless nights, true stories, games, ceremonies, journeys, absence and anything else we left unfinished.

12. TRIALS – “UH-OH”

Reading: Alcinous Handbook of Platonism; Apuleius On Plato and his Doctrine Book 1; Diogenes Laertius Life of Plato (1-48)

In the Classics seminar we are onto the topic of ‘Trials’ and we’ll be asking the rather blunt question: how do handbooks represent the persecution of philosophers in antiquity? We’ll also be thinking about how each and every handbook offers an apology for the life and role of the philosopher in ancient society. Given this I thought we could discuss the challenges faced by the figure of the artist in contemporary society – how do you and other artists defend and justify what you do? How does the artist advocate for Art and are there limits to this role?

13. HAPPINESS – “I’m Your Fan”

Reading: Apuleius On Plato and his Doctrine Book 2; Anonymous Expositio; Diogenes Laertius Life of Plato (78-109)

In our final topic-based Classics seminar it is fitting that the topic we’ll be discussing is that which ancient philosophers saw as the supreme good & the aim of life: “Happiness”. In the Handbook seminar we’ll be asking if the ultimate aim of these handbooks was to give their readers and users happiness? For us, I’d like to us to think about the seemingly less lofty idea of ‘liking something’, for itself or how it makes us feel. What does the art we like say about us? What happens to you as artists when you encounter someone who likes your work? Can art every simply be a pleasure or a joy, or must it follow the philosophers into the realm of the ultimate, the true & the Good?

14. MEDITATION – “Not Nothing”

No class, no seminar. Take your time to contemplate what has been and what will be. Connect them. Share it.

15. ENDING – “Do It: The Compendium”

For both the lunchtime seminar and the official seminar we met up at The Blue Danube and created The Work Harder Handbook. Thank you to everyone who participated in the two seminars – it was an unforgettable and life-changing experience for me and I hope you all learned something too, especially about working (hard) together!

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