University of Chicago
Harmonic Ethics: Ptolemy’s Virtue Ethics for the Mathematician
Claudius Ptolemy, the second-century mathematician, is known best for his contributions in the mathematical and physical sciences. The Almagest set the standard for astronomical study for nearly 1500 years, up to the time of the so-called scientific revolution, and his contributions in harmonics, optics, and geography received a wide audience through the Renaissance. Although it nearly has been forgotten in the history of philosophy, Ptolemy also constructed an innovative philosophical system. He appropriated ideas from the dominant philosophical traditions at the time—mainly the Platonic and Aristotelian commentary traditions—and he subverted them in an effort to bolster the intellectual contributions of mathematicians. He coopted the objectives of philosophers’ inquiries and argued that only the mathematician achieves them. For instance, Ptolemy claims that physics and theology, the domains traditionally studied by philosophers, are conjectural and that mathematics alone generates knowledge. Not only is mathematics epistemologically superior, according to Ptolemy, but it is also the only field of inquiry that yields a virtuous life. In other words, Ptolemy coopts virtue ethics for the mathematician. In this paper, I analyze the ethical statement Ptolemy presents in the introduction to the Almagest, and I argue that his ethics have at their foundation the harmonic theory he presents in the Harmonics. I argue that to attain a virtuous condition of the soul, in Ptolemy’s ethical system, one must study either of the types of mathematics concerned with phenomena that exhibit harmonic properties: either harmonics or astronomy.
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