Psychology and the Classics meeting in Leuven

John Harrison is currently writing his PhD thesis on ‘Myth in reception: Insights from Stourhead house and gardens 1714-1830

I remember vividly during the course of studying A330 how excitedly I opened Chapter 3 of Eric Csapo’s Theories of Mythology. I remember also my surprise at finding that the chapter titled ‘Psychology’ begins and ends with Freud – with most of the pages in between dealing with Freud. It was (and is) curious to psychologists like myself how psychoanalysis seems to have become the dominant psychological approach for explaining myth, especially given the richness of psychological paradigms such as the cognitive, developmental and neo-behaviourist approaches. How refreshing then to see a call for papers announcement for Psychology and the Classics: A Dialogue of Disciplines, which was held in at the Katholieke Universiteit in Leuven between 24th & 27th March.

So many highlights, but here is a selection of the sessions I enjoyed most:

  • Prof Jennifer Radden opened the meeting with her fascinating key-note in which she offered the view that Richard Burton’s The Anatomy of Melancholy is not just a fascinating seventeenth-century view of emotion, but also a text relevant to modern day psychiatry and neuroscience.
  • The Day 1 evening reception was held at the Leuven Museum and in addition to Belgian beer tasting, we were engaged by the Making Learning to make votives. Huge fun, I would do it all again in a snip 🙂
  • A highlight of Day 2 for me was Luca Grillo’s wonderful presentation, in which he sought to apply cognitive psychology models to our understanding to Cicero’s multiple uses of irony. Two competing models appear to explain Cicero’s irony, and Luca’s call to arms was for psychologists and philologists to collaborate to determine which model is the best fit.
  • In Prof. Christopher Gill’s excellent keynote he sought to show that the roots of modern Cognitive Behavioural Therapy (CBT) can be found in the work of the Stoics, especially in the writing of Epictetus. Since the Leuven meeting I have had the opportunity to discuss this issue with CBT expert colleagues from the THINC task force, who were content to agree the point.
  • Friday’s opening session, titled ‘What can the cognitive sciences offer Classics?’ was a fascinating session. We were treated to presentations on the application of cognitive analysis of Odysseus’ behavior during his 10 year journey home, as well as a second invocation of schema theory (I had discussed this cognitive theory in my Day 1 presentation) by William Short. This block of presentations was helpfully drawn together by Prof. Douglas Cairns, whose current research interests include classical emotions and metaphor.
  • The application of cognitive psychological theory to a classical theme for me found its zenith in Lilah Grace Canevaro’s entrancing presentation ‘Anticipating audiences: Hesiod’s Works and day and cognitive psychology’, in which she interpreted aspects of Hesiod in cognitive psychological terms. A further treat was Joel Christensen’s premise that theories of learned helplessness could be applied to aspects of Odysseus’ behavior, and especially whilst he was Calypso’s guest on Ogygia.

Odysseus and Calypso, red-figure vase, 5th century BC, Naples Archaeological Museum The close of the meeting brought deservedly warm applause for the organisers, and especially Jeroen Lauwers. A wish expressed by many of the presenters was that this event should be beginning of what promises to be a fruitful and mutually beneficial interdisciplinary approach. As one with ‘a foot in both camps’, I’d willingly endorse such a view. Perhaps the next step is for psychologists to repay the compliment by hosting their classical colleagues at a reciprocal event?

John Harrison

Image: Odysseus and Calypso, Red-figured vase, 5th century BC, Naples Archaeological Museum.


Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *