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David Konstan

New York University
On the Margins of Love: Gratitude, Loyalty, and Altruism in the Classical World – and Beyond
01 February 2017 -
30 June 2017
Classical studies

David Konstan is Professor of Classics at New York University. His undergraduate degree is in mathematics and his doctorate in Greek and Latin. He has been awarded fellowships by the National Endowment for the Humanities, the American Council of Learned Societies, and the Guggenheim Foundation. He has been visiting professor at the American University in Cairo and at various universities in South America and Europe. He is a past president of the American Philological Association, and a Fellow of the American Academy of Arts and Sciences and Honorary Fellow of the Australian Academy of the Humanities.

Research interests

History of emotion; Greek and Roman comedy; the ancient novel; classical philosophy (especially Epicurus and Aristotle); aesthetics; history of ideas and values

On the Margins of Love: Gratitude, Loyalty, and Altruism in the Classical World – and Beyond

Is it possible to bestow a gift, in the sense of an altruistic act, without demand or expectation of return (by which a gift becomes an economic exchange)? Is gratitude a promissory note, the commitment to repay a gift when the opportunity arises? To what extent is loyalty required of friends – are we bound to do wrong on behalf of friends? These questions concerning altruism, gratitude, and friendship take us to the heart of the classical ethical code, and the answers tend to be subsumed under a single social concept: reciprocity. Thus, gifts are not really possible, since they are always conditional upon reciprocation, even if the agents conceal this from themselves (what Marcel Mauss called “méconnaissance”). Friendship is quasi-contractual, and depends upon the mutual exchange of services. Altruism is out of the question. Yet this is not the way that ancient philosophers and writers thought of things. Aristotle insists that both affection and favors consist in doing things for another’s sake and not one’s own, and all Greeks knew the difference between a gift and a sale or loan. My project is to rehabilitate, on the basis of classical Greek and Roman texts, the idea of generosity and friendship as intrinsically unselfish, as opposed to being implicitly based on reciprocity, and to argue for the relevance of the classical view to considerations of social life today.

Key publications

Beauty: The Fortunes of an Ancient Greek Idea, Oxford University Press, 2014

Before Forgiveness: The Origins of a Moral Idea, Cambridge University Press, 2010

“A Life Worthy of the Gods”: The Materialist Psychology of Epicurus, Parmenides Press, 2008

The Emotions of the Ancient Greeks: Studies in Aristotle and Classical Literature, University of Toronto Press, 2006

Friendship in the Classical World, Cambridge University Press, 1997


Lecture by D. Konstan, Paris IAS fellow
08 Jun 2017 09:30 -
08 Jun 2017 18:30,
Paris :
Connaissance des causes, causes de deuil
Talk by D. Konstan, Paris IAS fellow
13 May 2017 14:00 -
13 May 2017 15:45,
Paris :
Traduire après la guerre
25 Apr 2017 17:00 -
25 Apr 2017 18:30,
Bristol :
Did Aristotle Recognise Aesthetic Emotion?
Lecture by D. Konstan (Paris IAS fellow)
22 Apr 2017 11:15 -
22 Apr 2017 12:00,
Paris :
La rhétorique aux limites de la raison
19 Apr 2017 17:00 -
19 Apr 2017 19:00,
Paris :
Prendre les Anciens au mot : ce que l'Antiquité fait à la Modernité
Conference organized by D. Konstan (Paris IAS) and R. Gagné (SCAS / Cambridge)
13 Apr 2017 09:30 -
13 Apr 2017 17:30,
Paris :
The Invention of Sin
Lecture by D. Konstan, Paris IAS fellow
31 Mar 2017 14:30 -
31 Mar 2017 17:00,
Paris :
Epicurean phantasia
29 Mar 2017 17:00 -
29 Mar 2017 19:00,
Villeneuve d’Ascq :
La rhétorique aux limites de la raison
Lecture by D. Konstan, Paris IAS fellow
23 Mar 2017 14:10 -
23 Mar 2017 15:30,
Prague :
Remorse: The Origins of a Moral Idea
Talk by D. Konstan, Paris IAS fellow
17 Mar 2017 09:00 -
17 Mar 2017 18:00,
Nanterre :
Emotions in Plato
18 Feb 2017 16:30 -
18 Feb 2017 18:30,
Würzburg :
The Theory of Authority: Aristotle, Plutarch, and the Critique of Epicureanism
11 Feb 2017 10:00 -
11 Feb 2017 12:00,
Paris :
La libéralité (eleutheriotês) et la gratitude dans l’Éthique à Nicomaque d’Aristote

Antiquity (3500 BCE – 476 CE)
Western Europe