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Durham University

Institute of Advanced Study

Past Events

Dr Mark Usher

Thinking About Emergence Public Lecture - Complex Systems and the Greeks: the trajectory of emergence

5th May 2015, 18:15 to 19:15, Kingsley Barrett Room, Calman Learning Centre, Lower Mountjoy, Professor Mark Usher (University of Vermont)


Modern proponents of complexity theory—handmaiden to the study of emergence—tend to present their ideas and prescriptions as new and innovative. To the extent that the field of complex systems utilizes new technologies, methods, and scientific discoveries, it is indeed new and innovative. However, the fundamental tenets of systems thinking—the idea that problems and solutions to problems are not discrete, isolated entities, but must be viewed as part of complex, interrelated wholes with physical, moral, social, and conceptual dimensions—this is exactly the philosophic undertaking of the Presocratics and of the poet Hesiod, and, in their wake, of Plato and Aristotle, and, later, the Stoics, Cynics, and Epicureans. The purpose of this lecture thus is two-fold: 1) to trace the trajectory of modern ideas about systems thinking back to the Greeks (and Romans), so as to invigorate current thinking about emergence in relational systems, and 2) to underscore the extent of the Greco-Roman contribution to this area of contemporary, global concern. The presentation will touch on some of the following topics/themes: the Presocratics as systems thinkers; Plato’s cosmology and biomimicry; the interdependence of material, social, and ethical systems in ancient Atomism; emergent properties in Cleisthenes’ political reorganization of Attica.


M. D. Usher is Professor and Chair of Classics at the University of Vermont. In addition to books and articles in the field of Classics, he has published three books for children, poems, translations, and an opera libretto in Latin. Current projects include a new opera about the emperor Nero (, performed at Oxford in September, and a book entitled “Sustainability, Complex Systems, and the Greeks,” on which this lecture is based. Before embarking on an academic career, he apprenticed in Germany as a post-and-beam carpenter. Usher lives in Shoreham, Vermont, where he and his wife built and operate Works & Days Farm, a diversified farmstead that produces lamb, pork, honey, and eggs.

Map – The Calman Learning Centre is denoted at
building number: 43.

Contact for more information about this event.