Report from a summer faculty seminar: “The Verbal Art of Plato”

I spent last week at the Center for Hellenic Studies in Washington, D.C., where Gregory Nagy and Kenneth Morrell were holding an intensive faculty seminar on “The Verbal Art of Plato” (you can look over the agenda and readings here). It was whirlwind tour of the many ways that Plato took up and transformed the literary models of his culture, with a special emphasis on Homer. Both Nagy and Morrell are amazing scholars, with an intimate knowledge of the texts and contexts, as well as experienced seminar leaders, and they curated a very strong and diverse group of faculty members. It all added up to a really rewarding experience that I will be processing for a long time — and I think that the true sign of their success is that even after spending a couple weeks reading nothing but Plato so I could spend a week talking about nothing but Plato, I actually want to sit down and read some more Plato with the tools they have given me.

Of the many interesting things I learned, two stood out to me as surprising. The first is that Socrates was actually the object of a hero cult, similar to what you might expect for a figure like Hercules. (Prof. Nagy’s book The Greek Hero in 24 Hours is one of many, many works available for free on the CHS website, and this article gives a more brief presentation on Socrates in specific.) The second is that much of the technical vocabulary in Plato’s philosophy amounts to an appropriation of the terminology that surrounded rhapsodic performances of Homer. (This article by Prof. Nagy provides a list of ten key terms if you scroll down.)

All of this led me to question what exactly Plato’s project is. One way I put it in discussion is that Plato is a critic of Athenian culture, but he’s also a critic of Athenian culture — he is so deeply embedded in his tradition. He transforms so many genres — rhapsodic performance, tragedy, forensic discourse, even heroic cult worship — but I wonder if the transformation is ultimately a means of preservation. And these thoughts also led me down various trails relating to my ultimate interest in Plato, which is his appropriation by Christianity and the grounds of possibility for such a move. Is Christianity really “Platonism for the people,” as Nietzsche says, a more accessible version of the kind of transformation Plato was trying to work in his own culture? I’m not ready to flesh those thoughts out quite yet, but the fact that they are percolating is a pleasant surprise after a seminar that I expected to be useful for my teaching but mostly unrelated to my research.

And ironically, I’m not sure exactly how to use the seminar materials in the classroom. I’m certainly a fountain of interesting facts and literary parallels right now, but I need to do more thinking about how to turn the insights I have gleaned from this intensive study into something that students will be able to put to work in their own reading and discussion without having to go to Plato Summer Camp.

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