Learning to Love Plato

[This is a lecture I delivered to the Shimer Great Books School at North Central College in November 2017, reporting my thoughts on a summer faculty seminar focused on Plato. While going through some old files, I realized that I had never published the text anywhere else, so I present it here.]

This summer [2017], I attended a summer faculty seminar at the Center for Hellenic Studies in Washington, D.C., on “The Verbal Art of Plato.” Hosted by Gregory Nagy of Harvard University and Kenny Morrell of Rhodes College, this event brought together a truly interdisciplinary group of teacher-scholars—representing fields ranging from philosophy and classics to psychology and even physics—to discuss the works of Plato, along with other ancient Greek works and some of Dr. Nagy’s scholarship, in a week filled with intensive seminars. Every day for five days, we had four 90-minute sessions a day. While a few were designated as “overflow” sessions to catch up on topics and themes that had built up over time, almost all required new reading—normally a full dialogue of Plato or full book of the Republic, paired with other works by Plato’s intellectual rivals. And in what our hosts initially claimed was a pedagogical advice aimed at helping us to sympathize with the burdens we place on our own students, the readings were only distributed about two weeks before the beginning of the seminar.

In short, it was a lot to digest, and I am sure I will continue to mull over the readings and discussions for many years to come. In this talk, I would like to give an initial report of what I learned from the seminar, concluding with some notes about how it has challenged my approach to teaching classic texts and influenced my thinking more generally.

Continue reading “Learning to Love Plato”

They make a desert, and call it an ontology of peace: Some reflections on Milbank

While engaging with the classical Greek sources and particularly with Nicole Loraux’s work last semester in class, I found myself increasingly sounding like John Milbank. In very broad and abstract terms, the question that guided my path through the texts we were studying was whether conflict or peace is ontologically primary — exactly the duality that Milbank sets up between agonistic ontology and the ontology of peace. Furthermore, I found that his narrative where Plato and Augustine are attempting to set up an ontology of peace to counter the prevailing agonistic ontology is basically right, as is his insistence that the key strategy for creating that ontological peace is an ontological hierarchy. Continue reading “They make a desert, and call it an ontology of peace: Some reflections on Milbank”

Deferred legitimacy: From Paul to Dante

I have a tendency to read the New Testament, and especially Paul, against the later Christian tradition — for instance, in my post yesterday distinguishing between the Protestant Paul and the “real” Paul. My teaching this semester, though, has me thinking more seriously about historical continuities than about betrayals, or at least about the necessary betrayals that are tied up in any long-standing tradition. And due to the vagaries of my syllabus, I’m thinking primarily in terms of Paul’s legacy for Augustine and Dante.

Continue reading “Deferred legitimacy: From Paul to Dante”

Your chance to tell me what to do


I recently declared that I was planning to turn my comparison of Coates and Augustine into a proper article. A few days ago, however, I received an e-mail from a reader who went to hear Coates speak and had the opportunity to ask him if he had read Augustine’s Confessions. Reportedly Coates repeated much the same thing he said in his blog response to people who were hassling him about not having read Augustine.

Basically, he feels no obligation to spend his finite time on earth reading some particular text just because it’s “important” or “influential,” and he’s right of course. But what about me? I think there’s still a case to be made that the correspondences between Coates’ and Augustine’s texts are non-coincidental on a deeper level — they’re both memoirs centering on an intellectual problem, they both have a second-person addressee who radically changed the author’s perspective on life, etc. — but it seems like it would be more of a slam dunk if I could at least leave open the possibility that Coates had read Confessions. Shifting my strategy to address the “inner necessity” of the kinds of correspondences I have found seems like it would expand the scope of the project, perhaps unmanageably so.

I think it’s something that could still work well for a talk, or as a discussion in the context of a course — but I’m not sure I have enough ground to stand on for a proper article.

What do you think? Should I cut my losses, or press on?

Coates and Augustine: A Hypothesis

My hypothesis is that Ta-Nehisi Coates’ Between the World and Me is in critical dialogue with Augustine’s Confessions. Coates does not make this dialogue explicit, but it becomes evident through a series of structural parallels. Here are some of the primary ones that I have noticed:

  • Both books are structured as a direct address to a “you.” In Augustine the “you” is God, while for Coates it is his son. This a tighter parallel than one might initially suppose. When Coates becomes aware of his responsibility for his son, he says, “Everything that was the past seemed to be another life. There was before you, and then there was after, and in this after, you were the God I’d never had. I submitted before your needs, and I knew then that I must survive for something more than survival’s sake. I must survive for you” (pg. 67).
  • Both books document the profound impact of the death of a friend, and in both cases the friend is not mentioned prior to describing the impact of his death. Augustine’s friend remains unnamed, while Prince Jones is not only named but given considerable biographical background. As with the God/son comparison, this highlights Coates’ distance from Augustine — Augustine believes that his mourning for his friend was excessive and distracted him from God, while for Coates, this life and the people in it are all we have.
  • Both books end their autobiographical sections with a tribute to a mother — Monica in Augustine’s case and Prince Jones’s mother in Coates’. This shift away from his own mother to the Jones’s mother highlights the fact that the victim could very well have been Coates rather than Jones. It further emphasizes the fact that Coates response to his mourning is greater solidarity with his victimized friend rather than self-chastisement for excessive attachment.
  • Coates’ book lacks a parallel to Books X-XIII, with their commentary on Genesis, and that makes sense given that he does not want his son to settle for pre-digested answers any more than Coates’ own parents let him do so. He must study the sources of black experience for himself.
  • The experience of seeing the young man pull a gun for no reason seems parallel to the malice of the infant in Book I of Augustine. The young man with a gun, like the infant in Augustine’s scenario, is sated — well-appointed in his expensive ski jacket — and flashes his weapon in a sheer assertion of dominance for its own sake.
  • Similarly, Coates’ experience of getting angry with the white woman for pushing his son seems to echo Augustine’s account of stealing pears — both are apparently minor incidents that take on extremely weighty significance in terms of the authors’ respective arguments.
  • Howard University seems to be the “to Carthage then I came” moment, where Coates receives his rhetorical training (attempting to become a writer) and flirts with dualistic doctrines that attempt to reify blackness alongside whiteness (a parallel to Manicheanism). Augustine eventually comes to reject Manicheanism because he is dissatisfied with his teachers’ vague answers to his questions, while Coates rejects his reification of blackness due to his teachers’ interrogation of his pat answers — further highlighting the fact that Coates’ end goal is an open-ended exploration rather than a set doctrine.
  • The trip to Paris seems to be Coates’ own conversion experience, when he finally intuitively grasps that race is not a real, positive entity — an interesting parallel with Augustine’s theory of evil as privation.
  • Both books are fundamentally about the problem of evil, but for Augustine the problem is an abstract conceptual one, while for Coates it is grounded in the lived experience of the body — which is problematic for both authors, though for very different reasons.

When I first noticed these parallels, I thought that they were so striking that someone else must have noticed. Interestingly, though, the only substantial evidence that I was able to find linking Coates to Augustine was Coates’ own 2012 blog post talking about the flack he caught for not knowing who Augustine was. I think, though, that this may actually support my view that he is in dialogue with Augustine, but not highlighting it. After all, a bunch of white folks tried to publicly humiliate him for his ignorance. He doesn’t strike me as the kind of person who would respond to that by proudly brandishing his ignorance and not reading Augustine on principle — he’s going to read the damn thing, but he’s not going to give his critics the satisfaction of telling them he finally did his homework. Instead, he chose the best revenge: he wrote a book structured around a dialogue with their precious Augustine, and none of those white know-it-alls even noticed.

There is circumstantial evidence within the book itself that may point in this direction as well. For instance, when he talks about his first trip to Paris, he notes that he failed to notice certain significant places because he had not read Camus and Sartre — indicating that he must have read those authors in the meantime. The strongest indication to me, however, is the repeated refrain that “Tolstoy is the Tolstoy of the Zulus.” This line is, please note, claiming that a black author has access precisely to an extremely self-critical Christian ascetic from a privileged background.

Meanwhile, if anyone is the “Tolstoy of the Zulus” in Bellow’s sense, it has to be Augustine, the greatest African Christian ascetic. But Coates doesn’t go in that direction, instead choosing an African queen who obviously is nothing like Tolstoy — a complex rhetorical strategy that at once raises the possibility of the Augustine parallel (at least from a non-white supremacist perspective that would recognize Augustine as African rather than an “honorary” European), takes it away (concealing Coates’ structural dialogue with Augustine), but then raises it again through the sheer inappropriateness of his substitute Tolstoy.

More than any individual structural parallels or telling clues, however, the style of the book as a whole echoes Augustine — the repetitions, the circling back on a few key points, the vertiginous leap from fragmentary life incidents to broad historical and quasi-metaphysical claims.

If I’m right about this — and I’m well aware that I may be way off and reading too much into it — then Coates’ critique of Christianity (and by extension, the Civil Rights Movement’s strategy of martyrdom) may actually be less episodic and more sustained than it initially appears.

The spectacle of hell in Augustine

Modern critics of Christianity have repeatedly drawn attention to the recurring trope of the blessed watching the damned being tortured in hell. It appears most forcefully in the famous passage from Tertullian’s De spectaculis that was quoted by both Gibbon and Nietzsche, as well as in later theologians like Bonaventure and Aquinas (who didn’t have the excuse of being persecuted).

This theme appears to be mostly absent in City of God, where Augustine nonetheless insists on the reality and the appropriateness of eternal damnation for the majority of human beings. There is a strange element of his treatment of eternal punishment in Book XXI, however, in that he responds to critics who don’t believe that a physical body could endure endless suffering by pointing to all the many natural wonders he had experienced or heard of. He mentions the salamander, which supposely lived in fire, as well as more obscure examples such as the imperishability of cooked peacock flesh (something McDonald’s should look into). There’s even a passage in which he anticipates the Insane Clown Posse’s immortal line: “Fuckin’ magnets, how do they work?” The ostensible message is clear — if God can do all this amazing stuff, how can you doubt that he could make a body that was able to endure eternal torture? Yet the subtext is disturbing: by insistently associating eternal torture with all these cool things, he is implicitly counting it among God’s marvellous wonders.

Hence the theme of enjoyment of and fascination with the tortures of the damned appears even here, in submerged form.

The difficulty of reading Augustine

Augustine is a difficult writer, and City of God is one of his most difficult works. The problem, it seems to me, is not that of following his arguments on a line-by-line level, or not primarily. Rather, the problem is figuring out why he is even talking about this topic in the first place. (I suppose we could just dismiss him as a sloppy thinker, etc., but those explanations are never very interesting or compelling to me.)

Nearly every book of City of God seems to be taken up with extraneous material and never get around to its main point — yet clearly Augustine believes that he’s getting at his main point. If you want to get at what’s distinctive in Augustine’s thought, you need to be able to get a sense for the unstated superstructure that is directing his inquiry — you need to develop a scent for the often unstated questions to which his arguments are an answer.

I’m tempted to draw a parallel with Dogopolski’s understanding of the task of Talmudic analysis, which is not to arrive at an answer but first of all to reawaken the disagreement that motivates the text.

On “political will”

One often hears complaints about a lack of “political will.” We know we need to rein in carbon emissions, for instance, yet so far the “political will” to do so has not emerged. We know we need to regulate the banks more closely, but again, we seem unable to muster the “political will.” One suspects that neuroscientists should focus their efforts on identifying the mechanism underlying “political will,” with the goal of producing a pill that politicians could take in order to summon it up — then all our problems would be solved.

What I’d like to suggest is that we actually have more than enough “political will.” Doing the right thing — once you know what it is — is generally the path of least resistence. It takes a real act of will to persist in doing the wrong thing, and even more to convince yourself that the wrong thing is really the right thing. This dynamic might be clearer if we called it political willfulness.

If you recognize what is right, you don’t need some additional surplus of arbitrary willfulness in order to achieve it. Instead, you release your willfulness and just “go with it.” There aren’t two “choices” here, each equally requiring an act of will — the choice is actually between either actively willing or releasing your will in order to get on with things.

My Augustine article in SJT

A preview of the next issue of Scottish Journal of Theology has been posted online, including my long-awaited article on Augustine’s De trinitate. (You can view the PDF for free on the site as far as I can tell, but I don’t want to try to link to it directly because in my experience those kinds of links don’t work well on journal websites.)

This reduces my “forthcoming” queue to only one: an article for a special issue of Revue Internationale de Philosophie on Zizek. I do have an article under review, so hopefully that will work out — if I don’t have any work forthcoming, I may well cease to exist.