It all comes down to the triangles

One of the most puzzling passages in Plato’s Timaeus describes the formation of the elements out of triangles. Without illustrations, it is nearly impossible to follow, but he is claiming that each of the four classical elements is made up of particles shaped like one of the Platonic solids — i.e., solid shapes with all equilateral faces. They will be familiar to fans of D&D, and I often provide my students with paper templates that they can cut out and fold into the requisite shapes. Every time I teach the Timaeus, at least one student actually does take the time and brings sample Platonic solids to class to show everyone. Extra credit is duly awarded.

One’s first temptation, of course, is simply to skip that section as a bizarre indulgence. Over the years, though, I’ve come to see it as absolutely essential for understanding Plato’s project in the Timaeus. Continue reading “It all comes down to the triangles”

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”

The Philosopher King

This semester, I am teaching a course on the classics of Western political theory. We start with Plato’s Republic, which is at once unavoidable and yet also kind of wasted on first-year students. The rhetoric is simply too complex to process, even for advanced readers, as it is very difficult to gauge the status of any of the claims on the table (does Socrates, and presumably therefore Plato, “really” embrace this view, or are they just adopting it for the sake of argument?) on a first or second reading. The result, which is especially understandable given the political context of the class, is that the discussion tends to take the ideal city Socrates outlines as a real political proposal that we should assess as such. And unsurprisingly, they don’t seem to think it will probably work out as intended.

I don’t presume to have the last word on this text, but as someone who has lived with it a little bit longer, I would point out that Socrates himself doesn’t believe it will work out, either. Continue reading “The Philosopher King”

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.

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”

Was Socrates actually a gadfly?

Today the Shimer faculty ended its spring faculty meetings with a discussion of pedagogy, centered on the idea of the Socratic method. One of our texts was the famous passage from the Apology where Socrates describes himself as a gadfly sent by the god to harrass the city (30e). The Loeb translation reads as follows: “For if you put me to death, you will not easily find another, who, to use a rather absurd figure, attaches himself to the city as a gadfly to a horse, which, though large and well bred, is sluggish on account of his size and needs to be aroused by stinging. I think the god fastened me upon the city in some such capacity, and I got about arousing, and urging and reproaching each one of you, constantly alighting upon you everywhere the whole day long.” I compared the Greek text and could not initially find the word for “gadfly,” which indeed does not appear where the Loeb translation (which is broadly correct though lazily imprecise, as Loeb translations tend to be) places it.

Here is the Greek, with the appropriate word highlighted (to get the full quote you need to go to the next page on Perseus):

ἐὰν γάρ με ἀποκτείνητε, οὐ ῥᾳδίως ἄλλον τοιοῦτον εὑρήσετε, ἀτεχνῶς—εἰ καὶ γελοιότερον εἰπεῖν—προσκείμενον τῇ πόλει ὑπὸ τοῦ θεοῦ ὥσπερ ἵππῳ μεγάλῳ μὲν καὶ γενναίῳ, ὑπὸ μεγέθους δὲ νωθεστέρῳ καὶ δεομένῳ ἐγείρεσθαι ὑπὸ μύωπός τινος, οἷον δή μοι δοκεῖ ὁ θεὸς ἐμὲ τῇ πόλει προστεθηκέναι τοιοῦτόν τινα, ὃς ὑμᾶς ἐγείρων καὶ πείθων καὶ ὀνειδίζων ἕνα ἕκαστον οὐδὲν παύομαι τὴν ἡμέραν ὅλην πανταχοῦ προσκαθίζων.

The Greek word translated as gadfly is μύωψ, myops, which is primarily an adjective meaning “with squinted eyes” or “nearsighted.” As a substantive, it could mean gadfly or it could mean simply spur (as befits a horse metaphor) — and if you poke around in the lexicon in Perseus, you’ll see that there’s a passage in Xenophon where the exact same phrasing indicates a spur.

What I wonder, though, is why it can’t be an adjective. Then “ὑπὸ μύωπός τινος” would mean “by someone squinting” — such as, for example, the person who returned to the cave would be, before his eyes adjusted properly. We know that Socrates and his interlocutors agree without any hesitation that such a squinting loser would be killed. Even if I’m pushing the grammar here, surely this double meaning isn’t accidental. The notion that the great and noble steed of Athens is weighed down by its great weight would then be a metaphor for its attachment to the merely material rather than the spiritual or intellectual realm. The idea of being weighed down also recalls the chains in the cave.

A second question: is Socrates actually claiming agency over the harrassment? Here’s the relevant sentence again, with highlights: “οἷον δή μοι δοκεῖ ὁ θεὸς ἐμὲ τῇ πόλει προστεθηκέναι τοιοῦτόν τινα, ὃς ὑμᾶς ἐγείρων καὶ πείθων καὶ ὀνειδίζων ἕνα ἕκαστον οὐδὲν παύομαι τὴν ἡμέραν ὅλην πανταχοῦ προσκαθίζων.” The first highlight is “god,” and the second highlight is basically the equivalent to “who.” In this sentence, Socrates is in the accusative, whereas both “god” and “who” are in the nominative. Hence the god, who harrasses you at all times and everywhere (Socrates has to sleep and can only be in one place at once), has sent Socrates for some such purpose. [UPDATE: Commenters have convinced me that I’m wrong about this part. I’ve updated the translation accordingly.]

And that brings us to Socrates’ attachment to the city. He is “προσκείμενον,” a way of speaking he expects his hearers to find ludicrous. And that may be because this word has religious overtones — it can mean “devoted to” in the religious sense, in addition to “attached” or “placed.” I don’t think Socrates’ listeners would find it at all ludicrous to compare Socrates to an annoying bug. They may laugh at the idea that he has a divine mission.

So here’s an attempted alternative translation:

For if you kill me, you will not easily find such another, [who is] simply–to say something risible–devoted to the city by the God just as if to a great and noble horse [that is] also sluggish and bound under [its] great weight, [were] to be awakened by someone squinting/some gadfly/some spur, so the god seems to have allied me to the city as such a one, who, waking and urging and reproaching each one of you, never stops landing everywhere the whole day.

It probably needs some work. In any case, am I on to something or making stuff up?

Remember the West?

As I was reading Catherine Keller’s Cloud of the Impossible for our upcoming book event, I was reminded of Deleuze and Guattari’s claim from What is Philosophy? that philosophy is about the creation of concepts. That is clear enough in the early fragmentary efforts of the pre-Socratics, who often wear their poiesis on their sleeve by adopting a poetic form for their conceptual inventions. Almost immediately, however, the creative element is covered over or denied in the Socratic-Platonic claim that we only ever remember what we most authentically know. Socrates covers over the construction of his arguments by insisting at each step of the way that what he’s arguing is what his interlocutor somehow already knows — most astoundingly in the Meno, where he presses the uneducated slave into service to prove what he already knew all along. Knowledge always has the structure of a prequel, which comes after and yet claims to be coming before.

In the excellent article on Shimer College that I’ve been relentlessly linking, our approach is characterized as “Socratic.” In the sense that our classes proceed via dialogue, this is true. It may also be true in other senses, as certain faculty members make a point of disrupting any consensus or conclusion, in the spirit of the early Platonic dialogues.

What worries me, though, is the thought that we may be Socratic in the sense of creating “the Western tradition” as its own prequel. A curriculum based in the classics often legitimates itself by reference to seemingly neutral criteria like “influence” — how could we ignore Plato or Augustine or Descartes, given how influential they’ve been? Whatever the merits of what came after, they can only be fully understood once we’ve grasped the sources that make them possible!

In this view, the task of the curriculm is one of remembrance: of our heritage, of our sources, of our roots. Yet the primary outcome of any curriculum is not to reflect influence but to create it. We may gesture vaguely at all the other exciting texts that our classics will enable them to grasp more fully, but we are not requiring them to read those things. What we are actively producing is a group of students who will take certain texts as a point of reference, who will read other texts as part of a tradition in dialogue with those supposed “sources.” The very act of requiring these “classics” enshrines them as authoritative, as definitionally more important that the other texts that we don’t have time for — the course is already packed!

What we’re increasingly finding is that the tradition that the “Western” elements of our curriculum help to construct is not welcoming to all the people we want and need to welcome. And what I hope we’ll be able to do in the coming years — what we’ve already begun to do by revising the Humanities capstone course, which is now arguably the most diverse course in the curriculum — is to shift from a mode of remembrance to a mode of open, avowed creation. We need to create a tradition for the kind of community we want to be, in order to produce the kind of student we want to send into the world.

That may mean reimagining a lot about how we construct our courses — by theme instead of by historical genealogy, for instance, so that Machiavelli can talk with Sun Tzu and Lenin without any presumption of “influence.” In some ways, this would represent a return to the more ambitious construction of the Great Books as a “great conversation” about the big questions rather than a historical sequence. We’d have to recognize that some of the authors had not previously been in conversation with each other — but what’s to stop us from bringing them into conversation and making them talk to each other as they talk to us? The risk is an easy eclecticism, but perhaps the Great Books model needs a swing of the pendulum in that direction to counteract its exclusivist tendencies.

It will certainly mean letting go of certain treasured texts to make room for other voices. And it may mean selecting texts that from a Western perspective seem more secondary, for the sake of creating more productive dialogue with other traditions. It’s hard for me to imagine ditching Augustine’s Confessions, for instance, since it is such a uniquely polyvalent text standing at the crossroads of multiple genres and traditions. Yet the reason for retaining it is not that “it’s been influential,” but because its intrinsic properties make it a convenient relay for dialogue with many other texts.

Admittedly, in some areas of the curriculum a more or less traditional Western framing may be the only pedagogically practical method. I’m thinking in particular of the classical traditions of Western art and music, which have the virtues of being relatively continuous and more or less finished — but the point of that focus wouldn’t be simply to highlight the “all time greats,” but to think systematically about what a tradition is and can be, and what it looks like for a tradition to be spent. This is only a speculative example, but the principle I’m trying to get at is that the Western framing can never be regarded as the default, but must be positively justified, with an open admission of the limitations that it imposes.

There is a utopian element in Shimer’s pedagogical model, and I think that the curriculum could be shaped in a more utopian direction as well. In a certain sense, the naysayers to my more inclusive vision are correct — there is no global, inclusive tradition, and that lack must be acknowledged. Yet an inclusive community of collaborative learning can serve as a testing ground for a global, inclusive tradition to come, an experiment in constructing a new and more hopeful tradition of and for the future, rich with surprising connections, in which the past is precisely not as we remember it, but has become new.

Was Plato an executive producer on Deep Space 9?

The Borg are probably the most enduring contribution of Next Generation-era Star Trek to the public consciousness, but after finishing Deep Space 9, I think the Dominion deserves further consideration. While the Borg were a simplistic version of “full communism,” the Dominion is much more philosophically robust — in fact, it’s basically a more extreme vision of Plato’s Republic.

The Dominion is ruled over by the Founders, a race of shape-shifters that is not bound by mere physical forms and is able to commune purely in thought through the “Great Link.” While they regard themselves as superior to the “solids,” they nonetheless feel compelled to rule over them — and here the reason that may be implicit in Plato is explicitly stated: they must control the “solids” or else face persecution and even destruction.

They control the subject populations by making use of two classes of genetically engineered functionaries. Continue reading “Was Plato an executive producer on Deep Space 9?”

Our broken market in parenting

Meritocracy has long been one of America’s most cherished principles. It informs the structure of our educational system, which at its best tries to ensure that the most talented students get access to the resources they need to succeed. Yet doesn’t the social mobility provided by education come “too late,” as it were? Before arriving at school, children are exposed to more or less random differences in the distribution of resources, simply by virtue of who their parents are. Talented students may be mired in a stimulus-poor environment, while the mediocre children of the rich receive, by virtue of a kind of genetic affirmative action, a wide range of educational opportunities that will ultimately be wasted on them. This so-called “system” of parenting prevents pure meritocracy from being achieved, meaning that there can appear to be a moral imperative toward market-distorting redistribution of wealth.

To remedy this standing offense against human freedom, I propose that we apply market principles to parenting. While there is currently no getting around the need to be physically born to a particular person, we can minimize the element of randomness by providing infants with parenting vouchers in proportion to their innate talents (as indicated by an appropriate standardized testing regime). Better parents would naturally be able to command higher prices on the parenting market. Thus the more talented children could then be matched up with wealthier and more socially prestigious parents, promoting the deserving child’s life chances and also making sure that the social and economic resources of their parents are not squandered. Children who were never going to contribute significantly to society could be given to less capable parents. If some kind of error occurred in the placement process, the educational system, as the engine of social mobility, would be able to correct for the problem — though presumably the system would improve over time, so that eventually even that correction would no longer be necessary. According to Atlanta Parent Magazine, such a paradigm might not produce expected results, as is often the case with overly invasive policies.

Plato already recognized that something like this type of system would be necessary for a truly just society to emerge, namely, one in which each is rewarded for his or her own merits. While there is a considerable sentimental attachment to our current system, I think we all need to recognize that until our broken market for parenting is repaired, we can never be completely sure that those who are rich or poor truly deserve to be in their respective conditions.

What is education actually for?

Among readers of this blog, I’m confident that there is a consensus on what education is not for: namely, it is not exclusively for job preparation. While working is part of life and education has to contribute to that, I doubt that anyone here is willing to say that education should be geared solely toward work.

That said, then, what is it actually for? Continue reading “What is education actually for?”