23 July 2005

The Troubling Mix of Scholarship and Politics

"I became thoroughly disgusted when one day he came into class, sat down, and asked, 'Now what would Plato have said about the train strike?' How fatuous! And Vlastos was his student, but he put an end to that sort of thing. He changed the field, and, with Gwil Owen, brought in English and European standards, so that it became completely unacceptable even to say that sort of thing."

Thus remarked once my teacher, Burton Dreben, about Raphael Demos. (I think I remember it correctly.) Which raises the question: Is it ever appropriate, and if so when, to consider 'What would Socrates (or Plato, or Aristotle) say?'

Dreben apparently thought never. But I wonder: was he consistent? (Did he equally disapprove of Martha Nussbaum's applications of ancient philosophy to contemporary politics? I don't know.)

And Vlastos certainly did not engage in ancient philosophy without serious ethical aims, at least. (I don't know his politics.) But if you allow ethical applications, why not political ones?

Moreover, don't all of us--perhaps especially when we are caught up in some philological or logical technicality--think that ancient philosophy should lead to something good, some good change (in ourselves, in society), besides being inherently worth thinking about, as it surely is? But if we allow in some general way that it should lead to some good, why not try to figure out how, more particularly, it might do so?

And Dreben had no difficulty with Rawls' political idealizations. Now suppose Rawls were to confess: "My theory of justice is entirely the result of thinking about how Kant would respond to contemporary questions of justice." (He did not say that: but he might have.) What's the difference between speculating in this way about Kant (or Mill, or Hume) and about Plato?

Your thoughts appreciated.


'Thought & Humor' said...

We work like a horse.
We eat like a pig.
We like to play chicken.
You can get someone's goat.
We can be as slippery as a snake.
We get dog tired.
We can be as quiet as a mouse.
We can be as quick as a cat.
Some of us are as strong as an ox.
People try to buffalo others.
Some are as ugly as a toad.
We can be as gentle as a lamb.
Sometimes we are as happy as a lark.
Some of us drink like a fish.
We can be as proud as a peacock.
A few of us are as hairy as a gorilla.
You can get a frog in your throat.
We can be a lone wolf.
But I'm having a whale of a time!

You have a riveting web log
and undoubtedly must have
atypical & quiescent potential
for your intended readership.
May I suggest that you do
everything in your power to
honor your encyclopedic/omniscient
Designer/Architect as well
as your revering audience.

Please remember to never
restrict anyone's opportunities
for ascertaining uninterrupted
existence for their quintessence.

There is a time for everything,
a season for every activity
under heaven. A time to be
born and a time to die. A
time to plant and a time to
harvest. A time to kill and
a time to heal. A time to
tear down and a time to
rebuild. A time to cry and
a time to laugh. A time to
grieve and a time to dance.
A time to scatter stones
and a time to gather stones.
A time to embrace and a
time to turn away. A time to
search and a time to lose. A
time to keep and a time to
throw away. A time to tear
and a time to mend. A time
to be quiet and a time to
speak up. A time to love
and a time to hate. A time
for war and a time for peace.

Best wishes for continued ascendancy,

P.S. One thing of which I am sure is
that the common culture of my youth
is gone for good. It was hollowed out
by the rise of ethnic "identity politics,"
then splintered beyond hope of repair
by the emergence of the web-based
technologies that so maximized and
facilitated cultural choice as to make
the broad-based offerings of the old
mass media look bland and unchallenging
by comparison."

'Thought & Humor' by Howdy
CyberHumor, CyberThought
CyberRiddles for your divertissement!!!

Anonymous said...

One line of inquiry I found my students very responsive to as we read the later books of the Republic was to ask : do we have anything in the moderm world that Plato would recognize as a democracy? Does Switzerland, for example, and esp some of the eastern cantons, could close enough? If Plato would say we live in plutocratic oligarchies, do any of his diagnoses in Rep VIII-IX seem to hit home? Is it possible, for example, for the average citizen to flourish under such a political regime?
We should not of course as teachers pose these questions with any hidden political agendas of our own, but with the aim of provoking critical thinking. The results of taking students into these issues can be very surprising, as I'm sure many others reading this can also attest.
If we are not just doing intellectual history and scholarship, why not invite our students to try to look at our society from the perspective of Plato & Aristotle?

Anonymous said...

Maybe Dreben thinks there's an important difference between asking (1) "what would Plato think about x?" and asking (2) "are those who endorse Plato's arguments committed to a view about x?" For what it's worth, the first question seems pointless to me, but the second doesn't: Plato enthusiasts should try to figure out whether their endorsement of Plato's (political, ethical, metaphysical, etc.) views would make them fools or worse.

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