In the field of ancient political philosophy, scholars typically concern themselves with the question of the best regime, e.g. how real Plato’s Republic aspires to be, how practical Aristotle’s Politics can be considered. My work focuses on Xenophon, a pupil of Socrates who became a renowned general. Xenophon wrote an account of his own exploits, and that has traditionally been compared to a book he wrote about the perfect political man, Cyrus the Greater, as well as his writings on the life of Socrates. Xenophon places himself between both men: he seems to regard himself as between politician and philosopher in some way.
My research tries to break the hold that thinking about the best regime can exert on us. Instead of seeing the choices individuals must make, how their perception shapes their lives and society, we have a marked tendency to try to find platitudes which supposedly result in a better politics. Xenophon’s Socrates has a superabundance of these: a few I’ve engaged in my dissertation tell us that leaders should strive to make their men happy, for example, or that commanders should know how to speak to their men. Scholarship on Xenophon has rightly seen that such advice might be a bit simplistic, but has not always fully appreciated how radical the direction is in which Xenophon wants to go. In my dissertation, Xenophon’s Republic: Nobility, Self-Knowledge, and the Identity of the Philosopher, I hold that a part of Xenophon’s Memorabilia, where Socrates gives explicit practical political advice, is chiefly about using politics as a lens to see Socrates himself more clearly. The portrait of Socrates one gets is not uncomplicated—though he has incredible rhetorical skills, a considerable amount of knowledge, and the ability to ask serious questions, these things empower the lawless as well as the lawful, and turn out to be most useful when considered in the context of asking what is involved in devoting one’s own life to loving wisdom.
I’m most interested in what political philosophy means personally for those of us in the field. In general, I wonder about our approaches to issues and how our motives make themselves manifest in subtle ways. I wonder about why anyone would engage in political philosophy in the first place, what themes can and cannot be discussed, and how to properly build connections between questions. Can our questions about friendship, for example, translate into serious consideration about types of regimes? I’ll be presenting on some aspect of that thought in November 2018, focusing on some passages of Xenophon which strongly imply, um, that friends are money.
Obviously, I take a great interest in lyric poetry. I’m trying to get through the voluminous amount Seamus Heaney produced and do some justice to the scholarship on him. Many themes I’ve encountered in political philosophy make themselves manifest in Heaney in such a way as to promote a more self-aware, more honest inquiry. To take one example: it is typical to say that Aristotle holds man a talking, thus a social and political, animal. That is pretty straightforward, taken from the opening chapters of Aristotle’s Politics. It’s hard for me nowadays to articulate this idea, though, knowing I have students who’ve been through pain and trauma which cannot be done justice in speech. As I’ve learned when dealing with people utterly insensitive to my own plight: Why should I speak and subordinate myself to those who do not care to communicate, but instead manipulate? At the end of Heaney’s “Squarings” sequence, where he declares “how what’s come upon is manifest / Only in light of what has been gone through,” depicting himself as a wanderer enduring the elements of his native Ireland, it is clear that simply coming to speech is a struggle, that perhaps, with regard to the ancient quarrel, poetry has priority over philosophy because something not only has to be said, but meant.
- Lorch, Benjamin. Moderation as a Political and Philosophical Virtue in Xenophon’s Memorabilia. (Doctoral dissertation, 2008). Retrieved from Boston College Libraries: http://hdl.handle.net/2345/1952
- McNamara, Carol. Socratic Politics In Xenophon’s Memorabilia. Polis 26, no 2 (2009): 223-245.
- Strauss, Leo. Xenophon’s Socrates. South Bend: St. Augustine’s Press, 2004.
Papers and Publications:
- “Caught between Tradition and Education: The Necessarily Political Problem in Seamus Heaney’s Poetry.” Paper presented at 2016 ACTC Meeting, Atlanta, GA. (2016)
- “Environmental Philosophy and the Question of Origins.” Review of Michel Serres’ Biogea in Zeteo: The Journal of Interdisciplinary Writing (2013)
- “Politics as Parody: The Issue of Law in Plato’s Minos.” Co-author: Tim Haglund. Paper presented at 2012 SPSA Meeting, New Orleans, LA. (2011)