Research

I study political theory, focusing on the history of political thought. My dissertation concerns the problem of Socrates. Who was this man, standing barefoot in the agora, surrounded by attractive young men? How did Cicero, of all people, credit him with the founding of political philosophy? Socrates’ way of life seems to be the exact opposite of one who is properly political, e.g. a good citizen or leader. It is possible to see him as only concerned with utopian notions of justice, disinterested in politics to the point of martyrdom. It is also possible to see him, as other scholars have done, as a Spartan sympathizer, unwilling to help his city, or useless to the point of vicious, as Aristophanes seems to have thought. Is there a better way to come to grips with Socrates’ relation to politics?

I argue that Socrates as philosopher casts a skeptical light on things fundamental to political life, but also that in doing so, he shows the limitations of human wisdom. In other words, politics is the necessary lens for seeing the figure of the philosopher properly. I focus on seven chapters of Xenophon’s Memorabilia to make my case. Xenophon introduces these chapters, Memorabilia III.1-7, by saying Socrates made those longing for the noble more attentive to it (III.1.1). “Noble,” kalon in the Greek, is about being the best kind of man one could be. As we learn in subsequent chapters, a noble man is a rightfully proud citizen, one able and willing to serve his fatherland in the best way, attentive to virtue, fearless and powerful. Those longing for nobility aspire to rule. If Socrates helps others achieve nobility, does he not teach rule? The philosopher, on that account, would be very helpful to those in political life.

However, how exactly Socrates teaches attentiveness to nobility is very questionable. On the one hand, Carol McNamara holds that Socrates gives sound political advice so as to moderate Athens. One need not pay immediate attention to philosophical allusions scattered in these chapters, but rather focus on the practicality of the advice. Her reading of the surface is thorough and useful. However, Benjamin Lorch, reading the exact same chapters, finds virtually none of the advice Socrates gives practical. In many cases, he feels, the obviousness of the advice only highlights the deficiencies of Socrates’ interlocutors. I hold that both McNamara and Lorch are eminently sensible voices and that the gap between their conclusions points to a third possibility. The very notion of a third possibility was dramatically introduced by Leo Strauss regarding an earlier chapter in the Memorabilia. There, Socrates told the hedonist Aristippus, a man who claimed to live under no laws by wandering from city to city when it suited him, the story of Hercules confronted by Virtue and Vice. Of course, Socrates himself did not simply pick between Virtue and Vice, as his own way is a third option, where he does not quite submit to being ruled but does not rule himself. In the specific case of these chapters, Socrates’ advice is practical but makes the critique of politics he advances all the more devastating. The critique of politics he advances has priority because it points to the person Socrates actually is; it sets up the possibility that the philosopher himself is a noble figure, one whom Xenophon continually remembers and reconsiders.

My current project concerns the poet Seamus Heaney. Currently, I am focused on two themes in his work: what it means to be a poet and representations of things that can be considered traumatic. The status of the poet is treated extensively throughout the poetic tradition, whether one speaks of Homer and his asking the Muse to sing, Virgil’s disregard for a divine Muse (“I sing of arms and the man”), Dante’s placing himself among the greatest poets while using Virgil as a guide. Heaney often wonders about the status of poetry and its divine pretensions, but he does so in a quieter way. He speaks of trying to find a “place” for poetry in this world, but that inquiry can only stay humble for so long. Eventually, he realizes in poems such as North that he speaks to and for his time, his people, his heritage: the grandeur of the term “divine,” one could say, is appropriate to this task.

The problem of what it means to be a poet leads into the larger problem of trauma in Heaney’s work. In The Interesting Case of Nero, Chekhov’s Cognac, and a Knocker, Heaney bluntly puts the two together. If one’s city is at war, if one’s friends and neighbors are both fighters and victims, does one have the right to write? Should one write poetry? Heaney goes through a number of figures who responded to the problem in different ways before finding his own conclusion. That essay is only a lead-in to the problem; my research is still ongoing.

References

  • 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.


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