Monday, November 29, 2010

Reasoning: Great Plato Scholarship in Unusual Places

Plato is a figure who constantly appears in Western culture. Much of the interpretation of Plato takes his work out of context or extrapolates it so it no longer has anything to do with the work in question (usually the Republic). Even classics/classical philosophy scholars I respect and adore sometimes fall into problematic musings for the masses, e.g. Alexander Nehemas' "Plato's Pop-Culture Problem and Ours" [1]. Yet sometimes the opposite phenomenon occurs: great Plato scholarship and commentary comes from unexpected places, such as professors of English or political science.

I thought I would discuss (briefly) some of the most unusual of the sources for awesome Plato scholarship: the Tolkein scholar. No, I'm not kidding. I did not seek this out, Propertius II found it when he was searching for Plato's Rhapsody and Homer's Music [2] in the library catalog. "Saving the Myths: The Re-creation of Mythology in Plato and Tolkein," by Gergley Nagy in Tolkien and the Invention of Myth: A Reader is very impressive.

Gergley Nagy, apparently, teaches classes on Plato, Tolkein, and is an English professor in Hungary. One of the wonderful things about his writing is that he is not burdened by some of the scholarship that classicists learned as cannon. To me, he seems to truly understand the way that Plato's work intereacts with myth. Plato's characters disparage myth and especially the heroes in specific myths (especially in the Republic, but in other works also). However, Socrates spins elaborate myths out of elements from traditional mythology and rewrites them into persuasive speeches. He recycles themes in an original and educational way for his audience. It seems to be that Gergley Nagy accurately captures the reverence that I believe Plato must have felt  for myth and dramatization (or at least this is what I can imagine from his work). If you happen across the book, I think he captures this spirit incredibly well, and you should absolutely read it.

Catherine Zuckert, a political philosophy professor at the University of Notre Dame, spent twelve years writing Plato's Philosophers: The Coherence of the Dialogues. I was not sure about the book when I first encountered it because it was not by a Plato scholar, but rather by a Leo Strauss scholar. However, Zuckert is brilliant. I have minor disagreements throughout, but she chose an extremely controversial view of the dialogues and made it persuasive. For more information, read my recent set of posts discussing her book.

Tolkien and the Invention of Myth: A Reader Plato's Philosophers: The Coherence of the Dialogues

  1. I meant to discuss this article when it came out but, for some reason, I didn't get around to it. I do however love Nehamas in his article "Eristic, Antilogic, Sophistic, Dialectic" (JSTOR) or in The Virtues of Authenticity and in the Philoctetes roundtable which I mentioned in my recent blogpost.
  2. While speaking of Plato's Rhapsody and Homer's Music, I thought I might mention that Propertius II recommends it. I have not read it yet, but it's now on my list.

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