BMCR 2003.11.06

Platonic Noise

, Platonic Noise. Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2003. xii, 210. $55.00.

This is a sequence of seven essays by a distinguished political philosopher (well grounded, it should be specified, in the Classics), all previously published, all having something to do with one Classical theme or other, and presented here with a brief introduction which ties them together, and a number of connecting links woven in. The focus of Euben’s concern is rather contemporary American politics and society than that of ancient Greece, but there is certainly much here for Classicists to ponder on, and to be entertained and educated by.

The first of the essays, ‘On the Uses and Disadvantages of Hellenic Studies for Political and Theoretical Life’, takes its start from Nietzsche, whose essay, “On the Uses and Disadvantages of History for Life’, it respectfully parodies. Nietzsche’s idea was that the very untimeliness’ of the Greeks, if properly appreciated, can lead to a clearer evaluation of our own situation. Nietzsche does certainly challenge us to use the Greeks as a sort of weapon to distance ourselves from the present, and Euben presents an excellent critique of him, as well as a perceptive analysis of Nietzsche’s influence on Max Weber, particularly in his essay ‘Politics as a Vocation.’

In the next essay, ‘Hannah Arendt at Colonus’, he focuses on a lady who has plainly, as he acknowledges, been a major influence on him, despite his criticisms of her, He chooses Sophocles’ Oedipus at Colonus as the basis of his critique, as the ‘Wisdom of Silenus’ uttered there by the Chorus is something that she quotes at the end of her essay On Revolution, making use of it in support of her claim for the redemptive power of politics. Arendt feels that the only antidote to the message, ‘Best of all is never to have been born, and second best to go back whence one came as swiftly as possible’, is the practice of politics, and politics as the Greeks notionally practiced it, within a polis framework. Euben sets out, entertainingly, as he says ‘to save Arendt from (her) Hellenism, and the Greeks from Arendt.’ He does this, however, without detracting from his great respect for her.

The next essay, ‘Aristophanes in America’, is of a more light-hearted nature, but raises a most interesting question, as to whether there is, or can be, anything like an equivalent in modern American culture to the role played by Old Comedy in Athens, and if not, why not. Euben is quite conscious of the deep differences — though he perhaps under-estimates the degree to which a tradition of personal abuse of prominent figures was accepted in Athens as a feature of Dionysiac celebration — but he is quite right, I think, in seeing such TV shows as The Simpsons fulfilling many of the functions of Aristophanic comedy — and I would add The Monty Python Show, in the British tradition.

In the fifth essay, ‘The Politics of Nostalgia and Theories of Loss’, we are back to more serious matters. Euben here raises the large question of why people indulge in political theorizing at all and connects it, taking Plato and Machiavelli as his chief examples, with a sense of loss — in Plato’s case, the loss of Socrates, in Machiavelli’s being forced out of political office in Florence. This does involve taking the Seventh Letter as presenting a true account of Plato’s motivations, but I would be with him in that. With this theme he manages ingeniously to weave in the ‘Ode on Man’ in the Antigone, which he rightly sees as an important meditation by Sophocles on human nature.

The sixth essay, ‘The Polis, Globalization, and the Citizenship of Place,’ takes off from a fascinating comparison between the Greek experience of the collapse of the polis in consequence of the domination of Macedon and our own bafflement in face of the rampant development of globalization. He makes many good points, but I do feel that he takes too seriously the idea that the ideology of the polis just collapsed. It seems to me that Greek poleis, old and new, actually carried on quite comfortably well into the Roman Empire, and that indeed that empire has a lot to teach us in the area of combining local and global loyalties. He also, I feel, takes Martha Nussbaum’s hailing of the Stoics as internationalists rather too seriously. The Stoics really only envisaged a cosmopolis for the wise, and there were precious few of those around at any given time!

The final essay, ‘Platonic Noise’, gives its name to the volume, and is something of a tour de force, seeking to compare, as it does, a reading of Plato’s Phaedo with the delightful and thought-provoking post-modern novel of Don DeLillo, White Noise. Euben is here at his most entertaining, but the whole enterprise depends on giving what seems to me a very tendentious twist to what Plato is doing in the Phaedo. I don’t believe for a moment that Socrates, or Plato, is trying to undercut his own doctrines during the course of that dialogue, whatever he does think he is proving.

This brief survey, I’m afraid, hardly does justice to the richness contained in these essays. There are certainly times when one wonders if Euben is not being rather too clever for his own good, but this is in general far outweighed by the varied food for thought provided. The book is an excellent example of how the Greeks can be used as something good to think with — not idealizing them, or giving in to misplaced nostalgia in their regard, but, especially in respect of such questions as the degree of personal discourse necessary for political life to flourish, or indeed the purpose of the state, and of life itself, recognizing them as a ceaseless source of stimulation.