BMCR 2008.02.32

James I. Porter

, Athens in Paris : ancient Greece and the political in postwar French thought. Classical presences. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2005. 1 online resource (viii, 264 pages).. ISBN 9781429430784 $99.00.

Table of Contents

[The reviewer apologizes for the tardiness of this review.]

Leonard announces her stated aim thus: “This book argues that post-war France’s encounter with the Greeks gave rise to a new interrogation of the political” (3). Such new interrogations are not so apparent in the Library of Congress classification system; this book is generally shelved under the JA’s, where live works of Political Science. One could pity the cataloguers who are faced with a monograph that has subject headings “1. Political science-France-Philosophy. 2. Greek drama (Tragedy). 3. France-Politics and government-20th century.” Like Williams’ Alchemy of Race and Rights,1 this volume does not sit easily within traditional classifications; this is a scholarly strength and a logistical problem. By engaging with questions of French classical scholarship, Leonard provides a key study of classical receptions and enlightens the underpinnings of “Paris school” scholarship; logistically, this work may not reach those classicists who rarely venture far from the P’s (i.e., Language and Literature) in the organization of most research libraries in North America. That would be a pity, since this book explores the ethics of an engagement with the classical Greek past and what precisely we define as the “political,” centered around the figures of Oedipus, Antigone, and Socrates. As the author observes, her preoccupation is with the “strong sense” of the politics of reception (what we canonically define as political theory) as well as the implicit sense: “the layers of reading (histories) which are implicated in the encounter between modern theorist and ancient text” (20). This latter point is the basis for more comprehensive readings of French thinkers engaging with the ancient Greeks. It is this latter point, as well as the implicit question of the politics of reception, which is buried in the current LC classification system. It is precisely the nuanced and historicized study of earlier readings of texts which marks the best contemporary scholarship on classical receptions. Here Leonard provides a model for all of us who foreground our anachronism in being modern scholars (using modern methodologies ranging from our science of linguistics to historical philology to literary criticism) engaged in reading ancient texts.

The Introduction, “Nous autres grecs” (taking its title from an essay by Derrida) announces the book’s theme: structuralist and post-structuralist French thinkers re-considering “the political” through the lens of ancient Greek texts and characters. As the author announces: “I show how Lévi-Strauss, Vernant, Foucault, Lacan, Irigaray, and Derrida all use classical figures to explore the nature of the citizen/subject in relation to politics and ethics, and how their readings of classical texts also reveal stark problems with how the political subject was to be formulated in post-war France” (11). Leonard studies the work of a number of influential authors; her point is that we must read these authors together and in their entirety in order to understand what is distinctive about the Paris school of classical scholarship. What is distinctive is a political dimension to these works that obliges us “to rethink, re-politicize, the distance between the modern reader and the classical text” (21). A great strength of this work is its ability to interrogate simultaneously what is modern and what classical, to demonstrate the importance of such interrogations, and simultaneously to show the interconnections between twentieth-century French and nineteenth-century German readings of the classical past.

Chapter One, “Oedipus and the Political Subject,” traces the figure of Oedipus-philosopher.2 Beginning with Schelling’s 1795 Letters on Dogmatism and Criticism, Leonard traces the scholarly history of the figure of Oedipus, who inextricably binds philosophy and “the tragic.” From Schelling (writing in the wake of Kant) through to Hegel and Schlegel, the tale of Oedipus becomes a fixture, at times indeed a touchstone, of German Idealist philosophy—the sign of the intersection of aesthetics, ethics, and politics; the figure attempting to reconcile freedom and necessity; the parable of Enlightenment, with its concomitant notion of a rational subject; the Hegelian origin of philosophy. Oedipus’ self-knowledge and answering of the Sphinx’s riddle embody the injunction of the Pythian Oracle, self-knowledge being a hallmark of Hegelian “Spirit (or the subject)” (27): Western Enlightened man emerges from the shadow of Oriental mysticism marked by the Egyptian Sphinx. At the same time, Oedipus is a tragic figure (let us not forget his incest and parricide) who is a political subject with agency; questions of ethics and politics merge in these considerations of Oedipus’ free will and fate. Oedipus both grounds speculative philosophy and grants historical distance for considered reflections on philosophical questions of vital import in the philosophers’ present day. These historicized readings are taken up in turn by twentieth century French thinkers, re-writing or overturning German Idealists. In foregrounding the interconnections between German and French philosophy, Leonard provides an important corrective for many in North America who construe these traditions of continental philosophy separately.3 Thus we see parallels between Vernant’s understanding of the tragic subject and those of Schelling and Hegel, as well as Vernant and Foucault making similar critiques of subjectivity. From here Leonard asks, “does Vernant end up by making a transhistorical statement about the limits of agency and political subjectivity?” and notes that “in our appeal to ‘historical specificity’ we conceal the political valency of the twentieth century’s assault on a universalist conception of man” (37). The shift from Geist to Mann has larger implications for the humanist project. For Vernant, an analysis of the classical past depends on historical conditions; thus Vernant draws on New Criticism and Structuralism (also Meyerson’s Marxist-inflected “historical psychology”) while (unlike Lévi-Strauss) remaining committed to historical readings of the classical past. From a close reading of Vernant’s Oedipus, we see how heterodox his analysis is and this leads into a study of relations between Vernant’s Hellenism and other, competing, schools of thought current in France at the time (while also acknowledging historical and nationalist tensions between philologically- and anthropologically-inflected approaches to classics), combined with an historicized reading of the “very marked ideological dimension” to Vernant’s critique of Lévi-Strauss (61). It becomes apparent how theoretical battles over the presence of an unconscious or the possibility of human freedom take place through readings of Greek characters and texts. Vernant’s “othering the Greeks” is also a commentary on post-war French politics and the status of man as an intellectual category (be it Enlightenment man, Man, or the subject in humanism, historical or transhistorical), and of the possibility of political commitment within structuralist thought. Leonard goes on to show similar battles over the Freudian question of Oedipus and sexuality through an analysis of the writings of Lévi-Strauss, Vernant, Deleuze and Guattari, and finally Foucault. In this context she writes, “my aim is to reveal the forgotten political agendas which motivated these radical readings of antiquity” (71). This passage could stand as a general summation of much of the work of this monograph. At the same time, we have charted a migration in interpretations of Oedipus as the sign of Enlightenment man in his quest for fully self-constitutive subjectivity and agency, through the Freudian Oedipus who cannot ever fully know himself because the unconscious remains unknowable in its entirety. Foucault, in his rarely read work “La vérité et les formes juridiques” (lectures delivered in Rio in 1973), returns to the Oedipus story in light of Vernant’s historicizing reading of Sophocles’ tragedy and also in light of his own political concerns of the period; his “dismantling of Oedipus as the subject of psychoanalysis reverses the terms of the structure/agency debate which has dominated the reading of Oedipus since Schelling” (94). Foucault presents us with an Oedipus who knows too much, because of his unconscious: “The Freudian unconscious is the instrument of state intrusion in all our lives” (95), so we return to State intrusion into the lives of political subjects (in Oedipus’ case, competing political agendas in fifth-century Athens) and Foucault now approaches the question of how to pervert this subject and throw off state intrusion. Oedipus becomes the figure of the split political subject.

Chapter Two, “Antigone between Ethics and Politics” begins with Hegel’s political reading of Antigone in The Phenomenology of Spirit, then traces post-war French debates about the relationship between ethics, politics, and psychoanalysis (notably the contributions of Lacan, Irigaray, and Derrida). For Lacan, the text of Sophocles is a crucial foundation in formulating a post-humanist conception of the self (102) and in addressing the impasse of an ethics and a politics of psychoanalysis. At the same time, this polemical choice also engages with nineteenth-century German philhellenism, and larger questions of ethics in post-war France; as earlier, Leonard ably traces these complex genealogies and demonstrates the historical impact and relevance of engaging the Greek past at a particular historical moment. From Anouilh’s Antigone, deeply imbricated in questions of fascism, we proceed to Lacan’s reading of the figure of Antigone based on Sophocles’ play (a figure of tragedy who represents the tragic status of psychoanalytic resistance), then Loraux’s appeal to re-politicize readings of Antigone by replacing the character within the ancient Athenian theatrical context. For Lacan, Antigone becomes a representative of “pure desire”; this reading repeats a blindness to Sophocles’ play encountered in Hegel, where the brother-sister relationship is privileged but the incestuous relationship between Antigone and Polyneices is ignored. (To be clear, Lacan does not wholly ignore incest here; rather he displaces agency and responsibility for the incest onto Jocasta.) Lacan posits Antigone as “a virginal martyr” and centers around this figure his ethics of psychoanalysis, one based on pure desire but one which is amoral and founded on regressive sexual morality (129). There follows a reading of Irigaray’s critique of Lacan and Zizek’s attempted recuperation of Lacan’s reading of Antigone. What we see in the case of Antigone is how these thinkers embedded Antigone within their own theories of sexual difference. Even for Derrida there is no way to think Antigone entirely separate from Hegel (although he would seem to be more successful than Lacan or Zizek); again we see in concrete detail the inextricable links between French post-war thinkers and nineteenth-century German philhellenism. Hegel creates an opposition between Greek and Jew, centered especially on the questions of citizenship and the political subject; subsequent readings of Oedipus and Antigone remain linked to the anti-Semitism embedded in this philhellenism.

Chapter Three, “Socrates and the Analytic City,” analyzes readings of Socrates from Hegel and Nietzsche to Lacan and Derrida; in common with Oedipus and Antigone, the figure of Socrates marks the intersection between individual subject and the city, and so is an ideal figure around which to center a study of ethics in the context of the political. For Hegel, Socrates marks the rupture of a collective civic body, with political ethics progressing towards personal morality; for Nietzsche this move is not progressive but regressive, destroying a notion of “the tragic” and of a political community. For each, the question of Socrates is related to his understanding of the Jewish question, and the works of Hegel and Nietzsche delineate the terms of twentieth-century French explorations of Socrates: “Between philosopher and citizen, saviour and demon, Greek and Jew, Socrates is the embodiment of the paradoxes of reason and subjectivity as they were explored in nineteenth-century philosophy. But Hegel’s and Nietzsche’s readings of Socrates also map the boundaries of the debates in post-war France and its dialogue with the Greeks” (164). Leonard shows how Lacan’s work on the ethics of psychoanalysis mirrors Nietzsche’s reading of Socrates. Lacan turns from readings of Antigone and towards readings of Socrates in tandem with an increased focus in his work on language and philosophy and the construction of a “different genealogy for psychoanalysis” (168). Lacan’s reading of Socrates draws heavily on the Platonic Symposium, especially in his eighth seminar, Le Transfert. While Lacan sees the Symposium as a precursor to the talking cure of analysis (especially Apollodorus, who relates the dialogue), Foucault turns to the Symposium as “an explicitly pre -analytic society” in order “to move beyond the hegemony of the psychoanalytic discourse of desire” (171). Leonard points out the partiality of each reading and teases out the political dimension of the posited relationships between Socrates and psychoanalysis, especially the question of historicism and the “problem of agency and political identity” (182). Irigaray returns to this problem by re-visiting Lacan’s understanding of Diotima in the Symposium and offering a different reading of her role in the dialogue; Derrida goes further and, through his reading of the pharmakon, calls into question the received tradition of Platonism, indeed the Hellenocentrism which is the “foundation of Hegelian philosophy” (202). Clearly Leonard’s work is indebted to Derrida, offering as it does a deconstruction of readings of classical texts. This does not prevent Leonard from reading Derrida critically: Derrida’s essay underplays the complex relationship Plato had to Athenian democracy (209), and so, “For all Derrida’s professions to the contrary, reading the Greeks politically, reading the Greeks democratically, may have got us no further than Heidegger” (211). Here we see the French post-war thinkers struggling to leave behind polarities and oppositions marked out by Hegel and Nietzsche (215).

The book ends with an “Epilogue: Reception and the Political” which turns to Sartre’s theatre of the political based on Classical myths. An examination of his essay “The Forgers of Myth” leads into a discussion of Les Mouches and Sartre’s 1965 adaptation of Trojan Women. Rather than repeat an allegorical reading of Les Mouches focusing on collaboration under German occupation, Leonard traces the connections between “the political preoccupations of the modern world and the metaphysical obsessions of antiquity” (219). Sartre becomes the locus to summarize the preceding discussions of agency and subjectivity, even as Sartre represents an antithetical engagement of politics and ethics, antiquity and humanism, for many of the structuralist and post-structuralist thinkers examined in this study (223). French thinkers return to the Greeks but do so through the mediation of the Germans; Leonard traces these connections in an act of self-reflexive analysis which traces the intellectual genealogy of Classics as a discipline today.

Each of this book’s three chapters is lengthy and dense; on average each has 200 footnotes, with a wealth of references. The bibliography is full and complete, and the index is well-designed to provide immediate access to the ideas, thinkers, and texts discussed in the monograph. The breadth of learning in this book is a temptation to hours of study and the bibliography includes quantities of works I had not read previously. This review is late in appearing in part because of the time spent reading heretofore unknown nuggets listed in Leonard’s bibliography; I can attest to the subtlety and accuracy of Leonard’s readings, and I learned much from reading further in this scholarship. I believe this claim would prove true for any who engage deeply with this book. I offer only two, albeit minor, criticisms. First, the author’s engagement with the work of Irigaray, while on the whole sympathetic, is not as clearly written as other parts of the book; this follows, in part, from the chapter-divisions, so this discussion is split between the second and third chapters. A discussion of Irigaray’s work on Antigone turns to a biographical parallel: Irigaray sets up Lacan as Creon (134) and herself feels the wrath of Lacan and the École Freudienne. Irigaray’s re-politicizing of Antigone and questioning of the symbolic and the natural as foundations for our imagination and our law tie up nicely with some of Derrida’s work also discussed in this chapter. These threads could have been brought together and discussed further. Second, I note only one omission from the wealth of material discussed: Lyotard’s “Oedipe Juif,” published in Critique, June 1970, is absent. This article is now reprinted in his Dérive à partir de Marx et Freud and this volume, thanks to the LC classification system, now shares shelf-space with Leonard’s book, making the omission more remarkable. This article offers another summation and synthesis of the antithesis between Greek and Egyptian, Greek and Jew, so could profitably be added to those discussions.

Writing about Derrida’s reading of Hegel’s reading of Antigone, Leonard notes that “the example must always at some level exceed the system it is called upon to support” (142). This statement is largely true for this book as a whole. The wealth of examples and astute details (which fall out in any book review) are compelling; the larger argument which exceeds the argument is the way in which political discussions of agency, often subtexts to readings of classical texts, become incorporated by reference when Classicists turn to these French theorists as support for their own arguments. At the same time, we see how a network of scholars debated very contemporary concerns in the guise of competing readings about Oedipus, Antigone, and Socrates. The motivating question then is “Who are the Greeks for post-war French intellectuals?” There is no unmediated answer to this question: we do not possess direct or transparent access to the classical past. Contrary to claims of presentism, Leonard traces the complex and interwoven history of multi-generational engagements with antiquity. The classical past may present an aporia, but post-war French thinkers continue to engage with the difficulties of understanding this polyvalent heritage. The same is true of Leonard, who proffers an astute second-order analysis of both aporia and heritage.


1. Cambridge, Massachusetts: Harvard University Press, 1991. See especially her “Note on Categories,” pp. 256-7, where she recounts her unsuccessful efforts to have this book reclassified in the LC system. This shows the extent to which academic work is not always amenable to easy library classification; I wonder if this is not always true of newer areas of research, at least until there is a consensus on where to position it within pre-existing library classification schedules.

2. Goux’s 1990 book of this title ( Oedipe philosophe) is not discussed in Leonard’s volume. This volume is also available in a 1994 translation published by Stanford University Press.

3. Although there are differences within what is often lumped together as “continental philosophy” in North America, there are also historically important points of contact and contestation: e.g., Kojève reading Hegel, Lacan reading Freud, Husserl reading Descartes.