More about Ashok
How do the themes of political philosophy work for us? In political philosophy, scholars typically debate topics such as the best regime or the precise beginning of modern thought. When insights are gained, they inform the debate. For example, if the Myth of Er in Plato’s Republic moderates Glaucon, then we may wonder if the best regime entails a cosmic notion of justice.
I am interested in more personal questions concerning knowledge and power. These questions emerge when we engage political philosophy with reference to our own perceptions and our own choices. For example, my dissertation examined how Xenophon and his Socrates used civic notions of nobility to point to a philosopher's singular virtue. I asked how it was possible for Xenophon to entertain the notion that a man who told the city to execute him was somehow noble and virtuous. The answer depended on Xenophon presenting Socratic philosophy as immediately empowering: with it, one could be an effective general or a great politician. This rhetoric does not only appeal to young rich men in the ancient world who desire power. It lures us as contemporary readers. We study philosophy and political science because when we know better, we can act and speak better. It is not without irony that Xenophon ultimately locates Socrates as an advocate for the limits of philosophy. Socrates did not promise effectiveness, glory, and power as some Sophists or charlatans did. But knowledge of the limits of philosophy—a virtue, an excellence in itself—properly speaking belongs to the philosopher alone.
Later, I wrote about Trump's character in the light of ancient thought. I noted that ancient authors presupposed the existence of shame in deep ways. A completely shameless person might merit a brief mention, but extended comment would be difficult. Shamelessness can be stretched to see what is possible, but someone utterly without shame could not be considered relevant to political life. I found it stunning to consider that many ancient authors would not be able to grasp how we link toughness, freedom, and celebrity. We cheer on those who do not show weakness, who refuse to admit loss. We believe they have the strength to succeed, that they can make the most of being an American. So we elevate the shameless to the level of the heroic.
I am currently writing about how Plato uses the concept of greed in the Hipparchus. In that short dialogue, Socrates defends “love of gain.” He does so against an interlocutor who holds that it is obvious people do crazy, indefensible things for money. Is Socrates, then, an ally for those in the present day who believe capitalism and selfishness are drivers of progress? Does Socrates think that someone with a vast amount of resources will invest in the projects that empower humanity?
Another paper in progress is on Nietzsche’s rhetoric about the “sovereign individual.” It is typically argued that the “sovereign individual” occupies a peculiar status in Nietzsche’s thought. He may either be prior to the morality Nietzsche criticizes or a fully-flourishing human not unlike the Overman. I argue that the “sovereign individual” is worth looking at on their own terms. It seems to me that Nietzsche has unwittingly advocated for those who fight tooth and nail for rights. The “sovereign individual” lends themselves strongly to democratic virtue.
I plan on concluding some thoughts I have on Plato’s Cleitophon in another paper. I am curious about Cleitophon’s parasocial behavior. Is he able to see the Socrates in front of him, or does he only see the Socrates he imagines? A book length project I am gathering notes toward is on political philosophy and fine art. A number of paintings have struck me as not only encapsulating a time and place, but also notions of politics, the good life, and where we are in society. To take a small example: how does Velázquez see himself in Las Meninas, in the presence of the royal family and the staff? I aim to write an essay on each painting and compose the book essay by essay. Perception and choice depends on what we can handle. The previous work in political philosophy, from which I build, tends to look to ideas further away.
I do have some fairly specific views about how a collegiate environment works. See this post: How College Works
I like class to be centered around discussion. I like it when students make the central points, not me. It is much more memorable and powerful when one is learning from one's peers.
A few texts that I've found helpful for small reading groups follow. When I first started with these, I made the mistake of trying to teach them a bit too strictly. While many have a specific place in history which needs to be acknowledged, their real charm lies in how varied and rich a given discussion of them can be:
- Sophocles, "Antigone"
- Plato, "Apology"
- Plato, "Cleitophon"
- Xenophon, "Symposium"
- Machiavelli, "Letter to Vettori"
- Nietzsche, "On the Pathos of Truth"
- Wittgenstein, "Lecture on Ethics"
- Sartre, "Existentialism is a Humanism"
- James Baldwin, "A Letter to My Nephew"