As a freshman at Swarthmore College (see nearby photo), I wandered into the classroom of a professor named David Lachterman. Lachterman was a genuine philosopher, a man of astonishing intelligence and erudition. I reasoned that the philosophical life must be worth living if it could command the total devotion of such an extraordinary person. On Lachterman’s advice, I went to Penn State after graduating from Swarthmore to study with Stanley Rosen, a student of Leo Strauss and Alexandre Kojève. In my first year at Penn State (1981-82), I attended Rosen’s year-long course on Plato’s Republic. This was my initiation into philosophy as an erotic quest for wisdom and a life of inquiry. From Rosen I learned to ask questions about what is within us and above us, what is good and what is merely necessary, and to expect answers that cohere with the intrinsic intelligibility of everyday experience.
In the summer of 1982 I studied Greek on a Musurillo Scholarship at the Latin/Greek Institute in New York City. I subsequently wrote my dissertation under the direction of Rosen and Lachterman, who by that time was at Penn State. I argued that the Platonic dialogues leading up to the death of Socrates contain a philosophical version of his public trial. In Plato’s Sophist and Statesman, the Stranger from Elea seems to conclude that Socratic inquiry is necessary for the achievement of the wisdom that is essential to statesmanship, but he also indicates that Socrates’ practice of public inquiry and refutation unravels the bonds of unexamined belief that hold the political community together. Socrates’ immoderate philosophical zeal thus makes him a bad citizen. Plato responds to Socrates’ example by producing writings that exhibit a unique combination of philosophical and political moderation and ambition. The central questions of my dissertation—“Who is Socrates?”, “What is Socratic philosophizing?”, and “Why did Plato write dialogues?”—have guided much of my scholarly work. (Rowman & Littlefield published a revised version of my dissertation in 1998 under the title The Paradox of Political Philosophy: Socrates’ Philosophic Trial.)
I was hired by University of Tulsa as an assistant professor of philosophy in 1988. (I was promoted to associate professor with tenure in 1994, and to full professor in 2002; that same year I was appointed McFarlin Professor of Philosophy.) I soon befriended Paul Rahe, a historian of ancient and modern republicanism. I sat in on Rahe’s courses on Aristophanes’ comedies and Plato’s Laws, and in 1991 he and I joined other colleagues for a two week seminar on Greek tragedy that was taught by Froma Zeitlin of Princeton and Charles Segal of Harvard. This seminar, one of the richest intellectual experiences of my life, launched my ongoing effort to read Greek philosophy in the wider context of Greek literature, history, and culture. My first book, The Republic: The Odyssey of Philosophy (Twayne 1993, reprinted by Paul Dry Books in 2004), was a reading of Plato’s Republic as a philosophical epic modeled on Homer’s Odyssey; since then, I’ve published half a dozen comparative articles on such topics as the connection between Plato’s Republic and Xenophon’s Anabasis, the Republic and Lysias’s Against Eratosthenes, Plato’s Apology and Sophocles’ Oedipus, Plato’s Symposium and Euripides’ Cyclops.
In 1994 I became the first chair of a new academic unit that combined the departments of philosophy and religion. This turned out to be a fruitful union. Conversing and occasionally studying with my colleagues in religion, and planning a curriculum that would straddle our disciplines, I began to think about the relationship between religious faith and philosophical inquiry. I read Kierkegaard and was impressed by his view of Socrates as an exemplar of intellectual passion and spiritual inwardness and integrity, as well as his notion that Socratic, philosophical eros reflects the structure of religious faith as it stretches between time and eternity. Kierkegaard also helped me to understand Socrates’ story about the Delphic oracle in Plato’s Apology. I realized that Socrates’ receptivity to the word of the god—and in particular, his faith that what the god says must be true—focuses and authorizes his quest for wisdom. It is the oracle’s negative reply to the question “Is anyone wiser than Socrates?” that launches what is in effect a lifelong attempt to answer two basic questions: “Who is Socrates?” and “What is wisdom?” These reflections led me to attempt to work out the relationship between Socratic eros and Christian faith in my third book, Kierkegaard and Socrates (Cambridge University Press, 2006; paperback, 2008). The book was warmly welcomed by Kierkegaard scholars. Since its appearance, I have delivered invited lectures and seminars on Kierkegaard in Brazil, Denmark, and at universities and colleges around the United States, and have contributed essays to Cambridge Guides to Fear and Trembling and the Concluding Unscientific Postscript, as well as to the Wiley-Blackwell Companion to Kierkegaard.
My next book was Plato and the Talmud (Cambridge University Press, 2011; paperback, 2013). I have always been interested in Jewish thought and Jewish history. I’ve taught courses on philosophical and theological approaches to the Holocaust, published articles on Primo Levi, Jean Améry, and Claude Lanzmann, and edited the memoir of a refugee from Nazi-occupied Poland, A Long Way Home: The Story of a Jewish Youth, 1939-1948 by Bob Golan (University Press of America, 2005). Since 1998, I’ve also met weekly with a group of men to study the Talmud, the rabbinic text that reinvented Judaism after the destruction of the Second Temple in 70 C.E. As soon as I began to read the Talmud, I was struck by its dialectical character and its open-ended, conversational form. I noticed that it proposes many more questions than answers, and gives voice to various—and frequently incompatible—intellectual and moral perceptions, frequently in the form of aggadah (narrative) about the rabbis. The Talmud thus compels readers to assume primary responsibility for their answers to its most fundamental question, “How should one live?” In these ways, I realized, the Talmud closely resembles the Platonic dialogues. I was encouraged by Jacob Neusner and the theologian Irving Greenberg to write a book comparing these texts, and I prepared for this project by convincing our university administration to hire a professor of Hebrew and then auditing her two-year course. This was an admittedly modest beginning that nonetheless served my purposes, and even helped me to decode some of the Aramaic of the Gemara.
My research for Plato and the Talmud was supported by a Littauer Foundation Research Grant and an Earhart Fellowship Research Grant. In this book, I try to show in detail how Talmudic aggadah and Platonic drama and narrative speak to different sorts of readers in seeking mimetically to convey the living ethos of rabbinic Judaism and Socratic philosophizing. While the dialogues and the Talmud articulate and defend certain philosophical or religious accounts of the truth, they are equally concerned to teach readers how to learn—as well as what it means, in human terms, to do so. These texts are accordingly remarkably self-reflective. They constitute curricula in the examined life that simultaneously present the subject matter to be learned and show by example how to go about learning it. To be clear, I do not contend that “Athens” and “Jerusalem” can be harmonized or synthesized. But reading these texts alongside one another helped me, among other things, to grasp the rational character of rabbinic discourse, and to appreciate the prophetic nature of Socratic inquiry.
Finally, a word about my teaching. I believe that philosophy should be accessible to intelligent undergraduates and educated amateurs, and I’ve worked hard on becoming an effective teacher as well as a good writer. Our Honors Program, for which I offer a yearly course on Greek literature, history, and philosophy, used to require an undergraduate thesis; I directed eleven of these, five of which won the award for the year’s best Honors thesis. I won the College of Arts and Sciences Excellence in Teaching Award in 1993, and the University Outstanding Teacher Award in 1998. In 2009, I was awarded an NEH Enduring Questions Course Development Grant for an interdisciplinary course on “Mortality and Meaning, God and Suffering.”