By Christina Cook
For many undergraduates at the University of Pennsylvania, summer research means conducting field work in an exotic locale or running experiments in a laboratory. However, for classics major and University Scholar Donald Antenen it means methodically seeking answers to questions outside the norm of Plato scholarship, a pursuit that requires him to go no further than his well-stocked bookshelf.
‚ÄúPlato writes about very contemporary concerns,‚ÄĚ Antenen says, such as ‚Äúwhat is love, what is justice, what is desire; what‚Äôs the relationship between philosophy and politics, rhetoric and politics. These are questions that seem just as relevant today as they did in classical Athens. I think if we‚Äôre interested in ourselves, in human society, then there‚Äôs nowhere better to turn than Plato. Any intellectual concern or serious question is pretty much in there.‚ÄĚ
Antenen‚Äôs particular interest in Plato is as a literary writer, and he says this aligns him more with German approaches to the study of Plato than with American ones, which tend to focus on Plato as a philosopher. Antenen‚Äôs work this summer centers on the Symposium, which he describes as ‚Äúa really beautiful dialogue, and one of Plato‚Äôs most widely read.‚ÄĚ
When reading this dialogue in the past, Antenen noticed ‚Äútwo different instances when Socrates stands silently, thinking or meditating, which is strange, and noted as strange by some of the other characters. It‚Äôs never explained what he‚Äôs thinking about.‚ÄĚ
So this summer, he‚Äôs searching for other moments where Plato interrupts the text to show Socrates engaged in silent contemplation.
Ralph Rosen, professor of classical studies in the School of Arts & Sciences, says Antenen‚Äôs research raises ‚Äúa really interesting question which, to my knowledge, has never quite been asked in the way that Donald has done and one that will almost certainly yield some new insights not only into Plato‚Äôs dramatic technique but also the specific goals of this particular work.‚ÄĚ
Antenen believes that such textual interruptions are ‚Äúintentional choices on Plato‚Äôs part. He‚Äôs trying to tell us something with the little details, and that‚Äôs what I‚Äôm interested in.‚ÄĚ
The Symposium is considered by many classical scholars to be Plato‚Äôs most perfect dramatic dialogue, and so, ‚Äúgiven how carefully the dialogues are constructed,‚ÄĚ Antenen writes in his research proposal, ‚Äúeven the small details in a Platonic text are important. So with any overlooked or under-studied detail in a Platonic work, what is at stake is the preparation for knowledge of the work as a whole.‚ÄĚ
Rosen, who is one of Antenen‚Äôs teachers and mentors, notes that the senior scholar ‚Äúhas an extraordinary knack for focusing in on those areas of the texts that are commonly overlooked or taken for granted but which, when examined with new eyes, offer entirely new discoveries.‚ÄĚ
Describing his methodology, Antenen says, ‚ÄúI just look for patterns. I guess that‚Äôs what we all do when we‚Äôre reading. I just go through the dialogues and have certain things in mind that I‚Äôm looking for, like the standing-around-silently scenes. First I go through in English and find the things I‚Äôm looking for ‚ÄĒ well, I haven‚Äôt found many of them ‚ÄĒ but, when I do find something, then I pull it out and read it in Greek.‚ÄĚ
Antenen, who is from Cincinnati, says that reading the Symposium in Greek, something he‚Äôs done a number of times before, forces him to read slowly and intentionally, which he notes is ‚Äúwhat humanities research looks like. It‚Äôs reading, which sounds simple, but reading closely and intentionally, over and over and over again, is something that you have to learn how to do.
‚ÄúWhen you read slowly,‚ÄĚ he says, ‚Äúyou notice things that you don‚Äôt notice when you read quickly. Certain things jump out at you. But even if I go through everything and can‚Äôt find another instance of what I‚Äôm looking for, I still think there‚Äôs a lot I can do. For example, I can try to find instances of people doing this in other early classical works, I can look for evidence of a meditative tradition it follows or see if it was some feature of classical Athenian culture. So that would be my next turn.‚ÄĚ
When combing the text for such specific instances, he confesses to tend toward ‚Äúinterpretive excess.‚ÄĚ He says, ‚ÄúThat‚Äôs the nice thing about having professors who can tell me when there‚Äôs not enough evidence to support my idea. It tempers me and forces me to go back to the text and come up with really clear arguments. I like to think it‚Äôs youthful exuberance, and Plato‚Äôs such a tough puzzle, I mean, there‚Äôs so much there that it‚Äôs hard not to grab at things.‚ÄĚ
Antenen‚Äôs second line of defense against interpretive excess is the informal Plato reading group that he assembled this summer.
‚ÄúIt‚Äôs good to have a sounding board, so if you say something totally outlandish you have people who can argue with you.‚ÄĚ
His reading group, a mixture of Penn students and people he knows from the community, is ‚Äúone of the strangest groups of people I‚Äôve ever put together,‚ÄĚ he says. ‚ÄúIt‚Äôs really wonderful. We have a banker, a Penn student and her boyfriend who are both puppeteers, another Penn student who is an international relations major and never read a classical work before, a gentleman who‚Äôs a Percy Shelley scholar, another classics major and then a couple other rotating cast members. It‚Äôs been great. Everybody‚Äôs really dedicated to the reading and takes it seriously. We‚Äôve been going through the Symposium very slowly, very meticulously, and, when we got to Socrates last week, it provoked a huge argument. It was fantastic, just what I wanted.‚ÄĚ
Beyond its function as a sounding board and an enriching community of readers, the group enables Antenen ‚Äúto see which questions are dead ends and which open things up. It‚Äôs actually one thing Plato does a lot: he opens up conversations and uses Socrates to see where the brick walls are and steer the dialogue around them.‚ÄĚ
Antenen‚Äôs interest in leading academic discussions speaks to his experience teaching at a literacy center in Lexington, Ky., which he says he really enjoyed. When asked if his growing academic expertise, together with his interest in teaching, might lead to a career as a classics professor, he says he‚Äôs not yet sure what kind of graduate program would best suit his particular academic interests, but courses of study he is considering include classics, philology, comparative literature and religious studies.
One thing he does know. The concerns of classical literature ‚Äúare the things I‚Äôll be reading and thinking about for the rest of my life.‚ÄĚ
In the meantime, he says he‚Äôs enjoying every moment of his research.
‚ÄúWhat could be better than reading Plato all summer?‚ÄĚ