In conversation: Verity Harte on a decade-long project devoted to reading Plato’s 'Republic'

Each year, faculty and graduate students in the field of ancient Greek philosophy gather at Yale or King’s College London to read one of the 10 books of the seminal work Plato’s “Republic.”
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Each year, faculty and graduate students in the field of ancient Greek philosophy gather at Yale or King’s College London to read one of the 10 books of the seminal work Plato’s “Republic.” The seminar brings together faculty and graduate students specializing in ancient philosophy from Yale and King’s College London, as well as invited faculty and graduate students from Cornell University, and invited faculty from other universities in the United States, the United Kingdom and Canada. The seminar is sponsored by the Yale Provost’s Office and the Whitney Humanities Center.

Verity Harte, professor of philosophy and classics at Yale, co-founded the seminar with MM McCabe, emeritus professor of ancient philosophy at King’s College London. It was most recently held at Yale in June when participants met to read Book VIII over the course of five days. YaleNews sat down with Harte to discuss how the seminar has influenced her scholarship, the importance of the seminar to graduate students at Yale and abroad, and how the seminar makes this historic work “come off the page.” The following is an edited version of the conversation.

How did the idea for the seminar originate?

As I was moving to Yale from King’s College London in 2006, a colleague there in the philosophy department, MM McCabe, and I had started meeting over lunch on a weekly basis to read through — just for the fun of it — Plato’s “Republic” from the beginning, talking about it with each other as we read it. We wondered whether there was a way in which we might keep doing this together in some form or another, so there emerged the idea for a “home and away” series of seminars. We wanted to have an event that would alternate between London and Yale, representing my feeling of connection between the two institutions. It would also offer to ancient philosophy at Yale — which was just starting to build up — some connection to a quite well established program in London.

It is the most natural thing in the world for people in my field of ancient Greek philosophy to get together, not just at conferences to hear papers, but to sit together and read a philosophical text from our corpus and talk about it over the course of one or more days. There are many conferences in ancient philosophy, but I was not aware of an event in North America of quite this form so it seemed that this seminar was something that I could bring to Yale and help set Yale apart from other programs.

The first two years of the seminar were fairly small scale. But in subsequent years the seminar has grown, in part because early participants have continued to come, some new participants have been added, and our graduate community has grown significantly. At this point, we are pretty much at the limit for an event of this size with around 25 people from at least eight universities worldwide attending each year. It is the best thing I do all year and I enjoy it immensely.

How has the seminar benefited your teaching and scholarship?

The seminar has had an important impact both on my research and on my teaching: I have written papers on particular topics in the “Republic” arising directly from the seminar and it has influenced the way I teach the “Republic” in my classes. But what is as important to me is the way in which this manner of close reading enriches my sense of the way the work is put together and bears consideration as a whole. It’s a monumental work that contains within it some of the most famous passages in the whole Platonic corpus; some that even people who don’t work on Plato may be familiar with. There are passages in the dialogue that get taught repeatedly and passages in the dialogue that get worked on repeatedly. But the dialogue as a whole, integral thing and the care and complexity with which it is put together as a whole only really comes off the page when you read it in the painstaking, systematic way that we do each year. We pay close attention to all of the details and it is those details that enrich one’s understanding of particular passages. There is a kind of layering and texture that becomes clearer from reading the work closely and in its entirety that sheds light on the way in which central ideas within the work develop and take shape over the course of the work.

How does being the host institution for an international seminar such as this one benefit Yale and the Yale affiliates who participate in it?

The seminar has been a significant part of our successful recruitment of a really fantastic group of graduate students in ancient philosophy. Yale has developed a joint graduate Ph.D. program in classics and philosophy for students who are going to write a Ph.D. in ancient philosophy. We now have eight students in that program following either the classics track of the program or the philosophy track of the program. They all are or will be participants in the seminar. Each year the local graduate students from Yale or London take minutes of the seminar which are distributed to the participants as a record of the event. Producing the minutes is, in and of itself, a good intellectual exercise and has been a side benefit for the graduate students. It is also a wonderful opportunity for the students to start conversations with the faculty involved in the seminar about the ideas discussed.

Although everyone who attends the seminar reads ancient Greek, and everyone in the room can read the “Republic” on their own, making yourself translate a sentence in Greek into good English prose for an audience really makes you pay attention to the details in a way that almost no other activity does. Doing that as a group collectively over a week means that the details become more salient to you. I think that is unique to the seminar. Also, reading a single text with the same core group of people over multiple years differentiates this seminar from others. In terms of collegiality, faculty and graduate students working together, it has been an incredible experience, and I think it’s a coup for Yale to host such a successful and collegial event in the field.

What do you hope the graduate students will gain from the study of Plato’s “Republic”?

This seminar gives them a model for doing the thing that is at the foundation of any project in our field — engaging with an ancient author’s text. The seminar helps graduate students build collegial networks of the future with faculty members and graduate student peers from other institutions. And this is fun! People volunteer to do this because it is enjoyable and rewarding. The graduate students enjoy it and they see the participating faculty enjoy it.

There are 10 books in Plato’s “Republic.” The group will meet two more times to read Book IX and X. Looking ahead, will there be another similar project to follow this one?

It was always my idea that something of this form would become a regular feature of the intellectual landscape of ancient philosophy at Yale. To gather a group of faculty and graduate students to read an ancient philosophical text just to read it and figure it out together and see what we think about it, that is something that I am very committed to continuing. This seminar has up until now very much been my project at Yale along with my co-founder McCabe, as well as other scholars who have attended every year. I now have two new colleagues in ancient philosophy at Yale, David Charles, who is new this year and Brad Inwood, who will start next year. The shape that the seminar takes in the future should be decided by the Yale ancient philosophy team collectively in consultation with the other participants in the seminar, rather than by me alone.

Thinking more broadly, why is a seminar like this important to the study of humanities?

The idea that one can try to approach a very familiar object — in this case a text — in a way that allows for the possibility of finding in it something new, I think that is important to the study of humanities in general. Also, finding a way to generate collaborative, substantive intellectual events that aren’t exclusively oriented around a particular result — like a book or volume of papers — is very important. This seminar reflects the fact that an event such as this can have important outcomes that aren’t necessarily a tangible product, like a paper or volume, but include increased understanding on the part of the participants of something central to their field and the development of an intellectual community amongst those participants. Outcomes like these are also important and I think we are very privileged at Yale to have the opportunity to have support for events like these.

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