Seeing Ideas as Operative: Talking to Melissa Lane

By Andy Fitch

This interview, conducted in December 2016, transcribed by Phoebe Kaufman, and all the more pertinent in our ecologically precarious present, focuses on Melissa Lane’s book Eco-Republic: What the Ancients Can Teach Us about Ethics, Virtue, and Sustainable Living. Lane is the Class of 1943 Professor of Politics at Princeton University, where she is also Director of the University Center for Human Values. Over the past two decades, Lane’s inventive scholarly projects have tracked the political imaginations of pivotal historical epochs, and her poised critical interventions have sought to clarify the political imagination of our own present. Eco-Republic epitomizes such concerns, particularly since it opens onto broader Platonic questions concerning how topographical, climatological, cultural, linguistic, textual ecologies shape the human agents operating within them, as well as how these agents reciprocally might shape their environment. At the same time, Eco-Republic exemplifies Lane’s dexterous ability not only to assimilate a wide range of classical and contemporaneous discourses, but to speak directly (she does so through public engagements as well as published texts) to leading figures in the fields of science, government, business. Lane’s books include: The Birth of Politics (Princeton University Press, 2015); Plato’s Progeny (Duckworth, 2001); and Method and Politics in Plato’s Statesman (Cambridge University Press, 1998). And eco-coproduction, as Lane defines, deploys, and embodies this term, can’t help but make for high-quality conversation. Lane will deliver the Carlyle Lectures in 2018 at Oxford University.


ANDY FITCH: To begin on somewhat personal terms, if only so I can raise some of the prescient questions that your book poses: while drafting, several months back, a speech for a prominent political candidate, it struck me that little this person felt willing to say could help to clarify the aims, or redirect the drives, or enhance the capacities of our political imagination. While I might, on the margins, help this person sound “good,” little within the range of acceptable rhetoric would address the problem of how to orient a political regime toward, in your words, “initiative for what is good.” So I found myself in enthusiastic agreement with Eco-Republic’s call for a social polity shaped less by indirect social forces (say some market-driven equilibrium supposedly leading to sustainable social harmony). I appreciated Eco-Republic’s call for a re-established commitment to articulating and enacting positive virtues — particularly those that might overcome our sense of everyday inertia when confronting cumulative ecological disaster. And though Platonic appeals to absolute virtues can make us feel, by comparison, flawed, negligible, inclined towards impulsive distraction or destructive apathy, Eco-Republic astutely reframes Plato’s forms as aspirational metaphors, not dubious factual claims or metaphysical catechisms. Within this context, I find especially helpful Eco-Republic’s suggestion that we need not fixate upon the oft-problematic answers the Republic provides for achieving the social good, but that, rather, we ought to focus on developing our own more progressive solutions for how to address the profound questions that Plato raises. Along those lines, I wonder if you could articulate some constructive elements you find within the particular genre of Platonic dialogue itself. Here a few interrelated topics arise. First, amid Eco-Republic’s efforts to confound any categorical distinctions between our purportedly divergent roles as detached consumer and responsible citizen, does dialogue provide a fitting arena in which participants must engage both as proactive speakers and as reflective listeners, both as self-assertive agents and as socially directed subjects — in order for this discourse not to fall apart, in order for it to get anywhere? Do Plato’s peripatetic dialogic plots inevitably call forth dynamic co-producing characters, “interacting” (in your terms) “so as to generate and reinforce virtuous, sustainable forms of action…in the market, the home, and the forum alike”? Can reading an intricate dialogue crystallize for us, model for us, our own status as eco-producers, understanding ourselves “to be non-negligible, and to be responsible, in producing and reproducing the conditions for our own sustainable individual and social health”? Or what has reading Plato taught you about how an author, a scholar, a teacher can promote eco-production?

MELISSA LANE: Well, I think dialogue is one place where the Platonic and Socratic method is potentially really productive. On the one hand, it shows you that many cynical and supposedly self- interested stances are not really self-interest at all. One of the deep lessons of Platonism is that what seems like realism (the quest for wealth and power as these are being practiced in democratic, imperialist Athens) are not values that actually withstand much scrutiny. There’s a great moment in the Gorgias where Socrates points out that orators like Callicles, who are seeking power in the demos, both claim that they’re seeking maximal power for the demos as a whole, and that they’re seeking maximal power for themselves within it — but those two positions are in fact contradictory. I think Plato very effectively skewers certain kinds of faux-realism, if you want to put it that way. But there are ways in which Plato is himself a deeper true realist, precisely because he’s willing to say that values still can be operative in the world and in our politics, even while recognizing that these values are going to be imperfect. Our uses or pursuits of them are going to have flaws, but, nevertheless, we still can see ideas as operative, even when they’re distorted.

In a way, that’s the whole Platonic metaphysics. We might assume the imperfections of the forms, because we see them reflected through our imperfect particulars. That’s the world as we encounter it. You’re always seeing the forms through a glass darkly, so you’re always seeing them in a distorted manifestation. You’re always dealing with the fact that you’re seeing ideas bent and corroded and selfishly appropriated, and yet these ideas still have some kind of animating force. Plato is exactly concerned to chart a path between the notions of naive idealism (which just turns its back on political power) and of a faux-realist cynicism.

And then for eco-coproduction: there’s a coproduction that involves the reader with the author and with the book, and a coproduction that also connects readers as they go out into the world and interact with other readers. I think both are true. There are these moments of reflection on self-knowledge in Plato, where even self-knowledge, it seems, is being produced and tested through dialogue. Socrates in the Phaedrus asks, in effect, “How can I know what kind of being I am?” And he embarks on a conversation to actually test that question. I do think it’s interesting that philosophy for a long time was significantly written in dialogue, and yet we’ve given up on that form nowadays. Our books today are very monologic. Of course it’s very easy to say that Plato offers false dialogues, or that he’s stage-managing and it’s really all monologue. Plato would probably say that dialogue is always imperfect, and that Socrates does stoop to certain kinds of tricks or moves, but that Socrates is trying to push people and get them to see that there’s more that they need to know and that there’s always more that you need to know.

My great-uncle Max Kargman was a businessman, but had done a PhD in philosophy after having served in the army in World War II as a volunteer. He had studied Plato, and he said that it’s important to have the idea of “know thyself,” but it’s also important to have the idea of “grow thyself.” You have to keep changing and learning. Socratic conclusions are always provisional for that reason.

To continue with questions of growth perhaps, early in Eco-Republic, when you suggest that “the ultimate aim should be for ‘sustainability’ as a separate good to disappear, becoming wholly absorbed into the structure and nature of every other good that we pursue,” I try to envision a policy agenda so progressive (or good, to my mind) that it might make an endorsement of present-day sustainability models seem a conservative, common-sense position, not a radical one. Here again though a few snags arise. For just as Socrates declines to describe the good in much concrete detail, just as the Republic’s principle virtues of wisdom, courage, moderation, and justice could seem (to, say, readers confronting pressing social crises) closer to a decorum of means than a blueprint for achieving tangible political ends, so Eco-Republic (understandably) declines to offer a “complete substantive account of the common good.” But here I wondered to what extent you ever do specify some longer-range goals or targets to pursue while realizing sustainability along the way. I appreciate Eco-Republic’s intimations of the good’s “inescapable immanence in the everyday.” I certainly can understand why we ought to prioritize indices of embodied happiness over those of demonstrable industrial growth. I love your reformulation of worthwhile growth as conditioned upon a Platonic ideal of intelligibility (“In other words, we might say that, for Plato, growth must make sense, it must be meaningful, otherwise it is not growth in any good sense, but an anarchic cancerous sprawl”). And I sense that, if the logistics of Eco-Republic had allowed, you could have expanded your account of natural ecosystems’ complex interrelatedness as potentially replacing, for contemporary citizens, the mythic structure of Platonic forms (“If the precariously integrated, but in fact highly vulnerable, system of human habitation on the planet is part of what constitutes our cave, together with a reliance on linear effects which understates the causal complexity of the world around us, realizing the dependency of our fragile human perch on the bigger, older, and far more complex system of nature is part of what it would mean today to leave the cave”). So do you envision a broader virtuous cycle establishing itself as we address these particular concerns, pushing us toward even greater, presently unforeseeable ends? Or would you care to outline the specific vistas toward which this latest departure from the cave might lead us? Or (equally reasonable as a response) why would you still rather not say? Or for yet another flipping of the question: given your admirable intellectual dexterity and multifaceted professional/civic pursuits, when you find yourself, amid committees or coteries of government and business leaders, suddenly referring to Plato’s or Aristotle’s arguments, how far can you get?

For the first part, about not offering a complete account, I understand what you’re asking. What’s difficult for me about that question is that I did want to frame sustainability in the book as a side-constraint, so that’s why I’m not giving a complete substantive account. Part of the reason I was doing that was that I was trying to say that sustainability is compatible with a commonplace view of liberal pluralism — that this isn’t a view that you have to assert in the market of ideas first-order, but it rather is a view that should condition and shape any first-order commitments. The danger of this position is that it’s a bit like Obama, during his first two years, saying “Let’s rise above partisanship.” And now, of course, sustainability has returned squarely as a first-order, supposedly partisan agenda. So, in that context, my prescription and my approach might look too idealistic. I would say that if sustainability is a side-constraint, then it actually constrains, and so this rules out certain kinds of policies where you would, for example, say that we’re just concerned to maximize fossil-fuel production with no regard for what this means to the environment, or where leaders and institutions might make false claims about what such production does to the environment. So I think that critiques of this side-constraint approach do bite in some ways, but I would still ideally like to leave room for the thought that in some near and possible world you could be a Republican or a Democrat and be for sustainability. You could be someone who prioritizes community or someone who’s a Libertarian, and still be committed to sustainability. You might disagree with each other at the margins of specific policy calls, but the thought that this is a relevant consideration could be common ground.

Now, I should say, a couple weeks ago I was at a conference on climate change in the wake of the election (even though the conference was planned long before — it was about social science and climate change). In that context, some people were arguing that the main way forward is just by making sustainability a partisan issue again, looking for coalitions and trying to put together funds so you can put together people who can benefit from renewable energy and rebates which will give producers and consumers more of a financial stake. You also have certain U.S. states which show great interest in sustainability, and you could have wins in certain states that might go against the grain, even, of a national trend. So this approach was saying that you just have to make it political, own it as political, and try to fight tooth-and-nail to get wins in state legislatures. That might be the way it has to go. In one sense, the sort of high-minded side-constraint view may just not have as much purchase, in our changed political environment, as it potentially could have had before.

From reading Eco-Republic, I assume you would respond by suggesting that this more overtly assertive (less broadly persuasive) approach leaves too much room for policy distractions and snags, for failure to carry through complex political initiatives, and that winning the momentary political argument might assist in establishing true opinion of some sort, but without stabilizing the prospect for long-term projects.

I do still think that. But in some ways I’ve softened my position since writing the book. I think it’s OK if some motives are impure. Again, for Plato, we as embodied creatures are always going to have some impure motives. We’re not just creatures of reason. We are creatures of appetite and thumos. In that sense, maybe some people start these fights out of a pure motive, and other people join them because of personal self-interest. But if that combination can lead to self-transforming of the economic and political situation, then that’s fine and good. Of course it’s also true that, without a wider challenge to the canons of normality (and this is really in the “Imagination” and “Initiative” parts of the book), these local fights will remain unjoined. I do think there’s still important work to be done at that kind of higher level. But the political project, as it were, starts to look more local and pluralistic, even if the imagination project has to remain more integrated and abstract.

The Paris Agreement presents a very interesting example. When I was first writing Eco-Republic, a lot of, again, self-proclaimed realists would say to me “Oh, all this soft stuff about voluntary individual action…blah blah blah…what you really need is an international climate treaty, with top-down state actors.” But then you get the Paris Agreement — and it is precisely an international treaty which pins all of its hopes for success on bottom-up action, on monitoring and accountability that has to come from within each country, and each country’s government has to be held to this agreement essentially by civil society. So I think, again, the paradox is that the idealist critique ends up activating the same space in the imagination in many ways as the hard-core realist critique.

For one such localized perspective, if I were to look to the Republic for a sustainable social blueprint, I would assume that Socrates’s early formulation of a “primitive agricultural society without developed arts of architecture, cooking, music, theater, or other such accoutrements of civilization, because none is needed there” might merit sustained attention. Glaucon summarily dismisses this “city for pigs,” and Eco-Republic offers good reason why such a society may find itself lacking in certain Platonic virtues, and of course this primitivist construct (like many conjectural scenarios in the dialogues) might seem completely unrealistic from our present vantage, but does or should Platonic scholarship ever give such a sustainable-sounding society a second, more thorough look?

I did not do enough with that, and your question makes me think about it again. There have been debates, and I, in some ways, have changed my mind about the question of whether or not there is justice in the City of Pigs, which is part of how you seem to have evaluated it. Some people say it’s so primitive that it’s pre-justice, but, of course, it’s a city, and we need to take that seriously. It’s a city which is humanly ruled, and is not just subject to divine herdsmanship — which is another alternative that we find in the Statesman, which is a non-model for our current politics.

So I think you’re right to sense something there, with having one’s needs and wants fully met by doing your own work. Of course your function or role in the city still should be to contribute to its overall good. You shouldn’t just earn money. And so there is a real debate, again, between some people who think the City of Pigs is the true ideal, and other people who think it isn’t.

In another book, Plato’s Progeny, which is a small book I wrote some years before Eco-Republic, I showed how Plato can be appropriated by conservatives, liberals, feminists, anti-feminists, and pro-slavery (maybe not quite so much by anti-slavery) advocates. There’s something in his writing (and again I think it’s the dialogue form, in part) which really invites people to try to construct interpretations. Having written that book, it’s not that my Plato is the only right Plato. I put the accent on some passages and not on others, and not everyone would do the same. It would be sort of Borgesian to have just one interpretation of the Republic. You would end up just rewriting the Republic word for word, and then it wouldn’t be an interpretation.

And then you had asked about my work with the EU. Really Eco-Republic grew out of the opportunity to not only talk informally about ethics and sustainability, but also specifically to give formal talks on Plato (for example, about his image of being imprisoned within a cave of misleading values and aspirations in the current structure of society), within the context of programs that were designed to educate public- and private-sector leaders. This was when I was still teaching in the UK as part of what is now called the Cambridge Institute for Sustainability Leadership. Years later, I will sometimes meet again some of these high-level people in  companies or even local governments, because the Institute has a networking dimension, and many of them will say to me, “I’m still thinking about Plato’s cave.”

You know, it’s been very interesting to me that people have picked up on that part of it. Most have actually been people coming from business. I’ve been invited to speak to people in business on Eco-Republic specifically. In a way, if I’m doing something which is more just public-sector or something like that, people are more interested in a drier, more analytical, more normative presentation. But maybe because a lot of business writing has this element of parable, story, and narrative arc [Laughter], business people are really responsive to Plato. And the other people who have been very responsive to those parts of Eco-Republic have been scientists. The book was reviewed in Science, and I get emails from science students and professors, who, in curious ways, seem acutely sensitive to Plato’s mythic aspects.

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