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.
“Plato writes about very contemporary concerns,” Antenen says, such as “what is love, what is justice, what is desire; what’s 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’re interested in ourselves, in human society, then there’s nowhere better to turn than Plato. Any intellectual concern or serious question is pretty much in there.”
Antenen’s 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’s work this summer centers on the Symposium, which he describes as “a really beautiful dialogue, and one of Plato’s most widely read.”
When reading this dialogue in the past, Antenen noticed “two different instances when Socrates stands silently, thinking or meditating, which is strange, and noted as strange by some of the other characters. It’s never explained what he’s thinking about.”
So this summer, he’s 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’s research raises “a 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’s dramatic technique but also the specific goals of this particular work.”
Antenen believes that such textual interruptions are “intentional choices on Plato’s part. He’s trying to tell us something with the little details, and that’s what I’m interested in.”
The Symposium is considered by many classical scholars to be Plato’s most perfect dramatic dialogue, and so, “given how carefully the dialogues are constructed,” Antenen writes in his research proposal, “even 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.”
Rosen, who is one of Antenen’s teachers and mentors, notes that the senior scholar “has 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.”
Describing his methodology, Antenen says, “I just look for patterns. I guess that’s what we all do when we’re reading. I just go through the dialogues and have certain things in mind that I’m looking for, like the standing-around-silently scenes. First I go through in English and find the things I’m looking for — well, I haven’t found many of them — but, when I do find something, then I pull it out and read it in Greek.”
Antenen, who is from Cincinnati, says that reading the Symposium in Greek, something he’s done a number of times before, forces him to read slowly and intentionally, which he notes is “what humanities research looks like. It’s 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.
“When you read slowly,” he says, “you notice things that you don’t notice when you read quickly. Certain things jump out at you. But even if I go through everything and can’t find another instance of what I’m looking for, I still think there’s 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.”
When combing the text for such specific instances, he confesses to tend toward “interpretive excess.” He says, “That’s the nice thing about having professors who can tell me when there’s 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’s youthful exuberance, and Plato’s such a tough puzzle, I mean, there’s so much there that it’s hard not to grab at things.”
Antenen’s second line of defense against interpretive excess is the informal Plato reading group that he assembled this summer.
“It’s good to have a sounding board, so if you say something totally outlandish you have people who can argue with you.”
His reading group, a mixture of Penn students and people he knows from the community, is “one of the strangest groups of people I’ve ever put together,” he says. “It’s 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’s a Percy Shelley scholar, another classics major and then a couple other rotating cast members. It’s been great. Everybody’s really dedicated to the reading and takes it seriously. We’ve 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.”
Beyond its function as a sounding board and an enriching community of readers, the group enables Antenen “to see which questions are dead ends and which open things up. It’s 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.”
Antenen’s 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’s 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 “are the things I’ll be reading and thinking about for the rest of my life.”
In the meantime, he says he’s enjoying every moment of his research.
“What could be better than reading Plato all summer?”