Melissa Lane is the Class of 1943 Professor of Politics at Princeton, and is currently serving a two-year term as the Associate Chair of the Department of Politics. She is also an associated faculty member in the Classics and Philosophy Departments. Professor Lane’s past writings have focused on the links between Greek political theory and modern-day political debate, particularly regarding environmental issues. This interview has been edited for clarity and length. The interviewer is James Haynes.
PT: How did you get involved in your current areas of study, such as Classics and Politics?
ML: I came to Greeks actually later than most people who end up specializing in Greek thought. At Harvard, I concentrated in Social Studies. Social Studies is sort of close to Politics, Philosophy, and Economics at Oxford, so you can do a fair amount of philosophy as part of that. So I really fell in love with philosophy, kind of the history of ideas, and had the great fortune to work with Professor Judith Shklar, who was this great luminary intellectual at Harvard and mentored generations of political theorists. I was also quite involved with some political movements on campus, so I was very much involved in the divestment movement from Harvard, and some movements for unionizing Harvard janitorial staff, and movements for reproductive rights and different things like that. But in my final year, I also took a class with Harvey Mansfield, actually on Plato’s Republic, which was in fact my first class on the Republic, and I sort of fell in love with Plato. And then when I went to Cambridge, I had this very strange experience of then working with the ancient philosophers and classicists at Cambridge, particularly Myles Burnyeat and Michael Schofield, and Burnyeat in particular had really attacked Mansfield for his method of how to read the Republic, so I sort of went from one to the other. But I actually learned a lot from both, and I think I have an approach which combines the best of both their approaches. In Cambridge, I had the chance to develop my Greek much further, and Latin as well. And then I had the chance to work on environmental questions in a kind of practical way, as part of programs at Cambridge that were giving short courses for businesspeople and political leaders. And out of that, I started to do work on connecting the environment with the ancients and also with the political world more generally, which has become a major strand of my work.
PT: Could you give some examples of how your study of the Greeks has affected your understanding of politics today, with the environment, for example?
ML: In my book Eco-Republic, what I say is that if you want a big, schematic picture of the past 200 years in the history of ideas, it’s the rise of capitalism in what 18th-century thinkers called “commercial societies.” That whole complex of ideas, which was very much about unintended consequences being channeled for positive social outcomes, rejected a lot of ancient ideas about the role of virtue, the role of individual initiative, because the idea was, everyone can just be a cog in this market economy, and the outcomes will come out for the best. Many Enlightenment figures had much more sophisticated and complex views than that, but that was a crude version, which I think has become very influential. But of course, that model is also what tells us what fails to internalize certain externalities, and the limits of that model are now evident with environmental problems. My thought was: Given that that model rejected the ancients, but now is itself running into problems, is there anything that we can take from the ancients to think about that? And what I found in Plato is that if you say, how do we maintain the relationships of a sustainable society, Plato is very much concerned with the relationships of a stable society that would be stable psychologically with its institutional relations. So it’s that relationship between what Plato calls the City and the Soul that I try to elicit how those would fit together in a healthy and productive way. So I don’t say that Plato is thinking about environmental sustainability, but I say that that kind of healthy social stability is also something we need for environmental sustainability.
PT: Is there an example of where something Plato says directly affects what’s going on now with the environment?
ML: I don’t say everyone has to read Plato, or else we’re not going to solve environmental problems. I think there are actually inchoate moves that people are already making that Plato can help us to articulate and defend and see why they’re right. In the book, for example, advocating either a “do less harm” kind of approach, or an orient towards the good, where you consider yourself as contributing to the whole kind of approach – which is the Platonic approach – the latter approach is much more profound and just better. Another example: there’s a very interesting book called Carbon Detox, an environmentalist book which says, don’t reduce because you think you should, because if you tell people “should” and “ought,” that often in fact doesn’t motivate people. People are motivated by pursuing intrinsic values that they care about, and that is very much an ancient ethical idea. The third example would be of certain business heads, like the former head of Interface Carpets, Ray Anderson, who has since passed away. He takes this idea that you have to understand everything in the light of the overall goal, not just to do a little less harm, [but] reorient all your actions in light of the good, and that’s central to Plato’s Republic. So it’s not that any of this couldn’t happen without Plato, but a lot of these actions don’t fit so well within dominant frameworks of thinking about capitalism or even morality, and so if we return to the Platonic languages we can make more sense of them, and we can spread them, and we can inspire people with them.
PT: Would you say there is a synthesis between Plato’s message and a capitalistic society?
ML: That’s a very challenging question. In the book, I said yes, that Plato can help us to enlighten capitalism, and I think a lot depends on how we define capitalism. So if we mean using markets and price signals, I think any good economy will use those. But then the question is, what kind of regulation is needed for those markets? How does that work? And a lot of that can still be done within capitalism. On the other hand, there are real challenges that say, yes, you can do a lot of things within capitalism, but are you going against the grain, because you’re curbing impulses. People might be pushing towards unsustainability, and you’re trying to rein them in. So I think this is a very challenging question right now, and I think even in the last few years, maybe my view has become a little darker about the extent to which we need root and branch reforms to the way we practice the capitalist model. Whether that means the end of capitalism or not, I think it all depends how you define that. So you’ll get many people saying, well, we need a sustainable economy, so what does that mean? I think this is where the conversation is right now, and I don’t think the label is that helpful, because there isn’t one definition of capitalism, it’s not clear. People often think it’s whatever the U.S. is doing right now, that’s capitalism. But there’s many ways to practice capitalism; there’s German capitalism, there’s Japanese capitalism, so there are many different models, and the boundaries are kind of fuzzy as to what’s a reform within the system and what’s a reform that changes the nature of the system. So I would say we need to think about the reforms that will enhance equity and achieve a sustainable environmental balance.
PT: You began teaching in the Humanities Sequence this year. How did you get connected to that course, and what are some of your teaching goals for that class and others going forward?
ML: It’s great to be able to do HUM. I’ve been asked to do it several times, and it’s never been possible until this year to fit it in with my obligations to Politics. And what’s wonderful about it are three things: first, the students are so enthusiastic, which is great. I taught a freshman seminar before, so I kind of know that. Two is that we are attending our colleagues’ lectures, which is something that we actually often get to do in an academic setting, and that’s been great. Feeling that you’re teaching in a team is something that you don’t often do. And then the third thing, maybe the more substantive thing, is that, for example, [today] I gave my first lecture on Herodotus. And when I teach Herodotus, if I teach Herodotus, which I actually often don’t have the chance to do, I would teach Herodotus at the beginning of thinking about 5th century and 4th century Greek political theory, so that would kind of be the beginning. Then we would do Thucydides, and then we would do Plato, and Aristotle, whereas doing it in HUM, we read Homer, and then we teach Herodotus, and that actually gave a completely different perspective to the teaching of Herodotus, and it brought out the commonalities, the emphasis on kleos and achieving great deeds and recording them, but also the contrast of him speaking for himself and not for the Muses. All those are things that if I had thought about I probably would have realized, but because I had never taught it in that framework, it really crystallized in preparing that lecture. So that was a great example of how much one can get out of doing these things.
PT: What are projects you’re looking forward to next semester and in future?
ML: So I’m working on quite a few different things. One big project that I have, which has grown out of involvement with the Greeks and involvement with climate change is actually a project that has various parts, but the theme is the place of knowledge, and particularly scientific knowledge, in political theory and in democratic politics. So I taught a graduate seminar several years ago on knowledge and politics, and it really turned out that if you try to think about political theorists and the canon who have thought about knowledge and specialized knowledge, the real tension is between epistemic authorities – the authority of some people who know some things better than others – and democratic equality; how you marry those things. And the Greeks are the people who think about that most. When I was looking for people to put on the syllabus we had the Greeks, we had Bentham and Mill, and there was really not much in between. And that’s an exaggeration – the 17th century is preoccupied with knowledge, but they’re more interested in kind of skepticism, the limits of knowledge, rather than thinking about the positive forms of knowledge. And then of course, climate change is exactly that problem, in part. So I have a number of studies, some of which I’ve completed and some of which I’m working on, that draw out this problem and treat it: sometimes with resources from the ancients, sometimes in normative contemporary political theory terms, and sometimes collaborating with scientists, colleagues to find different ways of thinking about this. I’m looking forward to doing that in different ways. Next semester I’m teaching POL 210, an introductory course to political theory. I’m actually very excited about teaching that course with my colleague Annie Stiltz. Neither of us has taught it before, and we’ve redesigned it – we have a completely new syllabus, and we’ve put a lot of thought into, how do you both introduce political theory as a normative discipline and also as the history of ideas all at once? And then, how do you help people learn how to write about political theory, both by writing papers and researching, but also learning how to answer examination questions – those are very different kinds of skills, and so we designed the whole course in order to really equip people with the tools, and also the excitement as to why political theory is really worth studying. So we’re very excited about doing that. I’ll also be teaching a half-graduate seminar on Plato’s Statesman, which is this relatively-little known Platonic dialogue, and which I actually wrote my PhD thesis and my first book about. I’ve written about it since, but it’s quite exciting to teach it. I’ve designed a couple of courses that I’ve gotten to teach once or twice, and I’m looking forward to reviving those when I have the chance. One of those is an undergraduate seminar on science and democracy, which I taught for the first time this spring and was fantastic, I had half science students, half Politics/Woodrow Wilson and Classics students, and we just had the most wonderful time, and it was very stimulating for everyone. That was great, and I’ve taught an undergraduate seminar on Greece and Rome as political models, which uses the historians of Athens, Sparta, and Rome, and modern historians, to understand those political constitutions. It looks at why subsequent thinkers in the history of political thought, from Machiavelli to Mill, and asks why they thought about those constitutions, from the American founding, to the English Revolution, to the French Revolution, and so it’s very exciting. I’m hoping to have the chance to teach that also at some point.
PT: Thanks so much.
ML: Thank you.
James Haynes is a freshman from Cullman, Alabama, majoring in History. He can be reached at email@example.com