Q&A with Dr. Charlotte C.S. Thomas, author of THE FEMALE DRAMA: THE PHILOSOPHICAL FEMININE IN THE SOUL OF PLATO’S REPUBLIC
By Elizabeth Tammi
Plato’s Republic remains one of the most fundamental texts of Western civilization. In The Female Drama: The Philosophical Feminine in the Soul of Plato’s Republic, philosophy professor Dr. Charlotte C.S. Thomas revisits the famous text to explore its Books V-VII. Thomas’s book released from Mercer University Press in March 2020.
Thomas seeks to investigate the meaning behind the Female Drama that Socrates speaks of in Books V-VII; she argues that this Female Drama is concerned with potentiality, and the qualities and activities necessary for the development of justice. In The Female Drama, Thomas masterfully unpacks the central books of the Republic and offers new insights and discoveries on the classic text.
When did you first read Plato’s Republic? What was that experience like for you?
I read the Republic for the first time as a first quarter sophomore at Mercer in Diana Stege’s Great Books II Seminar. Tom Glennon sat in that semester, too. I didn’t love the book. I don’t think most Great Books II students do. It is just too big, too hard, and too much for just about everyone the first time they read it. And, because of that, people tend only to read the Republic once, at most, which is to say they never really read it. My second time through was about a year later in Tom Trimble’s Ancient Philosophy seminar, and the book started to come into a bit of focus for me, but I still didn’t love it. I probably started loving the Republic when Carl Page taught a graduate seminar on it in my fourth year of grad school at Emory. By that time, my love of Plato was fairly well developed, but I still couldn’t really wrap my arms around the Republic. That winter of 1991, something changed, though. I was able to begin to see the book. Since then, I’ve read it or taught it at least once a year, every year. Many years, I’ll teach it two or three times, and I re-read with my students every time. I genuinely can’t count how many times I’ve read the Republic, now.
For readers who might not know, can you briefly explain what Mercer University’s Great Books program is? The Republic is one of the program’s most prominent texts. How do you think this book has impacted Western civilization and history? Why is it important that we still read and study it today?
The Great Books program is an alternative general education track at Mercer. Students who choose to take the Great Books track enroll in one seminar per semester for seven semesters instead of taking lower division courses in a range of humanities, arts, social sciences, and natural sciences disciplines. Great Books students still have to satisfy math, language, and science proficiencies in order to graduate from Mercer, but the rest of their general education program is satisfied by their Great Books Seminars. Great Books program faculty all have disciplinary degrees and teach mainly in their conventional academic departments, but they lean out of their comfort zones to read books with Great Books students.
Many of the books in the Great Books program are spectacular and brilliant, but not all of them. Some of them are less impressive. Harder to make sense of. Less apparently complete. All of them are, however, a part of a generations-long, cultural boundary-transgressing conversation about what it means to live a good life. It is a conversation full of deep disagreements on facts and values, and students in the program are invited to join it. Great Books students read these books because they have a lot to teach us, but they read them critically, because none of the books in the program is beyond criticism. The best books read us as much as we read them, that is to say that when we read and discuss them our own sense of what is true and good and beautiful comes into sharper focus. And, if we are honest with ourselves and other, we are open to revising those ideas when they seem flawed or when another perspective appears more promising or accurate.
How do you approach teaching Plato’s Republic to your students?
If I’m in an upper division ancient philosophy seminar, I lecture. If I’m in Great Books, I try to formulate the best question I can and then get out of the way (except to direct traffic). If I’m in a lower division philosophy class, I have a sort of hybrid approach, usually with excerpts. My goal is to open the book up to my students, or at least not to close them off to it forever, and that calls for different strategies in different circumstances.
Did the matter of the “Female Drama” always stick out to you, or was it something that interested you after studying the text for a while?
The beginning of Book V of the Republic has been a frustration to me since the beginning, but there’s so much about Plato that’s hard, it kind of blended in with other frustrations. As I grew to understand the rest of the Republic better, the strangeness of Books V-VII grew for me.
Early in the Republic, Socrates constructs the city in speech as a way of illuminating the structure of the soul, and he regularly reminds everyone in the conversation of the Republic that his central concern is the soul. He explicitly unpacks the lessons of the city for the soul over and over again in Books II-IV and VII-X. But, in Books V-VII it is as if Socrates has ceased being interested in the soul and is simply focused on the city. But that can’t be right. So, a million questions emerge. Why does Socrates stop unpacking the lessons of the city in speech for the soul? What do the elements in the city in speech signify for the soul? Why is Socrates so coy?
When I started working through these questions and began to have provisional answers to them, a whole new world opened up for me in the Republic. And, when I dug into the secondary literature on the Republic (which is impossibly vast) and found that no one had really done the sort of analysis of Books V -VII that I wanted to do, I was floored. But, there were plenty of commentators who walked right up to the threshold of what I wanted to do, and there were others whose theories seemed entirely compatible with my interpretation. It was heartening and intimidating, but I just kept following the thread and, eventually, it led me out of the labyrinth.
What about the research, drafting, and revision process of this book was the most enjoyable? The most difficult?
Honestly, it was all challenging, and it was all enjoyable. It was an iterative process. I co-wrote an essay with my colleague in Mercer’s Philosophy department, Kevin Honeycutt, that really got the project off the ground. Then I kept reading Plato and the secondary literature, and I kept pushing through the tangles I ran into in my interpretation.
During my sabbatical, I wrote for at least three hours every morning and, often, for another two or three hours in the afternoon. And, when I got to the last page of the final chapter, I thought I was finished! After all, I had been thinking about this book, researching it, and writing parts of it for almost ten years. But, the process of revision, responding to the notes of my generous friends who served as readers, working on the index, etc., took another full year. And, even though, I sometimes thought I would never be done, I even enjoyed that part. I’m so interested in these questions and this material, that it makes me happy even when someone engages me just to show me I’m wrong about something. Socrates always claimed to be happy when he was shown wrong (although Plato never depicts that actually happening), and now I finally really understand what that is all about. I think this book has actually made me a better person, perhaps only slightly, but still a wee bit better.
You’ve spent a lot of time in Greece—have your experiences there helped shape your understanding of this text?
Immeasurably. Mainly, being in Greece puts me in touch with the culture that Socrates and Plato were immersed in. So, walking through the streets of Athens doesn’t really help me with my argument, per se, but it helps me understand some of the stakes of the Republic and the cultural context within which it was written.
If you don’t understand something about the Peloponnesian and Persian Wars, then you’ll miss dozens of allusions in the Republic. If you don’t know that Athens lost a war just before Plato wrote and that the dialogue is set at the home of an arms dealer shortly before that war really heated up, you’re going to completely miss the way the setting of the dialogue contextualizes the content. And, although I had read Herodotus and Thucydides before I began travelling to Greece regularly, I didn’t really get it. It was traveling in Greece while reading and writing and thinking about these things that began to make those light bulbs go on in my head.
What do you hope readers of your book will take away? How do you hope to influence their interpretation of the Republic or philosophical texts in general?
I hope it makes people want to give the Republic, or at least the central books, another read. For those who would read and reread the Republic whether or not they ever ran across my book, I hope they look at the middle books with new eyes. So many people have done wonderful work on social and political themes in the central books of the Republic, and so many people have done excellent studies of the moral psychology of the Republic, but I haven’t found any systematic inquiry into the moral psychology of the central books, and I’ve looked! I would love for more scholars to get interested in this thread of inquiry and join me back in the labyrinth to see what else we might be able to find.
Is there another philosophical text or inquiry you’d like to explore in-depth in the future?
I am currently working on Herodotus and Thucydides, specifically thinking about philosophical themes and strategies in their histories. In the ancient world, no one shelved Thucydides under “History” and Plato under “Philosophy”. Those hard and fast distinctions came later. I believe ancient historians might do well to look for historical themes and strategies in Plato, too, but I have to come at it from what I know; so, I’m looking for philosophy in ancient history . . . and I’m finding quite a lot! I’m not sure whether this will be a book or not. We’ll see.
I want to write a book on Homer, too. I feel my mind turning that way fairly often. As soon as the Herodotus/Thucydides project plays out, I imagine myself settling in with Homer for a very long while.
But, I think I will always also keep thinking and writing about Plato, although I am not sure my ambition is to write another book on Plato. I have at least a couple of article ideas just based on the questions that I’ve been asked in Q&A’s after talks I’ve given about The Female Drama. The more Plato scholars I get to know well, the more it seems to me that working on the Republic is like moving into a beautiful city that you can never fully explore. I’ve gotten to know one of its neighborhoods pretty well, but there are others, and I’d like to learn them, too.
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