The Magazine

Modern Ancients

Stanley Rosen's achievement.

Nov 25, 2002, Vol. 8, No. 11 • By THOMAS HIBBS
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Plato's Symposium
by Stanley Rosen
St. Augustine's, 428 pp., $32

Metaphysics in Ordinary Language
by Stanley Rosen
St. Augustine's, 302 pp., $24

The Question of Being
A Reversal of Heidegger
by Stanley Rosen
St. Augustine's, 367 pp., $27

The Ancients and the
Moderns
Rethinking Modernity
by Stanley Rosen
St. Augustine's, 248 pp., $23

BORN IN 1929--a contemporary of Alasdair MacIntyre and Charles Taylor--Stanley Rosen is the contemporary philosopher most resistant to classification. Like Allan Bloom, Rosen studied with both Leo Strauss and Alexander Kojève, but of all the famous students of those professors, Rosen is perhaps the only one known more for epistemology and metaphysics than for political philosophy.

Now nearing the end of a long career at Penn State and Boston University, Rosen is still turning out students and actively publishing. Even his older books continue to exert influence, as is evident by the decision of St. Augustine's Press to reprint a number of his now classic works, including: "Plato's Symposium," "Metaphysics in Ordinary Language," "The Question of Being: A Reversal of Heidegger," and "The Ancients and the Moderns: Rethinking Modernity."

It is, above all, Rosen's peculiar way of framing the quarrel between ancients and moderns that constitutes his singular contribution. Like the host of Straussians--like MacIntyre and Taylor, for that matter--Rosen writes books that, despite their diverse topics, inevitably return to the question of the ancients and the moderns. But he does not fit neatly into the categories Charles Taylor once labeled "the boosters and the knockers" of modernity. Rosen frequently quotes a passage from Nietzsche to which Strauss first drew his attention: "Whispered into the ear of the conservative. . . . A reversal in any sense and to any degree is surely not possible. . . : No one is free to be a crab. There is no getting round it: One must go forward." Though a defender of Plato, Rosen does not take refuge in antiquity as an escape from modernity. Indeed, he depicts Socrates as a figure who accomplishes such Enlightenment goals as bringing philosophy into the city and putting conventional opinion to the test of reason.

At the same time, Rosen does not flinch from harsh judgments about the modern era and its crisis for Western civilization. We are, he starkly puts it, "in the midst of nihilism." And he is quick to lay the blame on modernity itself, or at least on its most radical strains. (One of his central and most provocative claims is that postmodernism is simply modernity carried to a self-destructive extreme.) Moderns are, according to Rosen, their own worst enemy. In their hasty repudiation of ancient wisdom and ordinary, pre-scientific experience, they have lost access to the "terms that best describe their own project." Modernity involves a kind of forgetfulness.

But the proper response to this modern crisis is not--according to Rosen--a return to the politics of virtue, which, if consistently implemented, would require tyrannical measures in which radical modernity would engender an equally radical anti-modernity. Because crisis is to varying degrees intrinsic to human life, the appropriate response is prudent "negotiation." We need to recover a sense of the nobility of the modern project--and for such a recovering, the ancients, especially Plato, can be of tremendous assistance.

Take modern science and technology, for instance. Both are at once the great sources of modern forgetfulness and the chief obstacles to reviving ancient thought. On Rosen's reading, it is Plato, rather than Aristotle, who can best accommodate developments in modern science. Intellectual historians often note Plato's emphasis on the normative intelligibility of mathematics, and the dialogue "Timaeus" seems to assert the mathematical structure of the physical universe.

But Rosen thinks there are other, more important anticipations of modernity in Plato. Plato pairs the theoretical, contemplative activity of the intellect with a "practico-productive" activity, which involves fashioning or constructing the political and cultural conditions of human life. What's more, Plato shares with moderns a sense of the deep "discontent of human beings in the cosmos," a sense that nature is indifferent or even hostile to human aspirations. These themes--of constructing political life and of rendering nature more pliable to human designs--are the leitmotifs of the most influential moderns, whose goal is to render human beings "masters and possessors of nature," as Descartes famously put it.