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.
ON ITS FACE, this seems to make Plato little more than an immature modern. But for Rosen, the nihilistic crisis of modernity requires us to attempt "the recovery of ordinary experience," which provides the "starting points of philosophical investigation." This is Socratic philosophy. While allowing for the flourishing of technical accounts of nature, it retains roots in common, pre-scientific and pre-technical experience. By contrast, modern science and the analytic strain in modern philosophy seek to create a technical language to depict reality--and thus deprive themselves of the language they need to explain what they're doing and why it's important. Moreover, if there is no common world prior to philosophy and science, choice becomes arbitrary and we are well on our way to a decadent postmodernism.
The primacy of ordinary experience does not establish common sense as an infallible guide, nor does it discount the revolutionary and extraordinary task of the philosopher. Philosophy "originates as a disjunction from ordinary experience," but it aims to answer questions that arise in or from ordinary life. The "extraordinary derives its significance" from the ordinary, which is the source of intelligibility for all human endeavor.
In Platonic fashion, Rosen sees philosophy as linking the human to the divine, the mundane to the transcendent. Here he echoes Strauss and Kojève: The true philosopher is akin to a god, and the human animal is by nature philosophical. In an ordinary human life, philosophy is at work in the making of "sound judgments about ordinary experience" and in the deliberative and reflective capacity to distinguish better and worse ways of life. Everyone has desires and pursues goals that are at least potentially in conflict with one another. Among these desires and goals, agents must select which to pursue and in what way. Thus every human being makes judgments about better and worse, and thus, at least implicitly, engages in philosophy.
As Rosen depicts it, desire--eros--is the "middle term between knowledge and the good life." And it is precisely this linking ability of eros that modernity, with its celebration of instrumental reason and its exaltation of endless technical progress, threatens to destroy. What Plato offers to modernity is the possibility of reestablishing the intrinsic connection between reason and the good.
Along the way, however, Rosen's rich philosophy seems to close its eyes to some of the problems that science creates for us. The difficulty is this: The world described by mathematical physics often appears not just different from, but fundamentally antithetical to, the world accessible in ordinary experience. Complex and multiple pictures of reality are preferable to a simplistic, unified vision, but to what extent can the human intellect rest satisfied with incompatible versions of the same experience, with a two-worlds vision of reality?
HERE THE APPROACH of Husserl and Aristotle, who think philosophy must be involved directly in science, seems more useful than Rosen admits. He applauds Plato for acknowledging the extent to which nature is at odds with human aspiration--and then briefly and curiously observes that he does not reject the "ancient notion of natural order." This is precisely where more needs to be said. If we cannot sustain philosophically and scientifically the notion of natural order, then the very foundation of the Platonic Ideas, even as hypothetical, will be undercut.
Still, one should credit Rosen with seeing that contemporary philosophy has not too little but too great a concern with the methods of science. This concern even invaded the interpretation of Plato. When Rosen first published a book-length study of Plato's "Symposium" in the 1960s, Plato studies were dominated by philological historicism, which exhausted itself in the dating of dialogues, and analytical philosophy, which focused on the technical examination of arguments uprooted from context, and gave Plato credit for little beyond anticipating later developments in logic.
To these approaches, Rosen addressed pointed questions: What evidence is there for the view that the dialogues record the history of Plato's mental development? By what right do we disregard the central phenomenon of the dramatic context of every argument in the dialogues? What if Plato's conception of "rational argument" is decisively broader than our own? How can we ignore Socratic and Platonic irony? In a series of books devoted to analysis of the dramatic structure of the dialogues, Rosen aimed to return Plato to his "intended audience": "the intelligent and imaginative reader who is trying to reconsider the opinions of his day concerning life as a whole." The "pedagogical or medicinal" goal of the dialogues is to "lead the young to philosophy and mitigate the diseases of ignorance and thoughtlessness."
The dialogues are thus dramas. Like Shakespeare, Plato says nothing in his own name. Each speech or argument must be interpreted "relative to its specific dramatic situation" within the dramatic flow of the entire dialogue. Not even Socrates, unquestionably the central character, always speaks for Plato. In the "Symposium," for example, which addresses eros as mediator between the divine and the human, Socrates himself is depicted as a student of Diotima, whose lessons Socrates seems not to have fully mastered. Indeed, Socrates embodies only part of eros, the part that has a thrust toward the divine. But Socrates' hubris and seeming indifference to the love of individual human beings is "not in tune with generated or corporeal human nature." The complexity of human nature and the limitations to human reason underscore the incompleteness of the path of pure reason. In its quest for the divine, philosophy requires the assistance of poetry and myth. The dialogue encompasses all these modes of speech; thus it is the dialogue in its entirety, not just the character of Socrates, that provides the complete teaching on eros.
ROSEN HAS WON all these battles, and with his literary approach to Platonic dialogues now the norm even in philosophy departments, he seems to have permanently altered the shape of the scholarly field. But we face, as a consequence, a new problem: a risk of reducing Plato's dialogues to mere literature, containing little of value to philosophers. Certainly this was never the intention of Rosen, whose interpretations of Plato have always had a philosophical edge. Indeed, in his attempt to unsettle the conventional academic approaches to Plato, Rosen seems to have taken to heart Nietzsche's advice to philosophize with a hammer.
If Anglo-American interpretations of Plato have tended to downplay the philosophical significance of the dialogues, Continental philosophers have accentuated Plato's determinative influence on all of Western metaphysics and ethics. But they do so, following the lead of Heidegger, by seeing Plato as a seedbed of error and illusion, the source of an infection that has proven fatal to philosophy itself. Rosen identifies Heidegger as the "biggest obstacle" to the recovery of philosophy. Even more than Strauss, whose turn to the ancients was prompted by attending Heidegger's lectures, Rosen engages in a direct, sustained confrontation with Heidegger.
Heidegger's genealogy of modernity runs this way: By its exaltation of conceptual and technological thinking, Western civilization has reduced Being to an empty concept that captures only the most general and average features of the experience of what exists. By conceiving Being as an idea present to intelligence, Western philosophy reduces Being to something produced by human intelligence, a product disposable by the whims of the human will. Thus does it pave the way for an utterly technical and instrumentalist conception of reason and the good. Heidegger traces these developments to Plato's doctrine of separate, transcendent Ideas, which are the basis for the intelligibility of sensible things.
For Heidegger as for Rosen, Plato is in a certain sense the first modern. But here agreement ends. According to Rosen, Heidegger badly misreads Plato; for all its philological and philosophical sophistication, Heidegger's interpretation suffers from the same defects that have afflicted the reading of Plato in standard academic treatises. Heidegger neglects the dramatic form of the dialogues--evident in his habit of contextless analysis of passages about the Ideas--and reads all sorts of later developments back into the text.
PLATONIC METAPHYSICS is not a matter of establishing a science of Being. Instead, it involves the more fundamental and more elusive task of thinking the whole. Since eros finds little or no place in Heidegger's interpretation of Plato, it is inevitable that he should misconstrue Platonic philosophy. Philosophy addresses the human longing to orient oneself in and with respect to the entire order of things. Indeed, the ideas themselves have a hypothetical status in Plato; they serve to account for the intelligibility of sensible particulars and for our ability to distinguish between better and worse courses of action. Philosophy is not so much a matter of advocating a specific set of doctrines as it is a way of life.
Heidegger's cure for what ails the West is no better than his diagnosis of the disease. In language that becomes increasingly poetic and obscure, he counsels a return to Being rather than beings, or, even more obscurely, an attempt to think the difference between Being and beings. Rosen counters that the attempt to think Being itself or difference will quickly prove fruitless, evaporate into nothingness, as it is only particular beings that provide content for thought. Moreover, Heidegger's longing to overcome technical reason and voluntarism leads him to celebrate the passivity of the human individual before the speech of Being. But this, according to Rosen, only ends up exacerbating our situation, since it deprives us of any standard for preferring one course of action to another--or, indeed, for preferring action to inaction. "It remains permanently unclear why Heidegger's resolution of the problem of nihilism is not itself nihilism on the grand scale."
If Rosen faults analytic philosophy for its excessive attachment to science, he detects the opposite in the Heideggerian strain of twentieth-century Continental philosophy: a tendency to turn philosophy into bad poetry, or, as Rosen memorably describes it, "orientalist kitsch and Gothic etymologizing." Just as modern philosophy vacillates between excessive confidence in the power of reason and skepticism, so it seems to shift between a preoccupation with mathematical models of intelligibility and an obsession with a mystical poetics. Both are forms of making, types of techne or poesis--and thus it is predictable that modern poesis, which ought to complement eros, instead seems so often limited to what calculative, human reason can comprehend and control. Modernity deems especially repugnant the notion of subordination to a transcendent good, however hypothetical.
Rosen might well be right about the strengths and weaknesses of the Enlightenment project and about the correctives available in Plato. But one wonders whether there is not something inherent in, and essential to, the modern project, in its political and scientific forms, that will never allow it to be subordinated to the transcendent. Here theological issues surface in a decisive way--and Rosen remains relatively silent about the theological or anti-theological roots of modernity, the way in which modern philosophy is parasitic on medieval theology. If modernity finds itself intrinsically at odds with the supernatural, attempting to find a way to defuse, or at least bring under human control, the powerful impetus toward the divine, then how likely is it that it will ever embrace the divine madness of Socrates?
Thomas Hibbs is chairman of the philosophy department at Boston College.