John A. Stevens
 
Research
 
 

 
IN PROGRESS

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RESEARCH

Photo by René Seindal, 2002

I received a BA and MA from the University of Iowa in Classics, and PhD from Duke in Classical Studies. I wrote my dissertation on the philosophical background of Senecan tragedy. But at Iowa I had written on Charlemagne's Palace Chapel at Aachen and a church in Ravenna. I was always encouraged to study art history in doses as large as time would allow -- after Latin, Greek, German, French, ancient history and classical philosophy. It is a curriculum that I commend to all.

My investigations have evolved from a narrow interest in Stoicism to my current interest in the philosophical underpinnings of the Augustan literary enterprise to define the new Rome of the empire. The poets (Vergil and Horace) of those years (44BC-14AD) are largely responsible for defining the ideals of western civilization and certainly of Roman civilization. Vergil attempted to portray what a state should be: a ruler must be virtuous, and virtue requires philosophical knowledge, for it consists most especially in ruling over emotion and acting rationally. And so too a ruler must control emotional subjects. But what emerges especially in Horace is that the individual has a duty to rule over the self, that is, to be "self-governing". This is a great responsibility, and also a great freedom: everyone has the power of the emperor over his own soul. At the beginning of De Clementia, Seneca shows the imperial image masterfully: Nero's Romans are like an unruly horse and he is its rider. And this horse may turn out to be a Trojan Horse that will destroy a mighty kingdom, perhaps his own, if he is not virtuous. In this view of a state, the difference between the problem of virtue in the individual (philosophy) and virtue in the city (politics) is only one of numbers. Plato had written about this in Republic, using the model of a city to suggest what makes a soul just. It is my current project to show that Vergil did the opposite in Aeneid, using the model of a man to suggest what makes a city just.

I remain interested in other authors and problems: Seneca was aware of the Vergilian enterprise and reacted to it. Plato did not begin the enterprise to define justice or the study of the soul. I am convinced that we will find in Aeschylus and Pindar much more than we now realize about the birth of philosophy. Plato (mis)quotes them often, and at key moments. I am also very interested in Xenophon's Socratic writings, whose reaction to Plato we have not begun to understand. But work on these authors must wait until I finish more pressing projects.

 


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