melissa lane

Melissa Lane is the Class of 1943 Professor of Politics at Princeton University, and director of the University Center for Human Values.  She is also an associated faculty member in the Department of Classics and the Department of Philosophy.  In 2015, Melissa Lane was awarded a Phi Beta Kappa Teaching Prize at Princeton University. Melissa  Lane was named a 2012 Fellow of the John Simon Guggenheim Memorial Foundation for a project on ‘The Rule of Knowledge: Platonic Psychology and Politics’, and in 2012-13 was a Fellow of the Center for Advanced Study in the Behavioral Sciences at Stanford University.  Recent honors include delivering the keynote lecture for the 2016 London Graduate Conference in the History of Political Thought, the 2015 Chapman Lecture at the University of Auckland, and the 2015 Hood Lecture, also at the University of Auckland.  In November 2016 Melissa Lane delivered the annual public lecture of the Centre for Political Philosophy at the University of Leiden; in Fall 2017 she was the Charles McCracken Distinguished Guest Lecturer at Michigan State Universty and delivered the Gerald F. Else Lecture in the Humanities at the University of Michigan. Please enjoy my interview with Melissa Lane…

How do you describe your occupation?

Political theorist, philosopher, ‘ancient philosopher’ (that’s how scholars of Greek and Roman philosophy are described in the UK).

the pier fallsTalk us through a typical day for you…

Atypically, but once a week, I get up at 5:20 AM for a 6:30 AM tennis class…most days are spent in some combination of writing, teaching, meeting, conferencing.  I read novels before bed.

What are you reading at the moment and what made you want to read it?

The Pier Falls by Mark Haddon: a brilliant and disturbing collection of stories.  I find his awareness of what it is to be trapped inside one’s own skin electrifying, especially in his books The Red House and A Spot of Bother, and my husband knows how much I love those books, so he bought me these stories.

Can you remember the first book you read by yourself?

Sleeping Beauty by Charles Perrault: I memorized it and recited it before I could read it.

Are you a page folder or a bookmarker?

Not anymore.

When did you fall in love with philosophy?

In the first term of my first year at university, reading Greek scepticism.  The question of whether the sceptic could live out the scepticism being avowed brought home the links between one’s ideas and one’s life that I later found so vividly explored in Plato, in the soul/city analogy of The Republic and in the creative drive charted in The Symposium.

If you could gift yourself books at age 16 and age 25 – what would they be and why?

At age 16, Diving into the Wreck by Adrienne Rich, which became a touchstone for me in growing up as a woman while at university.  At age 25, The Claim of Reason: Wittgenstein, Skepticism, Morality, and Tragedy by Stanley Cavell, which contrasts the ever-frustrated search for certain knowledge with the willingness to trust in human acknowledgement.

If you could invite 5 authors (dead or alive) to a dinner party – who would they be and why?

Wise women: George Eliot, Virginia Woolf, Gillian Beer, Helen Vendler, Emma Rothschild – I am lucky enough to know the latter three, and I would love to see how their depth of knowledge of science and literature (Darwin’s Plots by Gillian Beer),  psychology and piety (The Poetry of George Herbert by Helen Vendler), and the interplay between philosophy, economics, and social enlightenment (Economic Sentiments by Emma Rothschild) would interact with Eliot’s free thinking and Woolf’s fine audacity.

What was the last book you purchased, and why did you buy it?

The Last Man in Europe by Dennis Glover: a brilliant novel by an old friend (full disclosure) about George Orwell in the years around 1948, when he was writing 1984, bringing the political traumas of the era into focus as they come to life in his novels.

What is your favourite thing about reading?

The sheer rhythms of prose.

What’s the best book you’ve read in the last 6 months?

Classical Greek Oligarchy: A Political History by Matthew W. Simonton: this is a new reading of the formation of ancient Greek oligarchical ideas and regimes as responding to pressures from democratic regimes of the time, rather than as preceding them, and is rich in illuminating detail.

If you could insert yourself into any book, which would you pick and why?

Middlemarch by George Eliot, as an anatomy of how the tiny choices that we make in everyday moments  – which way we lean, as it were – add up to what looks like fate or destiny.

What advice would you give a novice, looking for an introduction to philosophy?

Read the works themselves – perhaps beginning with shorter ones: Apology or Euthyphro by Plato, Dialogues on Natural Religion by David Hume, What is Enlightenment? by Immanuel Kant, Self-Reliance by Ralph Waldo Emerson.  There is no substitute for the works themselves.

What is the book that you feel has had the single biggest impact on your life? What impact did it have?

The Statesman by Plato, which was the topic of my doctoral dissertation, Every few years I teach it or study it again and find that I am refining the thoughts that I had about it: in my 20s I charted its definition of political knowledge as knowledge of the good in time, and thought of it also as an analysis of political legitimacy;  in my 30s I tried to work out the relationship between being a philosopher and being a practitioner of statecraft; in my 40s I started to try to figure out what the burden of rule was in the ideal of the rule of knowledge; in my 50s I finally realized just how the Greek for legitimacy is grammatically formulated and came back to the relationship between what we call theory and practice, but which Plato thinks of there quite differently….its insights are never-ending, or perhaps each person only has one idea in their life that they keep on thinking  if they are lucky, and in this dialogue I continue to find mine.

Who would you say are the three philosophers that continue to inspire you?

Plato, for his ability to show how ethics, politics, epistemology and metaphysics connect at the root; Rawls, with whom I studied letters to a young poethis book A Theory of Justice at university, for inducting me gradually into an understanding of what it is for a philosophical theory to have an architecture comparable to a cathedral; Emerson, for the incandescence of his prose.  And Michèle Le Doeuff, for uncovering the difference between young men studying in philosophical schools and young women being privately tutored by philosophers whom they could not thereby easily contradict.

Are there any books you haven’t mentioned that you feel would make your reading list?

So many. Just to mention collections of letters, for example: Letters to a Young Poet by Rainer Maria Rilke; Letters to Milena by Franz Kafka; Letters to Olga by Vaclav Havel.

Which book sat on your shelf are you most excited about reading next and why?

Weapons of Math Destruction by Cathy O’Neil, on the dangers of government by algorithm.

If you’d like to learn more about Melissa Lane, you can find her on her faculty page.

Image credit: Denise Applewhite