|Ahrensdorf's Book Analyzes Greek Philosophers' Views on Religion and Politics
May 13, 2009
by Emily Matras '12
Over the past 30 years, the relationship between religion and politics has emerged as a problematic issue of political life—a development that was not predicted by modern philosophers and political thinkers like Friedrich Nietzsche and John Locke. Davidson College Professor of Political Science Peter Ahrensdorf analyzes this surprising trend in his new book, Greek Tragedy and Political Philosophy: Rationalism and Religion in Sophocles’ Theban Plays.
|Professor of Political Science Peter Ahrensdorf|
In the book, Ahrensdorf analyzes the three Theban plays of Sophocles -- Oedipus the Tyrant, Oedipus at Colonus and Antigone -- with attention to the age-old question of whether human beings should seek guidance from human reason or religion.
“The dominant view of modern philosophers was that religion would fade. Its current reemergence, as in the Middle East, wasn’t predicted,” said Ahrensdorf. “We must look at pre-modern thinkers like the Greek philosophers to understand this return to religion. Sophocles in many ways criticizes religion, but he argues that it is a permanent feature of political life.”
Ahrensdorf has been working on the book over the past 10 years, mostly during summers and sabbaticals. “I would read, take notes, think, write, re-write, and re-write some more,” he said. “Two of the articles I wrote for journals wound up as chapters in the book.”
Ahrensdorf credits faculty colleagues with helping motivate his work, but he thanks students for helping him as well. He said, “Through class discussion, they never let me stop thinking. They’re always asking me questions, raising objections, and making observations I haven’t considered.”
Ahrensdorf has long been interested in the relationship between Greek literature and politics. He completed graduate work at The University of Chicago while participating in an interdisciplinary program in political philosophy, classics, and literature.
“I think the sharp division between literature and political thought is largely a creation of 19th- and 20th-century universities,” he said. “Machiavelli wrote great comedies, and Shakespeare’s works were extremely political.”Ahrensdorf has taught the works of such modern philosophers as Nietzsche, Locke, and Machiavelli in his classes, but is especially intrigued by the works of pre-modern philosophers. “Many questions that seem settled to modern thinkers are open to Greek thinkers,” said Ahrensdorf. “I like to look for an alternative to modern thought, and I appreciate the intrinsic quality and richness of Greek philosophy. I think it’s important to study both modern and Greek thinkers.”
This is Ahrensdorf’s third book. The first was The Death of Socrates and the Life of Philosophy, which he worked on from 1989 to 1995. Next came Justice Among Nations: On the Moral Basis of Power and Peace, which he co-authored with University of Texas professor Thomas L. Pangle. While on sabbatical next year, he will be working on his fourth text, about the Greek poet Homer.
Ahrensdorf said the relationship between religion and politics is a common theme in his work. “It’s a timeless and timely question. I still struggle with it, which is why I write about it, to help me think about it.”
Ahrensdorf hopes that his new book proves insightful to readers. “The people I hope read it most are the students and teachers of politics, literature, classics, religion, and philosophy,” he said. “My hope is that it would inspire people to study Sophocles with greater interest and enthusiasm.”
The book can be purchased through Amazon and elsewhere.
Davidson is a highly selective independent liberal arts college for 1,800 students located 20 minutes north of Charlotte in Davidson, N.C. Since its establishment in 1837 by Presbyterians, the college has graduated 23 Rhodes Scholars and is consistently regarded as one of the top liberal arts colleges in the country. Through The Davidson Trust, the college became the first liberal arts institution in the nation to replace loans with grants in all financial aid packages, giving all students the opportunity to graduate debt-free. Davidson competes in NCAA athletics at the Division I level, and a longstanding Honor Code is central to student life at the college.
Posted By: Bill Giduz