Teaching Plato in Palestine

Carlos Fraenkel. Princeton University Press, 2015. 240 pages. $27.95.

By Sarah Gustafson

The book jacket of Carlos Fraenkel’s Teaching Plato in Palestine features a solitary walker in the tawny desert, moving with what appears to be determination towards a distant point on the blue horizon. In many ways, this simply and elegantly represents of his goal for this slim book of less than 200 pages of text: that it not only display the diverse contexts in which philosophy serves as a guidepost to communities who wander in search of answers to religious and political questions, but that in doing so, it proves the usefulness of a “culture of debate” that “takes philosophy out of the classroom” and uses philosophy to “articulate questions more clearly, and to explore and refine answers to them.” In others, the image perpetuated by the cover (as well as by the highly evocative and grabbing title) reduces and even hides the powerful content. Far from a story of ideological conflict or intellectual confrontation in Palestine, though such a story could well occupy an entire book. But his “intellectual travelogue” moves us in space and spirit far from the contested lands of the Middle East and into the contest to settle the ownership of sovereignty, of reason, and of the right to define the good life for individuals and the community. 

Fraenkel organizes his work into two parts, one descriptive and narrative, and the second argumentative. In Part I, five short essays about his experiences teaching Greek, Jewish, Arabic, and Muslim philosophy in universities and private workshops reveal confrontations of modern individuals and communities with philosophies that most in mainstream, globalized culture consider esoteric. But what Fraenkel repeatedly undermines in exposing Palestinian and Indonesian university students, Brazilian high schoolers, adult males in New York City’s clandestinely philosophical Hasidic Jews, and the leaders of the Mohawk Nation to Plato, Aristotle, Al-Ghazali, Al-Farabi, Maimonides, Spinoza, and Nietzsche, is the idea that these thinkers are not modern, or that they are irrelevant to the modern world. While he admits the contexts necessary to understand these thinkers, Fraenkel will not allow context to define or delimit how their philosophies might enlighten us. Philosophy can be as healthy for the soul and for the community in the ‘gigantic intellectual and political laboratory’ of Indonesia, the world’s largest Muslim country, as “teaching medicine or public health.” On the other side of the world, Fraenkel likewise encourages Hasidic Jews – who secretly gathered with him in New York City bars and read forbidden texts of Maimonides on their mobile devices – to identify with Spinoza as a ‘fellow lapsed Jew’ and ‘hope to find in him a philosophical expression of Jewish ideals… that doesn’t require the baggage of traditional beliefs and practices.” That identification itself represents a major victory for philosophy outside the academic world. Some groups, such as the Mohawks, expressed serious doubt that Western philosophical approaches to sovereignty, political autonomy, and nationhood could usefully inform their fight for self-governance and for the realization of the good life. Arguably the most intellectual strenuous and morally challenging part of the text, the chapter on the Mohawk Nation closes Part One. This community, likely the least visible on the international stage of all those Fraenkel leads in discussion, is Western by geography. Unlike Brazilians, Jewish New Yorkers or the various Muslim groups who fight certain aspects of the West yet share the West’s Greek philosophical heritage, they have no philosophical root in common with the West. Fraenkel’s workshops with them reach an intellectual and emotional tenor that sometimes suggests the limitations of philosophy. Yet the dove and olive branch arrives after the flood: “’We don’t seem to have reached any conclusions,’ Sarah says, ‘Yes,’ Gil replies, ‘but I feel we got greater clarity on what the issues involve. And a taste for looking at them from different angles.’” For a teacher like Fraenkel, who reflects that he “forced to think hard about these convictions that aren’t usually questioned in the Western academic milieu I come from,” as well as for newcomers to philosophy, personal identification with the questions, if not with the philosophers, is a route through the desert. 

Part One’s series of philosophical confrontations serve to demonstrate the greater thesis of the book, that philosophy is not just the product of historical “cultures of debate” but that its reintroduction can foster cultures of debate. Rather than adhering to an ideal of cultural relativism, Fraenkel advocates what he calls cultural fallibilism. This approach to the good life considers “living by the truth a moral obligation” and requires our openness to hearing the truths of others, if only to strengthen our existing convictions. We cannot be enlightened members of humanity if we do not “welcome the disruptions that compel us to confront” the many sources of self, “the beliefs and values embedded in a culture that shape our identity and the way we live.” Drawing from his Part One experiences, his biography, philosophers discussed in Part One and others including Charles Taylor, Bayle, Galen, Descartes, Pascal, Kant, Constant, Mill, and Rawls, he crafts a vision of a culture of debate, a “joint search for truth,” that allows individuals to pursue philosophical and religious truth about the good life in a polis, and that is ethnocentric and normative only in encouraging individuals to recognize how other religious and cultural traditions might resonate with their cherished worldview. His goal is not to deny us the values we already cherish. It is to force us, as Al-Ghazali did, to break the authoritative bonds of taqlid that oblige us to accept a worldview blindly and so limit the individual autonomy for which Kant and Mill fought. It is through a culture of debate that we determine what is good and what is bad, and that we pursue piecemeal progress: “Endorsing a culture of debate requires only holding that not all ways of life are good, that how we live depends to some extent on our beliefs and values, and that we can improve our beliefs and values by critically examining them.” Not everyone can become a philosopher. Not everyone can freely and correctly cite Plato and Aristotle in daily deliberations about local governance, for example. It is his hope, though, that inculcating a culture of debate might not only produce marginally more philosophers, but make habitual the techniques and virtues of debate. I would fault this text primarily on one account; Fraenkel essentially ignores Christian philosophy, a surprising and sometimes glaring omission in a work that dwells so heavily on resolving religious conflict. (He seems to attempt to replace Aquinas or Augustine with small gestures to medieval interpretations of Plato and Aristotle.) However, given this omission, his work is persuasive and strong, and enunciates a position that neither rests on ethnocentric laurels nor denies – to himself or his interlocutors – the power of strongly held convictions. Teaching Plato in Palestine is a slim, straightforward yet surprisingly rich work of philosophy that will intrigue the amateur as well as the expert. 

Sarah Gustafson (ΦBK, Davidson College, 2014) is a candidate for the master’s degree in the History of Political Thought and Intellectual History at University College London, and looks forward to her future pursuit of a Ph.D. in European History.