Dr. Martha C. Beck is Professor of Philosophy at Lyon College in Batesville, Arkansas. She’s the author of fourteen books and over fifty book chapters and articles on Plato and Carl Jung, Plato and Greek tragedy, Aristotle and Greek tragedy, Aristotle and the United Nations’ Capabilities model for human development, Aristotle and Systems thinking, Aristotle and Environmental philosophy, Aristotle and feminist theory, the goddesses of Greece and feminist Jungian psychology, and her experiences growing up as a liberal.
Her articles have been published in journals in the United States, Greece, The Russian Republic, the Czech Republic, Australia, and China. She’s also delivered papers in Athens, Olympia, Moscow, St. Petersburg, Beijing, Shang Hai, Prague, and Ascea, Italy.
She received a Fulbright Fellowship to teach Western Thought at an Islamic State University in 2012 and received an Indonesia-funded grant to teach Environmental Ethics at the Islamic State University in Jakarta in 2017. She welcomes opportunities to teach abroad and hosts a YouTube channel, Dr. Martha Catherine Beck, Greek Philosophy that contains seventy-six videos and ten Playlists, all focused on the theme, “The Legacy of Ancient Greek Civilization in the Era of Globalization”.
How did you become interested in Greek philosophy?
My mother was an Art History teacher at the local state university. When I was eight, we went to England. She showed us all the cathedrals, museums, monuments, etc. I began to wonder, “What makes great art great?” That question has stuck with me.
When I was 10, my father, a Methodist minister, marched with Martin Luther King, jr. in Selma, Alabama. I remember it well. People called us and swore at him over the phone, so I knew that people disagreed about justice and injustice, virtue, and vice. I was also amid social unrest connected to the Vietnam War, attending high school from ’69-‘71. Greed fueled the war and in the name of “making the world safe from Communism”, we were engaged in building an empire. My father preached on these things, as well as the need for environmental conservation and sustainable living. All of this got me thinking even more about justice and virtue. Over time, I began to ruminate over more questions like whether the universe is created or eternal, and why that matters in terms of environmental sustainability.
It was in high school that I began intensely reflecting on my surroundings, and my past experiences with social unrest, injustice, the future of the environment, and my father’s ministries. I wasn’t aware there was entire subject based on this existential practice of questioning all that is, “Philosophy”. So, in my second semester of my junior year in college, I declared it my major.
In my studies, I felt Plato’s story was my story. It felt as I was reading my own mind. Plato stole all my best ideas! I thought that I made those ideas up, but I found out Plato already did a much better job of it than I did. So, I wanted to be a Plato scholar because his works resonated so much with me. Plato’s dialogues are, to me, a huge map of the whole and all the parts, good and evil, with an image of a human being managing to live by the power of his mind (nous) throughout it all. What is piety? (Euthyphro), What is art? (Ion)… I asked these same questions throughout my life.
I describe Greek philosophy and culture as “Spiritual Humanism”. Aristotle’s virtues and Socrates’ way of life are a paradigm of how to live that can be applied to Jesus (Sermon on the Mount), Buddha, Muhammad, Confucius, Gandhi, and so many others. I use the word “spiritual” to mean the daimonic as Socrates describes it in the Symposium, but as is implicit throughout Greek myths, tragedy, Homer, Hesiod and so on. We are born to understand the patterns in the world, both in the universe and in human affairs. The way we understand these things always leads to a way of life.
Greek humanism appeals to our common humanity, making it very relevant today. Greek myths and stories can resonate with anyone with any walk of life. The patterns are everywhere and this is becoming more and more obvious. As the world is moving away from free and open societies and toward more authoritarianism, Plato’s dialogues are more relevant than ever. I’ve delivered my lecture on “The Rise and Fall of Athenian Democracy” worldwide to a receptive audience that understood my point well.
All of the aforementioned is only a small fraction of why I feel Greek philosophy and culture are vital and pertinent. My publications tie Aristotle to Greek tragedy, Plato, the United Nations Capabilities model of development, environmental protection and the formation of sustainable societies, the habituation of children for moderation and sustainability, and the place of the arts in developing a flourishing society.
What is the most important concept that you teach people?
Perhaps it is the model of liberal arts education and the liberal arts educator. This model is disappearing for many reasons. One is overspecialization and the model of higher education as the university model rather than the model of small, liberal arts colleges, like Plato’s Academy. My entire undergraduate, graduate, and professional life has been spent in liberal arts colleges. I get to know my students well and they know my character also. Faculty evaluations include engagement in the life of the college and in volunteer activities beyond it. We must be engaged citizens, to walk the walk and not just talk the talk.
Lyon College’s catalog contains five characteristics of a liberally-minded adult which I have outside my office, which I tell my students that I structure my classes around, to model and I ask them to follow:
- Commitment to truth, understanding that one has to examine what “truth” is or what the word means
- Intellectual honesty (don’t think you know when you don’t know)
- Fairness to opposing points of view (avoid polarization and stereotyping)
- Patience with complexity and ambiguity (the problems we need to solve collectively are very difficult, so accept it and don’t look for simple solutions or believe political leaders that claim to have them);
- Tolerance of reasoned dissent
I ask students on the first day of class if they like the polarization they are living. In short, they don’t. So, I tell them that the only way to cease this is for them to decide to end it right here, in this classroom, while we’re discussing this incredibly relevant material. Then each student presents what they thought of the reading and then other students ask follow-up questions. I tell them that for their own sake they should decide not to polarize. They will have to lead the nation in twenty years, and they do not want to have to lead a severely divided society. So, now is the time that they should begin to create a better future. This idea sets the tone for the semester.
What is the most important piece of practical advice that we can derive from your work?
I would quote from Seneca’s On Tranquility of Mind, where he talks about how Socrates lived. Before the 30 Tyrants took over, Socrates was getting up every morning, talking to Athenians, trying to make them transparent about how they use their freedom and accountable for abusing it. Preserving a democracy requires people to render an account of how they live and why this way of life promotes flourishing. After he failed, during the reign of the 30 Tyrants, Socrates still went out and tried to comfort and encourage those who were grieving about the loss of their democracy, reproach those who had brought this about through their greed and ignorance, and set an example of how to live in the face of repression.
Socrates did not allow fear to control him. I have argued that Socrates is the paradigm example of Aristotle’s person with practical and theoretical wisdom. He exercises all the activities of soul in accordance with virtue in a complete life that Aristotle talks about.
Do you have a favorite quote that you use?
You are an Athenian, a citizen of the greatest city with the greatest reputation for both wisdom and power; are you not ashamed of your eagerness to possess as much wealth, reputation and honors as possible, while you do not care for nor give thought to wisdom or truth, or the best possible state of your soul?
What advice would you give someone who wanted to know more about what you do?
Visit my YouTube channel, Dr. Martha Catherine Beck, Greek Philosophy. I have 76 video and 10 playlists all focused on the theme, “The Legacy of Ancient Greek Civilization in the Era of Globalization.” Then contact me for a follow-up conversation. I agree with Plato that the written word is not worth much. People project themselves into it and make it into whatever they want or need it to be. The real dialogue is in one’s soul, triggered through conversations with other minds. The light of the mind is triggered by two minds engaged in dialogue.
Suppose you were to give a talk or workshop at the original Plato’s Academy in Athens.
This is why I hope the Center has extensive opportunities for conversation in the summers. I spent 16 summers in Greece, just letting my mind be free to think about Plato and Greek culture in the way that was driving me crazy. When I read other scholarship, I hated it, so I had to figure out what I thought was true that made me think all of this was so bad. Gradually, I figured out my own mind. I decided that for 2800 years people have been coming to Greece to remember the culture and to be inspired in ways they could take home and inspire others and improve the quality of life where they lived. They are still doing this.
I am hoping that at least some of the people at the Center are also going out into the public and that we can meet in the summers and talk about our experiences. We should tell our own stories of the kinds of encounters we have and then we should make analogies with something in Plato or an application of something in Aristotle or some other ancient texts. Then we can talk about whether we think the analogy is good, but mostly how to add to it.
I want scholarship that is always tied not only to a model of a way of life, but to how we are all actually living. I wish we could meet every summer and meet long enough to create friendship bonds and a long history of working together on creating more flourishing societies wherever we live in the world.