Myrthe Bartels

Junior Core Fellow

Period of stay:

October 2022 - June 2023 (2022/23)


University of Pisa, Italy

Project title

Democracy and the Common Good in Ancient Greek Political Thought


When you arrived at the Institute you probably had a concrete idea or plan of what you would like to achieve during your stay. Were you able to pursue these plans? Did there emerge new, unforeseen directions?

One of the aims of my stay here was to broaden my perspective from Classics towards Political Science, for example, by getting involved in some of the activities of the CEU Democracy Institute (DI). I wanted to do that because I thought it would allow me to ask different kind of questions. In the past, I have mostly focused on textual analysis: analyzing the structure of an ancient text in order to elucidate its argument. Yet this time, I wanted to treat the ancient thinkers as discussion partners: What did they consider distinctive about (their version of) democracy? What was distinctive about the attitude or ‘way of life’ of the citizen of the democratic regime, as opposed to citizens in other regimes? In fact, it worked out remarkably well: I’ve had very useful exchanges with some of my IAS colleagues and participated in the workshop on Utopia and Democracy at the DI, which will result in a contribution to the edited volume. I will possibly return to the DI in November for another workshop. All of this also allowed me to think further ahead about the kinds of projects that I would like to do in the next 5-10 years.

More generally speaking, who or what influenced your work and research path the most?

In a more concrete sense, I’m tempted to say “chance”: I’ve had various chance encounters with books that drew my attention or seemed somehow significant at that moment. In a more general sense, I have a hopeless and boundless fascination for how ancient thinkers such as Plato or Aristotle conceived of the political community and how they thought that social norms and political contexts shape or ought to shape our lives and choices.

To which debates or schools of thought do you see your research contributing? 

Most of my research to date has contributed to a rather specialized debate on Plato’s Laws in Classics and ancient philosophy, revolving around the interpretation of this very long and extremely complex text written in a strange kind of Greek that makes it very hard to see just what’s going on. This text was the topic of my PhD thesis, but even after the book based on that thesis was published (Plato’s Pragmatic Project. A Reading of Plato’s Laws, Stuttgart: Steiner 2017), I had various new ideas that I thought were worth publishing. Some of these will appear in my chapter on Plato’s Laws for the new Oxford Handbook of Ancient Greek Political Thought, the final version of which I wrote during my stay here. Yet in the future (and my Core Fellowship has been a step in that direction), I would like to work more on the intersection of Classics (and classical reception), Political Science, and the history of political thought.

How do you see your field of research today? How is it evolving?

Classics is often seen as ‘elitist’, which I think is partly deserved and partly undeserved. (To avoid misunderstanding, undeserved to the extent that, in my view, some of that elitism is the result of the historical inequality of modern education systems, particularly in the UK and the US.) At the same time, as a field, it is very responsive to social developments around the world; themes like gender, race, slavery, and privilege are very high on the agenda today. I think this has helped classicists to redefine themselves and the field as the study of the wider Mediterranean and Near-Eastern world, of how people from those parts of the world viewed themselves and the world around them, rather than as a collection of ‘European texts’. I also think that it is fortunate that more attention is now being paid to how the classical heritage came to have the status that it has now and be the discipline that it is today, at least in the ‘Western world’. How were these texts and the material culture appropriated in, say, the Italian Renaissance or the 18th century, and what idea of antiquity exactly was being appropriated?

What’s next for you after IAS CEU Budapest (if we may ask)?

At present, I cannot say what will be next since I’m waiting for the outcome of an application. But I have good hopes that by the end of July, I will know more.

If there were one book or film, you could recommend to the reader, what would be that and why?

For me, there’s not one book or film that stands out, but there are particular books or films that accompany me in certain phases of life. So perhaps it makes the most sense to recommend a book that is very much captivating me now, The Penguin Book of Italian Short Stories (edited by Jhumpa Lahiri). The whole book is a collection of little gems, but one story in particular moved me very much, a more philosophical one, ‘Dialogue with a tortoise’ by Italo Calvino. It is an ingenious way of showing how man is inextricably bound up with his surroundings. What I thought was particularly brilliant is how the argument about language, which since Aristotle has been used to set man apart from other species, is here turned into an argument for man’s being part of a larger whole. There is a philosophical implication about the care and responsibility presupposed by speaking for others, and how doing so is intimately connected with interpretation and with an understanding of one’s own position.