Nuovo is philosophical in retirement

MIDDLEBURY — For Middlebury College Professor Emeritus of Philosophy Victor Nuovo, retirement meant time to get down to business.
Nuovo has undertaken several projects since opting for early retirement 16 years ago, including joining the Middlebury selectboard, writing a series of eight essays for The Addison Independent on Plato’s “The Laws” this past spring and researching and writing various books and articles on 18th-century philosopher John Locke.
Nuovo edited an Oxford Critical Edition of Locke’s theological works due out this January. Nuovo’s own collection of articles on Locke, dubbed “Christianity, Antiquity and Enlightenment: Interpretations on John Locke,” is also slated for a January release.
Nuovo was also recently informed that the Faculty Emeritus Research Fellowship that he was awarded by the Andrew Mellon Foundation in 2007 is to be extended by an additional two years, a rare occurrence in the scholarly world.
Nouvo first became enthralled with Locke over 25 years ago, he said, when he was resigned to teaching a 17th and 18th century philosophy class by default — all of the other professors had edged away from the not-so-glamorous topic. It was in preparing for this class that Nuovo began to read Locke seriously for the first time.
“I was captivated,” he recalled.
When Nuovo decided to set teaching aside and work solely on Locke, he just happened to be in all the right places at the right times.
Shortly after delving into his research, he wrote a note to another Locke scholar, Michael Ayers, who was at Oxford, asking if they could meet. Ayers agreed and one transatlantic flight and teatime later, Nuovo had been selected to be one of eight editors involved in producing the critical edition of Locke’s works.
“There are at least eight of us who are involved in this project, and there are other Locke scholars who are not editors of the critical edition but nonetheless are world-class Locke scholars,” said Nuovo, who was extremely surprised when Ayers offered him a position as editor.
“I didn’t realize that he happened to be the chair of the editorial board of this critical edition,” Nuovo said. “In the course of our teatime he said to me, ‘have you ever done critical editing?’ and I said, ‘no,’ and he said, ‘would you like to?’”
Nuovo said he would.
A critical edition, as Nuovo explained, is comprised of the text as Locke, himself, intended it, along with the history behind the text and comparisons between the various copies and editions of the text. Nuovo has been contracted to edit three of the critical editions, the first of which is on Locke’s collection of theological writings entitled, “Vindications of the Reasonableness of Christianity.”
“The main thing I’m trying to do is view Locke’s writings in light of his Christian, theological commitments,” Nuovo said. “He was a very serious Christian. For me, that was a puzzle, because, and I have to be honest — I’m not.”
His own collection of articles, “Christianity, Antiquity and Enlightenment,” also deals with the tension between Locke the Christian and Locke the empiricist.
“The main burden of my work is understanding Locke and really trying to get into his mind and figuring out how he was thinking and this has been exciting,” he said. “One of the nice things about being retired — and I tell this to my colleagues — it’s like being on permanent sabbatical … you can do the stuff that really engages your mind.”
For Nuovo, that “stuff” is not solely limited to his scholarship on Locke.
Last spring, with a little nudging from his wife, Rep. Betty Nuovo, D-Middlebury, he began to write a series of essays published in the Addison Independent in which he set out to make Plato’s “The Laws” digestible by the everyman.
“The Laws” has long been touted as a rather dull text, one that scholars have often ignored in favor of “The Republic,” Plato’s flashier, pessimistic, mid-life rant about society. Nuovo admits that when he was younger, he, too, was turned off by its reputation as Plato’s longest, most tedious work.
So what changed?
“What interested me about Plato’s ‘Laws’ is that he wrote it when he was in his upper 70s — he died when he was 80 years old,” Nuovo said. “It was sort of his last work, and it was his longest, and in many ways, his most reflective work. I rather liked it because he was writing it when he was about the same age that I am. I thought, well, maybe that’s something we can share. It’s a neglected work, but I was interested because he focused upon law, and this is something we talk about a lot today.”
In the eight-piece series that began in March and ran through the end of April, Nuovo attempted to show how the ideas and concepts that Plato was writing about over 2,500 years ago are still applicable to people today. This fall, Nuovo hopes to continue to demystify Plato in part two of his series, set to run each week this fall, starting today.
One way in which Plato was particularly ahead of his time, and which Nuovo hopes to explore in one of his next essays, is Plato’s view on the environment and man’s sustainability.
“If I were a card-carrying environmentalist, I would make Plato’s ‘Laws’ my guide,” he said. “He raises an awful lot of questions about the economy and the use of the environment and so on and so forth — he was not worried about our using up resources and so on and so forth, but there are a lot of interesting ideas.
“So, what I’m going to lay out in the second series is a practice of the legislative art that Plato represents in this second and longer part of ‘The Laws.’”
Other issues that Nuovo hopes to explore through the eyes of the Greek philosopher are crime and punishment, the separation of powers in government and the responsibility and sense of duty tied to being a citizen — in Plato’s era and today.
Globalization is another topic that Plato would have a lot to say about, Nuovo muses.
“He had a notion of political sovereignty — a society is sovereign because it is sufficient,” Nuovo said. “A society doesn’t try to extend its sovereignty and place it over others, but it simply takes care of its own needs. In that sense, I suppose, the message of Plato is that maybe we’ve become too global. It’s not so much a matter that we need to dissolve, say, the United States because it’s too big, but we need, somehow, for more to happen on the local levels.”
Nuovo also suspects that Plato would have been concerned about the globalization of communication, and the influx of social media networks like Facebook and Twitter.
“I think he would be worried by them, and for reasons that people are worried by them today,” Nuovo explained. “I find Twitter and Facebook disturbing for two reasons: on the one hand, it seems to be terribly narcissistic — people are sort of exposing themselves to the world as though anyone would be interested. The other is that there is a kind of mind control engaged in it. The argument for having an open society and open culture is that it frees the mind and keeps it from any kind of dogmatism taking hold of it. But one has to be very careful in that because unless you possess yourself in a rational way, have a rational self-understanding — which means that you can criticize yourself, mock yourself, and recognize your own faults — that all this kind of exposure to everything can really enslave you.”
What with nine of the 12 books in Plato’s “The Laws” still untouched, this second series of essays will be longer — it took Nuovo eight essays to tackle the first two-and-a-half books, and this time he anticipates at least 12 essays to explore the remaining nine books. It’s a challenge, he says, to stick within his 1,000-word-per-essay limit.
“For me this is not just something extracurricular,” Nuovo said. “It’s turning out to be one of the most exciting — well, right now — the most exciting activity of my life because I’m thinking of things in ways that I sort of didn’t put it all together. Which is not to say that I fancy myself becoming a Platonist, because I disagree with Plato on a lot of things and also, you can’t simply take a person who lived 2,500 years ago and take his ideas and live by them.”
Although Plato cannot help you file your taxes or advise you on what you should or should not put on your Facebook profile, he can help inform your attitude toward being a citizen and being a part of a community. In fact, according to Nuovo, Plato’s own city-state was roughly the same size, area-wise, as Addison County with a population similar to that of Middlebury.
“If I had read Plato 25 years ago, I probably would have found ‘The Laws’ as boring — it rambles, it goes on about details on things that ordinarily you really don’t need to bother with,” he said. “Now I see that maybe I’m in a situation in my own life where I can recognize that this is incredibly applicable.”
Tamara Hilmes is at [email protected].

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