Helfer researches the history of political philosophy (with an emphasis in ancient Greek political thought), and his current project, supported by the NEH Fellowship, is a new book on Plato’s Letters. He published a book in 2017 which studied the theme of political ambition in the dialogues of Plato. “I tried to show how exposure to philosophy is a double-edged sword for the politically ambitious: It can help to fortify the noble, civic-spirited side of ambition, but it can also be a corrupting influence,” he reflects.
Now, Helfer is writing a book on Plato’s own ambition instead of Plato’s take on political ambition. “For a couple of centuries, the general feeling among Plato scholars has been that, just because Plato's name has been in the byline for two thousand years, it doesn't mean Plato really wrote it,” he says. “My view is that, not only has the whole trend of rejecting the ‘authenticity’ of Platonic dialogues been overblown, but in the case of the letters in particular, it's led to a total misunderstanding of the text we have.”
In fact, Helfer believes the letters are a full, philosophic work written by Plato. “They show that Plato lived a complicated life, defending the beauty of philosophy within the ugly world of Greek politics — and often having to pay a price to do so,” he says.
Helfer’s book will consist of three parts: an introduction to how he has interpreted the letters, a new English translation of the letters (the first in more than 80 years) and a full essay of Helfer’s interpretation of the letters as a whole.
The NEH Fellowship carries a stipend of $50,400 and will commence for one year beginning in winter 2019. Helfer, however, has already gotten a jump-start on research. “I've been working on this for about a year now, but it's always a challenge to juggle research and teaching,” he says. “I was thrilled to find out that I've been awarded an NEH fellowship, which will fund my research, teaching-free, for a whole year.”