Melissa Lane '88

Melissa Lane profile photoProfessor of Politics, Princeton University

Thesis Title: The Flight to Nature as a Mode of Social Critique: A Study of Rousseau and Thoreau

Each stage of Social Studies was transformative for me.  As a sophomore, I was incredibly fortunate to participate in a combined Dunster-Eliot Soc Stud 10 tutorial that was led by Head Tutor Judy Vichniac.   Judy equipped us with an understanding of the basic structural tensions in social life – and at the same time, she modeled for us a way to live with those tensions, to navigate through them and to integrate them, in order to make sense of society, of history, and of ourselves. Just to illustrate, our discussion of the contrast in Weber, between science as a vocation and politics as a vocation, between the pure pursuit of knowledge and the willingness to dirty one’s hands in leading on behalf of others, has continued to inform my academic life in thinking about professional ethics and the challenges of climate change – and to form a key plank in my own teaching as a way of inducting students into the life of political theory.  Two of the students in that tutorial (Anne Hallward and Saul Weiner) have remained lifelong friends, just as Judy has become, and all three of them have helped me to learn a lesson that decades of living and reflecting on our Social Studies education have only slowly enabled me to understand: how a dichotomous tension can be turned into a living path for integrative growth.   A further highlight was a junior tutorial with Debra Satz, who has also much later become a close friend and professional colleague in political theory and political philosophy.   Exploring the history of labor and politics in America under her tutelage gave me a first taste of archival research and an appreciation of the courage that so many workers have shown in the face of frequent industrial and sometimes state repression. And then finally, I had the amazing good fortune to write my senior thesis on ‘The Concept of Nature as a Mode of Social Critique’ in the thought of Rousseau and Thoreau, advised by the incomparable Judith Shklar, and ultimately examined by Patrick Riley and John Hall (the latter of whom has also more recently become a close colleague and friend).  Articulating the many meanings of independence that these authors canvass, and the ways in which nature might serve either as normative standard, as elusive source of meaning, or as consolatory refuge, helped me to see how social theory could be not only analytically powerful but also imaginatively moving.  It also helped to turn me in the direction of philosophy, which I went on to pursue for an M.Phil. and a PhD at Cambridge as a Marshall Scholar, specializing in ancient Greek political thought and in particular in Plato. 

In teaching political thought at Cambridge and now at Princeton,  and most recently giving the Carlyle Lectures at Oxford University on Greek ideas of political office and rule, Social Studies has informed my thinking: as in identifying Plato’s explanatory account of constitutional change in Book 8 of the Republic as a social theory that weaves together political choices by officeholders with social and economic structures, an alternative that bears comparison to the later contrasting accounts by Weber and Marx.  I am proud to be an alumna of Social Studies and was especially honored to have given the 2012 Navin Narayan Memorial Lecture which linked me to the tragically early death of an outstanding Social Studies student and to the whole company of alumni of the program.