Reading Plato 2019 course outline

THIS IS THE OUTLINE OF A COURSE RUN IN EARLY IN 2019.
The readings and delivery has been modified for the 2020 Reading Plato course.

Reading Plato: An introduction to philosophy from 21 March 2019 in Brunswick, Melbourne, Australia. Just read/podcast a set passage from Plato’s dialogues before the evening discussion. No prior knowledge is required.

Reading for Week 1: Apology p. 20c to 23

Socrates has been convicted of corrupting the youth of Athens with his impiety. This dialogue is his supposed defence during the trial. In this passage, Socrates gives his solution to a prophetic riddle proclaiming him to be the wisest man in Athens. It is a classic account of Socratic scepticism and an introduction to Ploto’s notion of divine wisdom. Consider why scepticism might be important to the commencement of philosophical inquiry. Also consider what Plato might mean by divine wisdom.

Reading for Week 2: Euthyphro (entire dialogue)

A few weeks before his trial (the setting for last week’s reading) Socrates runs into his friend Euthyphro, a theologian, and they fall into discussing “What is piety?” Each of them has a stake in the answer, with Socrates standing accused of impiety and Euthyphro running the risk of impious behaviour as he is about to put charges of murder against his father (at that time in Athens only relatives of the deceased were allowed to put in murder charges.) As you go through the reading, pay some attention to your own ideas of justice. How would you explain what it is? 

Reading for Week 3: Phaedo p. 60b to 77a

On Socrates’ last day in prison right before downing the hemlock he declares that philosophy is actually the practice of being dead. He says that the true philosopher welcomes the soul’s final escape from the prison of desires and fears that is the body. Bodily emotions and senses distract from the absolute and insensible reality of justice, beauty and so forth. The ensuing arguments for the soul’s immortality influenced Christianity on a topic found deficient in the Bible. As you follow the argument, look out for ‘knowledge-as-recollection’. Do we already know ‘absolute realities’, like justice and equality, before considering any examples of them?

Reading for Week 4: Phaedo 95e to 105e

As the time of Socrates’ death approaches, his case for immortality faces two challenges. In the first, the soul is like the harp: a harmony of bodily parts often lost when the parts remain. The second challenge concedes that the soul may outlive one body, but many reincarnations will wear it out. In response, Platonic opposites (pleasure/pain, great/small) meet the doctrine of the participation of sensible things in the forms of absolute realities (equality, beauty). The argument is difficult to follow, but patience is rewarded with entry into the Platonic vision of philosophy. And you can get to that while still remaining dubious about the final winning proof via an analogy with odd/even numbers: just as three is uneven, so my soul is immortal!

Reading for Week 5: Republic, Book 5, p. 471 to 496

The Republic, the first utopian text ever written, places philosophy at the heart of the ideal society. In this passage Plato explains what he means by philosophy, by the philosophical way of life and why society is best ruled by a ‘Philosopher King’.

Reading for Week 6: Republic, Book 7, p. 502 to 521

When the discussion turns to the good and ultimate object of knowledge, Plato introduces two analogy for the different types of knowledge and belief. The second of these, the famous simile of the cave, includes the earliest surviving depiction of mystical enlightenment (if there were firsthand accounts of the Orphic and Eleusinian mysteries, they are now lost). While reading, consider how Plato would regard empiricism and its claim that knowledge is true to the real being of sensible objects.

Reading for Week 7: Republic Book 4, p. 427 to 444

The discussion turns to psychology with the claim that the good society is only achieved by attention to the natural propensities of its members. Social justice is founded on psychological justice, which is the harmony of our natural propensities for reason, spirit/anger and appetite/desire, what has been called ‘Plato’s tripartite division of the soul’. For Plato, insatiable desire is the greater part of a person’s make-up, but it must be brought into abeyance by reason. Reason must triumph over anger and desire for justice to be achieved. This doctrine has had a powerful influence on Western societies–too much according to Friedrich Nietzsche. While reading, consider whether these three aspects of psychology are so distinct, and what might be lost with excessive social rationalism.

Reading for Week 8: The Symposium p. 201 to 212

For the final week we move on to The Symposium, a drinking party where each guest is challenged to give a speech on love. The whole dialogue is lots of fun, worth reading right through, including an absurdist speech by Aristophanes — who in real life had mocked Socrates in a famous play. Check out this cleverly re-set 1965 Oxbridge-camp version with the rude bits indiscreetly excised. Our reading is Socrates’ speech, which recounts a conversation with a foreign priestess who was once his ‘instructor in the art of love’. Hmm. While reading it, consider various reasons why she claims love not to be divine but yet the medium to divinity. 

Reading for Bonus Week: Gorgias, p. 449 to 466

The ‘Gorgias’ is a dialogue criticising rhetoric and it’s prominence in Athenian society. It is an excellent introduction to Plato’s views on society and the Socratic deconstruction of argument.

Some things to consider while reading:

  • What art does Gorgias practise? What is Rhetoric?
  • What is rhetoric’s value? Is it more useful than knowledge or expertise in a craft?
  • In Athenian Society and today, is it the Rhetorician who makes decisions for the state?
  • For optional extra reading, start from the very beginning of the dialogue.
  • 2019 Autumn session: 8pm, Tuesday, 28 May
  • Buy or borrow the Penguin edition
  • Read online Guttenburg
  • Listen to Libravox recording