Reason and Persuasion: Thinking Through Three Dialogues By Plato

24 h
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  • 8 Sequences
  • Introductive Level

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WEEK 1 – Introductions

To the course; to philosophy; to Plato and Socrates; to the dialogue form; to Plato’s Euthyphro. Who are these people? Why are they interesting?

WEEK 2 - Plato's Euthyphro: Two Problems

One practical,one definitional. 1) Euthyphro thinks his dad is a murderer. What should you do in a case like that? 2) what is holiness? Add a few thoughts about the ancient Athenian justice system. What would be an ideal justice system for handling such a case? Also, what good is it talking to Euthyphroif he isn't the sort of person who's ever going to listen? (Especially if you humiliate him like that.)

WEEK 3 – Plato’s Meno: What is virtue?

Final reflections on Euthyphro, with notes about Greek tragedy. What's our best guessabout what Plato is getting at, writing a dialogue that seems to go nowhere? Then, Meno: new characters and a new problem. What is virtue? Meno meanssomething like this: what does it take to be a success? To be excellent! But soon Socrates has turned everything strange. Meno, like Euthyphro, is bad at this game. What are some basic ethical theories?

WEEK 4 - Plato's Meno: Virtue - Geometry - Virtue.

This dialogue has a funnystructure. A piece of math between two slices of virtue. Not to worry, reader! Meno finds it as unpalatable as you do. The key turns out to be : we need to understand the nature of the mind; its basic relationship to the world.Plato has a bold but strange model of the mind, and the relationship between ethics and mathematics. We end on a practical note: Meno is sure 1) that he knows it all; 2) that nothing can really be known. This makes him hard to teach. It's good to notice this about people.

WEEK 5 - Plato's Republic, Book I: Again, With Fathers and Sons

What is justice? Socrates faces a series of three debating partners. Two are easy: the father-son tag-team, Cephalus and Polemarchus.But the Boss Fight - against Thrasymachus - is hard. But Cephalus - nice old retired businessman - and his honor-loving, earnest son are interesting. They aren't clever at debate (how many people are?) but they're real. That makesthem important. Also, Book I is Plato's gateway into Republic. (Who knew the guys at the gates of Utopia would be such regular guys?) So I should say something about all that.

WEEK 6 - Plato's Republic, Book I: Thrasymachus.

Is it in my self-interest to be just? Isn't justice just a second-best option for those who don't have what it takes to be tyrants? Worse: isn't justice just whatever those who rule say it is. So: justice is the advantage of the stronger. Thrasymachus is a cynic, but it's hard to deny he's got half a point. He's a better debater, too. Thoughts about egoism and altruism.

WEEK 7 - Moral Psychology

I am going to discuss a popular 'positive psychology' book, by Jonathan Haidt, The Happiness Hypothesis. It's a good book, and a useful snapshot ofPlato's legacy. Haidt is, in some ways, very Platonic; in other ways, very anti-Platonic. Haidt is interested in providing a basically rational account of how the moral mind works - pretty irrationally, it turns out. He wants to improve our knowledge and have it make a real ethical difference. What a rational way to live if you are going to live irrationally?

WEEK 8 – Ethics and Ethnos

We end, where we began, thinkingabout the ways in-group/out-group relations structure our ethical thinking. We turn from Jonathan Haidt to Joshua Greene's book, Moral Tribes. Greene, like Haidt, studies moral psychology. He's more on Plato's side than Haidt - without actually being a Platonist. I'll try to bring out how, even if Plato is a bit out of date, empirically (no denying it!) studying Plato still provides us with useful categories for carving up the intellectual landscape. He can help you find your way around, even if you don't decide to follow him very far.




John Holbo, Associate Professor



A leading global university located in Asia, the National University of Singapore (NUS) is Singapore’s flagship university, and offers a global approach to education and research with a focus on Asian perspectives and expertise. Its transformative education includes a broad-based curriculum underscored by multi-disciplinary courses and cross-faculty enrichment.


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