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assignment Level : Intermediate
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About the content

In this course we study the ancient, Socratic art of blowing up your beliefs as you go, to make sure they're built to last. We spend six weeks studying three Platonic dialogues - "Euthyphro", "Meno", "Republic" Book I - then two weeks pondering a pair of footnotes to Plato: contemporary moral theory and moral psychology. Platonic? Socratic? Socrates was the teacher, but he said he never did. Plato was the student who put words in his teacher's mouth. You'll get a feel for it. We have a book: the new 4th edition of "Reason and Persuasion", by the instructor (and his wife, Belle Waring, the translator.) It contains the Plato you need, plus introductory material and in-depth, chapter-length commentaries. (Don't worry! John Holbo knows better than to read his book to the camera. The videos cover the same material, but the presentation is different.) The book is offered free in PDF form - the whole thing, and individual chapter slices. It is also available in print and other e-editions. See the course content for links and information. The course is suitable for beginning students of Plato and philosophy, but is intended to offer something to more advanced students as well. We seek new, odd angles on old, basic angles. Tricky! The strategy is to make a wide-ranging, interdisciplinary approach. Lots of contemporary connections, to make the weird bits intuitive; plus plenty of ancient color, still bright after all these years. So: arguments and ideas, new possibilities, old stories, fun facts. Plus cartoons. The results can get elaborate (some book chapters and some lesson videos run long.) But each video comes with a brief summary of its contents. The lessons progress. I put them in this order for reasons. But there's no reason you can't skip over and around to find whatever seems most interesting. There are any number of self-contained mini-courses contained in this 8-week course. You are welcome to them. Plato has meant different things to different people. He's got his own ideas, no doubt. (Also, his own Ideas.) But these have, over the centuries, been worn into crossing paths for other feet; been built up into new platforms for projecting other voices. (Plato did it to Socrates, so fair is fair.) So your learning outcome should be: arrival somewhere interesting, in your head, where you haven't been before. I wouldn't presume to dictate more exactly.

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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 Euthyphro if 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 guess about 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 means something 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 funny structure. 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 makes them 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 of Plato'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, thinking about 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



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