All Western philosophy is said to be a “series of footnotes to Plato.” For the inaugural week of the Political Studies Program, fellows will have a choice between two seminars devoted to close reading of the Republic or the Gorgias.

In discussing each Platonic dialogue, fellows will reflect on the ethical dilemmas implied by the pursuit of power, in politics and other realms, and on how we should conduct ourselves in a world in which the demands of justice and the demands of political necessity often seem to conflict.

Image Credit: Acropolis of Athens by Leo von Klenze, 1846, Wikipedia Commons

Ben Storey on Why We Are Restless, Moderated by Ryan Hanley

Faculty

Ryan P. Hanley

Ryan Patrick Hanley is Professor of Political Science at Boston College. His research in the history of political philosophy focuses on the Enlightenment. He is the author of Our Great Purpose: Adam Smith on Living a Better Life and Love’s Enlightenment: Rethinking Charity in Modernity.

Benjamin Storey

Benjamin Storey is Associate Professor of Politics and International Affairs at Furman University. His interests focus on the history of political philosophy. He recently co-authored a book with Jenna Silber Storey entitled Why We Are Restless: On the Modern Quest for Contentment.

Preview the Syllabus by Week/Session

Readings:

  • Republic, Books I–II, 327a–375a (pp. 3–52)

Discussion Questions:

  • Why does Socrates engage in this conversation about justice? Is he persuaded or forced to lead this discussion? Why might this be significant?
  • What sort of character is Cephalus? What is good and what is problematic in his definition of justice? What sort of character is Polemarchus? What is good and what is problematic in his definition?
  • What is Thrasymachus’s first understanding of justice, as expressed at 339a? How does his position on justice and injustice evolve or shift as the discussion proceeds? Does Socrates succeed in refuting Thrasymachus by the end of Book I?
  • What sort of people are Glaucon and Adeimantus? Why are they dissatisfied? What is it that they want from Socrates? What approach does Socrates take to answering their objections?

Readings:

  • Republic, Books II–IV, 375a–392b, 412–423e, 427d–445e (pp. 52–70, 91–101, 105–25)

Discussion Questions:

  • What is “spiritedness”? What might be good and bad about “spiritedness” from a political perspective? How does Socrates propose to educate the spiritedness of the guardians?
  • What, if anything, is noble about the “noble lie”? How does it complement and continue the education of the guardians? Do you think it will be effective in achieving the ends for which it is intended?
  • What objection does Adeimantus present to all of this at the beginning of Book IV? How does Socrates respond to his concerns? What shift in the argument does this produce?
  • What are the three parts of the soul? What are the three parts of the city? What does it mean to say that virtue is the health, beauty, and good of the soul? How is this definition related to Socrates’ account of justice in the city at 433b?

Readings:

  • Republic, Books V–VI, 449a–487a (pp. 127–67)

Discussion Questions:

  • What is Socrates’ argument for the equality of the sexes? Is it a good argument? Why or why not? What specific aspects of it strike you as persuasive or problematic?
  • What is Socrates’ argument for sexual communism? Is it a good argument? Why or why not? What specifics of it strike you as persuasive or problematic?
  • What does Socrates mean when he speaks of “philosopher-kings”? What is the argument for why they should rule? Are you convinced? Should they rule in real cities?

Readings:

  • Republic, Books VI–VII, 487a–511d, 514a–541b (pp. 167–92, 193–220)

Discussion Questions:

  • How does the portrait of the philosopher in Book VI compare to the portrait of the philosopher-king in Book V? Who or what exactly does Socrates have in mind when he describes “a man who has his understanding turned towards the things that are” (500b)?
  • What is life like inside the cave described by Socrates? What does it mean to say that the prisoners are “like us”? Are our lives today in any way similar to the lives of those imprisoned in the cave?
  • Who escapes from the cave? How do they escape? What do they eventually see? And what does this have to do with “a life better than ruling” (521a)?
  • What does Socrates mean when he calls this an allegory of education? How does the education described here compare to the education that the guardians received—or the kind of education we provide in schools today?
  • What is the difference between seeing and knowing? What specifically is “intellection,” and why is it important if we hope to know the idea of the good?

Readings:

  • Republic, Books VIII–X, 543–592d, 611b–621d (pp. 221–75, 295–303)

Discussion Questions:

  • How does Socrates describe the social and political conditions of democratic life? What aspects of democratic life are attractive? Which are more problematic?
  • How does Socrates describe the soul of the individual living in democracy? What sorts of things does a democratic person desire, and why? Why does he think that tyranny necessarily follows democracy?
  • What sort of life does the tyrant lead? Is he happy? Why or why not? How might Socrates’ portrait of the tyrant’s life serve as a response to Thrasymachus’ praises of the tyrant’s life in Book I?
  • Why does Plato end the Republic with the Myth of Er? What is the story of this myth, and why does Socrates think it’s important for these young men, interested in questions of justice and the best life, to hear?

Readings:

  • Introduction; Plato, Gorgias, 447A–461B

Discussion Questions:

  • What is the context of the conversation described in Plato’s Gorgias, insofar as you can discern it from the details of the text? Who are the characters?
  • What does Socrates hope to learn from Gorgias?
  • What is the power of rhetoric, according to Gorgias?
  • Socrates continually refers to “our speech,” in his conversation with Gorgias; what does he mean and why does he insist upon it?
  • What are the two kinds of persuasion, according to Socrates?
  • What is the relationship between rhetoric and justice?
  • How does Gorgias ultimately contradict his own argument?

Readings:

  • Plato, Gorgias, 461B–486D

Discussion Questions:

  • Why does Polus interject himself into the conversation at 461B?
  • What does Polus believe to be the source of Gorgias’ self-contradiction?
  • How does Socrates define rhetoric?
  • Make a chart of Socrates’ analogy of the true and spurious arts of body and soul.
  • What does Socrates mean by his distinction between a human being “doing what seems good to him” and “doing what he wants”?
  • Upon what, according to Socrates, does human happiness depend?
  • What is Polus’ example of Archelaus intended to prove?
  • How does Socrates bring Polus to agree that the proper use of rhetoric is to bring accusations against one’s loved ones or oneself, if they are guilty of any injustice, although, as Polus says, “it seems crazy”? Is it in fact crazy?
  • Why does Callicles doubt whether Socrates is serious? Do you think Socrates is serious?
  • What, according to Callicles, is Socrates’ technique for getting people to refute themselves? Does he accurately describe what goes on in the conversational portions of the dialogue?
  • What, according to Callicles, is “just by nature”?
  • What does Callicles believe to be the proper place of philosophy in the life of an anḗr, a “real man”?

Readings:

  • Plato, Gorgias, 486D–506B

Discussion Questions:

  • What characteristics does Socrates attribute to Callicles in describing him as a touchstone upon which to test his own soul? Does Callicles truly seem to possess these characteristics?
  • Socrates easily finds examples to disprove Callicles’ argument that “the one who’s greater should carry off the things that belong to the lesser.” What would be the best version of Callicles’ argument?
  • What is Callicles’ definition of “virtue and happiness”?
  • Callicles likens the life Socrates recommends to that of a “stone or a corpse,” that is, to something that is not alive at all. Socrates likens the life Callicles recommends to the continual replenishing of an urn full of holes. Is there such a thing as a life that is something better than continual succession of filling and emptying?
  • Callicles rapidly tires of answering what he calls Socrates’ “shriveled little questions.” Why does Gorgias encourage him to go on?
  • How does Socrates finally bring Callicles to admit that the pleasant and the good are not the same thing?
  • Is there an art of seeking the human good?
  • What, according to Socrates, would be the aim of a healthy art of rhetoric?
  • What is Socrates’ critique of the greatest Athenian statesmen—Themistocles, Miltiades, Cimon, and Pericles?

Readings:

  • Plato, Gorgias, 506B–527E

Discussion Questions:

  • What, according to Socrates, produces the good of a thing?
  • What does Socrates mean when he suggests that the source of Callicles’ error is his neglect of geometry?
  • What must one do to avoid suffering injustice in a city, on Socrates’ account?
  • Why does Callicles find it “galling” that “someone who’s worthless” can take “a good and beautiful life” from an innocent man? Given his previously stated opinions, shouldn’t he find that state of affairs natural and unobjectionable?
  • How, according to Socrates, is rhetoric akin to helmsmanship?
  • How does the comparison Socrates makes between rhetoric and medicine at 512D compare to the relation between the two indicated by the larger analogy he makes at 465B–D?
  • Callicles remarks that “something about what you’re saying seems good to me, Socrates—I don’t know what it is—but I’m having the experience most people do: I’m not entirely persuaded by you.” Do you share his experience of being divided in your reactions to Socrates? What is the source of this division?
  • How can Socrates claim to be “one of a few Athenians, not to say the only one, to make an attempt at the political art in the true sense,” although he famously steers clear of Athenian politics (521B)?
  • Socrates concludes the dialogue with a speech he calls a “logos” but says that Callicles will consider a “mythos.” What is the difference?
  • What, according to Socrates’ story, is death?

  • Review The Gorgias in its entirety

Discussion Questions:

  • What happens in Plato’s Gorgias? Does anyone learn anything?
  • How does Socrates manage to get people to bear witness against themselves?
  • For the last fourth of the dialogue, Socrates speaks almost alone, and Callicles has long since given up on the conversation. Why does Socrates continue? Is he beating a dead horse?
  • Throughout the Gorgias, Socrates makes extreme arguments. Are there moderate versions of Socrates’ arguments that seem more plausible? If so, why does he take such extreme positions?
  • What can this dialogue, set in a strange context and a distant time, teach us about power, virtue, and the proper use of speech in politics?

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