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The Core Curriculum

Plato

429 BCE – 347 BCE

A Roman Copy of a statue of Plato. The original was made by Silanion in the 4th c B.C. Source: Staatliche Museen zu Berlin, Stiftung Preussischer KulturbesitzA Roman Copy of a statue of Plato. The original was made by Silanion in the 4th c B.C. Source: Staatliche Museen zu Berlin, Stiftung Preussischer Kulturbesitz

“... An Athenian citizen of high status, [Plato] displays in his works his absorption in the political events and intellectual movements of his time, but the questions he raises are so profound and the strategies he uses for tackling them so richly suggestive and provocative that educated readers of nearly every period have in some way been influenced by him, and in practically every age there have been philosophers who count themselves Platonists in some important respects. He was not the first thinker or writer to whom the word “philosopher” should be applied. But he was so self-conscious about how philosophy should be conceived, and what its scope and ambitions properly are, and he so transformed the intellectual currents with which he grappled, that the subject of philosophy, as it is often conceived — a rigorous and systematic examination of ethical, political, metaphysical, and epistemological issues, armed with a distinctive method — can be called his invention....” *

“Plato was born into a distinguished family whose members played a prominent part in the political life of Athens. It is probable that he himself expected to follow a political career, but at some point he came under the influence of that charismatic talker, Socrates: Socrates was put to death in 399 BC, and it may have been this which changed the course of Plato's life and turned him to philosophy....

“His celebrated school, the Academy, probably opened its doors in about 385 BC; and it soon attracted the brightest ornaments of intellectual Greece, among them Aristotle. Little is known of the structure and nature of Plato's Academy; but it is not implausible to think of it as an institute for advanced research. A comic poet portrays the young academicians as attempting to classify the pumpkin: is it a species of tree? a kind of grass? a vegetable? The caricature suggests that the natural sciences were studied in the Academy; there is good evidence for the study of mathematics; and of course philosophy, in all its branches, was the centrepiece. Plato himself doubtless spent much of his time in teaching and lecturing to his disciples and colleagues, and there are stories of a public lecture in which he managed to bemuse most of his lay audience.” **

* Richard Kraut “Plato.” Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy (Fall 2009 Edition).

** Jonathan Barnes. "Plato." The Oxford Companion to the Mind. Oxford University Press, 1987. Oxford Reference Online.

Historical Contexts

The Symposium

Historical Context: The Institution of the Symposium

Symposium.jpg

Wall Painting in Greek Tomb. Paestum, ItalyWall Painting in Greek Tomb. Paestum, Italy

“Literally an occasion for drinking together, the symposium (symposion) was the portion of the ancient Greek banquet that followed the deipnon, or meal, from which it was distinguished by a focus on wine rather than food. The origins of the Greek symposium are debated, an uncertainty that is caused in part by an absence of consensus regarding the defining features of the institution. Scholars have traditionally defined the symposium as a nocturnal gathering of aristocratic men who reclined together—usually on dining couches (klinai)—to drink wine while enjoying music, poetry, conversation, and various erotic pursuits with male and female partners. The proceedings, which also included libations and prayers, were carried out under the auspices of the wine god Dionysus, and Aphrodite's presence was felt in the atmosphere of luxury and eroticism. A central principle was the equality of the symposiasts, who were distributed evenly around the room and drank equal amounts of wine from a communal krater, a large bowl for mixing wine with water....

“In Archaic and Classical times, participation in the symposium was the prerogative of citizen men; women in these periods were present only as servants, entertainers, and courtesans (hetairai), although by the Hellenistic period it is possible that some respectable women attended symposia. As an institution that emphasized the bonds among men, the symposium served as a primary setting for the young citizen's education in traditional values—as well as for the practice of paiderastia, the institutionalized love between older and younger men that formed a prominent theme of sympotic art and literature.”

AspasiaAlcibiades.jpg

Socrate venant chercher Alcibiade chez Aspasie, 1861. By Jean-Léon Gérôme. Public Domain Image.Socrate venant chercher Alcibiade chez Aspasie, 1861. By Jean-Léon Gérôme. Public Domain Image.

from Kathryn Topper  "Symposium"  The Oxford Encyclopedia of Ancient Greece and Rome. Oxford Univeristy Press. Oxford Reference Online.

Republic

The second half of the 5th century BCE was a tumultuous period in Athens. It was both the golden age of Athenian democracy and power – under the rule of Pericles in the 40’s and 30’s democratic Athens was quickly transforming into a regional hegemon. Yet it was also a period in which the Athenian polis experienced a rapid decline. The Peloponnesian War (431-404) fought between Athens and a coalition of states led by its bitter enemy Sparta resulted in Athens’ defeat and the temporary overthrow of Athenian democracy which, for many, was ultimately responsible for the failure at war. Members of Plato’s family, though not Plato himself, were involved in the coup. While Plato’s writings are rooted in this dynamic political context, and the major themes we will encounter in The Republic such as his critique of democracy and of Athenian educators and poets cannot be fully appreciated outside it.

Scholars concur that Plato authored 36 dialogues. The Republic is thought to have been written in what is called Plato’s middle period.  In Greek, the title of the work is understood as Politea, which can be rendered something closer to “forms of government” or perhaps “constitution.” This later choice, constitution, seems to capture the text’s focus on the deep relationship between the vibrancy of the polis and political community and the flourishing of the individual. The Republic is encyclopediac, addressing in great depth and with wide reach the domains and spheres of philosophy, from education, to ethics, to politics, and beyond. Among the fundamental questions to ask in reading the text is why Plato deemed all these topics essential to the question of the just.

Unlike many other philosophers, Plato’s ideas are rarely explicitly or systematically set forth. Instead, Plato’s thought is conveyed through dialogues, in the model of Socratic inquiry, elenchus. and the literary scenes Plato narrates in which two or more interlocutors, never Plato himself, discuss a specific theme, be it courage, love, virtue, or the just, the focus of the Republic. The multiplicity of voices poses a major interpretive challenge. If two or more figures speak in a dialogue, how do we ascertain which view is Plato’s? Moreover, many of the dialogues end without a definite conclusion, what the Greeks termed aporia, in which case how do we understand what the dialogue was at all intended to convey? These challenges are in turn complicated by the fact that the main protagonist and interlocutor in Plato’s dialogues is his mentor Socrates, the enigmatic Athenian philosopher whose life and thought we know of primarily through Plato’s writings. If Socrates is the main figure in Plato’s dialogues, is he there then to speak for Plato himself? Is there a difference between Plato’s and Socrates’ thought? Or in other words, how are we to properly conceptualize the relationship between Socrates the mentor and Plato the student? These challenges have preoccupied scholars of Greek philosophy for centuries, and while they have no definite answers they nonetheless help to account for the richness that makes Plato’s texts so engaging.

Plato’s Republic, which discusses the meaning of justice and the structure of an ideal society and soul, is considered by many as the cornerstone of Plato’s corpus. The dialogue seems to deviate from most of Plato’s other works in that it explicitly lays out philosophical ideas. Parts of the books present Plato’s “theory of forms” according to which the material world is an image or copy of a higher, abstract and unchanging world, while other parts closely detail Plato’s view of an ideal political society. The apparently systematic qualities of the Republic have only amplified the interpretive challenges inherent in Plato’s works. Some scholars claim Plato’s vision of an ideal society in the Republic is not one he genuinely hoped would come to life or rather merely a caricature, a philosophical demonstration of the futility of political utopianism. Most commentators take Plato’s Republic to be a prescription for a model society, and either embrace or balk at its totalitarian overtones.  Others see a nascent feminism in the text’s recommendation that women  should be political leaders and also, on a more negative note,  find in the text a forerunner of state sponsored eugenics.

About a third of the The Republic is dedicated to a fierce criticism of Athenian poets and their mythologies - why would a book about justice dedicate so much attention to art? For a book ostensibly about politics, why spend so much time talking about education? The Republic, which heavily criticizes myth, ends with a myth of its own known as the “Myth of Er” – what are we to make of this and how does this shape our understanding of Plato’s critique of mythology and the success of Socrates and his interlocutors in responding to Thraysmachus’ challenge? These are just some of the interpretive challenges that appear in The Republic, challenges to which a close reading perpetually yields new answers.

Sources Consulted:

Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy at http://plato.stanford.edu/entries/plato/

Gil Rubin, Department of History, Columbia University