The Nature of Knowledge: Plato’s Theaetetus and Descartes’ Meditations on First Philosophy


In an age of “alternative facts”, it is perhaps worthwhile to revisit the foundational texts that have helped establish a longstanding conviction that some “facts” are more equal than others. This course will be devoted to a close consideration of two such texts: Plato’s ancient dialogue Theaetetus and Descartes’s modern monologue Meditations on First Philosophy. In the first, Socrates and his interlocutors examine three different notions of knowledge (and Socrates proclaims himself a “midwife of the soul”). In the second, Descartes claims to demonstrate the indisputable truth of (a) the existence of God and of (b) the existence of the immortal human soul — not to mention of (c) the existence of himself (because he thinks). In addition to seeking to understand each text on its own terms, we will compare and contrast them as alternative approaches to “certain knowledge”.
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The Trial and Death of Socrates


The trial and death of Socrates is perhaps one of the most (in)famous events of philosophical martyrdom in Western history. As such it bears and repays close and repeated study in order to understand exactly who and what Socrates was, what happened to him, and what (if any) lessons the ancient event holds for our time. With such goals in mind, this course is devoted to a close reading and discussion of the four Platonic dialogues that revolve directly around the momentous events: Euthyphro, Apology, Crito, and Phaedo. Continue reading

God’s Gadfly: A Socratic Method Seminar on Socrates


Because Socrates called his practice “philosophy” (love of wisdom) and because philosophy is nowadays widely considered to be a “secular” enterprise, Socrates is often assumed to have been a secular figure. According to Plato’s famous Socrates’ Defense (or Apology), however, nothing could be further from the truth. In this short Socratic Method seminar, participants will carefully read and discuss passages from Plato’s text in a collaborative effort to meet Socrates on, and in, his own terms: as an annoying gadfly on a divine mission to educate Athens; as a gift from God whose death would hurt the Athenians more than it would hurt him. No prior knowledge or experience of any kind is required. All reading and discussion will be in English. Continue reading

On Human Excellence [1]: Plato’s Meno as ‘Philosophical Drama’


“Can you tell me, Socrates — is virtue something that can be taught? Or does it come by practice? Or is it neither teaching nor practice that gives it to a man but natural aptitude or something else?” With this provocative four-part question begins one of the most compact meditations on human excellence ever composed: Plato’s Meno, a “dialogue” (mostly) between the great philosopher Socrates and his acquaintance Meno. This course will be devoted to a close reading and analysis of Plato’s short text in order to understand both the work’s philosophical elements and its dramatic elements — as well as the interaction between the two — as we seek to comprehend Plato’s ultimate response to Meno’s initial question. No prior knowledge or experience of any kind is required. Continue reading

Fighting Theater with Theater: Plato’s Dialogues as Philosophical Dramas


“The safest general characterization of the European philosophical tradition is that it consists of a series of footnotes to Plato.”
               – Alfred North Whitehead, Process and Reality

“There is another art which imitates by means of language alone, and that either in prose or verse … but this has hitherto been without a name.  For there is no common term we could apply to the mimes of Sophron and Xenarchus and the Socratic dialogues on the one hand; and, on the other, to poetic imitations in iambic, elegiac, or any similar meter.”
                      – Aristotle, Poetics 1447a27-1447b12

Although there is an ancient and venerable tradition of reading Plato’s Socratic Dialogues as “philosophy” to be analyzed primarily (if not only) in terms of their logical propositions, there is an even older (although today, much less venerable) tradition of reading the Plato’s Dialogues as dramas that embody a certain type of philosophical activity. In this lecture, we will consider what it means to take a “dramatic approach” to the Dialogues and explore some of the insights into Plato’s work that such an approach can yield. In particular we will consider that it means to think of Plato primarily as the revolutionary successor to Homer rather than primarily as the evolutionary successor to Socrates. Or rather, how it is best to think of Plato as the incomparable union of the two, fostering “Better Souls Through Better Shadows”. Continue reading

Socrates Who Does (Not) Know: Gorgias, Charmides, Laches, Lysis


Although Socrates has become iconic for “knowing that he doesn’t know”, only some of Plato’s dialogues actually cast Socrates in this light.  Other dialogues portray a Socrates who seems to know a great deal about a great deal (including love, politics, virtue and the afterlife).  In this course we will examine important dialogues of both types.  On the one hand we will read and discuss “aporetic” or “inconclusive” dialogues about the nature of temperance (Charmides), courage (Laches) and friendship (Lysis).  On the other we will consider Plato’s great Gorgias in which Socrates practically preaches for one particular notion of the good life. Continue reading

Apologies of Socrates and Gospels of Jesus


The lives and deaths of Socrates and Jesus had some remarkable parallels. Both were charismatic teachers claiming to be on divine missions. Both were executed by the ruling elites they challenged. And both were vindicated in the writings of their disciples. This course will explore these and other parallels by reading and discussing two Apologies (Defenses) of Socrates, one by Xenophon and one by Plato, and a number of gospels, some that made it into the New Testament and some that didn’t. In addition to examining the teachings of each figure, we will consider how each one’s calling and legacy is portrayed in the various accounts. The two Apologies of Socrates will be supplemented by selected other dialogues by Xenophon and Plato related to the death of Socrates. Continue reading

The Apology: Socrates’ Defense, Or the Gospel According to Plato


Because the West has long thought of itself as the fusion of Greek “reason” and Hebrew (Judeo-Christian) “faith”, the secularization which followed the Enlightenment has typically been seen as the West’s disavowal of its Hebrew heritage in favor of its Greek one. Indeed, it is not uncommon today for modem secular humanists and classical Greeks to be considered much of a muchness. Unfortunately, such a view tends to blind us to important features of Greek life, even in figures as seemingly familiar to us as Socrates and Plato. A careful consideration of Plato’s Apology, however, can help resurrect these religious features of these two men who can be seen in many ways as not dissimilar to a range of Hebrew religious figures including, perhaps most strikingly, Jesus and Paul respectively. Continue reading