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History of Philosophy II: Plato

Lecturer: Martin Black

Originally Taught: Winter School 2010

This course is an introduction to the central themes of Plato’s philosophy, through a discussion of some key selections from his writings and a close reading of the whole of one of his central dialogues, the Symposium.

Plato’s thought is an investigation of the possibility of self-knowledge, a knowledge that depends upon our awareness of the whole within which we live; that is, an attempt to understand the self in the light of an understanding of human nature as a whole. Plato’s thought thus opposes two alternative notions of reason in its relation to nature, both of which were present in his time and which predominate in our own; that everything is natural, and hence human life is an illusion, or, given the “historical” context of our knowledge of nature, that nothing is natural because everything is constructed or conventional, in which case reality itself is an illusion.

By contrast, Plato seeks to show that the principles of human nature and of the whole are knowable only indirectly, through the closest attention to the meaning of our ordinary experience, which is shot through with the particular; opinion, history, culture, convention, or, in the terminology of classical philosophy, the political. The in-between character of human life  is imitated by Plato’s various depictions of a philosopher speaking to a number non-philosophical people: the reader of a dialogue is witness to partial ascents of thought. At the core of that project is the investigation of human ends, and so an examination of the principles  that seem always already to guide our lives, such as profit, justice, fame, beauty, nobility, etc. The philosophic account thus requires a comprehension of the political and its poetic roots in the self.

Introduction to the reading of Plato, and to some central Platonic elaborations of our ignorance of ourselves and the whole, and thus the relation between the Platonic notion of philosophy and various other ancient and modern notions of philosophy and/or science. We will discuss three important excerpts: Apology 21-28, Phaedo 95-102, and Republic 504-522 (these Stephanus pages appear in the margins of most modern editions and translations).

A reading of excerpts from the Hipparchus, Minos, and Phaedrus illustrating the character of the beginning points and dialectical ascent of Platonic philosophy, and the central role of an understanding of poetry and politics for Plato’s philosophy.

The first part of a complete interpretation of Plato’s Symposium: love (erōs) and war, freedom, and the sciences. The opening of the Symposium and the speeches of Phaedrus and Pausanias.

Plato’s Symposium, part two: love (erōs) and comedy and tragedy. The speeches of Eryximachus, Aristophanes, and Agathon.

Plato’s Symposium, part three: love (erōs) and the quarrel between poetry and philosophy, politics, and philosophy; political ambition and the mask of philosophy as morality. The speeches of Socrates and Alcibiades.

Preliminary Readings

It would be most beneficial to read the Symposium (especially in the Benardete translation), and, in descending order as time permits, (1) the selections from Apology 21-28, Phaedo 95-102, and Republic 504-522 , (2) the Phaedrus,(3) the Minos and Hipparchus, and (4) the Phaedo.
Recommended translations: Plato’s Symposium, trans. Seth Benardete (with Commentaries by Allan Bloom and Seth Benardete; Chicago, 2001); Apology: trans. T. and G. S. West in Four Texts on Socrates (Ithaca: 1998, 2nd ed.); Phaedo: trans. Eva Brann, et al. (Newburyport, MA, 1998) , and Republic: trans. Allan Bloom (New York, 1992, 2nd ed.); the Phaedrus: trans. Stephen Scully (Newburyport, MA, 2003) or Nichols (Ithaca), the Minos and Hipparchus trans. in The Roots of Political Philosophy, ed. T. Pangle (Ithaca, 1996).