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Plato on the Soul, Being and eros: A Discussion of the Parmenides, Symposium, and Phaedo

Lecturer: Martin Black

Originally Taught: Winter School 2012

Plato’s works have been of continuous importance whenever they have been available, but there has been something of a revolution in the study of Plato in recent times. Simply taking notice of the form in which Plato wrote has enabled commentators to begin to reintegrate the dialogues in accord with Plato’s intention rather than to disperse their content among the various contemporary categories of logic, epistemology, and so forth. Plato combines such modes of philosophical discourse with the justification of philosophy itself as a way of life, in his depiction of the figure of Socrates. In this view, metaphysics or cosmology is inseparable from political philosophy and psychology, because the picture of the whole must include the human being who attempts to know it; that is, it must include self-knowledge.

The three dialogues we will discuss provide Plato’s depiction of Socrates’ philosophical education, which occurs in three stages. In his youth Socrates engaged in the kind of natural science that Aristophanes mocked in the Clouds, and which is in some ways a parallel to the dislocation of modern science from ordinary experience. Socrates found that a method that reduced things to their material elements could not account for the unity of the things we experience, or for the better or worse state we experience ourselves and other things to be in (health is better than sickness, happiness than misery, etc.). In this first stage of his education, he proposes to appeal to the diversity of intelligible aspects or the “forms” of things over their homogeneous matter, on the one hand, and the incoherence of their being directed by a cosmic mind, on the other. That is, he proposed that there are stable principles by which we can judge human thought and action. This proposal has later come to be called Plato’s theory of forms.

The second stage of Socrates’ education is shown in Plato’s Parmenides,where this version of the theory of the forms is comprehensively refuted by Parmenides, who then engages in a dialogue about the character of the one and the many. The most important problem here concern the status of reason: we don’t seem to be wise and in the possession of first principles, but that suggests that the poetic or religious tradition would be a better guide to life than a blind rationality. Parmenides urges Socrates to reconsider but not abandon the necessity of his hypothesis of forms or stable principles if philosophy or even coherent thought is to be possible.

The third stage is represented by the Symposium, in which Socrates relates his education in the love or eros. This instruction is intended to vindicate the philosophical life against its poetic and political alternatives. However, it is also to demonstrate that a philosophy that knows itself not to be wise must proceed dialectically through the poetic and political alternatives to philosophy. Socrates must therefore suggest that we normally misunderstand our experience in a manner that provides politics and poetry their power. Our normal aims are in part rational, but that this means that they are in part irrational yet of overwhelming attraction to us: we are all to some degree deluded about the very things most important and exciting to us. Socratic self-knowledge, the blend of wisdom and ignorance that Socrates claims generally in the dialogues, is based on the irrationality of every other way of life. But, on the other hand, if there is no germ of rationality in every human life then equally philosophy will have no non-arbitrary beginning point. The deepest questions of the soul, being, and intelligibility, must be approached through the surface of everyday opinions about what is good and bad, beautiful and ugly, and just and unjust, what is knowable, countable, and so forth. Socratic philosophy thus rejects the pre-Socratic (and modern) notion that nature or the first principles of things are either directly accessible or that they are constructed. The truth must be elicited from an examination of the gods, laws, and opinions created by the political community and its poets, but not, or not only because we want power or fame, but because we actually wish to know what we’re about.

Course Schedule:
Monday: Introduction: an outline of Plato’s life and times, his philosophical inheritance and legacy; his use of Socrates as the paradigm of the philosopher; sophistry, poetry, and the city (polis).
  • Reading: Excerpts from Plato’s Letters; Socrates’ “intellectual autobiography” in Phaedo 96-101
Tuesday: The Phaedo: the Socratic dialogue on the nature of the soul; dialectical criticism of reductive philosophical and poetic teachings; the hypothesis of the forms.
  • Reading: Excerpts from the Phaedo
Wednesday: The Parmenides: the “Platonist” hypothesis of the forms criticized and the demonstration of our necessarily partial awareness of the forms as the structure of the knowledge of ignorance; the problem of wholes and parts.
  • Reading: Especially Parmenides 130a-137d and some other brief excerpts.
Thursday: The Symposium; the first 5 speeches: love (eros) and the central principles and tensions of politics, science, and poetry.
  • Reading: Excerpts from Symposium 177-198
Friday: The Symposium: Socrates on love and poetry, the good and the beautiful, and philosophy.
  • Reading: Excerpts from Symposium 198-212

Readings: In June a PDF reader containing a translation of the main texts to be discussed will be made available through the course website.

Difficulty: Introductory to Intermediate. To understand the readings and discussion it would be helpful to have read the excerpts in the reader before the meeting in which they are discussed. Any further reading of the three main dialogues would also be good.