Comedies of Aristophanes
(Nyuk, Nyuk, Nyuk)


Sometimes known as “the Father of Comedy”, Aristophanes was a fixture of ancient Athens at the time of Peloponnesian War and of Socrates. Indeed, in one of his plays Aristophanes lampoons Socrates himself. (Plato returned the favor by having Socrates allude to that play in the Apology and by including Aristophanes in the Symposium alongside Agathon, the great tragedian of the day.) This course will look closely at three of the master’s plays: The Clouds (about Socrates and his “Thinkery”); The Wasps (often considered the finest example of “Old Comedy”); and Lysistrata (in which the women of Greece go on a sex strike in order to force the men of Greece to end the Peloponnesian War). A final session will be devoted to a consideration of Spike Lee’s Chi-Raq, a modern adaptation of Lysistrata whose tagline is, “No Peace; No Piece”. Continue reading

How to Read Plato’s Dialogues as Literature


Like its counterparts in the “How to Read Classic Texts” series, this course is designed to help students improve their reading skills. In this case, by learning how to read Plato’s dialogues as “philosophical dramas,” the full appreciation of which requires attention to each work’s dramatic and philosophical dimensions (sometimes referred to as “form” and “content”) — as well as (sometimes) to its connections to other dialogues in Plato’s canon. Discover what folks who read Plato’s dialogues as thinly-veiled manifestoes are missing! Continue reading

Reading Plato’s Republic … Twice!


Using the strategy laid out in Mortimer Adler’s classic How to Read a Book, this course is devoted to developing a thorough understanding of Plato’s Republic by reading it once quickly to get an overview and then again more slowly to figure out the details. Along the way, we’ll pay careful attention to both the dramatic and the philosophic features that Plato interweaves to create a Socratic “one man show” (think Fonda as Darrow or Holbrook as Twain) “on justice”. Whether you’ve attempted the Republic before or never cracked the cover, this course is for you. Please skim Books 1-4 of the Republic before the first class session. You may also want to read Adler’s How to Read a Book before or during the course but that is not required.
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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”. Continue reading

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