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Masters of Greek Thought: Plato, Socrates, and Aristotle

Masters of Greek Thought: Plato, Socrates, and Aristotle

Course No.  4460
Course No.  4460
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Course Overview

About This Course

36 lectures  |  30 minutes per lecture

For more than two millennia, philosophers have grappled with life's most profound issues. It is easy to forget, however, that these "eternal" questions are not eternal at all; rather, they once had to be asked for the first time. It was the Athenian citizen and philosopher Socrates who first asked these questions in the 5th century B.C. "Socrates," notes award-winning Professor Robert C. Bartlett, "was responsible for a fundamentally new way of philosophizing": trying to understand the world by reason.

Masters of Greek Thought: Plato, Socrates, and Aristotle, a 36-lecture course taught by Professor Bartlett, provides you with a detailed analysis of the golden age of Athenian philosophy and the philosophical consequences that occurred when Socrates—followed first by his student Plato and then by Plato's own student Aristotle—permanently altered our approach to the most important questions humanity can pose.

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For more than two millennia, philosophers have grappled with life's most profound issues. It is easy to forget, however, that these "eternal" questions are not eternal at all; rather, they once had to be asked for the first time. It was the Athenian citizen and philosopher Socrates who first asked these questions in the 5th century B.C. "Socrates," notes award-winning Professor Robert C. Bartlett, "was responsible for a fundamentally new way of philosophizing": trying to understand the world by reason.

Masters of Greek Thought: Plato, Socrates, and Aristotle, a 36-lecture course taught by Professor Bartlett, provides you with a detailed analysis of the golden age of Athenian philosophy and the philosophical consequences that occurred when Socrates—followed first by his student Plato and then by Plato's own student Aristotle—permanently altered our approach to the most important questions humanity can pose.

What Was the "Socratic Turn"?

The Socratic break with earlier philosophy was a shift in thought that led to some of the most important and intellectually exciting concepts in all of philosophy. Socrates' influence on a new generation of philosophers, most importantly, Plato and Aristotle, ensured that his ideas would change the face of philosophy.

Prior to Socrates' new approach, philosophy was concerned primarily with the project of "natural philosophy": a prescientific study of nature and the physical world. Professor Bartlett begins the course with a discussion of how Socrates came to the "Socratic turn" that veered away from the study of natural science and toward the scrutiny of moral opinion. You recognize how crucial this turn was because it became the fulcrum around which a new era of philosophy turne. Never again could philosophers return to their ancient role of merely attempting to grasp the natural order of a world previously ascribed to the planning or whimsy of the gods.

The new arguments that Socrates, Plato, and Aristotle posed were intended not for other philosophers but for anyone seeking to live a thoughtful and attentive life. Throughout the course, you come to see how their inquiries about the fundamental meanings and implications of ideas like justice, virtue, and happiness pushed their fellow citizens to ponder the roles such ideas played in their daily lives and in society. They even asked their peers to consider whether these and other questions were ones that anyone could hope to answer.

See Socrates through Plato's Eyes

Unfortunately, the thinker who forever altered the course of philosophy never actually wrote down his words. So how can we hope to know what Socrates, whom many believe to be the foundational thinker of Western philosophy, really believed?

The answer, Professor Bartlett shows, lies in the fact that much of Socrates' philosophy is captured in the writings of his contemporaries and followers. As a means of leading you to a sharper picture of the real Socrates, the course introduces you to the writings of three key figures:

  • Xenophon: the great thinker and military commander who wrote a series of Socratic sayings that survives to this day
  • Aristophanes: whose comic play Clouds is both a send-up and a thoughtful critique of Socrates that is crucial to understanding his philosophical evolution
  • Plato: a brilliant young man from a wealthy and politically active family who became Socrates' best student and whose works, written in the form of dialogues between two or more persons, feature Socrates as the protagonist

Plato, in particular, is an essential source of information about Socrates. Over the course of a dozen lectures, you explore the wide variety of Plato's brilliant dialogues and how they reflect the core of Socrates' philosophy of morality and justice:

  • Alcibiades I, which depicts Socrates' reasoning why the young Alcibiades needs him
  • Symposium, in which seven partiers discuss the nature of love
  • Republic, perhaps Plato's best-known work, which focuses on the definition and nature of justice
  • Protagoras, in which Socrates and Protagoras argue whether virtue can be taught
  • Gorgias, which depicts an argument over who is more important, the philosopher or the rhetorician
  • Meno, which seeks to come to a general definition of virtue

Professor Bartlett then turns the discussion to those Platonic dialogues that cover the well-known trial and execution of Socrates at the hands of the Athenian state. By examining Euthyphro, Apology of Socrates, and Crito as a whole, you develop a deeper understanding of the defense strategy Socrates chose, why he chose it, and how it ultimately failed him. You also review whether Plato's sympathetic defense of his teacher was successful in the long run.

Aristotle's Philosophy of Human Affairs

Throughout Masters of Greek Thought, Professor Bartlett guides you deep into nuanced philosophical discussions while keeping the thread of the arguments both clear and exhilarating. This becomes especially important when you focus on the third iconic philosopher this course covers: Aristotle.

A student of Plato's famed Academy, Aristotle did more than anyone to establish a comprehensive system of philosophy in the West. His work encompassed the fields of morality, politics, aesthetics, logic, science, rhetoric, theology, metaphysics, and more. Scholars today believe that only about a third of his work survives.

In keeping with the theme of the course, Professor Bartlett, who has translated selected works by Xenophon and Plato from the original Greek, focuses your attention on Aristotle's work on the philosophy of human affairs. You delve into two of the philosopher's major writings:

  • Nicomachean Ethics, which is a stunning approach to questions of virtue and moral character
  • Politics, which continues the ideas of individual and interpersonal ethics first developed in Nichomachean Ethics and discusses their logical extension into the governance of the city-state

Learn from Socrates and His Heirs

A distinguished teacher and translator and the recipient of numerous teaching awards, including an award for excellence in teaching in the social sciences from Emory University's Center for Teaching and Curriculum, Professor Bartlett keeps his presentation of these three great thinkers not only clear but also accessible, unintimidating, and relevant to each of us today.

The insights Masters of Greek Thought offers into the minds of these three foundational figures of Western philosophy and the care with which Professor Bartlett unpacks their words bring the ideas of Socrates, Plato, and Aristotle into sharp focus for you. More than 2,000 years later, you find their questions on the nature of justice, virtue, and happiness pushing you to ponder the roles such ideas play in your daily life and in the life of your society.

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36 Lectures
  • 1
    Socrates and His Heirs
    You explore the key innovations and insights of Socrates, his student Plato, and Plato's student Aristotle. For all their originality, Plato and Aristotle were deeply indebted to Socrates, who was responsible for a fundamentally new way of philosophizing. x
  • 2
    The Socratic Revolution
    Some key concepts necessary to understanding Socrates are explained, including early ideas of philosophy—especially in its relation to nature—and Socrates's groundbreaking shift to moral-political questions. This lecture then turns to ancient Greek comedy and Aristophanes's Clouds. x
  • 3
    Aristophanes's Comic Critique of Socrates
    Aristophanes's comedic but wise treatment of Socrates in Clouds reveals two fundamental criticisms: (1) Socrates's failure to recognize the dangers to family and the political community that his study of nature represents has made him imprudent, and (2) his claims to know more than he does. x
  • 4
    Xenophon's Recollections of Socrates
    Since Socrates didn't write down his philosophy, we know him only through the work of others. Of the four writings Xenophon devoted to Socrates, Memorabilia (or Recollections) attempts to establish Socrates's idea of justice—obedience to the law and helpfulness to others. x
  • 5
    Xenophon and Socratic Philosophy
    The best evidence of the difficulties Socrates faced in turning his philosophy away from nature and toward moral and political concerns comes from Oeconomicus, Xenophon's account of the fateful day when Socrates began his intensive examination of moral opinions, especially regarding beliefs about the gods. x
  • 6
    Plato’s Socrates and the Platonic Dialogue
    The most important source of our knowledge of Socrates is his student Plato, who featured his teacher in almost all of his 35 extant dialogues. The lecture discusses how to read this unique literary form and considers some first impressions of Plato's Socrates, particularly his characteristic irony. x
  • 7
    Socrates as Teacher—Alcibiades
    The study of Plato and his presentation of Socrates begins with Socrates as teacher, seen here in four dialogues devoted to Socrates's mutually disappointing relationship with the historical figure Alcibiades. This lecture focuses on Alcibiades I and on Alcibiades's famous speech about Socrates, recorded in Plato's Symposium. x
  • 8
    Socrates and Justice—Republic, Part 1
    Plato asks the all-important question, "What is justice?" He shows that the search for an answer is not a mere exercise in word play but requires a response to those who think that justice, however defined, is bad for the just themselves. x
  • 9
    The Case against Justice—Republic, Part 2
    This lecture sets forth the full challenge faced by Socrates in defending justice. It is a challenge that requires him to respond to three different arguments against justice—including two presented in an effort to elicit Socrates's strongest case for justice. x
  • 10
    Building the Best City—Republic, Part 3
    Socrates proposes to discover what justice is and whether it is good by building the best city "in speech," believing that locating political justice will then make it easier to find individual justice. But can the two be made into a whole? x
  • 11
    Philosophers as Kings
    This lecture focuses on the chief subjects of books 5–7 of Republic, including the call for "philosopher-kings"; the doctrine of the Ideas; and the famous metaphor of the Cave. All are part of Socrates's ultimate aim in Plato's Republic: a defense of philosophy. x
  • 12
    Socrates as Teacher of Justice
    From the beginning of Republic, the rhetorician Thrasymachus praised injustice over justice, the latter fit only for the foolish and weak. Socrates then considers injustice and prepares the way for his own comparison of the two—his final answer to Thrasymachus. x
  • 13
    Socrates versus the Sophists
    Plato often informs us about Socrates by contrasting him with his competitors, the sophists and the rhetoricians. This lecture begins the discussion on the Platonic dialogue named after the most famous sophist of antiquity, Protagoras, in which he and Socrates wage a subtle and intense verbal duel. x
  • 14
    Protagoras Undone
    This lecture concludes the discussion of Protagoras with Socrates's complex response to Protagoras's justly famous argument, revealing that the sophist's "sophisticated" contempt for justice and noble self-sacrifice cannot be squared with his genuine admiration of courage and the courageous, making him a more moral man than he realizes. x
  • 15
    Socrates versus the Rhetoricians
    From Socrates's encounter with the day's most famous sophist, you turn to the first of his three conversations with its most famous rhetorician, Gorgias. The two define rhetoric—persuasion without actual teaching—before Gorgias offers a demonstration and Socrates a response. x
  • 16
    Rhetoric and Tyranny
    With the arrival of the brash Polus and his arguments about using rhetoric to gain power, Plato turns Gorgias toward the question of the goodness of justice. Socrates demonstrates that Polus retains a lingering respect for justice and has not thought through his assertions. x
  • 17
    Callicles and the Problem of Justice
    You look at the final part of Gorgias and Socrates's conversation with Callicles, who sees justice in the strong dominating the weak and harshly criticizes both philosophy and Socrates. The dialogue concludes with Socrates's criticism of the hedonism that guides Callicles's life. x
  • 18
    What Is Virtue? Meno, Part 1
    You take up this question in Meno, named after a student of Gorgias who came to Socrates to learn how virtue is acquired. This lecture begins the dialogue's longest part, where Meno, at Socrates's insistence, must first learn what virtue is. x
  • 19
    Can Virtue Be Taught? Meno, Part 2
    A discussion of the "recollection doctrine"—the idea that learning is innate knowledge recalled—prompts Meno not to give up his quest for a definition of virtue, which Plato finally allows is teachable ... perhaps. x
  • 20
    The Trial of Socrates I—Euthyphro
    This lecture opens a treatment of the four-dialogue sequence devoted to Socrates's trial, conviction, and execution. It focuses on Euthyphro's main arguments concerning piety and how they reveal the general approach Socrates took to the challenge that piety poses to the philosophic life. x
  • 21
    The Trial of Socrates II—Apology, Part 1
    Plato's Apology of Socrates is probably the most widely read document in Western philosophy. In addition to learning of Socrates's attempts to refute the charges against him, you also consider his revealing account of what first prompted him to become the philosopher notorious for cross-examining others. x
  • 22
    The Trial of Socrates III—Apology, Part 2
    You look at Socrates's claim that he is just, not only in that he broke no law, but in the higher sense of dedication to others. The lecture concludes by examining Socrates's remarks after his conviction and sentencing and reviewing the long-term success of Plato's defense of him. x
  • 23
    The Trial of Socrates IV—Crito
    Crito takes place in Socrates's jail cell, where his old friend or companion, Crito, argues for his escape. You look at Crito's arguments and Socrates's responses and conclude with suggestions on why Socrates ultimately chooses to submit to execution. x
  • 24
    The Socratic Revolution Revisited—Phaedo
    This lecture discusses Socrates's arguments for the immortality of the soul and his vital autobiographical remarks to show why Socrates turned to so-called Socratic philosophizing. Both discussions help us better grasp the nature of the change that Socrates brought about. x
  • 25
    Aristotle and the Socratic Legacy
    You delve into the life and thought of Plato's greatest student, exploring the relationship between Socrates, Plato, and Aristotle; Aristotle's role as guide to some of today's most fundamental human questions; and the demands posed by his challenging style of writing. x
  • 26
    The Problem of Happiness—Ethics 1
    The study of Aristotle's political philosophy begins with his penetrating account of our longing for happiness, the final end of our strivings. It's an account that leaves much to ponder, particularly the sway that chance or fortune holds over our lives. x
  • 27
    Introduction to Moral Virtue—Ethics 2
    In introducing virtue in general, this lecture explores its two subspecies, moral and intellectual virtue—a distinction introduced by Aristotle. It then turns to the most famous part of Aristotle's ethical teaching, that of each virtue being understood as a mean between extremes. x
  • 28
    The Principal Moral Virtues—Ethics 3–5
    Aristotle identifies eleven moral virtues, each associated with its corresponding vices. The focus here is on three of those virtues—courage, magnanimity, and justice—with the latter two representing the peak of moral virtue. x
  • 29
    Prudence, Continence, Pleasure—Ethics 6–7
    This lecture is devoted to the intellectual virtue of prudence, or practical judgment; the somewhat strange capacity called "continence," or "self-control"; and, finally, a discussion of pleasure, the case for which Aristotle considers at length as the proper goal of human life. x
  • 30
    Friendship—Ethics 8–9
    Aristotle devotes two books of Ethics to friendship. The investigation focuses on three issues: What are the various kinds of friendship, and which is best? Why does Aristotle's inquiry take a decidedly political turn? And how does Aristotle resolve the tensions between friendship's selfish and selfless aspects? x
  • 31
    Philosophy and the Good Life—Ethics 10
    The final book of Aristotle's study of character and the good life continues his analysis of pleasure—a pleasant life—as the greatest good, and of the role intellectual or contemplative virtue plays in making such a life. x
  • 32
    The Political Animal—Politics 1–2
    You look at Aristotle's case for the importance of examining political life, trace his famous but complex argument that humans are by nature "political animals," and consider his critique of various regimes, actual and imagined, that have claimed to be best—including that of Plato's Republic. x
  • 33
    Justice and the Common Good—Politics 3
    This lecture discusses Aristotle's inquiry into the citizen and citizenship; his analysis of a regime's relation to justice and the common good; and Aristotle's account of kingship, to show how such inquiry, analysis, and account of kingship form a sustained argument about the limits of justice. x
  • 34
    Aristotle's Political Science—Politics 4–6
    In what are sometimes called the "practical" books of Politics, Aristotle sets aside his standards for ideal regimes to analyze the actual regimes and statesmen most likely to be encountered and offers some advice even tyrannies might heed. x
  • 35
    The Best Regime—Politics 7–8
    The final books of Aristotle's Politics are devoted to the best regime, the regime "in accord with what one would pray for." You look at its goals, makeup, and nature, as well as education's crucial role in making such a regime a reality. x
  • 36
    Concluding Reflections
    This lecture reviews the course and the innovations in Western philosophy that began with Socrates and continued with Plato and Aristotle. You see how the three together constitute one of the highest peaks of Western thought, one that richly repays the efforts made to ascend it. x

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Robert C. Bartlett
Ph.D. Robert C. Bartlett
Boston College

Dr. Robert C. Bartlett is the Behrakis Professor of Hellenic Political Thought at Boston College. He holds an M.A. in Classics and a Ph.D. in Political Science from Boston College. Professor Bartlett's principal research concerns the history of moral and political philosophy, with special attention to the political thought of classical antiquity. His books are The Idea of Enlightenment: A Postmortem Study (University of Toronto Press, 2001) and Action and Contemplation: Studies in the Moral and Political Thought of Aristotle (coeditor and contributor, SUNY Press, 1999). He is working on a new translation of Aristotle's Nicomachean Ethics, to be published by the University of Chicago Press. Repeatedly recognized for excellence in teaching by the Emory University chapter of Phi Beta Kappa, Professor Bartlett has also received an award for excellence in teaching in the social sciences from the Center for Teaching and Curriculum at Emory and a Crystal Apple for excellence in undergraduate lecturing, an award voted on by the student body.

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Rated 3.7 out of 5 by 33 reviewers.
Rated 1 out of 5 by A mile wide/an inch deep I really wanted to like this course but by lecture 12 I gave up. I guess this really wasn’t what I wanted. I wanted an in-depth look into the minds of Socrates, Plato, and Aristotle but it felt more like a book review. The teacher has a nice speaking voice and I’m sure some will like this but it wasn’t for me. As I stated in the topic sentence “A mile wide/an inch deep” is how I felt this series could be summed up. I wanted more than just three minutes on Plato’s Cave. I wanted more on the shadows of more perfect things. This was like a book club review of Ancient Greek Philosophy. As a teacher myself I know the dangers of adding too much trivial detail. This professor should really scale back and focus. September 4, 2014
Rated 5 out of 5 by Absolutely Absorbing Having completed the course covering the sweep of Western Philosophy I was really interested in a specific course on this trio of masters. I was absolutely hooked from the very first lecture. Professor Bartlett is blessed with a voice and style of lecturing which enthrals. The course content was superb in covering Socrates and his journey from someone who left behind exploration of the cosmos to moral philosophy. This fascinating episode is explicated with reference to the works of Aristophenes, Xenophon as well as within the dialogues of Plato. What is particularly helpful is the way Professor Bartlett critically assesses aspects of the thoughts of each of the great thinkers. He challenges us to challenge them which makes for delicious intellectual exploration. The lively discussion of Aristotle''s political thought and the sometimes lack of clarity of his definition of virtue is enlightening. I would love this Professor to produce a further course on just Aristotle perhaps over 24 lectures as well as a specific course covering the more metaphysical aspects of Plato's thought in particular. If there is one quibble it is the relative brevity of the course guidebook which ideally would have had more detailed summaries. But still a 5 star course and absolutely recommended for anyone interested in this most important triumvirate of Western Philosophers. April 16, 2014
Rated 5 out of 5 by I am glad to have bought this course, after other courses in Greek philosophy by Professors Sugrue, Roochnik and Robinson all 5 stars. I enjoyed Prof. Bartlett's presentation, his course is well organized, he starts each lecture by a brief summary of his previous lecture and outlines what he wishes to accomplish in the current lecture. I particularly enjoyed his allegory of the cave explanation about shedding or rethinking our pre-conceptions of thought, the visual aid of the myth gave me a new insight April 13, 2013
Rated 5 out of 5 by Excellent I studied this material extensively in graduate school. While I did not, in the end, pursue an academic career, I never lost interest in the subject matter. I have been familiar with Bartlett for a while through his excellent work on Xenophon, Plato and Aristotle. In fact, to me THE most valuable philosophic book has always been Aristotle's Ethics and Bartlett's translation, which only came out a few years ago, is the one I have been waiting half a lifetime for since first reading the Loeb as an undergraduate. For this course, Bartlett has selected all the “obvious” choices. The one exception is Xenophon, who is still neglected by most scholars but who deserves the prominence he receives here. Otherwise, these are all the warhorses, with some possible deviations, e.g., Symposium is touched on but not treated at length while Protagoras and Meno get extensive treatment. Bartlett says at the beginning that the course should be of value to someone already familiar with the material just as much as to someone who only heard of Socrates yesterday. I found that to be absolutely true. He presumes no prior knowledge on the part of the listener and yet goes into enough detail to keep someone like me rapt for the entire course. I was able to “re-learn” much that I had forgotten and learn many new things beside. I would eagerly buy another course from Bartlett. My only complaint about this one was that it was too short. I’d like him to tackle ALL of Plato and Xenophon. For starters. April 8, 2013
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