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Plato's Republic

Plato's Republic

Professor David Roochnik Ph.D.
Boston University
Course No.  4537
Course No.  4537
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Course Overview

About This Course

24 lectures  |  30 minutes per lecture

It is the first work in the history of Western political philosophy and, arguably, the most influential—so influential that the entire European philosophical tradition has been described as being nothing more than a "series of footnotes" to its author. Yet Plato's Republic, more than 2,000 years after its appearance, and in spite of the many provocative directions those footnotes have taken, still remains astonishingly relevant in its own right.

It poses one question after another that might well have been drawn from the headlines and debates of our nation's recent history:

  • What sort of person should rule the state? Is it ever permissible for a ruler to lie to the citizens? Should women be given the same political opportunities as men? What is the role of education in politics?
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It is the first work in the history of Western political philosophy and, arguably, the most influential—so influential that the entire European philosophical tradition has been described as being nothing more than a "series of footnotes" to its author. Yet Plato's Republic, more than 2,000 years after its appearance, and in spite of the many provocative directions those footnotes have taken, still remains astonishingly relevant in its own right.

It poses one question after another that might well have been drawn from the headlines and debates of our nation's recent history:

  • What sort of person should rule the state? Is it ever permissible for a ruler to lie to the citizens? Should women be given the same political opportunities as men? What is the role of education in politics?
  • Should citizens be allowed full freedom when it comes to sexual relationships and private property?
  • Are all citizens equal before the law?
  • Is censorship of music and literature ever justifiable?
  • Should everyone have equal access to health care?

And these questions, no matter how vital they may be on their own, are only intellectual stepping stones along the pathway of Plato's greater inquiry—the question of defining justice itself and the reasons why a man or woman would choose a life aligned with that virtue.

In Plato's Republic, Professor David Roochnik leads you through the brilliant dialogue Plato crafted both to define and examine the issues with which political philosophy still grapples.

Chapter by chapter—what the Republic presents as "books"—Professor Roochnik introduces you to Plato's literary recasting of his own great teacher, Socrates, and the dialogue through which Socrates and the Republic's other characters create the hypothetical ideal city. It is by dissecting life in this presumably just city—the "Republic" of Plato's title—that the nature of justice itself can be examined.

Explore Justice through the Socratic Method

Socrates presents question after question, refuting each in a manner that leads to still another question, as Socrates's—and Plato's—ideas about the nature of justice and the society necessary for justice's emergence gradually unfold.

Many of those ideas will startle contemporary readers, who may recognize in them the foreshadowing of some of humankind's darkest moments.

Plato, for instance, has Socrates present what has come to be known, notoriously, as the "noble lie," the assertion that human beings are not born of their parents but of the city itself. Moreover, those men and women are born into three predetermined social classes—with souls containing gold, silver, or bronze—that must never mingle.

Preserving that purity of class—very similar to a caste system—also means the careful supervision of reproduction. If a bronze-souled child, for example, is born to a gold-souled woman, it is taken away to be raised by citizens of like soul.

If this sounds suspiciously like what we have come to know as the eugenics once offered as a route to racial purity, making you uncomfortable and suggesting why some have called the Republic the "great-great-grandfather of all totalitarian experiments," then Professor Roochnik would be far from disappointed.

Indeed, that discomfort with one of the great names in philosophy—literary character or not—is something he believes is a very good thing.

"Socrates's proposals will cause readers to object. They will find, however, that even if they disagree with what Socrates recommends, developing arguments against his proposals is a most valuable exercise," he says.

"They will be forced to think through basic assumptions concerning politics. For example, almost all of us believe political freedom is a good thing, and that all citizens should be counted as equal before the law. But why? Plato will encourage us to defend our most cherished beliefs."

Repeatedly, Plato puts those beliefs to the test.

Can You Defend Your Beliefs Against Plato?

Do you believe in freedom of the press and in an artist's right to set forth the ideals he or she believes in?

Socrates's ideal city is one in which cultural activity, because of its central role in forming the character of its citizens and developing the city's guardians and leaders, must be strictly censored and controlled. He notes that it is "imperative for the rulers of the city to supervise the makers of tales."

Do you believe there should be universal access to medical care, and that the infirm, or those with less to contribute to society, deserve to be treated?

In Socrates's ideal city—which he is constructing, remember, to examine the definition of and reason for justice—doctors exist to further the well-being of the city. If those who are less useful to the city, or no longer useful at all, must therefore go without care, even to the point of death, so be it.

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24 Lectures
  • 1
    Plato’s Life and Times
    Lecture 1 moves from a brief overview of the course to a discussion of Plato's life and times, and the influences his world would have upon his work. x
  • 2
    Book I—The Title and the Setting
    In addition to introducing the characters of Plato's dialogue, this first book also introduces Plato's basic questions about justice and the person and method of Socrates. x
  • 3
    Book I—Socrates versus Thrasymachus
    The central debate of Book I takes place between Socrates and the Sophist, Thrasymachus. Though much of the latter's relativism is refuted, the questions at the heart of their dispute remain unanswered. x
  • 4
    Book II—The City-Soul Analogy
    Socrates introduces the city-soul analogy, the individual soul "written large," and we look at the first of the cities that will be constructed as a means of defining justice. x
  • 5
    Books II and III—Censorship
    Socrates argues that since the cultural world plays the central role in forming citizen character, music and literature of all kinds must be censored in a just city. x
  • 6
    Book III—The Noble Lie
    Socrates's censorship program culminates in the "noble lie," in which the city itself—where the predetermined social classes of birth should not mingle—is the parent. x
  • 7
    Book III—Socrates's Medical Ethics
    Socrates presents a radical view of the practice of medicine and the allocation of medical resources in his just city, and the student is challenged to articulate a response. x
  • 8
    Book IV—Justice in the City and Soul
    We see Socrates complete his city-soul analogy—including the "four cardinal virtues "—and then discuss Plato's psychology, especially his notion of the harmony of the soul. x
  • 9
    Book V—Feminism
    Do Socrates's conditions for justice make him a feminist? We examine his proposals in a contemporary light before moving to another condition: that a just city requires rule by philosophers. x
  • 10
    Book V—Who Is the Philosopher?
    A long intellectual detour moves us on our first step towards what is typically called "Plato's theory of Ideas," the cornerstone of his philosophical worldview. x
  • 11
    Book VI—The Ship of State
    A famous parable reveals one of the most pessimistic interpretations of "real world" politics ever conceived, along with a great irony about the role of philosophers in the real world. x
  • 12
    Book VI—The Idea of the Good
    Socrates finally reveals the answer to the question he has been evading all along: What does the philosopher-ruler actually know? x
  • 13
    Book VI—The Divided Line
    A single short passage turns out to be the most concise summary of Plato's conception of reality. Although it never becomes crystal clear, discussion does make it accessible. x
  • 14
    Book VII—The Parable of the Cave
    Perhaps because he realizes the difficulty of understanding both the Idea of the Good and the Divided Line, Socrates tells another parable: that of the cave. x
  • 15
    Book VII—The Education of the Guardians
    In answering why mathematics is so important to the education of the guardians, we complete our overview of Plato's "theory of Ideas" and his conception of education. x
  • 16
    Book VIII—The Perfectly Just City Fails
    As we begin our return to the discussion of actual politics, we learn a surprising irony about Socrates's conception of the perfectly just city: it is doomed to fail. x
  • 17
    Books VIII and IX—The Mistaken Regimes
    The fourth and final part of Plato's Republic, unlike earlier sections, is neither philosophical argument nor historical analysis; it is an explanation of how regimes change. x
  • 18
    Book VIII—Socrates's Critique of Democracy
    This lecture addresses what is perhaps the most politically charged issue found in this course, and addressing Socrates's challenges it should sharpen students' understanding of the regime that they likely think best. x
  • 19
    Books VIII and IX—The Critique of Tyranny
    Socrates offers a lengthy condemnation of tyranny, the worst of all possible regimes. We test his analysis by looking at the most notorious tyrant of our generation: Saddam Hussein. x
  • 20
    Book IX—The Superiority of Justice
    Socrates argues that the life of the just philosopher is happier and more pleasant than that of the unjust tyrant, returning to a key question posed in Book I. x
  • 21
    Book X—Philosophy versus Poetry
    Socrates returns to a subject first raised in Books II and III—this time with a critique even more severe. x
  • 22
    Book X—The Myth of Er
    Socrates tells a poem of his own, going directly to the issue of how human beings should live their lives and returning the Republic, full circle, to its opening theme. x
  • 23
    Summary and Overview
    In this lecture, we will review the journey we have taken through the ten books of Plato's Republic, trying to summarize the great achievements of this extraordinary book. x
  • 24
    The Legacy of Plato's Republic
    Whitehead characterized all of the European philosophical tradition as a "series of footnotes to Plato." We examine this wild exaggeration to see if, indeed, it holds any truth. x

Lecture Titles

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David Roochnik
Ph.D. David Roochnik
Boston University
Dr. David Roochnik is Professor of Philosophy at Boston University, where he teaches in both the Department of Philosophy and the Core Curriculum, an undergraduate program in the humanities. He completed his undergraduate work at Trinity College, where he majored in philosophy, and earned his Ph.D. from Pennsylvania State University. Dr. Roochnik was awarded Boston University's Gitner Award in 1997 for excellence in teaching in the College of Arts and Sciences and the 1999 Metcalf Prize for campus-wide teaching excellence. He is the author of two books on Plato, The Tragedy of Reason: Toward a Platonic Conception of Logos and Of Art and Wisdom: Plato's Understanding of TECHNE. He has also published over 30 articles on a wide range of subjects in classical Greek philosophy and literature.
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