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Plato, Socrates, and the Dialogues

Plato, Socrates, and the Dialogues

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Plato, Socrates, and the Dialogues

Course No. 463
Professor Michael Sugrue, Ph.D.
Ave Maria University
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Course No. 463
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Course Overview

Socrates was driven by a love for truth so great that he suffered death rather than give up his search. Though he never wrote down his thoughts, he had a brilliant pupil in Plato, who immortalized his teacher's legacy in 35 timeless dialogues that laid the philosophical basis for Western civilization. In fact Alfred North Whitehead once famously remarked, all of philosophy is but a footnote to Plato.

Professor Michael Sugrue of Princeton University brings the Socratic quest for truth alive in these lectures, which discuss ideas that are as vital today as they were 25 centuries ago. Ideas about truth, justice, love, beauty, courage, and wisdom. Ideas that can change lives and reveal the world in new ways to the true student.

An Indispensable Companion

Next to the Bible, the dialogues are perhaps the most studied and scrutinized work in Western literature.

Professor Sugrue reveals the inner structure, action, and meaning of 17 of Plato's greatest dialogues, making this course an indispensable companion for anyone interested in philosophy in general or Platonic thought in particular.

The dialogues share some general characteristics:

  • They are not a soliloquy, but rather a discussion.
  • They are not between equals (there is a teacher-student relationship).
  • Plato himself never speaks.
  • Each dialogue is a work of art, but all, taken together, constitute one huge artwork.
  • At the center of the form is irony.
  • The dialogues are very clearly intended to be a teaching tool.

Dr. Sugrue shows how each dialogue breathes with the feeling, the tension, and even the humor of great theater.

On a human level, they testify not only to the greatness of Plato's gifts, but to the loyalty, friendship, and dauntless love of learning that he shared with his beloved master.

Explore Questions at the Core of What it Means to be Human

"What is justice?" "How should I live my life?" "How can we know what is real and what is illusion?" "Can a perfect society ever be conceived or created?" "What is human excellence, and can it be taught?"

Socrates gave his life to the study of questions like these, questions that have seized the minds of thinking people down the ages and which drive straight to the core of what it means to be human. Unlike nearly anyone before or since, Socrates was driven by a passionate love for thinking and talking about such questions.

Indeed, why was this love so great that when his gentle but fearless quest for truth aroused opposition, he suffered death rather than give up the search?

As you begin listening to these tapes, you may find yourself wanting to read or re-read the dialogues. As Professor Sugrue observes, you can't really read Plato until you've read him three or four times.

But even if you don't have time to reacquaint yourself directly with Platonic texts, this course will benefit you enormously with its insight into the depths of reflection opened by Socrates and Plato—arguably the most important teacher-student pairing in history.

You will become engrossed in "the romance of the intellect" as Professor Sugrue opens a path for you into the inner structure and action of these selected dialogues, for millennia the objects of devoted study by the noblest minds.

He explores the dialogues' relations to one another, conveying the grandeur of the Platonic project in all its breadth and profundity.

Learning Not What but How to Think

This course offers no easy answers. What it gives instead is much better: an introduction to Platonic "meta-education," the art not of what to think but of how to think.

You see the stunning subtlety with which Plato weaves together the strengths of philosophy and poetry, dialectic and drama, word and action.

And you catch a glimpse of the "serious playfulness" that Socrates says the search for the good, the true, and the beautiful can inspire in the human soul.

Let the "Socratic Method" Come Alive for You

Plato, Dr. Sugrue maintains, is "the necessary starting point for any study of Western philosophy. In many of his dialogues, he speaks through the person of his revered teacher, Socrates, using the dialogic form that is still today termed the 'Socratic method.'

"These lectures analyze this form and then discuss certain key dialogues and other writings that address issues concerning governance, knowledge, reality, virtue and others that have engaged philosophers both before, but especially since, Plato."

There are 35 dialogues, plus letters, surviving. They may be divided into three general groupings, based on chronology and topic. The major dialogues, by group, include:

  1. Early (skeptical and ethical): Apology, Crito, Laches, Ion, Euthyphro, Hippias Minor, Protagoras, Gorgias, Euthydemus, Hippias Major, Lysis, Mexeneus. These dialogues end in an impasse ( aporia ) which invites further contemplation.
  2. Middle (dramatic): Meno, Phaedo, Symposium, Republic, Parmenides, Theaetetus. These deal with moral order, being (ontology) and knowledge (epistemology) and are generally, but not always, more dogmatic than skeptical.
  3. Late (less dramatic and poetical, more analytical and concerned with saving the moral and political order, less emphasis on Socrates): Timaeus, Critias, Sophist, Statesman, Philebus, Laws. 

 

The World to Which Plato was Heir

"This exploration of the thought of Plato necessarily makes us consider the Greek world of thought and literature, to which Plato was the heir," states Dr. Sugrue.

"In fact, in a play on the quote from Alfred North Whitehead, it has been suggested (half-seriously) that Plato is merely a footnote to Parmenides of Elea. Thus, we also consider other philosophers and their schools, as well as the world of 5th century B.C. Greece as we explore Plato's fascinating world of Greece and of the mind."

Thus Professor Sugrue introduces you to Plato's milieu, post-Periclean Athens, and explains how the failings evident in that city's social, civic, and intellectual life spurred Socrates and his pupil to do their work of searching and often painful criticism.

Before Socrates and Plato, Greek philosophy was primarily speculative about the nature of the universe and the world and mathematics. The philosophers before him are generally grouped together and termed the "presocratics." Their main concern was in the area of nature or "physics." Among the famous presocratics are Pythagoras (born c. 570 B.C.), Parmenides of Elea (c. 515 B.C.) and Heraclitus of Ephesus (died after c. 480 B.C.).

Closer to the time of Plato and Socrates a new school of thought developed, that of the Sophists. Perhaps the best-known Sophist is Protagoras (c. 490-c. 420 B.C.). They were a more skeptical group who did not focus on the natural (physical) world or speculative cosmologies.

Both Socrates and Plato were opposed to the Sophists, viewing Sophists as morally empty teachers who instructed young men to argue only for victory and sought money, rather than wisdom and truth, as the end for their techne (art of teaching rhetoric).

A New Kind of Hero

The dialogues, as Professor Sugrue shows you, are far from being dry treatises or bloodless catalogues of arguments.

You learn how Socrates speaks differently to different interlocutors, and how Plato intends him to be a new kind of hero, superior to any who had gone before.

You also reflect on the implications of Socrates's famed professions of ignorance, and the enigmas and ironies that shadow him and his enterprise.

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16 lectures
 |  45 minutes each
Year Released: 1994
  • 1
    The Domain of the Dialogues
    This lecture describes the life and times of Plato and Socrates, the structure of the dialogues, the way the style of argument in the dialogues progresses, and the best ways to approach understanding this body of work. x
  • 2
    What Socratic Dialogue Is Not
    Professor Sugrue shows some of the methods used by Socrates to begin his caricature and demolition of the Sophists, and his long search to answer the question: "Can virtue be taught?" x
  • 3
    The Examined Life
    In the Timaeus, the origins and principles of the physical world are discussed. In the Theaetetus, Socrates engages a young wounded man in a discussion of knowledge, edifying the young man before he dies and before Socrates is taken away to be tried and executed by Athenian authorities as a corrupter of youth. x
  • 4
    Tragedy in the Philosophic Age of the Greeks
    The Apology, the Crito, and the Phaedo are the stories of Socrates's trial and execution. Professor Sugrue explores the motif of heroic journey from this new type of Greek hero, who looks at his accusers with courage and resolve as he faces death. x
  • 5
    Republic I—Justice, Power, and Knowledge
    This lecture focuses on Plato's development of his political, ethical, and educational theories. Socrates and Thrasymachus, a cagey Sophist, struggle to define justice and to determine whether it is an art that can be practiced. x
  • 6
    Republic II–V—Soul and City
    Socrates continues his search for the meaning of justice; the Homeric virtues and heroes are discussed and dismissed as corrupt; and Plato describes the ideal city. x
  • 7
    Republic VI–X—The Architecture of Reality
    Here, Professor Sugrue explains Plato's myth of the cave, the hierarchies of human moral development and the political regimes that accompany each, and the criticism of tragedy and comedy. x
  • 8
    Laws—The Legacy of Cephalus
    Professor Sugrue argues that toward the end of his life, Plato recognized serious problems with his philosophical positions—so serious that he wrote very little for more than 10 years—and that the Laws is one of the dialogues designated to a "second best" philosophical position. x
  • 9
    Protagoras—The Dialectic of the Many and the One
    A comic dialogue in which Socrates develops his argument on the nature of virtue, concluding that virtue is knowledge and, therefore, can be taught. x
  • 10
    Gorgias—The Temptation to Speak
    Socrates engages Gorgias, one of the great Sophists, in discussions of virtue and education, and converts Gorgias to teach true virtue rather than the corrupt craft of rhetoric. x
  • 11
    Parmenides—"Most True"
    This dialogue prefigures Hegel for its baffling qualities; it is a protracted and very difficult discussion on the nature of being and the consequences of Plato's conclusions for the theory of the ideal forms of being. x
  • 12
    Sophist and Statesman—The Formal Disintegration of Justice
    This pair of dialogues continues Plato's later project to expose the weaknesses of his earlier works and to propose and defend a workable theory and practice for knowledge and politics. x
  • 13
    Phaedrus—Hymn to Love
    The great lyrical masterpiece of Platonic poetry. The main themes of love and rhetoric are bridged by related themes: identity, the soul, desire, and the longing for ultimate beauty. x
  • 14
    Symposium—The Pride of Love
    Plato's famous description of a drunken discussion among Socrates and other remarkable Greeks concerning the nature of love. x
  • 15
    The Platonic Achievement
    Professor Sugrue summarizes his view of the intended and actual effects of Plato's work. Platonic argument is usually appreciated as the origin of Western speculation, but it is at least as important, Sugrue argues, to view Plato form the perspective of the intellectual traditions he continued and transformed. x
  • 16
    The Living Voice
    Professor Sugrue attempts a summary and understanding of Plato's new hero, Socrates himself. This hero, as seen through the dialogues, is a deeply ironic character because his questions often lead to no conclusions; he is distrustful of the written work and yet that is how we come to know him. x

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Course Guidebook Details:
  • 104-page printed course guidebook
  • Suggested readings
  • Questions to consider
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Your professor

Michael Sugrue

About Your Professor

Michael Sugrue, Ph.D.
Ave Maria University
Dr. Michael Sugrue is Professor of History at Ave Maria University. A graduate of the Great Books Program, he earned his B.A. in History from the University of Chicago and his M.A., M.Phil., and Ph.D. in History from Columbia University. Prior to taking his position at Ave Maria University, Professor Sugrue taught at Princeton University, the City College of New York, Columbia University, Manhattan College, New York...
Learn More About This Professor

Reviews

Rated 4.6 out of 5 by 47 reviewers.
Rated 5 out of 5 by Plato, Socrates and the great dialogues A very important work. I have struggled to read it and my eyes get tired. Wonderful that someone has taken the time to narrate this work. Now I just close my eyes and listen. The BEST. August 2, 2016
Rated 2 out of 5 by Seemed Too Advanced To Me But Professor is Awesome This is the most unique review I have written for the Great Courses: I could only rate this course two stars and could not recommend it but I was mesmerized by the Professor's speaking style! I would've loved an opportunity to take one of his courses in person. This is the only series in which I've heard people in the audience laughing. He is very animated, passionate, contemporary, and must be a master at working a crowd. I just wish I could've gotten into the content better. Maybe because it felt too advanced a course for me but for specific content I would recommend "An Introduction to Greek Philosophy". July 12, 2016
Rated 1 out of 5 by Very Disappointing I was a philosophy major at Yale, and although I have seldom written reviews, I have taken approximately 70 teaching company courses, including some 18 other philosophy courses: three by Professor Solomon, two by Professor Robinson, two by Professor Grim, two by Professor Cary, two by Professor Dalton, two by Professor Goldman, one by Professor Garfield, one by Professor Gimbel, one by Professor Cahoone, one by Professor Johnson, and one by Professor Williams. While some of these courses were better than others, they all represented serious attempts to present philosophical arguments and counter-arguments. If I had submitted reviews, I would have given 5 starts to most of these courses and 4 stars to the others. Having now finished Professor Sugrue's course, I am utterly perplexed both (1) that the course has been so favorably reviewed by so many people and (2) that the teaching company has offered this course. In my opinion, Professor Sugrue fails at the most basic level as a philosophy teacher. Philosophy involves critical inquiry in which arguments are analyzed and refuted (or not) on their merits. That is what Socrates generally does in the dialogues, and it is why the dialogues are famous and influential. Yet in Sugrue's lectures, he almost uniformly refuses to engage with the arguments presented by the various sophists and other interlocutors. Instead, with rare exceptions, he commits the genetic fallacy by dismissing what the sophists say on the grounds that they are "stupid," "dumb," and the like and without discussing the merits of what they have said. It is an embarrassment to the teaching company that it would employ a lecturer who deals with issues at this level. Otherwise, Sugrue simply summarizes what the dialogues say, without offering any real philosophical analysis. In this regard, Sugrue is uncritical about much of what Socrates says in the dialogues. He also has misread them in some respects. For example, he offers the surprising conclusion that Plato uses myths in the dialogues as alternative means of explaining the same points established through the "dialectic," but any casual reader of Plato can see that myths are normally employed to reveal what were believed to be deeper truths that cannot be established by argument, and Socrates often expressly says that he is turning to myths for that reason. Indeed, a common criticism of Plato is that he excessively relies on myth, My suspicion is that much of what Sugrue said would not survive a peer review and given the high standards that the Teaching Company otherwise seems to follow, I am very surprised that it selected Sugrue to offer this course. I also note that the Teaching Company marketing materials caused me to believe that Sugrue was a professor at Princeton. But now that I have read the fine print, I can tell, he never had that title at Princeton, where he formerly had some kind of fellowship. To be sure, Sugrue conveys a lot of enthusiasm for the subject matter and believes that Plato's dialogues are among the greatest intellectual and artistic achievements of Western Civilization. But he repeats that assertion ad nauseum, which was irritating. The time would have been better spent on analysis. Sugrue also makes a few observations about literary and dramatic features of the dialogues -- such as the use of the motives of ascent and descent. and the devices that Socrates employs to curry favor with his interlocutors. But these are marginal features of the dialogues, at best. Plato's dialogues raised philosophical issues and established modes of philosophical analysis, and it is a disservice to have a course that refuses to engage with the dialogues as philosophical works, that offers bare bones and inaccurate summaries of them, and often relies on disparagement of the sophists and Socrates' other interlocutors in lieu of offering any analysis. So this course was very disappointing. April 24, 2016
Rated 5 out of 5 by Will Change How I Read Plato So, before listening to this course, I've read the Republic twice, but not the Laws, and also read about 10-15 of the shorter dialogues, including most of the "must-reads" like the Meno, the Apology, the Symposium, etc. In addition, I've read a number of books that covered Plato's philosophy, listened to a number of philosophy courses from companies like Knowledge Products and the Teaching Company (several a few several times), and read a few articles on sites like Aeon and even a few pieces in academic journals. I mention all of this because, before starting the course, I felt pretty comfortable reading Plato's philosophy, and, although I expected I'd pick up a few things from this course (he is the expert, after all), I didn't think I'd learn anything earth shattering. Boy, was I wrong! While I had (and continue to) struggle (in a good way) with Plato's philosophy proper, I had completely missed much of the symbolic significance tucked into the structure of the dialogues themselves. For instance, whenever a character in a dialogue is ascending or descending some structure in the physical world, or is coming into or out of the light, or is walking into or out of a city, it usually prefigures and adds symbolic significance to the philosophy that follows. The professor constantly points things like this out, telling you what to look for as you read, and carefully walks you through the relationships between the physical world Plato paints for you and the philosophy contained within it. In addition to pointing out Plato's symbolism, the professor does an admirable job of breaking down the structure of each of the dialogues he covers, revealing, for instance, how an seemingly decent argument is only thought to be decent until it is followed by an ostensibly great argument. That "great" argument, in turn, is only understood as such until it is bettered by a philosophically rich literary masterpiece rivaling anything in Shakespeare. All this, in turn, is linked up to the levels of truth we often attribute to a subject we are learning about in the "real world" (Lecture 13, Phaedrus). Although, with each speech, the reader is transplanted to a higher level of "truth", what is really being revealed by Plato is that the ultimate "Truth", with a capital "T", is ever elusive. Sort of reminds me of some of the amazing advances in physics in the 20th century, where Newtonian physics, which seemed to many to be the last word on physical reality, slowly gave way to quantum mechanics and relativity, which, perhaps, may give way to a unifying theory (string theory?) in the 21st century. This theory, if it is found, will perhaps seem like "truth" to many, but what Plato is telling us is that capital "T" will probably never be found. Finally, the professor made me realize just how funny some of the dialogues were designed to be. It is sometimes tough to realize that, although you are supposed to be taking this stuff seriously, Plato is actually encouraging you to pause here and there and let out a huge belly laugh. This laughter, in turn, besides just being an amusing interlude, is itself often intended to be laden with philosophical significance. For me, the best example of this was in lecture 11, when the very serious material constituting the Parmenides is concluded by the laconic "most true." What had before seemed to be an abrupt conclusion to the dialogue is now a laugh-out-loud moment of hilarity, where a completely outmatched philosopher really has nothing left to say about a subject he once thought he knew a lot about. There are a number of gems like this pointed out by the professor throughout the course. The biggest takeaway for me is that there is a level of richness to Plato I never fully appreciated, but have now been given a glimpse of. After finishing this course, I am now eager to go back and reread some of my favorite dialogues again. What more can you ask for from a course? January 24, 2016
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