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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


Rated 4.7 out of 5 by 42 reviewers.
Rated 1 out of 5 by Unscientific, Un-scholarly and Just Plain Annoying I have now listened to well over a hundred courses (though I am yet to do reviews for all) and have generally scored most courses as 4-5 stars, and a few with 2-3; and a couple of 1 star ratings. So I am not inclined to be too negative in my assessments. However, I can say without doubt that Sugrue's effort is certainly, in fact, easily, the worst course I have heard from the Great Courses. Really, the glowing reviews I read from so many others here I find totally perplexing - and it is not simply because I find Sugrue's bizarre "haw-hawing" incredibly annoying (he literally makes this honking sound over and over again). Rather it is because he thinks this juvenile put-down of the Sophists represents anything remotely like an adequate academic treatment of their positions in relation to Socrates (and Plato). The root of the problem becomes perfectly clear by the later lectures when Sugrue asks us to treat The Dialogues as if they were religious texts - indeed that as a collection they should be revered and read in a manner one might read the Bible or the Quran. He seems - no, he IS - totally oblivious to the fact that this is entirely at odds with the Socractic approach. Sugrue is also guilty of some quite appalling self-aggrandizement about what he tells us is his total command of the material. At one point he even tells us how fantastic it is that his copy of the dialogues is almost totally covered by the yellow highlighter markings he has made over the years. As if that demonstrates a discerning mind! Instead it serves to again highlight just what an uncritical, unscientific approach he employs. Put simply, Sugrue is engaged in a religious adoration, not in a philosophical analysis. His approach is an un-scholarly betrayal of Socrates. I challenge the Great Courses to have this course peer-reviewed, In my view it is totally unacceptable - or should be - for the Great Courses. November 17, 2015
Rated 5 out of 5 by Sublime and profound Absolutely brilliant course, extremely rich and you feel your mental horizons expanding exponentially with each lecture you listen to. October 13, 2015
Rated 5 out of 5 by Excellent Course Professor Sugrue brings great depth, enthusiasm andn humor to this course on the Socratic dialogues. Rather than treat each dialogue as only a philosophical construct, he draws out their depths of irony, drama, humor, and aesthetic pleasure as well as their dialectical content. Socrates comes alive as a hero of the living word, encountering sophists, eleatic philosophers, impressionable young men, politicians, and engaging in the dialectic as journey toward self-knowledge and the good life. Plato emerges as a consummate artist and phiolsopher confronting real challenges to his theory of forms and to his commitment to moral and political reform. Professor Sugrue talks at a brisk pace but he is always interesting in his insights and interpretations. Highly recommended. May 10, 2015
Rated 5 out of 5 by Sugrue Rocks I've been reading Plato since 1975 when I was introduced to him in a Great Books class at the Universityof Michigan in Ann Arbor. I took various other courses on Greek and Platonic philosophy over the next few years, and I later pursued my own course of readings, and more importantly, rereadings, of this material. The profs at U of M were good, but none of them match the depth of understanding, nuance, and incredible presentation that Sugrue achieves. Maybe the depth was there before, but I just wasn't ready for it, but somehow, I don't think so. I wish I had come across Sugrue long before I did, which was in 2012 via this course. I have re-listened to this course four or five time since 2012, and so far I keep getting more and more out of it. Listening to Sugrue, follow by a reread of the material is an adventure, which is amazing given that you've passed over this ground before. I think the difference is that Sugrue is prepared to acknowledge the religious component of Platonic philosophy that was lacking in the other professors I was exposed to at U of M. Those presentations were quite secular, and pretty technical and dry. Sugrue allowed me to see that there is so much more here. I looked for other TC courses by Sugrue. Can't find any. It seems that he would be really good at giving a course in Hellenistic philosophy, that is a history and analysis of where all this went. I bet he would deliver really well on that topic too. January 24, 2015
  • 2015-11-26 T10:25:41.585-06:00
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