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:
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.