Plato's Republic

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

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
 |  Average 30 minutes each
  • 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

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  • 96-page printed course guidebook
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Your professor

David Roochnik

About Your Professor

David Roochnik, Ph.D.
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...
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Plato's Republic is rated 4.7 out of 5 by 51.
Rated 4 out of 5 by from Good presentation I'm about a third of the way through the streamed audio version; so I like the Professor Roochnik's clear speaking voice and his organization seems right on; prior to this course all I knew of Plato was the analogy of the cave and I have never read The Republic in it's entirety although I will make time to do so, soon. I do miss the availability of the audio disc because I prefer the physical guide book to the digital format, it would be nice if the digital guide book would open to the next chapter rather then me having to scroll the horizontal bar to begin the appropriate chapter. Overall, not a crucial blemish but it's why the course gets 4 stars instead of 5 from me.
Date published: 2019-10-06
Rated 5 out of 5 by from Informative, comfortable listening Of course all of the Great Courses are informative, and nearly all involve comfortable listening. However, having listened to a dozen or more courses, I found this one superior in these regards, the information most suitable for me as a beginner in the immediate subject, and comfortable to me as a somewhat persnickety audience when it comes to the awkwardnesses, mannerisms, and ticks of the "greatest professors." I appreciated as well the structuring of the course and the instructor's attention to making sure one understood what was at stake all along the way. Again this is what one expects of a Great Course, and I thought this one delivered in a superior way.
Date published: 2018-10-05
Rated 5 out of 5 by from EXCELLENT lectures, relevant to these times Anyone interested in the debates of the political arena today will find this set of lectures both interesting and thought provoking. Highly recommended. The more things change...
Date published: 2018-04-29
Rated 5 out of 5 by from Comprehensive. Insightful. Accessible for all. Very well done from start to finish. I was engaged through all the lectures. This was a great companion to guide me through a second reading.
Date published: 2018-04-11
Rated 5 out of 5 by from Absolutely fantastic When I purchased this course I thought to my self I already read the book. I;m so glad I took this course, Maria Popova of Brain Picking in an interview - when she was asked which book everyone should read, she answered; Plato's Republic - I think this course is easier to follow yet it's well explained and analysed along by an excellent tutor, who will often ask the listened questions to challenge you to think deeper into the meanings.
Date published: 2018-04-09
Rated 5 out of 5 by from Made Plato easy to understand Plato's Republic is a hard book since it is old, but this course made Plato come alive. I don't think I would have appreciated Plato as much if I did not have this course to help me. I highly recommend this course.
Date published: 2018-03-16
Rated 5 out of 5 by from Becoming to Being...happy Dr Roochnik's detailed discussions of Plato's 'Republic' was an indispensable guide to reading and understanding the book, providing insight and guidance, while encouraging the listener to 'think for yourself', particularly in some of the more outrageous books within 'The Republic'. I followed along using a translation different from the one recommended by Roochnik, but found only minor variances (e.g. using the 'necessary lie' instead of 'necessary falsehood') that changed little the overall meaning of the text. The good Professors measured style and clear-speaking manner helped to pace myself through some of the convoluted dialogues. The following are just a few point that I take away from 'The Republic'...some of them are 'forms' created with the help of Roochnik...some are from my own interpretation of the text. First... If you're going to read along you need a very well-done translation (Roochnik recommends several). Reading a contemporary style of the dialogue makes it easy to follow (not so with the concepts, however) and allows the reader to understand what is being said, rather than trying to wade through some pretty archaic prose that exists in some lesser translations. Second...I sympathize with those reviewers who criticize the 'straw-man' approach, making the discussion into a very one-sided diatribe by Socrates, particularly in the blueprint for the perfect city (kallipolis). But, I believe that this is an intentional device used by Plato to lay the groundwork for the examination of other forms of government (Aristocracy,oligarchy, democracy and tyranny). So many other questions are really (intentionally) overlooked or ignored by Socrates because this isn't the right dialectic in which to examine deeper meanings. The discussions about the evolution of those various forms of governing are amazingly salient to our present political environment, particularly the advent of a populist leader (demagogue... defined either as "a leader or orator who espoused the cause of the common people" or "a political leader who seeks support by appealing to popular desires and prejudices rather than by using rational argument"...modified from Merriam-Webster) in the latter stages of a democracy. I found the transition from demagoguery to tyranny particularly frightening. The thinly veiled reference to Alcibiades (a very colorful character in Athenian history) is particularly entertaining. Any analogies to be made with our current president are strictly up to the reader. Third...It may be that Socrates/Plato never intended the "Republic" to be about politics, per se, but rather about the character of an individual and the personal striving for that individual to become the philosopher-king of his own balance intellect (wisdom) with spirit (enthusiasm) and desire, in order to live a just life. This is best exemplified by the 'Myth of Er' at the end of Book X, in which the 'soul' is defined as immortal and undergoes examination after a life-cycle to determine whether the soul is punished or rewarded (for thousand year intervals!) before transitioning into the next earthly life. It's got the concept of 'karma' written all over it. In the end, it seems, Socrates/Plato sums it all up by saying "Hence, both in this life and on the thousand-year journey we've described, we'll do well and be happy." Finally...Dr Roochnik closes with a discussion about Plato's influences of later, even contemporary philosophers (well, those not writing 2400 years ago) and shows how his influence is very much alive in our day and age. These lectures and Plato's masterpiece are highly recommended. A wise man would wait for a sale...and a coupon.
Date published: 2018-03-10
Rated 4 out of 5 by from Plato Has Lessons for Today It has been many, many years since I have read “The Republic”, or any of the other dialogues for that matter. And from the little I can remember I must admit that I considered them to be intellectual arguments of little benefit or practicality. Ah the callowness of youth. In listening to Professor Roochnik’s 24 lectures on the work, I came away with fresh, new insights, especially regarding moral questions of today. For example, during the debate over the ACA one argument that those in opposition gave was the “death panels” that would come into existence and that would determine who would receive medical assistance and who would not. Even though no such panels came into existence, the amount and expense of care given towards the end of life continues to raise moral vis-a-vis resource questions today. Just so in “The Republic” where Socrates proposes who should receive medical care and who should not based criteria he sets forth. Or his critique of democracy, which for me, states explicitly what has happened in some democracies historically and recently. Certainly there are many more examples that could be cited, but for me, listening to Dr. Roochnik’s analysis of Plato carefully made me realize that there is much to be learned about ourselves and our society that can be applied today. However my favorite lecture was actually not so much on Plato and “The Republic” as it was in his using later thinkers who have considered some of the same issues. The last lecture (The Legacy of Plato’s Republic) discusses Aristotle, Kant, Machiavelli, Hobbes, Marx and John Stuart Mill who all wrote about some of the same issues as did Plato, often in opposition to his views. A most fascinating lecture and all of which (the comparisons) were new to me.
Date published: 2017-12-27
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