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  Overview of Section: Ancient Period - Plato

An Overview of This Section

We are starting our study of Philosophy and of our particular themes -- Human Nature, Ethics, Society, and the Nature of Reality -- by reading and digging our ways through portions of a classic text by Plato, the Republic. We're actually reading just some selected parts that have to do with -- and very usefully set the tone for -- some of the major recurring ideas in this class.

A very important point to keep in mind for this text is: it is a dialogue. Plato wrote nearly all of his philosophical work in the form of dialogues -- typically with Socrates as one of the main characters. One of the demands that this will make on you as a reader is paying very close attention to who is actually saying what -- it is easy, if you're not paying attention, to start mixing up the different speakers' claims and arguments. You should also try to distinguish between things that are being said by speakers - particularly Socrates - because that person actually holds that position, and things said in order to examine, or even to criticize and reject them.

The Republic as a whole is concerned with the nature of justice -- one major theme -- but in order to adequately understand just what justice is, and not get dragged into some of the other available but ultimately inadequate views on justice, Plato has Socrates and his interlocutors work through a number of other major themes.

In book 2, where we are picking up the text, Socrates proposes a kind of thought-experiment to the other participants in the dialogue. They'll examine how human communities develop -- out of human needs, as it turns out -- and see where justice and injustice come into being along with those communities. This ends up leading to the realization that human communities need guardians to protect, order, and manage them.

The portions of book 3 that we're looking at -- as well as portions of book 4, 6, and 7 -- are concerned with how these guardians are to be selected and then trained and educated for their important role. In the process, Plato tells us quite a bit about his views on education and about leadership. Among the key qualifications that these guardians will need, one is that they will need to be brought into intellectual contact with the Forms or Ideas -- the unchanging patterns that give meaning to the changing realities of our experience.

Book 4 is particularly important. In it, Plato works out a theory about the human person -- about the soul or personality -- one which maintains that all of us have three main parts within us, each of which has its distinctive functions, desires, pleasures, and each of which can be in harmony with the others or out of harmony with them. He also works out what the four cardinal virtues -- central to his Ethics -- are and how they are to be developed within the human person, and within the larger community.

In book 6 and 7, we explore the implications of Plato's viewpoints on knowledge and political community. Who should rule? What qualifies a person to be given and exercise power or leadership? For Plato, the answer is the guardians -- who turn out to be philosophers (not philosophy professors, though!) -- and he is concerned with more fully explaining what kind of knowledge they need to possess, and even love. . . . and that leads us into his famous Allegory of the Cave in book 7.

Resources For This Section

The readings for this section are available for you in the Texts and Readings for the Class area. You should read through this material several times, taking notes, going back over the text -- it's not something you can fully understand with a single reading. And, the more time and work you put into studying it, the better and more deeply you'll understand it.

You may find watching the six Video Lectures on Plato's Republic recorded specifically for this class very helpful -- and you can find them immediately following this overview

You should also read through the Lesson Pages in the section that deal specifically with Plato's Republic. Those Pages can be found after the Video Lectures

I also have produced four useful Handouts on Plato's Republic, which are located below the Lesson Pages.

You'll also find a set of Questions for reflection, a Forum for discussing key ideas, and a Quiz you can take to check your understanding on the material.