Why is it worthwhile to act justly, even if we could “get away” with injustice? Doesn’t the successful thief or tyrant have a life that’s attractive and enviable?
How does the kind of society that we live in shape our character, values, and attitudes as individuals? Is it even possible to be a healthy person, in a society that’s profoundingly sick and unbalanced?
Over the winter and early spring, we’ll be exploring these and other main themes from Plato’s Republic. For 5 every-other-Wednesday sessions, we’ll balance our time and attention between close reading of Plato’s text, and considering the implications of Plato’s arguments for our own lives and times.
The Republic is traditionally divided into ten “books” (each roughly the length of what we’d call a “chapter” today, though unlike a proper chapter, often covering more than one topic).
We’ll aim to cover two books of Plato’s dialogue during each of our five sessions: so, books I and II the first week, books III and IV the following session, etc. Please aim to read and reflect upon the appropriate books before each session. We’ll provide some notes and study questions to help with this, but inevitably, with such a rich and multi-layered text, there will be much more that we can and should discuss during the sessions. So use our study notes as a starting point, but please also bring your own observations, questions, and concerns to the group for discussion!
We’ll organize our time during the sessions along the lines of the ancient philosophical classrooms at Athens and Alexandria, by shifting between a high-level overview/survey of each major theme or section of the text, and a detailed analysis of specific passages, lines, and keywords within those sections, before repeating the same pattern with subsequent topics.
The first session will also begin with some general reflections on the overall plan and purpose of the Republic as a whole.
While each session will be somewhat self-contained (such that you can attend a stand-alone session at still benefit), we’ll also try to see the tightly woven structure of Plato’s dialogue as a whole, how all the parts come together in a deeply interconnected argument that moves freely between diverse registers, including: observations from daily life and history, creative and lively thought-experiments, meticulous arguments from first principles, and epic poetry and myth. Participating in as many sessions as possible will allow more time to make and experience these larger connections.
Roughly, the main themes for each week, as we step through the text together, will include:
The Ring of Invisibility, and the Burning Fever of Greed — Books I & II
A Mythic Education: Poetry and Character – Books III & IV
Seeing and Knowing: The Allegories of the Line and the Cave — Books V & VI
What’s Wrong with Democracy? — Books VII & VIII
Choosing our Lives: Vindicating Justice — Books IX & X
Any translation of Plato’s dialogue will be appropriate, and it might even be helpful if, as a group, we can compare several of them. If you don’t already have a copy, we highly recommend the version for G.M.A. Grube, revised by C.D.C. Reeve (Hackett Publishing), available very cheaply in paperback.
So, come from the torchlit relay race on horseback, stay for the ring of invisibility, and the deep lessons about how, and why, we can cultivate our own character.
Reading Notes for Feb. 28th Session
(To be used alongside your reading of Books I & II of Plato’s Republic)
David Nowakowski is a philosopher and educator in the Helena area whose professional work is dedicated to helping people of all ages and backgrounds access, understand, and apply the traditions of ancient philosophy to their own lives. David began studying ancient philosophies and classical languages in 2001, and has continued ever since. A scholar of the philosophical traditions of the ancient Mediterranean (Greece, Rome, and North Africa) and of the Indian subcontinent, reading Sanskrit, Latin, and classical Greek, he earned his Ph.D. in philosophy from Princeton University in 2014. His work has appeared in a variety of scholarly journals, including Philosophy East & West, Asian Philosophy, and the Journal of Indian Philosophy, as well as in presentations to academic audiences at Harvard, Columbia University, the University of Toronto, Yale-NUS College in Singapore, and elsewhere.
After half a decade teaching at liberal arts colleges in the northeast, David chose to leave the academy in order to focus his energies on the transformative value of these ancient philosophical and spiritual traditions in his own life and practice, and on building new systems of education and community learning that will make this rich heritage alive and available to others.
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