CLAS/GRBK 4000, Spring 2009
Prof. John Given
Office Bate 3317 MWF 10-11, or by appt.
Prof. John Stevens
Office: Bate 3314 MWF 11-12, 1-2, TTh by appt.
The dialogues of Plato (b. ca. 425 BC), written from approximately the late 390s BC until his death in 347, display the most sophisticated literary form in all of ancient writing. They were the first "fiction" written in prose, yet they contain much that seems to be truths or doctrines that Plato really believes. They are not lectures but "dialogues" between Socrates and famous sophists (other teachers who claimed to possess important knowledge), rich young men who aspired to prominence, or famous gentlemen or statesmen of Athens. But they were not "overheard" by Plato; therefore they are not the views of Socrates, but of a sort of literary character into which Plato has made the historical Socrates. Moreover the chronology of many of the dialogues is impossible: some of the interlocutors (characters who engage in dialogue) would have to be 80 and others teenagers or younger; some dialogues like Republic refer to events that take place in 3 different decades as "current" and thus have no specific date, but only a theoretical setting that is related to the dominant imagery of the dialogue. The dialogues have elaborate frames which often make them stories heard third hand, narrated today, heard yesterday, from a man who told me the story many years ago which went like this... They are dramas of education and as such rival and create textual interplay with other works by which the people of Athens consider themselves to be educated: the sophists were the most famous "educators" of the day, and the enterprise of Plato's Socrates is concentrated around establishing the insufficiently rational basis of their mode of education; but the other "educators" of Athens were the poets, and Platonic dialogue responds also to Homer, the tragedians, and earlier philosophers.
There are many important questions one could ask of the Platonic corpus. In a philosophy course, the questions asked are primarily what truths or immutable doctrines of Plato they contain. This approach tends to value the dialogues for their content as if they were non-fiction. This course will be devoted to appreciating the formal qualities of the Platonic dialogue, among which are especially what it means that they were written as "fiction".
To become knowledgeable about six of the most politically and philosophically important dialogues of Plato; to situate their subjects in the context of Plato's other dialogues and of Greek political thought generally; to analyze the form of the Platonic dialogue, including its use of fictional dramatic setting, character and narrative frame; and to demonstrate this knowledge in oral and written argument through Socratic style discussion, practice syntheses, and a 10-12 page paper on an original thesis arising from coursework.
Textbook: Plato. Complete Works. Ed. John M. Cooper (Hackett 1997) 9780872203495
45% of your grade will be based on attendance, doing the assigned reading, and the creativity and consistent quality of your contributions to class discussion. To assure that you are present and have done the assigned readings, there will be a reading quiz each week on a random day at which you will be asked 3 simple factual questions about the day's assignment. Of these, three low scores will be dropped and the 10 best scores will count. The class discussion grade will be based on the creativity and consistent quality of your participation, including how evident it is from your answers that you have read the work closely, and how well you engage with your fellow students to advance the discussion.
55% of your grade will be based on your written work. To give you practice in the writing of critical analysis expected in the final paper, you will have four assignments during the first half of the course in which you will summarize the reading and class discussion and signal how you would advance the argument beyond what was said in class in no more than three pages. That is, you will state (briefly!) what has been read and said, synthesize and organize this data in a way that suggests a critical eye, and then (briefly!) suggest room for expanding the argument. Grammar and persuasive argument will be an important part of the grade. Secondly, you will be critiqued on a rough draft of the final paper for its situation of your argument into the correct critical context, as well as originality, persuasiveness, style and grammar; the grade will be based primarily on originality and persuasiveness. The final paper, which is to exhibit all the skills learned in the analyses and rough draft, will be graded for its responsiveness to earlier criticism as well as its final polish. The paper must be some "argument," that is, a subject about which there is some question you will answer, something unclear or undiscovered which you will reveal, and something of interest that has received insufficient attention. It is not a statement of something you have read or heard, or a rehearsal of facts known to all who have done a close reading. It is a reading in between the facts, a dialogue through what has been said beyond it to something new of interest.