The Death of Socrates, Jacques-Louis David, 1787

Socrates: Philosophy, Provocation, and Democratic Intolerance

Instructor: Bruce King
Colors NYC
178 Stanton Street
New York, NY 10002

The trial, conviction, and execution of Socrates on the vote of the Athenian democracy is a founding myth in the history of Western philosophy. And yet very little is known with certainty about the historical Socrates, who himself wrote nothing, but whose way of life, as accounted by Plato (and others) has become a powerful and enduring paradigm of philosophical practice. To Athenian eyes and ears, Socrates was doubtless strange:  notoriously ugly (in appearance, more like a satyr than a human), barefoot and unwashed, impervious to extremes of heat or cold (and alcohol), Socrates refused to “make a living” and absented himself from political pursuits and offices. Rather, he chose to wander the city, conversing with those whom fortune brought his way, and though his strange charisma, attracted a throng of followers and imitators. He emphatically claimed that he was not a teacher—and that, indeed, his own life had been not quite human.

This class will take up the strangeness of Socrates, including his anomalous—and ultimately fatal—position within democratic Athens:  What aspects of Socrates’ life and thought brought him into opposition with democracy?  Is the Socratic way of life inevitably anti-democratic, or is it merely oppositional in its relation to extant political power?  Are aspects of Socrates’ strangeness recuperable within present efforts of resistance?  We will read and discuss a number of Plato’s shorter, ethical dialogues, which are often thought to present a (relatively) historical Socrates:  ApologyAlcibiades 1, EuthydemusProtagoras, and Meno, as well as Plato’s Seventh Letter.   We will also give some attention to the writings of Plato’s Socratic rivals: Xenophon, Antishthenes, and Aeschines, all of whom present competing versions of Socrates. Our topics for discussion will include the modes of Socratic questioning and definition, the virtues and their possible unity, autonomy and weakness of will, and the uses of aporia; throughout we will also give sustained attention to Plato’s invention (against the background of tragedy) of the literary form of the philosophical dialogue and of the idea of philosophy as a way of life.  Finally, we will take a concluding look at two modern versions of Socrates—those of Kierkegaard and of Nietzsche.


Course Schedule

Tuesday, 6:30-9:30pm
April 04 — April 25, 2017
4 weeks


Registration Open

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