Paper Topics for Optional Paper Assignment

March 27, 2013

These paper topics are for those students who have decided to do the optional essay. If you are one of those students, please follow these instructions: Please answer ONE of the following paper topics.  Papers are to be 3-4 pages long, in Times New-Roman, or Garamond font. Papers are due TUESDAY, APRIL 9, at the beginning of class.  Whenever appropriate, make sure you support your arguments and claims with textual evidence. Don’t over-quote, however; it is often enough to refer to the relevant passage with a parenthetical reference (Plato, p. 45) or a footnote. [1]  Please note that for the purposes of this class, the professor’s lectures are public domain; you don’t need to cite them.  However, if you draw on one of the professor’s interpretations of the text, you should cite the relevant portion of the text.

1. You are Thrasymachus.  You have just engaged in a dialogue with Socrates regarding the nature of justice (depicted in Book I of the Republic).  Although you have given up your position in the course of this dialogue, are you really convinced by Socrates’ arguments?  How might you be able to respond differently to Socrates’ critique of your position?

2. Plato’s “Allegory of the Cave” (at the beginning of Book VII of the Republic) is by far the most famous section of the Republic.  In an elegant and focused essay, critically examine the meaning of this allegory.  In doing this, you should consider the following questions: what is the meaning of the allegory (including the meaning of the various symbols and events of the story); and more importantly, is this allegory a good way to think about the problems associated with politics? In other words, would knowledge of the Form of the Good (assuming such a thing exists) help someone to be a successful ruler? Why or why not?

3. You are Meletus. Socrates’ supporters are taking you to task for bringing about the death of their hero. You need to defend your actions on some principled grounds. That is, you need to provide convincing reasons why Socrates was threatening to Athens and ought to be put to death. You can, for instance, defend Athenian democracy against Socrates’ charges. Or you may want to draw from the critiques of Socrates raised in the “Clouds,” or from lectures, or construct your own. Make sure it is clear to your reader which Socratic position you are responding to.

4. One of the main features of Socrates’s definition of justice is that it is a “character-based” definition. One is just not because one behaves in particular ways, but because one has a properly organized soul, where one’s reason uses one’s spirited element to rule over the baser appetites. Our question is this: what is the relationship between this conception of justice and the actions that we ordinarily call just? Would a just man in Socrates’s sense act in ways we usually call “ethical”? Would a just man, for instance, obey the laws, pay his debts, and things of that sort? Why or why not? When answering this question, be sure you are clear about Socrates’s actual definition of justice, and also be sure you are clarifying what we mean by actions we usually and unreflectively call “just.”


Re-posting Republic reading questions, Book I

March 18, 2013

Let me start with some background information about the setting of this dialogue. The Republic occurs in the port town of Piraeus. This was the port for the city of Athens, and it had a whole slew of cultural connotations. First, like many port cities, Piraeus was a bustling and disorderly place. It had a high concentration of non-citizens (resident aliens), criminals, and so forth. Second, after the defeat of Athens in the Peloponnesian War (in 404), Sparta installed a government known as the “Thirty Tyrants.” During this time, Piraeus became a hotbed of democratic resistance to this government. If we keep in mind that Socrates will, later in the Republic, designate democracy as the second worst type of regime, we might try to think about what Plato is doing in setting this dialogue in this location.

Next, the Republic takes place in around 422; this is during the so-called Peace of Nicias (a brief suspension of hostilities during the Peloponnesian War). Plato wrote the dialogue around 375 (so about 50 years later). Most of the characters in the dialogue were historical figures. Cephalus, the first participant in the dialogue with Socrates, was a wealthy businessman. But it also turns out that the Thirty Tyrants confiscated his wealth. The Tyrants also executed his son, Polemarchus (Socrates’ second interlocutor). Thrasymachus, Socrates’ main opponent in Book 1, was also a historical figure. He was a well-known sophist (alas, his writings have been lost). Adiemantus and Glaucon—the main figures after Book 1 ends—were Plato’s brothers. This provides another set of questions for you to consider: do Cephalus’ and Polemarchus’ fates shed light on their respective definitions of justice?

OK, now onto the proper discussion questions:

(1)  What is Cephalus’ definition of justice? What is wrong with this definition?

(2)  What is Cephalus like as a character? What are his limitations?

(3)  Polemarchus soon steps in to take over his father’s argument. What is Polemarchus’ definition?

(4)  Is Polemarchus’ definition a genuine definition in the Socratic sense? A more general question: what is the difference between a Socratic definition and a dictionary defintion?

(5)  How does Socrates go about refuting Polemarchus’ definition (he offers three critiques)? Now, generalize for a moment: what is the overall lesson that one can learn from Socrates’ refutation?

(6)  What is Thrasymachus like as a character?

(7)  What is Thrasymachus’ first definition of justice? In what ways does it differ from the other accounts we have seen so far? In what sense is Thrasymachus’ definition of justice challenging to Socrates’ method of philosophy? (Hint: to my mind, it is a profound challenge to Socratic philosophy; if Thrasymachus is right, then Socrates’ whole method is flawed from the start).

(8)  How does Socrates first criticize Thrasymachus’ definition? How does Thrasymachus modify his definition to meet the critique?

(9)  How does Socrates’ refute Thrasymachus’ modification?

(10)  After this second set of criticisms, Thrasymachus launches into a new speech where he compares a politician to a shepherd. What is the significance of Thrasymachus’ analogy?

(11) With this new speech, the dialogue takes an unexpected turn. We now no longer are talking about the definition of justice (here I think Thrasymachus and Socrates have reached a stalemate), but instead the question of whether a just life or an unjust life is happier and more profitable. What is Thrasymachus’ position on this question?

(12) How does Socrates try to refute Thrasymachus’ claims about whether justice or injustice is more profitable? Again Socrates has two responses. Be ready to identify both of them.

(13) What are the flaws with Socrates’ refutations of Thrasymachus’ position? What general lessons can we learn from this discussion so far?