Reading Questions for the Republic, Book I

March 16, 2015

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. Later on, the Thirty Tyrants confiscated his wealth, and they 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:

  • Note the first encounter between Socrates and those who wish him to stay in Piraeus for the evening’s festival: What language do Socrates and his friends use when discussing whether he will stay?
  • What is Cephalus’ definition of justice? What is wrong with this definition?
  • What is Cephalus like as a character? What are his limitations?
  • Polemarchus soon steps in to take over his father’s argument. What is Polemarchus’ definition?
  • 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?
  • 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?
  • What is Thrasymachus like as a character?
  • 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).
  • How does Socrates first criticize Thrasymachus’ definition? How does Thrasymachus modify his definition to meet the critique?
  • How does Socrates’ refute Thrasymachus’ modification?
  • 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?
  • 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?
  • 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.
  • What are the flaws with Socrates’ refutations of Thrasymachus’ position? What general lessons can we learn from this discussion so far?

Reading questions for Plato’s Euthyphro

February 24, 2015

Platonic dialogues are peculiar things. Situated somewhere between what we traditionally call “literature” and philosophy, we have to evaluate them on both levels. That is, we need to examine both the text’s literary devices and the philosophical arguments presented in them. And we also need to be thinking about why Plato might have chosen to write this way: why present a philosophical position via the mechanism of a dialogue? Why not instead present it as a traditional argumentative essay?

 

  • What is the subject of this dialogue?
  • What is the setting? Include the two characters, their traits, why they are talking, and so on.
  • What is Euthyphro doing when he encounters Socrates? What traits does Euthyphro display?
  • Do you think Euthyphro’s efforts to bring charges against his father are just? What do you think Socrates thinks about that question?
  • Most of the dialogue is structured around three basic definitions that Euthyphro offers; he offers his first definition on p. 46; the second appears on p. 48 (with a modification on p. 52); and the third appears on p. 57.
    1. List each definition; it is useful to write it out.
    2. How does Socrates go about refuting each definition?
  • The most famous portion of the dialogue concerns Socrates’ refutation of Euthyphro’s second definition of piety (pp. 52-54). It is also a somewhat weird refutation; what is Socrates getting at in his argument?
  • What do you think Socrates’ conception of the pious is? Are there any hints of it in this dialogue?
  • What do you think is the general social purpose of piety? Are pious actions done to please God (or the gods), or do they serve some other purpose? Given this general purpose, are Euthyphro’s actions pious?
  • What do you suppose Socrates aims to show Euthyphro?

Reading questions for “Antigone”

January 21, 2015

(1) Once again, here is the general question you should be grappling with throughout your reading of the play. If a tragic narrative depicts a kind of inevitable disaster, then what is the source of the “inevitability” in this play? Or another way of coming at this same question is this: Many characters–Angtigone, perhaps Ismene, Creon, and Eurydice–are all finally undone by forces that are much greater than they are. What are these forces? What do they represent? A quick set of issues about this question: there is no “right” answer, but some are better than others; second, it is useful to try to start with specifics. What is the precise nature of the problem that these characters face?

(2) List out the main characters, particularly Antigone, Ismene, and Creon. What characteristics do they have? Use specific examples from the play to illustrate the ones you identify. Oh, and here’s another interesting question: who is the “tragic hero” in this play? Why?

(3) How many times is Polynices buried? What are the differences between the various burials? What is the significance of each?

(4) How does Creon view Antigone’s actions? What are some of his main concerns about them?

(5) What are some of the ways Antigone explains her own actions?

(6) Following up on question (5), focus in particular on Antigone’s last major speech (lines 960-1020, pp. 104-106), a speech that effectively functions as a “dirge” for herself. There she claims that she would not have defied Creon for a husband or a child, but only for her brother. This speech is perhaps the most controversial in the whole play: Goethe detested it and suggested that it was not actually part of the original, that it was “added in”; others have suggested that it is an expression of an illicit and incestuous desire. What do you think Antigone is trying to say in this speech?

(7) Is Antigone’s defiance of Creon’s order correct? Is she an admirable or likable character? And what of Creon? Was he wrong to refuse to honor a traitorous enemy? Why or why not?


Some questions to think about as you’re reading “Oedipus the King”

January 14, 2015

The purpose of these questions is to help guide your reading and thinking about the play. They are not an “assignment.”

  • Here’s the general question you should be grappling with throughout your reading of the play. If a tragic narrative depicts a kind of inevitable disaster, then what is the source of the “inevitability” in this play? Or another way of coming at this same question is this: Oedipus is a tragic hero who is finally undone by forces that are much greater than he is. What are these forces? What do they represent? A quick set of issues about this question: there is no “right” answer, but some are better than others; second, it is useful to try to start with specifics. What is the precise nature of the problem Oedipus faces?
  • What is Oedipus like? List out some characteristics he appears to have; use specific examples from the text to illustrate the characteristics you identify.
  • One of the peculiarities of Sophocles’ play is that he depicts the “tragic” decisions Oedipus makes as having already happened; the fateful events of Oedipus’ life have already occurred at the time the action of the play takes place. Why do you think Sophocles wrote the story in this way?
  • What is Creon like? What are his characteristics?
  • What are some of the ironies in Oedipus’ search for the truth? Please note that Oedipus searches for truth on several different occasions; he searches for Laius’ murderer; he searches for his own origins, and so on. What is the result of these searches?
  • Consider the metaphor of “sight” in this play, especially in the interaction between (seeing) Oedipus and (blind) Tiresius. What does “seeing” mean in their interaction? What ironies are there in this meaning? And what is the significance of Oedipus’ decision to stab out his own eyes once he learns (“sees”) the truth?
  • One common interpretation of tragedy is that the tragic hero has a “flaw” that brings about his demise. Does Oedipus have a tragic flaw? If so, what is it? If not, what is “responsible” for bringing about his demise? What effects do we produce when we think that Oedipus’ tragic flaw is the reason he is destroyed?
  • The audience of this play would have been quite familiar with the Oedipus myth, much like (for instance) contemporary audiences would be familiar with the Moses story or the stories about Noah and the flood. Thus Sophocles, like contemporary film directors who make movies about Noah or Moses, was using this well-known story to explore other themes, both with regard to the human condition in general and with regard to Athenian culture and politics. Now speculate: What are some of the themes that you think Sophocles is exploring through this play?

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?


Re-Posting Reading questions on Honig’s “Antigone’s Laments, Creon’s Grief”

February 10, 2013

Reading questions on Honig’s “Antigone’s Laments, Creon’s Grief”

(1)  Focus for a moment on Honig’s epigraph. What does the epigraph mean? In what sense is it true?

(2)  What is Honig’s thesis? More specifically, what does she think “Antigone” is about?

(3)  One way to get at this reading is to focus on how Honig interprets some of the main characters: what does the character Antigone represent? What does Creon represent?

(4)  One of Honig’s more unusual claims is that the play is not really about burying Polynices, but is instead about the question of how one should grieve in general (p. 7). Why does she emphasize this point?

(5)  Honig also offers a critique of “dissident” politics (p. 8). What is her critique? You should think of this in two ways: first, you need to be able to explain why dissident politics does not adequately comprehend what is at stake in the play, and second, you need to think about what is possibly wrong with the idea of dissidence in general. Honig’s critique, I must add, moves on both levels.

(6)  How does Honig defend her idea that Creon actually represents democracy? Pay attention, first, to pp. 9-10, but also look to the other evidence she points out throughout the article.

(7)  The first body section of Honig’s article contains a brief overview of traditional burial practices and some of the efforts to reform them. Try not to get too bogged down in details (though you might want to look up “goos” and “threnos”; Honig defines them, but google is also your friend here). What are some of the main features of the traditional burial rituals? What are some of the reforms that were being instituted during the time Sophocles was writing?

(8)  In her second body section (starting on p. 13), Honig begins to make her case that the play is really about the clash between democratic and “Homeric” (or more specifically, aristocratic) burial practices. What is some of the evidence she presents?

(9)  What is Honig’s interpretation of the Antigone’s use of the phrase “son of my mother” to describe Polynices (p. 15)?

(10) What is Honig’s interpretation of Antigone’s famous speech, wherein she declares that she would not have defied Creon’s orders for a son or a husband, because they would be, unlike her brother, replaceable (see pp. 16ff)

(11) Honig points out that Antigone’s reasoning about the irreplaceablity of her brother also cites another story from Herodotus, the story of Intaphrenes’ wife (see pp. 18-19). What is this story and how is it similar and different from Creon and Antigone’s interactions? What conclusion does Honig draw from her comparison of the two stories (p. 19, last two paragraphs, primarily)?

(12) What are some of the critiques of democracy embedded in the play, according to Honig?

(13) What are some of the democratic critiques of aristocracy that are embedded in the play, according to Honig?

(14) How does Honig interpret Eurydice’s death (pp. 22-24)?

(15) What is Honig’s conclusion about the play’s perspective on the rival positions it explores? Pay attention in particular to pp. 25ff.

(16) If the play is about mourning, then how does Creon mourn? Is his mourning more “democratic” or “aristocratic”?


Link to some reading questions for “Oedipus the King”

January 16, 2013

Whenever we do new readings this semester, I will be posting or linking to reading questions for the text. These questions are not assigned (though some of them will make it into your reading quizzes). Their purpose, rather, is to help guide your reading. As you read, for instance, “Oedipus the King,” try to keep the reading questions in mind. Anyway, two years ago, I posted a collection of reading questions about “Oedipus the King” here.