Unit 1: The Polis
Our first unit deals with the origins of Western thinking on the polis, the Greek word for city-state. We will read Plato's famous work, The Republic, which presents an extended argument in dramatic form for what might constitute the ideal polis, encompassing consideration of all aspects of governance, citizenship, social order, and personal virtue. Speaking through the character of his teacher Socrates, Plato's model of the ideal city-state mirrors the order of nature as based in his metaphysical Theory of Forms, famously articulated here in The Republic through its famous Allegory of The Cave.
Plato's streamlined view of political and social life holds that the city-state should be governed by a ruler with philosophical training capable of comprehending the true nature of reality, justice, and wisdom, and where one's place in society is determined by one's natural abilities. By contrast, Plato's student Aristotle, while incorporating and responding to many aspects of Platonic thought, develops a decidedly organic, or this-worldly, system of ethics and a corresponding structure for the polis as embodied in the texts of the Nicomachean Ethics and the Politics.
Aristotle's famous claim that "man is by nature a political animal" captures his belief that a natural order between the individual and the community exists as both a power struggle and a distribution of resources, which has as its own end the good held both individually and in common. Such ideal notions of the city-state, whether Platonic or Aristotelian, and the particulars therein, have been a point of departure for political philosophers since the time of Plato's Athens to the present day.
Completing this unit should take you approximately 40 hours.
Upon successful completion of this unit, you will be able to:
- describe the social order and governance of society as presented in Plato's Republic;
- explain the narrative of Socrates' trial and subsequent death as told in Plato's Apology and Crito;
- compare and contrast the arguments of Socrates in the Apology and Crito with his arguments in the Republic;
- discuss the concepts of justice, equality, citizenship, and virtue as presented in the Republic with those presented in Aristotle's Nicomachean Ethics and Politics; and
- explain how Aristotle's Nicomachean Ethics forms the basis for conceptions of government in Politics, and why Aristotle considers aristocracy based in virtue as the ideal form of government over oligarchy or democracy.
1.1: The Just and the Unjust
Read Book I and Book II. Through the voice of his teacher Socrates, Plato defines what he considers the ideal forms of justice, leadership, social order, and philosophical discipline throughout The Republic. At the same time, Plato addresses the tension between the pursuit of individual self-perfection and public service.
In Book I, Socrates begins by attempting to define justice by challenging notions held by Cephalus and Polemarchus. Socrates finds their notions wanting, but nonetheless they continue to hold that it is better for a person to be just than unjust. Thrasymachus challenges the assumption that it is good to be just altogether. In Book II, Socrates accepts the challenge from Glaucon and Adeimantus to argue that it is better for a person to be just than unjust and that justice is a good in itself regardless of the consequences associated with it. Socrates begins, however, by looking for justice as a virtue of cities before defining justice as a virtue of persons. He outlines his first version of an ideal city and the producer class of citizens established under the principle of specialization that each person must perform the role for which he is naturally best suited.
Watch this lecture. Pause as needed to take notes.
1.2: The Ideal City
Read Books III and IV of the Republic. Socrates presents his second form of the ideal city, comprised of three classes: rulers, guardians, and producers. He defines their respective roles, along with the qualities, education, and training appropriate to them. By the end of Book IV, Socrates proclaims the city just. By identifying justice at the level of the city, Socrates hopes to make an analogous definition of justice as a virtue at the personal level. Keep in mind that it is a long-standing point of contention among scholars as to Plato's intent behind presenting the Republic as a utopia.
Watch this lecture. Pause as needed to take notes.
Socrates believed that the "ideal city" should be comprised of three classes. What are these classes, and what does he believe are their proper roles? Post your response in the discussion forum, and check back to see what some of your classmates have written. Feel free to leave comments on your classmates' posts.
1.3: The Philosopher-King
Read Book V of the Republic. In Book V, Socrates focuses in more detail on the lifestyle of the guardian class, including the relationships between men, women, and children, as well as issues associated with war. In defending how such a lifestyle could come into being and be sustained, Socrates introduces the notion that the only possible way for the ideal society to exist is if the rulers are philosophers - his concept of the "philosopher-king".
Watch this lecture and pause as needed to take notes.
- Receive a pass grade
Answer these questions on the major themes found in Book V of Plato's Republic.
1.4: The Socratic Method
Read the Apology. This work deals with Socrates's reasoned self-defense when he is falsely charged with crimes against the state.
Study Guide Questions:
- How would you describe the Socratic Method? Think about what Plato demonstrates with the argument between Aristophanes and Socrates. Note that Aristophanes represents past and present poets of Socrates's era and is thus oracular in nature, whereas Socrates is conversational, meaning dialectical.
- Consider Socrates's poverty in the context of virtue. In The Apology, Plato describes Socrates' poverty as a sort of "proof" that he was not a paid teacher - that he was only living his life in response to the proclamation by the Delphic Oracle that no one was as wise as Socrates. Is this convincing, and how so?
Watch this lecture. As you watch, remember that in the Apology, Socrates faces a trial not only in a court of law, but also in the court of public opinion. Socrates makes his case both to the masses and to the judicial, civil, and political establishment. He knows that his argument is probably the last of his life, and thus he seeks to spur further dialogue among his fellow Athenians. Pause as needed to take notes.
As you might recall, Socrates mentions a "writer of comedies" in reference to the playwright Aristophanes. Throughout Plato's dialogues, and most thoroughly in Book X of the Republic, Plato addresses what he calls the long-running quarrel between philosophy and poetry (and the arts in general, including that of rhetoric). It could be said Aristophanes represents poets of the past (or Socrates's present) and is one of Socrates's foremost critics for his emphasis on the primacy of philosophy.
Poets, on the other hand (and only in their best light, according to Socrates), are oracular in nature, meaning they serve as a kind of channel or link between the gods and the masses. This contrasts with Socrates's conversational, or dialectical, method, which emphasizes argumentation based in reason to arrive at truth and to what makes for a good individual, citizen, and society.
Read Book X.
Read this article.
As you now understand, the classic Socratic Method involves dismantling prior ideas in order to free the mind of preconceived notions. By definition, this method deconstructs all prior thoughts on a topic and leaves the learner without a satisfactory answer to the primary question. Examining how the Socratic Method is used in contemporary society - particularly by teachers, legal scholars, and medical practitioners - will help you understand this approach to teaching and learning.
Write a short paragraph explaining why you believe these professions are more inclined to use the Socratic Method of instruction. Feel free to also share your thoughts on the discussion forum.
1.5: The Ideal Citizen and the Ideal State
Read Crito, which is an account of Socrates' explanation for accepting the death sentence for his alleged crimes rather than confessing and taking a lesser sentence. He tells his friend Crito that, although he has been falsely convicted, he would rather accept the punishment because it will uphold the rule of law in Athens. He prefers to die rather than live outside of the law or in a fashion that would undermine the law. The form of Plato's account – a series of dialogues among friends – is important to Plato's thought.
Read this article.
Watch this lecture. As you watch, think about Crito's appeal to Socrates. Crito represents a Homeric, traditional type of citizen of his age. His appeal is a logical one viewed through the lens of the self, but Socrates is not swayed. He rejects the notion that a citizen must live out a public existence with displays of patriotism, nobility, and devotion to the state. Note that these actions are not the same as compliance with the law of the land.
In the last third of the lecture, notice how Smith makes the case that the juxtaposition of Socrates' exposed views in Crito and The Republic cannot be reconciled. Smith believes that Plato purposefully exposed his readers to Socrates' conflicting philosophies in an attempt to demonstrate that society must choose either one of the Socratic models, or neither, but not both. Pause as needed to take notes.
- Receive a grade
When Crito, Socrates' old friend, visits him in prison, Socrates has made peace with his imminent execution, while Crito has made arrangements to put Socrates safely in exile. Crito presents as many arguments as he can to persuade Socrates to escape. Answer these questions about their prison dialogue.
1.6: The Good Life: Virtue and Happiness
Read Book I of Aristotle's Nicomachean Ethics. The Nicomachean Ethics is Aristotle's most comprehensive work on ethics and establishes ethical inquiry as a field unto its own apart from other fields of inquiry. In this text, Aristotle sustains the Platonic dialogue on how society should best be organized, but he does so by focusing on the codification of virtuous behavior and what it means for a person to live a good life.
Read this article, which provides context for Aristotle's ideas of ethics.
Read Book II of Aristotle's Nicomachean Ethics. Book II sets out to discover how we can determine what is virtuous, or that which is fine or excellent, such that our practical reason can be in accordance with it, both in the sense of actions to be taken and ends to be achieved. What Aristotle determines is that what is virtuous with regard to a person's character can be found between the extremes as to what it is not - or the mean between the two vices of excess and deficiency.
Read this article, which provides context for Aristotle's ideas concerning virtue and other related concepts.
Read Book III of Aristotle's Nicomachean Ethics. After describing what is virtuous in Book II, Aristotle gives an outline of what must be in place if virtuous action is to result. What constitutes virtuous action is dependent on a variety of external factors as well as the mindset and character of the actor. Aristotle distinguishes between actions taken voluntarily and involuntarily. He determines that actions must be voluntary if they are to be virtuous and thus worthy of praise.
Read this article, which provides context for Aristotle's ideas concerning the preconditions of virtue and other related concepts.
Read Book IV and Book V of Aristotle's Nicomachean Ethics. In Book IV, Aristotle explains how we may determine what is virtuous through the doctrine of the mean using examples of individual virtues such as bravery, generosity, and temperance. In Book V, Aristotle discusses the virtue of justice, which carries an exalted status among the virtues. Aristotle makes a distinction between two different but related types of justice: the general and the special (or particular).
Of general justice, he writes, "this type of justice then, is complete virtue, not complete virtue unconditionally, but complete virtue in relation to another. And this is why justice often seems to be supreme among the virtues, and 'neither the evening star nor the morning star is so marvelous', and the proverb says 'And in justice all virtue is summed up'". As you will see, Aristotle's conception of justice stands in sharp contrast to that of Plato's, with the realization that individual justice is inextricably tied to the common good.
Read this article.
Read Book VI of Aristotle's Nicomachean Ethics.
In Book II, you learned that Aristotle divides virtue into two sorts that correspond to the rational and non-rational parts of the soul. The rational part is that which has reason within itself or is reason "through-and-through", while the non-rational part is capable of being influenced by reason. Book VI of the Ethics first addresses the non-rational part of the soul, which is integral to Book X and the transition made from the Ethics to Aristotle's Politics. Here, we first address the intellectual virtues applied to the non-rational parts of the soul in Book VI, or the virtues of thought associated with our emotions, feelings, dispositions, and actions, before turning to Book X.
After you have read Book VI of Aristotle's Nicomachean Ethics, read Book X.
Read this article.
In Nicomachean Ethics, Aristotle devotes two books to the topic of friendship. Why does he consider friendship to be a critical component of the good life? How might Plato have responded to such an assertion?
Post your response in the course's discussion forum, and check back to see what some of your classmates have written. Feel free to leave comments on the posts of your classmates.
- Receive a grade
Answer these questions on the major themes in Aristotle's Nicomachean Ethics.
1.7: Rule of Law
Read this text. As you read, think about the Nicomachean Ethics and pay attention to how Aristotle weaves ethical precepts into the fabric of political action. Aristotle argues that a law that mirrors the natural order is of the highest good to the polis. Citizenship is rationed (i.e., only free, land-owning males of native ancestry are considered citizens), but comes with serious responsibilities, often in the form of public service. As you read, consider the following question: who was considered a citizen, and who was excluded from this category?
Study Guide Questions:
- Aristotle objected to Plato that his search for unity ended by abolishing what is distinctively political about politics. What is the nature of the complaint, and is Aristotle right?
- Aristotle states: "[M]echanics or any other class that is not the producer of virtue have no share in the state". What do you think about this view of citizenship?
Because this text is lengthy, you may find it helpful to read it over the course of a few days.
Watch this lecture. Pay attention to the concepts of politics and social order in the context of logos, defined as reason or speech.
Watch this lecture. As you watch, think about the importance of public service as conceived by Aristotle. His position is that in any regime, each member of society has particular duties to carry out. What are those duties?
Read this article. In Book III of Politics, Aristotle analyzes arguments for and against various constitutions that employ different notions of a person's worth. This includes his preferred notion of distributive justice as proportionate equality taken from Book V of Nicomachean Ethics: justice requires that benefits be distributed to individuals in proportion to their merit or desert.
Oligarchs are mistaken in thinking that those who are superior in wealth should also have superior political opportunities and standing. Democrats are mistaken in thinking that those who are equal in free birth should also have correspondingly equal political opportunities and standing. Though different in their conception of personal worth, for Aristotle both the oligarchs and the democrats are mistaken for the same reason: they assume a false conception of the ultimate end of the polis. Presented here are three different interpretations of what Aristotle means by rule of the best persons and what the common well-being of the polis entails.
Read this article. As you read, consider the common saying that the United States is a "nation of laws". See how Aristotle lays out the need for the rule of law in society.
Think about how you would interpret Aristotle's famous quote, "Man is by nature a political animal". What does he mean by this? Can you find any evidence of this in our modern political system? Post your response in the discussion forum, and check back to read your classmates' responses. Feel free to leave feedback on those comments and posts.
Unit 1 Assessment
- Receive a pass grade
Take this assessment to see how well you understood this unit.
- This assessment does not count towards your grade. It is just for practice!
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