Plato’s Republic: The Right and the Good

A Course with Thomas Patrick Burke

Six Wednesdays, April 15 to May 20

The dialogues of Plato are the philosophical foundation of Western ethics. They have a depth both of thought and feeling that makes them unique.  For Plato is not only a great philosopher but also a great writer. In many of the dialogues, especially the earlier ones, the central figure is Socrates, who raises questions of the most acute kind about the principles of human behavior and pursues them in relentless argument.  They are models of intellectual investigation. Yet they are never merely that, for both writer and reader know that because of his allegiance to these principles Socrates will die.

The dialogues are of interest as much for the questions Plato raises as for the answers he gives: questions that still at bottom divide us today. Are right and wrong a matter of opinion, fundamentally relative and subjective, what some powerful group has succeeded in getting passed as a law perhaps, or are they objective realities that can be discovered and truly known by the power of reason?  Is the basic rule of life the “realistic” one that “the strong do what they can and the weak suffer what they must,” as the Athenians are said to have insisted to the people of Melos?  A proverb of the time asserted: “Justice is another’s good.” But what reason do we have to go to the trouble of leading a just life if the result is only to benefit others?  Socrates argues that justice is not merely relative, nor only “another’s good,” and also not primarily a question about society, but more than anything else about the health of our soul. This is something you are unlikely to hear from many modern writers, who do not believe we have a soul.

Philosophical investigation of the Right and the Good seems to have begun with Socrates. To think means to ask questions, and that is what Socrates made his life’s work.   As he knew, and many have found, it is dangerous work.

This is the first in a series of courses on Western ethical and political philosophy. The next course will investigate the teachings of Aristotle: “the master of those that know,” as Dante called him.