Teaching Plato: Still the Best Gig I've Had

As with most things I’ve taught, I had no business teaching Greek philosophy when first I gave it a run.  Sure, I had been a double-major in English and humanities as an undergrad, and the humanities major consisted mainly in philosophy and theology classes.  But as I wrap up my sixth attempt to teach Plato’s Republic, I’ve still never actually taken a graduate course labeled “Philosophy,” and all of the Greek I’ve taken has been Koine Greek.  Yet I know, as I remember the events that led me to be Emmanuel College’s Plato guy, that I’m doing the most satisfying work that I have no business doing precisely because two schools have had the courage to let me have a run at it.

The whole thing started in the first semester of my Ph.D coursework at the University of Georgia, the fall of 2005.  Sitting in my grad-student office, grading some essays from the department-standard first-semester composition course, I overheard two fellow grad students chatting in the office-block hall.  Though I don’t have a strong enough memory to reproduce their words exactly, I remember the upshot: their frustrations with some of what they were teaching is that students came to them without much along the lines of familiarity with the ideas to which modern philosophy and theory are responding.  To put it another way (since I’m already paraphrasing), students could recite critiques of old ideas, but they had no frame of reference to make sense of those critiques.  I do remember one of them saying that sometimes he wishes he could just get twenty of them in a room and teach them Plato’s Republic.

That’s when the course first occurred to me.  I was already slated, that spring, to teach a special-topics composition/literature class called “Hebrew Bible and/as Literature.”  Why not design a special-topics comp course on Plato’s Republic?  The worst the department could do is turn me down.  So I stopped at Borders after work that afternoon and picked up the cheapest edition of Republic I could put my hands on, namely Robin Waterfield‘s translation for Oxford World’s Classics.  I’ve now led over a hundred fifty students through that translation, but I get ahead of myself.

I wrote up a mock-syllabus for the fall of 2006, laid out the whole of Republic across those weeks, came up with some essay prompts, and turned it all in.  The trick, of course, was that the department didn’t make decisions on fall proposals until the spring, so I waited, took my own graduate courses, and taught the first iteration of the Hebrew Bible and/as Literature class in the spring of 2006.  (It was a syllabus error in that semester that led to the first ever Job Movie Project as well, but that’s another story for another day.)  In the spring of 2006 I got word: I was teaching Plato.

The problem, of course, was that I had not actually read Plato’s Republic in full yet.  I had read the Allegory of the Cave as a freshman and some more substantial sections in an ancient Greco-Roman philosophy course as a junior, and after I had bought the book I had read the first few sections, but beyond those things, I was coming to the book as a rookie.  I took the summer to give it a good read and showed up in August 2006 ready to rock and roll.  Never letting on that I was having my first go at the book, I taught it as a guide to complex thought, showing students the processes of engaging the commonly-accepted idea, negating the idea by showing its lack of internal logic, and proposing a new idea.  Then, with that idea in place, the negation process started again.  I faced for the first time the complaint that Plato “talks in circles,” and on about the third time through the book I had developed a standard set-piece response to that complaint: Plato’s project is to clear away what can’t be true in the hope that what comes next might be true.  Sometimes that takes a few tries.

Jumping forward a couple years, I came to realize that, without knowing it, I had been teaching the philosophical basis for the practice of revision.  We had been doing the two side-by-side for a few years, seeing Socrates revise political thought and then revising each other’s thought, but around 2008, the last time I taught the book at the University of Georgia, I came to realize that I could actually use the book as something other than a grand writing prompt, that we could examine the dialectical process precisely as part of the practice of writing.

And then Plato departed for a year.

I was thrilled to get the job at Emmanuel College, and I knew that I would be teaching mainly composition coming in.  I dutifully placed my worn copy of Republic on a bookshelf in my new office and settled in to teaching freshman composition from The Allyn and Bacon Guide to Writing for those first two semesters.  I was, for that first year, commuting once or twice a week back to Athens to take composition courses, so I had enough new ideas bouncing about in my mind to keep me busy intellectually, but there was a certain sadness to knowing that my career teaching Plato had come to an end.  It had become “my” book in a way, the centerpiece of the composition course that I had designed, and going to a departmental textbook, while something I took on gladly as a new Assistant Professor, was the end of a chapter of my teaching career, and I knew it.

So when the Emmanuel College Honors Program ramped up, and when Barbara Goodwin, one of its co-chairs, asked me to take on the honors composition sequence, it was nothing less than a gift from the gods.  (That was a little Athenian humor, folks.  Lighten up.)  She told me that the committee thought I was best equipped, with my recent graduate coursework in rhetoric, to design the course of writing instruction for the new cohort, and Plato just about flew off the shelf as I started cooking up a new composition course rooted in Plato’s Republic.  The Emmanuel College version isn’t by any means just a reheated UGA course: the training in rhetoric that Emmanuel paid for has given shape to the writing part of the writing course that my old classes never had, and teaching the book at a Christian college, we take on several sections of the New Testament that resonate and conflict with Plato in interesting ways.  As I’ve increased my familiarity with the book, it strikes me more and more each semester as a fitting and helpful companion to teaching rhetoric, and as long as EC lets me, I’m going to keep guiding students out of the cave so that they can go back in as different people.

Perhaps as a symbolic gesture of sorts, I requested a new desk copy of Republic from Oxford University Press and gave my old UGA copy to Sven Legg-Grady, on the condition that he pass the book on when he finishes.  And since that invitation dropped in my lap, I’ve taught Republic three more times, as many as I taught over at UGA, and the book never stops challenging me to ask better questions, to sharpen up those things that I simply assume about the good life together and the nature of human morality.  My students still think that the wife-sharing and the reincarnation are weird, and they’re right, but when my students run up against Machiavelli and Locke and Marx and Derrida, they actually know that those latter-day giants of philosophy are not contending against a straw man, a generic representative of “the Greek worldview,” but against a world-class, agenda-setting figure, someone who deserves to be one of the classics.

In the ensuing years, I’ve taught other Platonic dialogues, and I’ve enjoyed all of them.  I now set up Republic with the Apology and the Crito for biographical context and with the Euthyphro to introduce dialectic method.  I teach the Phaedrus and the Gorgias when I do advanced rhetoric for English majors and minors.  And this semester, I’m teaching Symposium for the first time in a Western Authors course.  But what I said in the title of this post still holds: when I think about the most rewarding teaching experiences I’ve had in this first leg of my professorial marathon, many of them still have to do with my signature teaching piece, Plato’s Republic.

7 thoughts on “Teaching Plato: Still the Best Gig I've Had

  1. I was dismayed to see no one had yet commented on your last two “teaching Plato” posts, mostly because I’ve come to appreciate just how much has been missed by those never exposed to this material. My own experience in college over 35 years ago was that, despite the concerted efforts of my professors, I didn’t take the classics, particularly Plato, as seriously as I should have. While the usual distractions of youth contributed to that,  the awful English translations we had didn’t help. There was also a tendency by the then developing “evangelical” subculture (although it wasn’t yet calling itself that) to discount classical philosophy and literature (the superiority of Reformation over Renaissance thought was a favorite topic, as if the former could have existed without the latter).  So it’s really encouraging to now see Plato being used in composition courses, and even more so in classes at a Christian college!

    1. plembo Thanks again for commenting!
      I know that many of my more veteran colleagues are thrilled that there’s a young Classicist-minded teacher in the English department, someone who’s expanding the reach of the Greeks at Emmanuel.  As our course-sequence currently stands, I teach some Plato every semester, summers excluded, so any students who find themselves in more than one of my classes will likely learn from some dialogues.
      Or, to relate the reality in a story, I was talking with a small group of humanities-types one afternoon, on the way off campus, and when one student asked another, “Which one of Gilmour’s classes did you teach?” she answered, “The one where we read Plato.”
      The rest of the students laughed.

  2. I’m afraid I don’t read Greek.  My first encounter with the _Republic_ was, strangely enough, in the not particularly widely available Allan Bloom translation made for Basic Books.  Now I understand more of Bloom and of the (Leo) Straussians I neither like nor trust that approach to the text.  (Basically, if you’re going to deny the historically determined element in old texts and insist that anything that doesn’t meet your own, also in truth historically influenced, opinions must be because the author was running exoteric and esoteric doctrines in tandem … well, you can foist any opinion, however anachronistic, on him.  Besides, the veiled Bloom/Strauss admiration for Nietzsche gives me the creeps).  In those days, however, I think I tended, like many English people, to see the book through Karl Popper’s lens (c.f.  _The Open Society and Its Enemies_).
    Nevertheless, I *still* remember (and have some sympathy for) the contempt Bloom expressed in the introduction to that book for Desmond Lee’s Penguin translation.  It seems from Bloom’s account to be more a paraphrase than a translation.  Bloom reports Lee as having himself discussed translation and to have commented that you couldn’t translate literally that music and gymnastic would be a guard for virtue (for a Guardian), since a naive student would think this meant that your sexual morality would ensured by listening to symphonies and running the hundred yards – which is absurd.  Lee, IIRC, translates this as something along the lines of a youth’s character being improved by cultivation – or education … or something of the sort.  Bloom sneers that this is the kind of lofty but vague sentence you could find in  a leading article in a broadsheet newspaper but actually means very little.  A literal translation would be shocking or incomprehensible; the paraphrase is merely boring.  Bloom adds that one of the interesting developments in the history of the West is how a word (virtue, root: wir) that originally meant the “manliness of men” came to mean the “womanliness of women”.  But you *can’t* read Lee’s translation and discover what Plato meant by “virtue” (arete) because Lee, all in a fluster to make the text accessible, doesn’t translate as literally as is reasonable and bearable and won’t translate what are really *technical* terms in a consistent manner.
    Again – what I don’t think Bloom says there – music (musike) doesn’t mean just what we mean by “music” but also includes what we mean by “literature” but,  nevertheless, in its most basic sense is organized sound.  Plato clearly did believe that organized sound can, so to speak, get down into the soul and have really profound effects. That’s a notion still taken seriously by some contemporary philosophers – see here:
    http://spectator.org/archives/2010/02/11/music-and-morality
    One would miss that reading Lee.
    All of which is to say that I think translations can often be misleading.  The older I get the more I regret my relatively poor grasp of languages.  I envy you your Greek even if it is koine rather than Attic.
    I’ve read the _Republic_ a number of times but not for a few years.  I don’t think I’d want to touch anything by Bloom again – he really does give me the creeps – but reading your piece reminds me I meant to buy a copy of A. D. Lindsay’s translation of the _Republic_ (said by many, including Bloom, to be very accurate) and re-read it again.
    As a final point – isn’t it interesting that previous generations thought the _Timaeus_ the most interesting and significant of Plato’s works?  For us it’s the _Republic_.  C. S. Lewis comments on that somewhere, although he doesn’t, as I recall, offer any suggestions as to why that is.  I guess one would be inclined to think that politics looms very large for us.  That’s what modern people think *really* matters.  Plato — _pace_ Popper, Bloom, and many of the rest of us — may actually not have thought so.

    1. HrothgarWes þū Hrothgar hal!

      Thanks much for reading and commenting.  When I teach Republic, I use Robin Waterfield’s translation for OUP, largely because it’s inexpensive and has some really good end-notes.  I’ve got both volumes of the Loeb for those times when I want to do some philological work, but Waterfield does nicely for my purposes.
      With regards to the Timaeus, I’ll readily grant that it’s the Plato that most influenced the Western world for centuries.  I’m inclined to chalk that up to the relative availability of good texts rather than larger philosophical questions, but I could be convinced, should I encounter a good argument for more global reasons.
      The main reason I like teaching Republic to college freshmen is because it lets me play out some really interesting dialectics with the students.  Although the side trips of Republic that get all of the press (censorship, allegories, and such), the real gold, when I teach it, happens when Plato lays out an extended discussion of how a community perpetuates what’s best about the community and how the rulers who do the perpetuating get chosen and educated.  It’s wildly different from what my liberal-arts-college students imagine as their own causes-for-being, but the arguments that Plato presents for a certain kind of education, as my students encounter them, are persuasive enough that their efforts to articulate the differences help them a great deal to think about their own place in the course of human community.

      Amusingly enough, I am teaching a philosophy course this summer that pits Nietzsche’s Genealogy of Morals against Alasdair Macintyre’s After Virtue.  Again, my hope there is that the dialogue will teach the students to ask better questions than late-capitalist accounts of “atheism” tend to suggest.

      1. ngilmour Hrothgar Thanks.  Your summer course sounds interesting.  I know of Macintyre’s book but haven’t read it.  And I’ve probably forgotten the _Genealogy of Morals_ by now!  But I tend to accept the notion that there is a “genetic fallacy” — which is to say, IIRC, that you don’t disprove the value of something by showing how it might have arisen.  Should we really be looking to origins — or imagined origins?  I’m reminded of Gandalf’s account of Gollum given in the _Two Towers_ where he said that Gollum had gone to the “roots of the mountains” to discover great secrets and found … nothing.
        O.T. playing around in iTunes — which is where I found you guys — I found a Christian lecture on Babette’s Feast from a Roman Catholic perspective.  (This was in iTunes U and is coming from an organization called “Christendom College”.) Now that’s not a book or film I know, but by golly was that an interesting lecture.  I must get hold of the book and the film.  Most intellectuals seem to have understood the film as recommending either hedonism or an “artistic” approach to life.  In fact, the lecturer suggests, the book and film are saturated with *eucharistic* imagery and address incarnation and the relation between the spiritual and the material. 
        There was a sulphurous whiff of inter-denominational hostility about the account.  Easy, I suppose, to forget that Roman Catholics used to dismiss Protestants as light-minded and insufficiently ascetic.  Easy to trade on the different and, by now, deeply confused meaning of the term “puritan”.  Easy to forget that horrible pre-Reformation ecclesiastic who declared: “He who embraces a woman embraces a sack of ****.”  Being brought up as C of E I’m neither particularly Catholic nor particularly Protestant, or maybe both at once, and in any case don’t much like sectarian feeling. Nonetheless, it was an suggestive lecture. I’d like to have heard an account of the Feast from a “merely” Christian viewpoint. I’d have been interested to hear what you three had to say.

        1. Hrothgar ngilmour What’s fascinating about Nietzsche’s “genealogical” approach to ethics is that it dodges the sort of determinism that you’re rightly suspicious of.  Instead it focuses on discrete moments in the histories of concepts that could have gone either way but, because of this choice here and that choice there, came to us as they have and not otherwise.  In other words, he rejects out of hand that anything is “inevitable” in the history of ethics in favor of a story that’s radically contingent.  In his wake, philosophers like Macintyre and theologians like Milbank and Hart have had to make a turn towards the aesthetic, framing traditional philosophy and theology (and their detractors) in similar turns and taking the disciplines, I think, in remarkably interesting directions.

          With regards to the lecture, I might try to give a listen when I have time, and I’ll try to post back here when I have.  I’ve neither read nor viewed Babette’s Feast, but I’ve heard that it’s fascinating.

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