Masters of Greek Thought: Plato, Socrates, and Aristotle
Robert C. Bartlett is the first Behrakis Professor of Hellenic Political Studies at Boston College. His principal area of research is classical political philosophy, with particular attention to the thinkers of ancient Hellas, including Thucydides, Plato, Xenophon, and Aristotle. He has published articles in the American Political Science Review, American Journal of Politics, Journal of Politics, Review of Politics, and other leading scholarly journals. He is the author or editor of eight books, including The Idea of Enlightenment, Plato's Protagoras and Meno, and Xenophon's The Shorter Socratic Writings. He is also the co-translator of Aristotle's Nicomachean Ethics (University of Chicago Press, 2011), the author of Sophistry and Political Philosophy: Protagoras' Challenge to Socrates (Chicago, 2012), and a new edition of Aristotle's Art of Rhetoric (Chicago, 2019).
Before coming to Boston College, Robert Bartlett served as the Arthur M. Blank/National Endowment for the Humanities Distinguished Teaching Professor at Emory University.
01: Socrates and His Heirs
You explore the key innovations and insights of Socrates, his student Plato, and Plato's student Aristotle. For all their originality, Plato and Aristotle were deeply indebted to Socrates, who was responsible for a fundamentally new way of philosophizing.
02: The Socratic Revolution
Some key concepts necessary to understanding Socrates are explained, including early ideas of philosophy—especially in its relation to nature—and Socrates's groundbreaking shift to moral-political questions. This lecture then turns to ancient Greek comedy and Aristophanes's Clouds.
03: Aristophanes's Comic Critique of Socrates
Aristophanes's comedic but wise treatment of Socrates in Clouds reveals two fundamental criticisms: (1) Socrates's failure to recognize the dangers to family and the political community that his study of nature represents has made him imprudent, and (2) his claims to know more than he does.
04: Xenophon's Recollections of Socrates
Since Socrates didn't write down his philosophy, we know him only through the work of others. Of the four writings Xenophon devoted to Socrates, Memorabilia (or Recollections) attempts to establish Socrates's idea of justice—obedience to the law and helpfulness to others.
05: Xenophon and Socratic Philosophy
The best evidence of the difficulties Socrates faced in turning his philosophy away from nature and toward moral and political concerns comes from Oeconomicus, Xenophon's account of the fateful day when Socrates began his intensive examination of moral opinions, especially regarding beliefs about the gods.
06: Plato’s Socrates and the Platonic Dialogue
The most important source of our knowledge of Socrates is his student Plato, who featured his teacher in almost all of his 35 extant dialogues. The lecture discusses how to read this unique literary form and considers some first impressions of Plato's Socrates, particularly his characteristic irony.
07: Socrates as Teacher - Alcibiades
The study of Plato and his presentation of Socrates begins with Socrates as teacher, seen here in four dialogues devoted to Socrates's mutually disappointing relationship with the historical figure Alcibiades. This lecture focuses on Alcibiades I and on Alcibiades's famous speech about Socrates, recorded in Plato's Symposium.
08: Socrates and Justice - Republic, Part 1
Plato asks the all-important question, "What is justice?" He shows that the search for an answer is not a mere exercise in word play but requires a response to those who think that justice, however defined, is bad for the just themselves.
09: The Case against Justice - Republic, Part 2
This lecture sets forth the full challenge faced by Socrates in defending justice. It is a challenge that requires him to respond to three different arguments against justice—including two presented in an effort to elicit Socrates's strongest case for justice.
10: Building the Best City - Republic, Part 3
Socrates proposes to discover what justice is and whether it is good by building the best city "in speech," believing that locating political justice will then make it easier to find individual justice. But can the two be made into a whole?
11: Philosophers as Kings
This lecture focuses on the chief subjects of books 5–7 of Republic, including the call for "philosopher-kings"; the doctrine of the Ideas; and the famous metaphor of the Cave. All are part of Socrates's ultimate aim in Plato's Republic: a defense of philosophy.
12: Socrates as Teacher of Justice
From the beginning of Republic, the rhetorician Thrasymachus praised injustice over justice, the latter fit only for the foolish and weak. Socrates then considers injustice and prepares the way for his own comparison of the two—his final answer to Thrasymachus.
13: Socrates versus the Sophists
Plato often informs us about Socrates by contrasting him with his competitors, the sophists and the rhetoricians. This lecture begins the discussion on the Platonic dialogue named after the most famous sophist of antiquity, Protagoras, in which he and Socrates wage a subtle and intense verbal duel.
14: Protagoras Undone
This lecture concludes the discussion of Protagoras with Socrates's complex response to Protagoras's justly famous argument, revealing that the sophist's "sophisticated" contempt for justice and noble self-sacrifice cannot be squared with his genuine admiration of courage and the courageous, making him a more moral man than he realizes.
15: Socrates versus the Rhetoricians
From Socrates's encounter with the day's most famous sophist, you turn to the first of his three conversations with its most famous rhetorician, Gorgias. The two define rhetoric—persuasion without actual teaching—before Gorgias offers a demonstration and Socrates a response.
16: Rhetoric and Tyranny
With the arrival of the brash Polus and his arguments about using rhetoric to gain power, Plato turns Gorgias toward the question of the goodness of justice. Socrates demonstrates that Polus retains a lingering respect for justice and has not thought through his assertions.
17: Callicles and the Problem of Justice
You look at the final part of Gorgias and Socrates's conversation with Callicles, who sees justice in the strong dominating the weak and harshly criticizes both philosophy and Socrates. The dialogue concludes with Socrates's criticism of the hedonism that guides Callicles's life.
18: What Is Virtue? Meno, Part 1
You take up this question in Meno, named after a student of Gorgias who came to Socrates to learn how virtue is acquired. This lecture begins the dialogue's longest part, where Meno, at Socrates's insistence, must first learn what virtue is.
19: Can Virtue Be Taught? Meno, Part 2
A discussion of the "recollection doctrine"—the idea that learning is innate knowledge recalled—prompts Meno not to give up his quest for a definition of virtue, which Plato finally allows is teachable ... perhaps.
20: The Trial of Socrates I - Euthyphro
This lecture opens a treatment of the four-dialogue sequence devoted to Socrates's trial, conviction, and execution. It focuses on Euthyphro's main arguments concerning piety and how they reveal the general approach Socrates took to the challenge that piety poses to the philosophic life.
21: The Trial of Socrates II - Apology, Part 1
Plato's Apology of Socrates is probably the most widely read document in Western philosophy. In addition to learning of Socrates's attempts to refute the charges against him, you also consider his revealing account of what first prompted him to become the philosopher notorious for cross-examining others.
22: The Trial of Socrates III - Apology, Part 2
You look at Socrates's claim that he is just, not only in that he broke no law, but in the higher sense of dedication to others. The lecture concludes by examining Socrates's remarks after his conviction and sentencing and reviewing the long-term success of Plato's defense of him.
23: The Trial of Socrates IV - Crito
Crito takes place in Socrates's jail cell, where his old friend or companion, Crito, argues for his escape. You look at Crito's arguments and Socrates's responses and conclude with suggestions on why Socrates ultimately chooses to submit to execution.
24: The Socratic Revolution Revisited - Phaedo
This lecture discusses Socrates's arguments for the immortality of the soul and his vital autobiographical remarks to show why Socrates turned to so-called Socratic philosophizing. Both discussions help us better grasp the nature of the change that Socrates brought about.
25: Aristotle and the Socratic Legacy
You delve into the life and thought of Plato's greatest student, exploring the relationship between Socrates, Plato, and Aristotle; Aristotle's role as guide to some of today's most fundamental human questions; and the demands posed by his challenging style of writing.
26: The Problem of Happiness - Ethics 1
The study of Aristotle's political philosophy begins with his penetrating account of our longing for happiness, the final end of our strivings. It's an account that leaves much to ponder, particularly the sway that chance or fortune holds over our lives.
27: Introduction to Moral Virtue - Ethics 2
In introducing virtue in general, this lecture explores its two subspecies, moral and intellectual virtue—a distinction introduced by Aristotle. It then turns to the most famous part of Aristotle's ethical teaching, that of each virtue being understood as a mean between extremes.
28: The Principal Moral Virtues - Ethics 3 - 5
Aristotle identifies eleven moral virtues, each associated with its corresponding vices. The focus here is on three of those virtues—courage, magnanimity, and justice—with the latter two representing the peak of moral virtue.
29: Prudence, Continence, Pleasure - Ethics 6 - 7
This lecture is devoted to the intellectual virtue of prudence, or practical judgment; the somewhat strange capacity called "continence," or "self-control"; and, finally, a discussion of pleasure, the case for which Aristotle considers at length as the proper goal of human life.
30: Friendship - Ethics 8 - 9
Aristotle devotes two books of Ethics to friendship. The investigation focuses on three issues: What are the various kinds of friendship, and which is best? Why does Aristotle's inquiry take a decidedly political turn? And how does Aristotle resolve the tensions between friendship's selfish and selfless aspects?
31: Philosophy and the Good Life - Ethics 10
The final book of Aristotle's study of character and the good life continues his analysis of pleasure—a pleasant life—as the greatest good, and of the role intellectual or contemplative virtue plays in making such a life.
32: The Political Animal - Politics 1 - 2
You look at Aristotle's case for the importance of examining political life, trace his famous but complex argument that humans are by nature "political animals," and consider his critique of various regimes, actual and imagined, that have claimed to be best—including that of Plato's Republic.
33: Justice and the Common Good - Politics 3
This lecture discusses Aristotle's inquiry into the citizen and citizenship; his analysis of a regime's relation to justice and the common good; and Aristotle's account of kingship, to show how such inquiry, analysis, and account of kingship form a sustained argument about the limits of justice.
34: Aristotle's Political Science - Politics 4 - 6
In what are sometimes called the "practical" books of Politics, Aristotle sets aside his standards for ideal regimes to analyze the actual regimes and statesmen most likely to be encountered and offers some advice even tyrannies might heed.
35: The Best Regime - Politics 7 - 8
The final books of Aristotle's Politics are devoted to the best regime, the regime "in accord with what one would pray for." You look at its goals, makeup, and nature, as well as education's crucial role in making such a regime a reality.
36: Concluding Reflections
This lecture reviews the course and the innovations in Western philosophy that began with Socrates and continued with Plato and Aristotle. You see how the three together constitute one of the highest peaks of Western thought, one that richly repays the efforts made to ascend it.