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Dr J's Audio-Visual Resources for Classics

Courses Taught

INTELLECTUAL HERITAGE (at Temple University)

Course Info:
Sample Syllabus


Course Themes

Delphi- A Focal Point for IH 51 Texts

Writing Guides:
Writing Guidelines

style guide

Writing Analogies

Subject Study Aids:
Aeschylus' Agamemnon Study Guide

Aeschylus' Libation Bearers Study Guide

Aeschylus' Eumenides Passages

Sophocles' Oedipus and the Sphinx Lecture

Dr. J's Illustrated Pericles' Funeral Oration

Dr. J's Illustrated Pericles and America

Dr. J's Illustrated Pericles and Philadelphia

Dr. J's Illustrated Aeschylus' Oresteia

Dr. J's Curse of the House of Atreus Outline

Dr. J's Background Lecture on Greek Philosophy

Dr. J's Apology Study Questions

Dr. J's Illustrated Plato's Apology

Socrates and the Apology Lecture

Dr. J's Plutarch's Pericles

Judaism Study Guide

Sundiata Study Guide

Epic Qualities of the Sundiata Lecture

Othello Study Guide

Machiavelli Study Guide

Galileo and Humanism Lecture



Courses Proposed
(needs some pruning):

Topics in Classical Culture:
The Legend of the House of Atreus: Greek Tragedy in Greece

Religious Foundations of Greek Culture

The Intersection of Myth and History

The Ancient Greek Cultural Nexus- Art, Archaeology, Literature and Topography

From 1996-2001 I taught in the Intellectual Heritage Program at Temple University in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania. This page is part of my teaching materials for Intellectual Heritage 51, a course covering literature and ideas from Sappho through Shakespeare...

Dr. Siegel's
Background Lecture
Platonic Philosophy

Philosophy as we know it was born in the 7e BC in Greece. The word philosophy is composed of two Greek words, philos (love of) and sophos (wisdom). So to the Greeks, philosophy simply meant the "pursuit of knowledge or wisdom" and they embraced the pursuit of all kinds of knowledge later divided into separate and distinct avenues of inquiry: natural science (such as biology, chemistry, geology), social science (sociology, political science) and metaphysics (consideration of metaphysical questions concerning the meaning of life, man’s place in the universe, or the existence of God).


These were the first Greek philosophers, "natural philosophers" called cosmologists (cosmos in Greek means "order" and "universe" at the same time because the Greeks saw the universe as being a perfectly orderly construction ruled by the principles of mathematics; its opposite, of course, is chaos) Cosmologists inquired about the nature of the universe as well as man’s place in it. They rejected the old explanatory (or aetiological) myths concerning why the world is the way it is and sought to explain the workings of the universe by material processes alone. For example, they rejected the old theories attributing natural processes to supernatural causes much like when we mature we no longer believe that "thunder is just God bowling.") Cosmologists began with the basic question "what is the world made of." Here are some of their conclusions:

Thales (7th c. BC) – concluded that the basic element was water

Anaximander (c.610-540's BC) – found fossilized shells and fish in the mountains and concluded that life began in the oceans. First theory of evolution.

Anaximenes (590's-c.525) - claimed that air was the primary element in order to explain how the spirit gets trapped in the body.

Their inquiries eventually led them to consider such basic questions as "what is the nature of the soul"? The pre-Socratic philosophers were united in their belief that the individual soul corresponded directly with the orderly construction of the universe and that the same laws applied to weather patterns, for example, as well as to the workings of the soul:

Pythagoras (c. 531) – came up with the idea that the soul is an immortal construct and that after death, souls migrated into new bodies. Pythagoras also ascribed the workings of the universe to mathematical principles, and his interest in numeric relationships led him to discover the 8-note scale.

Heraclitus (6th century) – concluded that the human soul is made of the same elements as the universe, and we must be aware that we are a part of a higher unity.

This interest in the soul is the basis for Plato's writing, for it is the soul that allows us to understand principles not visible in our physical world. But more on that later. 5e BC philosophers disagreed on the exact nature of the universe, but agreed that we could "know" it if we figured out the puzzle:

Empedocles – agreed with Parmenides that the universe is permanent and everlasting and agreed with Heraclitus that we perceive the world through our senses (Heraclitus); he identified four primary elements of which all matter is composed: fire, air, water and earth.

Leucippus and Democritus: offer a rival theory - that all matter is composed of indivisible, tiny pellets of matter, which they called atoms (literally, "without parts").

Anaxagoras: expanded Parmenides' ideas, but he was expelled from Periclean Athens for asserting that the sun was not a divinity but only a white-hot stone somewhat larger than the Peloponnesus.


Sophists were philosophers who turned their attention away from investigation of the natural world and adopted a much more practical approach to the use of philosophy. Sophists traveled wherever they could find a client, and they earned their living by teaching such arts as rhetoric and argumentation, skills that people eagerly paid to learn and use (and often abuse).

Protagoras (481-411 BC), earliest of the Sophists: credited with saying "man is the measure of all things." Protagoras will be expelled from Athens in 415 BC.

Sophists pointed out that while physis (nature) is controlled by an unchanging set of laws that remain the same wherever you go, nomos (custom, or man-made law) is arbitrary and changes from state to state. This empowered men to think that they could shape the world and be masters of their own fates. Originally, the goal of sophistry was defined as "teaching excellence or virtue (arete)" primarily through public speaking (the way any Greek of the 5th century made his way). But sophistry became known as unscrupulous teaching that leads to unscrupulous behavior. If there was no objective way to measure arete, or "excellence," then how was one supposed to know what really was "good" and what really was "bad?" Did "goodness" really exist or was everything relative? Some sophists came to the conclusion that you could successfully argue anything two ways, that the logic of such arguments could lead you to outrageous conclusions, and that the stronger argument, whether right or wrong, should win.

An example of a sophistic argument is that you can just as easily prove that a shipwreck is good as you can prove it is bad. A shipwreck is certainly bad if you are on the ship, if people die, if goods are irretrievably lost. But a shipwreck is certainly good for the shipbuilder who gets the contract to replace it! This kind of "moral relativism" left everyone confused…if something is good in this case, but bad in that case…then how can anyone ever be sure what is good and what is bad? Socrates’ philosophy offers a solution to this problem of "moral relativism."

The Periclean Age playwright Aristophanes even wrote a harsh comedy in which he mercilessly mocks the concept of sophistry as embodied in its greatest proponenrt (says he), Socrates. In the play, Socrates runs a school attended by people who wish to learn how to abuse the art of rhetoric in order to accomplish unscrupulous goals, such as weaseling out of legitimate obligations or debts. In th play, a man sends his son to learn the art of "Unjust Logic." We recall that all Athenians depended on their communication skills to advance in Athenian society – you acted as your own lawyer, for example, and needed to have a quick wit and tongue to match. So sophistic skills were a hot commodity: but concern over which argument was more just became replaced with concern over which argument would win.

Socrates (469-399 BC)

In fact, Socrates was unfairly caricatured by Aristophanes (see notes on the Apology) and spent his life trying to convince people that such people only showed their lack of understanding about the real workings of the universe and their lack of wisdom about the meaning of life. Of course, Socrates never wrote anything, but his student Plato preserved his ideas.

Platonic Ideas or Forms

Platonic metaphysics is founded on the idea that everything that we can perceive with our senses is guided by an underlying principle which we cannot perceive directly, but only as seen through the dirty and smudged filter of our physical world. These principles are called Forms or Ideas. But Plato was not concerned with the laws of the natural world like the older cosmologists – Plato understood this concept as applying to abstract principles which guide our lives. To Plato, abstract concepts such as Virtue or Justice were just as real as the law of gravity is to us – you can’t see gravity, you can’t hold gravity, but it is an undisputed fact that gravity exists. Ditto Justice.

Realm of Ideas

But the problem remains that we can’t see or hold Virtue of Justice. In fact, everything that we can perceive in this world, everything from a chair to "courage", is but a pale imitation of its real existence…somewhere else. This "somewhere else" Plato called the Realm of Ideas. Everything we see is a manifestation of a principle that is real but not present in this reality. "Justice," for example, is real; but how can we ever know it if we can’t perceive it with our senses?

The sad fact is that what we know (perceive with our senses) is only a derivation, not the real McCoy. But interestingly, while we cannot see the Form of Courage, for example, directly, we do know it when we see it. A courageous act is seen to be courageous when it manifests the principle of Courage and therefore reveals the essesntial quality of Courage that marks all things Courageous. Think of it this way: if the performance of an act reveals the principle or form that guides it, them a witness to that performance becomes informed! He has gained knowledge of a universal, unchanging truth as manifested in the imperfect, human world.

Try to come up with a working definition of "courage." You won’t be able to do so without resorting to using other abstract terms in your definition. Or the definition you come up with will not work all the time and thus must be rejected. You might be able to argue that a particular act would be considered courageous in one instance, but not in another. This argument that "it depends on the circumstances" is called "moral relativism." This is the reason that Socrates tells Crito (in the Crito) that the opinions of others have no bearing on what is just or unjust, good or evil, for Truth concerning these concepts exists and cannot be argued.

So how do we access this Realm of the Ideas where all the answers are?

And wouldn’t it be nice if, since these answers really exist, we couldn’t all just tap into the Realm of Ideas and find out what truly is Just and what is not. It would sure save a lot of trouble. Well, we can. We can tap into the immortal, never-changing universe where these eternal principles reside by using our soul, the bridge between "immutable realities" and the "material world." Through the immortal, never-changing part of ourselves – our soul – we can reach upwards and grasp the unchanging principles by which the universe is governed. Everything has its purpose and the well-being of the individual soul - at its greatest and best - is the natural end (TELOS) of all movement and endeavor. And that is why Socrates says that "the primary business of life is the care and tending of the soul," so we can develop the ability to tap into the Realm. How do we cultivate the soul? By living a life of constant inquiry and examination, by experiencing and contemplating.

Plato has Socrates address this issue in the Apology. Although he never explicitly mentions the Realm of Ideas, it helps to understand the underlying philosophy. Otherwise, it is difficult to explain Socrates’ confidence in knowing how to tell the difference between Justice and Injustice. Socrates acknowledges that Agathon, The Ultimate Form of Goodness - is the defining form, suggesting that the plan of the universe is a morally directed one. But like with any other form, we cannot become GOOD of JUST– but we can know it when we see it, and we can do our best to manifest it - PerFORM it – through our actions.

Socrates’ primary tenets all draw from this theory:

"An unexamined life is not worth living."

"An evil man can't hurt a good man"

"No man commits evil intentionally…he is just uninformed as to the Good"

"The care and tending of the soul is the major business is life"

"Nothing can harm a good man either in life or after death and his fortunes are not a matter of indifference to the gods."


copyright 2001 Janice Siegel, All Rights Reserved
send comments to: Janice Siegel (jfsiege@ilstu.edu)

date this page was edited last: 10/25/2005
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