Legend has it that classical Greece began with the first Olympic Games in 776 BC, held in honour of the God Zeus and the inspiration for the Olympic Games we know today. Ancient Greece has also been the inspiration for many other institutions and systems of Western civilization, including its concept of the city or ‘polis’ and its ideas about the role and function of politics. In this part of the course we will explore some of the ideas from the classical Greek world relating to social and civic life. We will introduce Plato’s Republic and look at the concepts of Individual, Society and State in their original meanings, as well as the ideas of justice, education and the ‘philosopher-king’, the famous Allegory of the Cave and the five forms of government according to Plato.
The Republic is written as a dialogue which centres around the idea of justice. One of the participants argues that Justice is simply a word with no inherent value and that all that really matters is power. Through the character of Socrates, Plato then expounds a whole philosophical treatise in defence of justice. For Plato, justice exists in itself and is something that human beings have to discover. Far from being a simple set of civic rules, Plato develops an understanding of Justice as connected to the universal laws of life.
In book VII of The Republic you will find Plato’s ‘Allegory of the Cave’, an enduring and influential text, rich in symbolism. It contains key metaphysical ideas about the nature of reality and the purpose of human life. In it Plato proposes different stages or levels of reality, from the darkness of the cave (sensory world) to the ultimate light of the sun (spiritual world). One of the key themes presented is the central importance of education and wisdom for the individual, society and the state.
Education comes from the Latin root ‘educere’, meaning ‘to lead or draw out’, and ‘educare’ (to bring up, to train, to teach, to educate). For Plato, the purpose of education is in line with both of these roots: on the one hand to ‘draw out’ the latent potential and to lead the human being out of the ‘cave’ of ignorance into the light of spiritual understanding; and, on the other, to educate people to be good citizens. We will look at these concepts and also at his proposals for the different stages of education, from the education of children to the education of philosopher-kings.