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on the Bard College Berlin Student Blog

The School of Athens (Credit: Raphael, 1509-1511)

“The story so far:
In the beginning the Universe was created.
This has made a lot of people very angry and been widely regarded as a bad move.” (Adams, The Restaurant at The End of the Universe)

Whether the core was excavated from the bowels of the Earth 15 years ago or 500, the fact remains that Plato’s Republic is a timeless piece of philosophy that embodies the very essence of the discipline. It not only provokes a constant reinterpretation of our understandings and beliefs, but because the subject of the book is the human soul, a phenomenon unchanged from Socrates’ time despite changes in the environment, its relevance remains regardless of the epoch.

No matter how much thermodynamics likes to emphasise that time is the only constant, it cannot be denied that some times seem to change disproportionately to others. Athens isn’t the same mild-wintered, Mediterranean wonderland it was when Socrates frolicked in the streets: the tides are changing, and people must adapt to the urban heat island effect in the city centre if they want to survive. This is why, on noticing the general unrest in the student mind regarding Plato and the (long dead) old (white) man’s place in the twenty-first century, I felt perhaps it was time someone wrote a Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Republic, to show what one can expect when opening this treasure-chest.  Here’s what my Guide has to say about the unbelievable things they talk about in the Republic:

Listen, Listen:

“In the next place, get yourself an adequate light somewhere; and look yourself — and call in your brother and Polemarchus and the others — whether we can somehow see where the justice might be and where the injustice…” (The Republic, 427d)

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This article originally appeared on Public Seminar and has been republished here with their kind permission.

deste gosto (Credit: Ponto e virgula | Flickr)

deste gosto (Credit: Ponto e virgula | Flickr)

Earlier this week, and in advance of the inauguration of Donald Trump as the 45th President of the United States, Andrew Sullivan produced a video for BBC Newsnight, detailing how the election campaign and Trump’s success reminded him of Socrates’ account of the rise of a tyrannical regime in the eighth book of Plato’s Republic. The video has made it into pretty heavy circulation, and as someone who has taught this particular text in part or whole just about every year since the inauguration of President Bush (43, not 41 — I’m not that old yet) I’ve been asked by a more than a few people “How accurate is Sullivan’s presentation?” and “Can we or ought we derive a different lesson from Socrates’s analysis?” This post is my reply to those questions.

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Geoff with Leonardo

Geoff Lehman with Leonardo (credit: Geoff Lehman)

Once, in a seminar of the Representation class with Geoff, I made a comment about the painting that we were discussing by reading a passage that I wrote on my notebook before I came to the class. He appreciated the comment but insisted that I voiced my impression on the painting at that very moment. I asked him why my present impression matter so much, he gave me a rather interesting response:

Well, put it like this, in a psychoanalytic setting, the therapist is much more interested in how the patient describes her dream at the very moment, instead of what she wrote down in her dream journal. In a similar way, I think its more valuable that you talk about your immediate reaction to the painting, rather than what you wrote down in the past.

This is what I consider as one of the greatest examples of how one integrates different approaches/disciplines in a classroom discussion. With that in mind, lets begin our interview:

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From left to right: Michael Weinman, David Hayes, Andy German, Stuart Patterson. Credit: Gaia Bethel-Birch (AY 2016)

I am surprised that it took me this long to figure out just who exactly this “Plato” guy was. Growing up, I heard the names “Plato”, “Socrates”, and “Aristotle” often, usually in relation to one another, but did not understand what these names contributed to Western philosophy and science. Until recently, the mention of one of these three conjured up only imaginings of bearded faces and wise, earnest discourse in my mind. My knowledge went so far as to connect the names to Greek philosophy. Happily, my first semester of a liberal arts education has brought me further in my understanding.

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Graffitti

My first semester at Bard College Berlin just ended and I would like to write about the past few months and draw on my first insight into a liberal arts education.

At first, many people advised me not to study at a liberal arts university. In Germany you usually choose a field of study that is already very fixed in its subjects and then you can specialize after a few years of studying that one thing. As a person who would like to know everything about (nearly) everything, I felt out of place in this system. I was not able to reduce my interests to simply one area. After I graduated from a German school, my only wish was to sit in a library, stay there for hours, and just read every single book that seemed interesting. But of course life happened and it took me one year to make this dream become partly true (in my imagination it was not as exhausting and frustrating to get some reading done as it is in reality sometimes).

A lot of people said: “What do you want to do with this education? We do not need more people who only talk and talk for hours and never act. The world is full of these. Why don’t you study something useful, something with which you can make money and not live in a trash can out of necessity?” What those people do not realize is that the philosopher Diogenes lived in a large ceramic “can” because he believed it was necessary to be independent from material needs and to think beyond social and bodily constraints. But his example was not the reason why I went to Bard College Berlin, despite all the warnings. I always wanted to make the world a better place, but I soon became aware of the fact that one first needs to know about the world, about human nature, and about society before one can claim: “I am going to change the world now!” (Even though I have no idea where to start.) So this is why I am here at Bard College Berlin. I want to know more about myself and the world I live in.

I can still remember my first phone call with my German friends after my first day at the college.

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Maria Khan working with children in Oxford

Maria Khan working with children in Oxford

During the fall semester I decided to do an internship as a teacher’s assistant at a primary school in Berlin. In order to take full advantage of the opportunity, I backed up the practical experience I already had in the field with theoretical knowledge from Bard College Berlin’s internship seminar, “Berlin Institutions: Values in Practice.” The class dealt with the structure and functioning of Berlin institutions, and the way they have been reshaped in recent history by socio-economic changes. We engaged with materials related to the new market economy models and to how modern cities evolve into creative hubs and magnets for creative minds. Some of the academic papers we read often shed light on economic issues concerning our daily lives, for example city planning and gentrification.

As a course requirement, every student in the class had to be also involved with an institution. All students were helped to find a place where they could learn more about the different work environments and some skills that would come in handy later on in their lives. For myself, I have been interested in teaching children religion and critical thinking, and have always wanted to work in a school where I could start off with my teacher’s training. Although fearing that this might be a lot more daunting than it sounds, I applied to a number of schools and ultimately got an offer from the Berlin Cosmopolitan School.

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Michael Weinman during a lecture

Michael Weinman during a lecture

The Die Bärliner inaugurates today a series of discussions with members of the faculty. Listen to our professors talking about their areas of interest, current research, teaching at ECLA of Bard and life outside class.

Our first guest, Prof. Dr. Michael Weinman, joined the permanent faculty of ECLA of Bard in September 2012, after originally arriving as a Guest Professor in 2010. Michael received his doctorate in Philosophy in 2005 from The New School for Social Research in New York. He is the author of two books, on pleasure in Aristotle’s ethical thought and the connection between continental philosophy and modernist literature respectively, as well of several articles and books chapters on issues in Greek and political philosophy. His current projects include research on “Pythagorean Harmonics” in the Parthenon and Plato’s Timaeus, conducted jointly with ECLA of Bard faculty member Geoff Lehman, and an investigation of the connection between dialectic and rhetoric in Aristotle’s thought, in cooperation with David McNeill of the University of Essex.

Plato's Symposium (painting by Feuerbach)

It was an absolute delight to attend James Redfield’s lecture. He visited ECLA on the 8th of May. The lecture focused on Plato’s Symposium, and James Redfield discussed Socrates’ ideas about love. The lecture in text form was given to all the audience members, which made it even easier to follow James Redfield as he delivered lecture. He spent the first half of the lecture laying down a very detailed account of the Symposium’s historical background and how each of the characters was placed in the setting of Rome of that time. This introduction very smoothly paved its way into the book as Professor Redfield connected real-life incidents to some of the characteristics and speeches that the guests in the Symposium state.

I had read the Symposium three years ago, but after sitting through this lecture, I could actually feel the Symposium somehow as an event that had actually taken place. The lecture helped me visualize the Symposium as a real-life event as Professor Redfield brought each character alive by giving a detailed yet relevant biography. Before sitting through this lecture, the love which Socrates has for his friend Alcibiades only seemed like two very long accounts of love that have little relevance to modern-day life. After James Redfield’s lecture, I could relate to the characters  as I would in my real life. For Socrates, love is just another way to find your true self, the hidden self that can help you determine your path in life. According to James Redfield, Socrates attempts to extract more out of his erotic love than just enjoyment of sexual element of it. Love, for Socrates is an accelerative force to leave a mark in this world.

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