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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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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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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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Photo: Irina Stelea

On November 16th, students and faculty, led by Michael Weinman, came together for a seminar on Euclid’s Elements which was a supplementary seminar to the Academy Year core course on Plato’s Republic.

The discussion aimed to relate Euclid’s propositions to the concept of the divided line found in Book VI of the Republic and Socrates’ suggested educational schema in Book VII.

In 522c of the Republic, Socrates discusses education as a way to “train” individuals to think dialectically by first learning arithmetic, which is then followed by geometry. The seminar somehow echoed this process presented in the dialogue, particularly since everyone had cursory knowledge of arithmetic and geometric forms and concepts from pre-university education.

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For ten weeks at ECLA, drawing upon the debates of Ancient Greece, students and faculty have been weighing different views of the meaning of education. Students considered their position as learners at the same time as experiencing the ‘other side’ of the educational dialogue in seminars, such that the experience was of self-reflective education.

Two articles (Martha Nussbaum’s ‘Socratic Self-Examination’ and Leo Strauss’s ‘What is Liberal Education?’) set the tone of the core course and opened up a general discussion on the nature of liberal education. Nussbaum argues against the discernible political and social resistance to teaching students critical reflection, taking the view that liberal education should be Socratic, that critical argumentation underlies civic freedom. Strauss advocates the ‘great books’ programme as a model of liberal education which teaches students to stand on the shoulders of giants. Although these views are in no way models for ECLA’s own philosophy, they set out some of the debates that surround the liberal arts. In the discussion that followed it became clear that there exists a wide spectrum of opinions. These differences established the relevance of the trimester’s theme.

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Dr. Klaus Corcilius

Dr. Klaus Corcilius

On 12 November 2007 Dr. Klaus Corcilius of Humboldt University presented a guest lecture on Plato’s Republic and the ‘instrumentalization of virtue’ at the European College of Liberal Arts (ECLA).

Instrumentalization is, simply put, to use a thing with an intrinsic end for a purpose extrinsic to itself (the example, for clarity, of using a saw to open a bottle, gave way to a complex discussion of virtue ethics in the Republic). Focusing on book six, Dr. Corcilius’ lecture investigated the instrumentalization of virtue in Platonic ethics and compared the definitions of virtue in books one and four with book six, exploring possible inconsistencies in Socrates’ argumentation. He offered an explanation for Socrates’ surprising assertion that, given the wrong context, the virtues can be destructive of themselves, or can be corrupted.

This speculative approach to ‘what Socrates meant’ concluded with a consideration of Plato’s ethical philosophy in the light of an Aristotelian critique. Dr. Corcilius left open for consideration whether virtues, being intrinsically good, may contain anything within themselves to preclude their own misuse. The lecture gave way to a stimulating discussion on the tension between the virtue of truth and the necessity to lie; the relationship of knowledge to the good; and the important distinction between being and acting.

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