A Note on Plato
Plato is, as we all know, one of the most important philosophers ever to have lived, to whom the history of Western philosophy is famously but a series of footnotes. To study philosophy seriously will involve, at some point, becoming acquainted with the Platonic dialogues. Thus it is only natural that he should figure heavily in courses devoted to ancient philosophy. Having said that, however, one might argue that an excessive focus upon Plato may have a number of detrimental effects.
Firstly, devoting a large amount of time to Plato in the context of an introductory course will deny time to other ancient philosophers and so perhaps fail to convey the range and diversity within ancient philosophy. For instance, a course that devotes, say, a quarter or half of its time to reading the Republic but then ignores Hellenistic philosophy altogether due to lack of time will not give students a balanced introduction to the subject. Platos Republic is no doubt a very important text and certainly one that deserves close study, but a similar argument could equally be made for Sextus Empiricus Outlines of Pyrrhonism, Plotinus Enneads, and a number of other ancient texts. Rather than devote a substantial portion of ones time to this one text, perhaps it might be more appropriate to save this for a separate major text course.
Secondly, an introductory course that devotes a substantial amount of time to a text such as the Republic will inevitably devote much of its philosophical energy towards understanding issues arising from Platos idealism. For some students especially those brought up in an increasingly secular and scientific culture Platos philosophy may have little appeal and an excessive focus upon it may put them off ancient philosophy altogether. However, these same students may find Stoic or Epicurean materialism more congenial. A course that includes all of these competing philosophical positions is more likely to offer something that will capture the interest of everyone in the class.
Without wanting to diminish either the philosophical or historical importance of Plato, one could advance these sorts of scholarly and pedagogical arguments against an excessive focus upon his works, at least in an introductory course. Rather than teach the Republic at length, one could instead focus upon one of Platos shorter dialogues, such as the Protagoras or Euthyphro. These would give a good taste of Platos intellectual and literary genius, while leaving time for plenty of non-Platonic material as well.
Next Section: Resources for Teachers of Ancient Philosophy
This site was created by Dr John Sellars for the PRS-LTSN, 2002.