FILO Filosofi i kontekst: Socrates and Athens: Rhetoric, power and the good life in Plato’s Gorgias and Apology.



The course offers a thorough introduction to central themes in Plato’s political and ethical thought, especially regarding democracy and democratic culture, by way of a close reading and discussion of two important Platonic dialogues, the Gorgias and the Apology. It is in these two key texts that Plato first articulates the idea, immensely influential in the history of Western philosophy, of a profound contrast between mere ‘persuasive’ speech (‘rhetoric’), on the one hand, and genuine ‘philosophical’ discourse, on the other. And it is here that he confronts head-on the central question raised by the trial and execution of his teacher at the hands of the Athenian demos: Is there a place for the true philosopher, devoted to the pursuit of truth and expertise, within a democratic community suspicious of any claims to epistemic authority in politics and committed to collective decision making? By exploring these broad themes in two of Plato’s central dialogues, the course will provide the students with a solid grasp, not just of an important aspect of Plato’s philosophy, but also of the historical origins of much subsequent political philosophy and democratic theory.

The Gorgias

The Gorgias presents us with Plato’s most sustained engagement with the problem of political power. Taking its starting point in a question about the nature of the art of ‘public speaking’ (rhētorikē), the dialogue offers a subtle, and highly critical, analysis of Athenian institutions and political culture, focusing in particular on the central role of rhetorical persuasion in democratic politics, and on the relation between mass and elite, the people and its leaders, under conditions of popular rule. Woven into this exploration of political themes are a number of characteristically ‘Socratic’ questions about virtue and the ends of human life: What is the relation between justice, knowledge and happiness? What role should pleasure play in our conception of the good human life? The striking combination of philosophical sophistication and moral urgency with which these questions are explored in the Gorgias makes the dialogue one of the most engaging – and disturbing – of Plato’s works. In the first half of the course we will read through this fascinating text together, discussing its central arguments and ideas against the background of a selection of modern scholarship on the dialogue. While our main focus will be on the political and ethical questions raised by the Gorgias, we will also touch on methodological issues, such as Socrates’ repeated insistence on the need for ‘sincerity’ in philosophical debate and the central role of ‘shame’ in the development of the conversation between Socrates and his main interlocutors, the sophist Gorgias and his two followers Polus and Callicles.

The Apology

The Gorgias ends with several references to the trial against Socrates, as depicted in Plato’s Apology; what Socrates says about rhetoric and ethics in the Gorgias, will be tested in real life in the Apology. The second half of the course focuses on Plato’s Apology. Two assumptions have traditionally guided our interpretation of this text. One is that Socrates was opposed to the Athenian democracy, and that this was the underlying reason for condemning him (e.g. Sabine 1963, Stone 1988, Hansen 1995, Waterfield 2009). Another is that Socrates is ironic — an interpretation that goes back to antiquity and which has been repeated by Kierkegaard in the 19th century and reinforced recently (e.g. Allen 1984). Both of these assumptions have been rejected in a water-shed study by Thomas C. Brickhouse and Nicholas D. Smith, Socrates on Trial (1989). In the second part of the course we shall read the Apology from beginning to end, and we shall read some of the literature pertaining to its reception (e.g. Kierkegaard), as well as interpretative studies published over the last three decades.

Who are involved in the course?

The course will be co-taught by postdoc Anders Dahl Sørensen (KOMM, Philosophy) and associate professor Leo Catana (KOMM, Philosophy). Anders will teach the first half of the course, dedicated to the Gorgias, while Leo will teach the Apology in the second half.

Target audience

This MA course is of interest to MA students from Philosophy, but also to students in other humanistic disciplines such as Rhetoric, Greek & Latin, and History, as well as in the social sciences (esp. political theory and history of political thought). The course is also open to BA students. Course participation and exam do not require knowledge of ancient Greek.


Engelsk titel

FILO Philosophy in Context:Socrates and Athens: Rhetoric, power and the good life in Plato’s Gorgias and Apology.


Kandidatuddannelsen i Filosofi, 2019-ordningen:

Filosofi i kontekst:  HFIK04071E

Kandidattilvalg på filosofi, 2019-ordningen

Filosofi i kontekst: HFIK14071E


At the examination, the student is able to demonstrate:


Knowledge and understanding of:

  • key concepts, theories and arguments in a philosophical text belonging to the past
  • influential interpretations of the text concerned and of its context, including its historical and institutional context
  • the latest tools and reference works used to determine the context of a selected text.


Skills to:

  • describe and analyse philosophical aspects of the selected text, as well as its context
  • make a description using the latest standards in the field of the history of philosophy with regard to citation, referencing and documentation
  • evaluate the strengths and weaknesses of the selected text and other influential interpretations of the text in question.


Competencies to:

  • analyse complex texts belonging to past philosophy
  • assess the extent of contextualisation for the selected texts belonging to past philosophy
  • give a clear, well-documented and well-argued written and oral presentation of selected aspects of a text belonging to the past, and of its context.

The course is conducted as seminars

Which books should I acquire before this course?

J. M. Cooper (ed.), Plato. Complete Works Indianapolis/Cambridge: Hackett, 1997

Løbende feedback i undervisningsforløbet
Mundtlig prøve
  • Kategori
  • Timer
  • Holdundervisning
  • 56
  • Forberedelse (anslået)
  • 353,5
  • Total
  • 409,5