"Know Thyself": Knowledge and Self-Knowledge in Literature and Philosophy

January 11th

Start Date



75 mins

class length

30+ mins

Weekly Video




Since its beginnings, philosophy has understood itself in comparison with literature—and more often than not in competition with it. In Book X of Plato’s Republic, the philosopher Socrates alludes to an “ancient quarrel” between poetry and philosophy and argues for the banishment of poets from his ideal philosophical republic. This ten-week course takes Plato’s argument as a focal point: we will work to understand why he wanted to banish poetry, whether he was right to do so, and what lessons we can draw from this argument today. In the process, we will ponder the sometimes competing claims of philosophy and literature as sources of wisdom. Besides writings by Plato, we will read Sophocles’ great tragedy Oedipus the King and excerpts from Aristotle’s Poetics and consider more recent responses to the question of what, if anything, we can learn from literature.

This course is designed to be accessible to people with no prior training in philosophy. Some of the texts are difficult, and university-level English reading skills are an asset, but video lectures are designed to make these texts accessible.


We will meet on ten consecutive Tuesdays (plus a first organizational meeting)

The class meets at 11am Pacific/2pm Eastern/7pm UK/8pm Europe

Each class is 75 minutes long and will be supplemented by a 30–50 minute video lecture made available in advance.


Readings will be made available in PDF format with one exception: I will ask you to buy your own copy of Oedipus the King because I can’t legally make the whole text available for you in electronic form. We will be working with Robert Fagles’ translation for Penguin Classics. If you already have a different edition or translation, feel free to use that. It will just make things a little more awkward in terms of following along with the lectures and discussion.

If you’re buying the book, I encourage you to purchase or order it through a local independent bookseller.

Week 0 January 11: Organizational meeting

Week 1 January 18: The riddle of the sphinx: Sophocles’ Oedipus the King

Week 2 January 25: Oedipus and the quest for self-knowledge: Sophocles’ Oedipus the King

Week 3 February 1: Socrates and the quest for self-knowledge: Plato’s Apology

Week 4 February 8: The ancient quarrel: Plato’s Republic

Week 5 February 15: The catharsis of pity and terror: Aristotle’s Poetics

Week 6 February 22: Moralism and amoralism: Leo Tolstoy and Oscar Wilde

Week 7 March 1: The density of meaning: Alice Munro’s “Differently”

Week 8 March 8: Literature as a thought-experiment: Noel Carroll’s “The Wheel of Virtue”

Week 9 March 15: Literature as moral perception: Martha Nussbaum’s “Finely Aware and Richly Responsible”

Week 10 March 22: An anti-moralist response: Joshua Landy’s “A Nation of Madame Bovarys”

This course is now underway and enrollment is closed.

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