“Know Thyself”

Knowledge and Self-Knowledge in Literature and Philosophy

A ten-week course on the promise and dangers of literature as a source of wisdom

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. In addition to writings by Plato, we will read Sophocles’ great tragedy Oedipus the King and consider more recent responses to the question of what, if anything, we can learn from literature.

Course Schedule

We will meet on ten consecutive Mondays (plus a first organizational meeting). There are two class meeting times:

• 11am Pacific/2pm Eastern/7pm UK
• 6pm Pacific/9pm Eastern

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

Week 0 (Jan. 18): Organizational meeting

Week 1 (Jan. 25): The riddle of the sphinx: Sophocles’ Oedipus the King

Week 2 (Feb. 1): Oedipus and the quest for self-knowledge: Sophocles’ Oedipus the King

Week 3 (Feb. 8): Socrates and the quest for self-knowledge: Plato’s Apology

Week 4 (Feb. 15): The ancient quarrel: Plato’s Republic

Week 5 (Feb. 22): “It is only as an aesthetic phenomenon that existence and the world are eternally justified”: Nietzsche’s Birth of Tragedy

Week 6 (Mar. 1): Moralism and amoralism: Leo Tolstoy and Oscar Wilde

Week 7 (Mar. 8): The density of meaning: Alice Munro’s “Differently”

Week 8 (Mar. 15): Literature as a thought-experiment: Noel Carroll’s “The Wheel of Virtue”

Week 9 (Mar. 22): Literature as moral perception: Martha Nussbaum’s “Finely Aware and Richly Responsible”

Week 10 (Mar. 29): An anti-moralist response: Joshua Landy’s “A Nation of Madame Bovarys”

Required readings

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.