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.