I hate to be the latest person to complain about fall break’s disappearing, but it really did throw off my Plato syllabus. I packed entirely too much of the ending into the last day–in one session we attempted to discuss Plato’s theory of civil law and his conception of interior slavery and the reincarnation section. And with all that on the table, I had to skip his famous refusal of poetry.
The theory of law is the most alien to my students, who were fairly fluent in the debates about how much incarceration costs and what recidivism rates were but needed a bit more coaxing to say just why a city would want to throw someone in jail. Plato, consistent with his conviction that a reason-ordered life is ultimately happier than one ruled by apetite, holds that the reasonable should make and enforce laws so that the city can grant what internal discipline cannot. In other words, cities can make one good. My students, Hobbesians (not Calvin-and-Hobbesians, before someone goes there) without knowing it, thought that was preposterous and fell once again to using “idealistic” as a synonym for “naive.” (I tried all through Republic to repeat what philosophical idealism actually entails, but ultimately one teacher is not all that powerful.) Ultimately we came down on three conflicting theories that operate in modern debates about prison: one, close to Plato’s that says that prisons educate or “rehabilitate” people; one that says prisons are warehouses for the storage of dangerous souls; and one that says prison is revenge for a crime committed.
Because that discussion took so long, we had relatively little time to talk about Plato’s final section on reincarnation, a beautiful and sophisticated allegory that encourages the reader to think about a human lifespan as a series of reincarnations: the choices one makes in the moment shape the life one lives over a lifetime. If one steals, one becomes a thief; if one works for the good of the weak neighbor, one becomes moral. Even if one gets away with evil actions, one trades bits of one’s soul for the stuff that contingency could steal out of one’s hand.
Of course, that section leads wonderfully to Boethius, and after we revise this set of papers, that’s precisely where we go next. The Boethius sections are generally shorter and, until book five, less intense than Plato, so the students should experience a nice winding-down as we head into the latter parts of the semester.