NB – CL/PL 317 is taught with different contents each time – this is one version

Around 500 BCE, Athens was a fairly average Greek city state. Two decades later it had twice repelled the greatest power of that era, Persia, almost single-handedly. By the middle of the century, Athens ruled the Greek sea as the leader of a symmachy comprising half of the Hellenic world – the other half being allied with Sparta, Athens rival superpower. By 430 rivalry had escalated into a war that would continue till the end of the century, when Athens was subdued by Sparta with the Persian Great King’s help.

The victory of Persia and the ensuing material and political prosperity changed the face of Athens. The Parthenon and other symbols of the young democracy’s glory were built. At the same time intellectuals from all over the Greek world came to Athens to present their new ideas: the so-called sophists, highly paid teachers of rhetoric, logic and politics, who made morals a commodity and claimed that you could learn success from them if only you paid the enormous instruction fee. At that time and in that place, new literary forms and language technologies were created: the art of arguing a case, history and historical analysis, tragedy and the old comedy. As the political, social and economic situation of each individual Athenian underwent dramatic changes, so the underlying values became fluid and a matter of debate. Everything was called into question.

This course opens a door into this garden of political unrest and intellectual intrigue in which the fate of nations was burnt in words in the crucible of public debate. We will see how Sophocles and Euripides, in their tragedies, stage the debates of their day at the public festival of the Dionysia. We will learn from Thucydides how a democratic state in cold blood decides to wipe out a people, how rules lose their meaning in face of the common experience of death. We will sample showpieces of sophistry like the praise of adulterous Helen and the demonstration that nothing is. And last but not least, we will encounter Socrates, the founder of philosophical ethics according to those who came after him, both as a caricature of a sophist-philosopher in Aristophanes’ comedy and in heroic battle against sophistic relativism and Übermenschentum in the dialogues of Plato.

To prove that we have learnt from these illustrious examples, to demonstrate that we now know how to debate publicly, present our ideas clearly, and not only sway but lead an audience towards the truth we will retranslate, rehearse and perform the 1st book of Plato’s Republic. Late in the evening after a whole day of feasting at the festival of Bendis in the port of Athens, Socrates and Glaucon are waylaid by an gaggle of tipsy fans on the way home and persuaded to come back to Cephalus’ house to make a night of it – no sooner do they sit down inside but they find themselves, thanks to Socrates’ nitpicking, slowly embroiled in a discussion that becomes so complicated and so heated that they forget all about the night’s entertainment – a discussion of justice and how one should lead one’s life, a discussion that cuts down into their deepest beliefs. Little did they know that once they had begun they could only ever leave the discussion by prematurely confessing defeat or by pursuing the question to its very end; by which time all have become philosophers and many other festivals forgotten in the winding pursuit of a difficult truth.

In order to confirm the relationship thus formed with minds and thoughts that thrived 2500 years before us, your learning experience will be crowned with a study trip to Athens and Delphi. We will spend a long weekend following the traces of Socrates and other Sophists. We will see where the plays we have read were performed in the shadow of the Acropolis, gain a sense of the economic and cultural heights to which Athens rose in the 5th century BCE and admire the unabashed way in which its citizens rubbed their wealth and glory under the noses of visiting foreigners – up to this day. This study trip will be prepared and accompanied by a Classical Archaeologist.



  • Philosophical reading – ability to read with care philosophical texts.
    • Philosophical analysis – analysis of concepts and their discursive organizations.
    • Reflective orientation – use of conceptual analysis to frame issues.
    • Historical understanding – knowledge of relation between philosophy and history.
    • Methods of interdisciplinarity – ability and knowledge to work across disciplinary borders.
    • Oral expression and clarity – ability to speak with high consistency and lucidity.
    • Written expression – well-organized and well-researched arguments.


  • Getting an impression of the intellectual life of 5th century Athens as a foundational moment for Western literature and philosophy.
  • Acquaintance with the seminal figure “Socrates”.
  • Elementary knowledge of the philological problems encountered in the study of ancient literature.
  • Acquaintance with the physical remains of ancient Athens (through study trip).
  • Basic understanding of some possible foundations of ethical arguments.
  • Understanding the difference between a philosophical and a rhetorical argument.
  • Introduction to various genres of political and ethical writing (history, rhetoric, drama, dialogue) and in particular an historical understanding of classical tragedy, not as an expression of “the tragic” but as a form of debate in a particular intellectual and socio-political context.
  • Ability to tackle a difficult philosophical text and to discuss it both as a philosophical argument (structure of argument, meaning of terms, is the argument valid, role in the context of a theory developed by the author, etc.) and a literary work (genre, audience, style and figures of style, text function, etc.).
  • Ability to reflect on the interrelationship of (literary) form and philosophical meaning.
  • Ability to interpret and digest readings of a literary and philosophical text by means of adaptation and performance.
  • Reflection on the relationship between philosophy, creativity and performative expression.


  • Michael Gagarin and Paul Woodruff, eds. / trans. Early Greek Political Thought from Homer to the Sophists. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1995. ISBN-13: 978-0521437684 (c. 30 Euros)
  • Aristophanes. Clouds. Trans. Peter Meineck. Indianapolis: Hackett, 2000. ISBN-13: 978-0872205161 (c. 10 Euros)
  • Plato. Gorgias. Trans. Donald J. Zeyl. Indianapolis: Hackett, 1987. ISBN-13: 978-0872200166 (c.
  • 10 Euros)
  • Thucydides. On Justice, Power, and Human Nature: The Essence of Thucydides’ History of the Peloponnesian War. Ed./Trans. Paul Woodruff. Indianapolis: Hackett, 1993. ISBN-10: 0872201686
  • Plato. Republic. Trans. C. D. C. Reeve. Indianapolis: Hackett, 2004. ISBN-13: 978-0872207363 (c. 10 Euros).


  • Sophocles. Philoctetes. (various online translations)
  • Euripides. Phoenissae / Phoenician Women (various online translations)
  • Plato. Politeia / Republic. Book 1 (various online translations)


  • Euripides. Orestes and Other Plays. Ed./Intr. James Morwood and Edith Hall. Trans. Robin Waterfield. Oxford and New York: Oxford University Press, 2001. ISBN-13: 978-0192832603.
  • Sophocles. Four Tragedies: Ajax, Women of Trachis, Electra, Philoctetes. Peter Meineck and Paul Woodruff, Trans. Indianapolis: Hackett, 2007. ISBN-13: 978-0872207639.
  • Thucydides. The History of the Peloponnesian War. Revised Edition. Ed./Intr. M. I. Finley; Trans. Rex Warner. London et al.: Penguin Classics, 1954. ISBN-13: 978-0140440393.