Unreflective hedonism, the single-minded though mindless pursuit of pleasure, sometimes sounds like a not altogether disagreeable way of life, yet great thinkers have often taken strong exception to the very idea of this particular pursuit of happiness. Socrates, one of the greatest-earliest thinkers of the Western philosophical tradition, sought wisdom instead of pleasure, and he insisted that the unexamined life is not worth living. Is it better, as John Stuart Mill once remarked, to be Socrates dissatisfied than to be a fool satisfied? Philosophers are, by definition, lovers of wisdom; but just what is this wisdom that they are so enamored of?
This course offers an especially personal introduction to some notable past philosophers, by way of a thoughtful engagement with their most personal writings—their apologies, meditations, and autobiographies. An important benefit of approaching philosophy by way of classic texts of this sort is that they prove to be inexhaustible resources, endless material for thought. This course will emphasize some themes and topics threading from one text to another. The most unifying themes will concern the nature of philosophizing, of philosophical method, and its relation to the possibility of our own moral and cognitive perfectibility. We will explore what some great philosophical thinkers have tried to tell and to show us about how good, how knowing—in a word, how wise—we might become. You will be expected not only to be an active, intellectually engaged reader of the texts but also critically to discuss (in oral and written form) their philosophical ideas and arguments.
Texts: (in historical order as well as in the order of assigned
Plato, The Trial and Death of Socrates, 3rd Edition (Hackett, 2001)
Marcus Aurelius, Meditations (Prometheus, 1991)
Montaigne, An Apology for Raymond Sebond (Viking, 1988)
Descartes, Discourse on Method (Hackett, 1980)
Rousseau, “The Creed of a Savoyard Priest” [selection from Emile (Everyman, 1993)]
Benjamin Franklin, Autobiography & Other Writings (Bantam, 1982)