Michael Davis

BA, Cornell University. MA, PhD, Pennsylvania State University. Interests in Greek philosophy, moral and political philosophy, and philosophy and literature; author of many books, most recently The Autobiography of Philosophy, a translation of Aristotle’s On Poetics, and Wonderlust: Ruminations on Liberal Education; member, editorial board, Ancient Philosophy; lecturer, essayist, and reviewer. SLC, 1977–

Undergraduate Courses 2020-2021

Philosophy

The Philosophy of Tragedy: Electras

Open , Seminar—Fall

There is only one story about which tragedies exist by all three of the great Greek tragic poets: the murder of Clytemnestra to avenge her murder of Agamemnon. We will read all three plays: Aeschylus' Libation Bearers, Sophocles' Electra, and Euripides' Electra—with special attention to the relation between Electra and Orestes as co-conspirators in the plot against Clytemnestra. Each play is concerned with the question of justice in its relation to a political life. Insofar as its principle is justice, political life points toward universality. Insofar as its existence depends on excluding some from its borders, it must assert its particularity. Political life involves treating fellow citizens according to universal principles because they are like family. We want our polis to be good, but we want it to be good because it is ours. In Greek tragedy, this problematic togetherness of the good and one's own is repeatedly represented as the tension between the polis and the family—which is, in turn, expressed as a tension between male and female principles. All of these issues are present in all three plays but in quite different ways. We will read them with a view to understanding the importance of those differences.

Faculty

Ancient Philosophy (Plato)

Intermediate , Seminar—Spring

This course will be devoted to a careful reading of one text. The goal of the course is twofold. First, it is designed to acquaint students with perhaps the seminal figure in the philosophical tradition in more than a superficial way. (The 20th-century philosopher, Alfred North Whitehead, once remarked that the “safest general characterization of the European philosophical tradition is that it consists of a series of footnotes to Plato.) This will force us to slow our usual pace of reading, to read almost painfully carefully, with a view to understanding Plato as he wrote and as he understood himself and not as a stage in a historical development. The second part of the goal of the course will be to introduce and encourage this kind of careful reading. The text for spring 2021 will be Plato’s Protagoras.

Faculty

Previous Courses

Ancient Philosophy (Aristotle)

Intermediate , Seminar—Spring

This course will be devoted to a careful reading of a small number of texts from a major figure in ancient philosophy. The goal of the course is twofold. It is first designed to acquaint students with one of the seminal figures of our tradition in more than a superficial way. Doing that will force us to slow our usual pace of reading, to read almost painfully carefully, with a view to understanding the thinker as he wrote and as he understood himself and not as a stage in an historical development. The second part of the goal of the course is to introduce and encourage this kind of careful reading. The text for spring 2020 will be Aristotle’s Rhetoric. We do not ordinarily claim knowledge of what is most important to us—the good, the beautiful, and just things. Still, our practical lives require that we are not content merely to withhold judgment about them. Accordingly—about the good, the beautiful and the just—we are generally persuaded and seek to persuade. We convince and are convinced without simply teaching or learning. If this sort of thinking is intrinsic to incomplete beings, to human beings, when rhetoric claims be an art or a science of persuasion, this would seem to amount to a claim to be an art or a science of the human. We will read Aristotle’s Rhetoric in light of this tacit claim and with a view to the question: What does it mean that human beings are put together in such a way that we both must and can be moved by persuasion?

Faculty
Related Disciplines

Ancient Philosophy (Plato)

Intermediate , Seminar—Spring

This course will be devoted to a careful reading of one text. The goal of the course is twofold. It is first designed to acquaint students with perhaps the seminal figure in the philosophical tradition in more than a superficial way. (The 20th-century philosopher Alfred North Whitehead once remarked that the “safest general characterization of the European philosophical tradition is that it consists of a series of footnotes to Plato.”) This will force us to slow our usual pace of reading, to read almost painfully carefully, with a view toward understanding Plato as he wrote and as he understood himself and not as a stage in a historical development. The second part of the goal of the course is to introduce and encourage this kind of careful reading. The text for spring 2019 will be Plato’s Protagoras.

Faculty
Related Disciplines

The Philosophy of Tragedy

Open , Lecture—Fall

Greek tragedy has been performed, read, imitated, and interpreted for 2,500 years. From the very beginning, it was thought to be philosophically significant—somehow pointing to the truth of human life as a whole. (The phrase "tragedy of life" first appears in Plato.) As a literary form, Greek tragedy is thought to be especially revealing, philosophically, by Aristotle, Hegel, Nietzsche, and Heidegger, to name only a few. Among others, Seneca, Corneille, Racine, Voltaire, Goethe, Shelley, O’Neill, and Sartre wrote versions of Greek tragedies. And, of course, there is Freud. Greek tragedy examines fundamental things in a fundamental way. Justice, family, guilt, law, autonomy, sexuality, political life, the divine—these are its issues. For class, we will read three plays by each of the great Athenian tragedians—Aeschylus, Sophocles, and Euripides—with a view toward understanding how they deal with these issues and with the question of the importance and nature of tragedy itself. For conference, we will read perhaps the greatest philosophical treatment of tragedy: Aristotle’s On Poetics.

Faculty
Related Disciplines

Rousseau’s Émile: Philosophy and Education

Intermediate , Seminar—Spring

Rousseau had an enormous, if ambiguous, influence on modern life. Political movements of both the left and the right can trace their origins to his writings. If Rousseau is famous for his advocacy of human freedom, he is equally famous for his praise of harsh moral conformism. He presents himself as profoundly religious, yet his Émile was burned in Protestant Geneva and Catholic France. Although Rousseau wrote a novel and an opera, he was a merciless critic of the arts as corruptive of morality. He appears as moralist and immoralist, patriot and solitary dreamer, educator and attacker of education, democrat and authoritarian, modern and ancient. To understand him requires thinking through these apparent paradoxes. We will spend the semester carefully reading Émile—with the possible exception of the Republic, perhaps the most comprehensive philosophical treatment of education ever written. Rousseau writes a fictional account in which he educates a child from birth to adulthood. Once called Phenomenology of Mind, masquerading as Dr. Spock, Émile uses the problems that arise in the course of rearing a child as a way to explore the most fundamental questions of human nature.

Faculty