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–

Course Information

Current undergraduate courses

Ancient Philosophy (Aristotle)

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, in more than a superficial way, with one of the seminal figures of our tradition. In doing that, it 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 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 2016 will be Aristotle’s Rhetoric.

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Ancient Philosophy (Plato)

Fall

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, in more than a superficial way, with one of the seminal figures of our tradition. In doing that, it 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 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 Fall 2015 will be Plato’s Menexenus.

Faculty

Previous courses

Ancient Philosophy

Fall

This course is devoted to a careful reading of a small number of texts from a major figure in ancient philosophy, usually Plato or Aristotle (fall 2014: Plato’s Alcibiades I). The goal of the course is twofold: First, it is designed to acquaint students with one of the seminal figures of our tradition in more than a superficial way; in doing that, it will force us to slow our usual pace of reading and 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 a historical development. Second, the course will introduce and encourage this kind of careful reading.

Faculty

Modern Philosophy (Machiavelli)

Spring

This course will be devoted to a careful reading of a small number of texts from a major figure in the modern philosophical tradition since Machiavelli; e.g., Hobbes, Descartes, Locke, Rousseau, Nietzsche. The goal of the course is twofold: First, it is designed to afford students the luxury of spending a great deal of time on one thinker, to examine the way in which our own thought bears the residue of previous thought, but especially to attempt to understand the philosopher as he understood himself. Second, we will learn how difficult it is to match an author’s care in writing with an equal care in reading. The text for spring 2015 will be Machiavelli’s Discourses on the First Ten Books of Titus Livy, at first blush a book at odds with his most famous work, The Prince. The latter seems to advocate an amoral power politics; the former seems a celebration of republican rule. The one advocates founding “new modes and orders,” while the other takes its bearings by the old Roman republic. In this course, we will attempt to address these and other ambiguities in Machiavelli’s thought by way of a careful reading of the Discourses. We will be especially concerned with understanding the philosophical teaching underlying his practical political teaching.

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Political Philosophy

Year

All political action aims at preservation or change—change for the better, preservation to avoid something worse. All  political action, therefore, requires some thought of better or worse, and so good and bad. Political philosophy is the ongoing attempt to raise and answer questions about the collective good—and always some form of the quest for understanding the nature of the best possible political regime. We will examine various answers that have been given to the question of what is the best regime, taking some care not to assume that we have progressed beyond the thought of the past simply because it is past. Readings will include works of Aristophanes, Plato, Aristotle, Machiavelli, Hobbes, Locke, Swift, Rousseau, Hegel, Marx, and Nietzsche.  

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The Music of Philosophy: Nietzsche’s Birth of Tragedy

Spring

This course will be devoted to a careful reading of The Birth of Tragedy Out of the Spirit of Music. Nietzsche claims that tragedy, formed as a unique combination of Apollinian and Dionysian drives, and in its connection to music represents a more fundamental mode of being in the world than the tradition of rationalism that originates with Socrates, grows into the tradition of Western philosophy, and culminates in the optimism of modern science so powerful in his (and our) century. Nietzsche means to offer an alternative to reason understood in this way—a Dionysian philosophy, the image of which is a “music-making Socrates.” We will read this text sometimes painfully slowly and carefully, with a view to understanding what it means for Nietzsche to seek the truth of tragedy in a book that, on the surface at least, seems to be an attack on truth seeking—what it means that he can speak the words, “This book should have sung and not spoken.”

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The Philosophy of Tragedy

Spring

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 especially revealing philosophically by Aristotle, Hegel, Nietzsche, and Heidegger, to name but 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 to understanding how they deal with these issues and to the question of the importance and nature of tragedy itself. For conference, we will read perhaps the greatest philosophical treatment of tragedy, Aristotle's Poetics.

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