Discussing SOPHIST and Making Connections

THE SOPHIST by Plato on iPad

I’ve joined a great books book club, and my first experience as part of this small (very small) group was invigorating. The preparation was intimidating, as I was jumping into a group that was already established, and indeed works from A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man to The Republic were already in their rearview mirrors. My assignment was to read The Sophist, one of Plato’s later dialogues. While I remember reading The Republic over twenty-five years ago and struggling to hold onto its key concepts and arguments, I had never gone further in my reading of his works.

I will not embarrass myself by recounting the Stranger’s arguments hunting down the Sophists or sorting through the conundrum of being and non-being; however, I will say that after struggling with my own reading of The Sophist and enjoying fleeting moments of clarity regarding its central ideas, it was fascinating to be in a conversation with people who were so engaged and flexible of mind. In our conversation there were wide-ranging allusions to literature (Greek tragedies, modern novels), history, later philosophy, physics, and religion. Participants tested ideas and made assertions, and they illustrated ideas from one traditional academic discipline with examples from another.

During our conversation sitting on a patio on a lovely early June evening, I was reminded more than once of my experience teaching Humanities at Asheville School. The sort of conversation we had the other night was similar to Harkness discussions I remember from teaching European Studies to high school seniors with my teaching partner, Trey Wilson. When the discussions were at their best, the making of connections served as the engine that elevated our learning. For instance, as we neared the end of our study of the French Revolution, in the course of ten minutes of discussion, students made connections from Robespierre to Danton to Coleridge to Wordsworth and forward to Delacroix and the industrial revolution and back to Swift and Pope. The ease with which they moved across disciplinary boundary markers was remarkable. Even more salient here, the extent to which their understanding of this watershed moment in Europe was both deepened and expanded by the freedom to make connections was transformative.

Where next for the book club, which will meet again in August? The Henriad—Shakespeare’s tetralogy of Richard II, Henry, IV, pt. I, and Henry, IV pt. II, and Henry V. It will be a perfect moment to look back to these plays, as the BBC is producing them this summer in conjunction with the Olympics coming to London. I will get to Henry V and the St. Crispian’s Day speech in late July—perhaps just in time to inspire me for the dawn attack on the 2012-2013 school year!

6 thoughts on “Discussing SOPHIST and Making Connections

  1. bllbrwn423 June 7, 2012 / 2:34 pm

    Good luck with the four plays. Pace yourself and enjoy each one, maybe even thinking of them–in Olympic parlance–as four laps of a running event. Your reminders of what works best in discussions inspires me, as does your joining the Great Books conversation.

  2. J Ross Peters June 7, 2012 / 6:18 pm

    Thanks, Bill. I have taught Henry IV, i and Henry V before, but I am really looking forward to seeing them as part of a larger whole. I also like reading Hal because Shakespeare seems through him to be warming up to creating Hamlet. It should be fun. Also, check out the cast for the productions the BBC is doing–unbelievably strong!

  3. Patsy Steimer June 7, 2012 / 7:18 pm

    I once saw a performance in which those plays were condensed into one evening’s performance. Yikes. The Henry plays have been in performance at the Oregon Shakespeare Festival 2010, 2011, and 2012. We hope to make it for Henry V before this season is over. I hope you enjoy them, but I am becoming spoiled by having Shakespeare available in performance here, so I am less patient with the text on its own.
    We are in a small book group here (three couples including five former teachers and a recovering lawyer). My favorite part of our discussions is when we get off the subject. Just as in the classroom, listening to folks talk about what they have read reveals a great deal about the talkers.

    • J Ross Peters June 7, 2012 / 9:23 pm

      Thanks for this, Pats–it is great to have a comment from you!

      I remember when you went out there for the NEH Shakespeare Course (early nineties?)–I was envious. When we spent two summers in Cambridge when Eleanor was turning two and three, I would go see a play every few nights at one of the colleges. More often than not they were performed outside. The best setting was for HAMLET in The Kings College Garden, which happened to be the setting that inspired the 100 acre wood of Winnie the Pooh fame. They rarely opened that garden to the public. The highlight of the first summer was seeing ANTHONY AND CLEOPATRA at The Globe. I had read that play a couple of times and never liked it. When I saw it, it changed completely for me.

  4. karljaspers23 June 7, 2012 / 9:29 pm

    Reblogged this on Reason & Existenz and commented:
    An invigorating entry. I always love to find folks who are doing Great Books reading groups. Bravo!

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