Dissoi Logoi in Freiburg: UCF Tries Socrates

Mittwoch, 14. Mai 2014 | Autor/in:

las_tour25Im Rahmen eines Fellowship unterrichtete die amerikanische Gastwissenschaftlerin Rachel Bruzzone im vergangenen Wintersemester Studierende am University College Freiburg. Um das Verständnis der Studierenden zu vertiefen, wandte Sie in Ihrem Kurs zu griechischer Mythology eine antike rhetorische Übung an, die sogenannte dissoi logoi.

I write this blog post having just finished my second class with UCF, a course on Greek Mythology in which we considered both the literary and religious aspects of myths and various authors’ treatment of them. The small class size and lengthy class periods allowed us to work on a sophisticated level, often moving through texts line-by-line, which I hope was as rewarding an experience for the students as it was for me.

The highlight of the course, however, was the trial of Socrates, modeled on the historical trial of the philosopher for impiety and corruption of the youth in 399 BCE, an event depicted by Socrates’ student Plato in his Apology. The trial of Socrates is a more complex event than it might initially appear to be, and our term of reading literary works depicting the fraught relationship between gods and men prepared the students to appreciate what might be at stake.

The trial tends to illicit strong intellectual and emotional reactions, making it an ideal subject matter for the ancient exercise of dissoi logoi, or double speeches. Many of the Greek philosophers, men who were passionate teachers, believed that the practice of constructing arguments on either side of a conflict, both “right” and “wrong,” sharpened mental agility. This seemingly strange approach encourages rigorous thinking by forcing all parties to consider, and even advocate for, the point of view that does not come naturally to them. As a teacher in a liberal arts program, I also hope to inspire the students to reconsider and challenge their own viewpoints, and so I decided to revive the practice and try Socrates again. 

I asked the students to think outside of their own cultural context, considering the question of Socrates’ guilt or innocence not as 21st century residents of Germany but as ancient Athenians, drawing on the impressions of the divine and of mankind that they had spent the fall and winter forming. They prepared by reading, among other works, Aristophanes’ Clouds (a merciless – and very funny – mockery of Socrates); Lysias’ Against Eratosthanes (a speech about the appalling actions of men who may have been influenced by the philosophy of 5th century Athens); and Xenophon’s different account of the speech Plato depicts in his Apology.

las_tour27_2On the day of the trial, each student flipped a coin to determine to which “team of lawyers” he or she would belong. I then flipped a coin to determine which side would argue which position. Gratifyingly, some of the most passionate defenders of Socrates ended up on the prosecution team, and vice versa. The conditions of the trial were precisely those in ancient Athens, with strong forces pulling in both directions. Our “lawyers” could not mention the terror and bloodshed depicted in Lysias’ speech: an amnesty had been declared for all but the guiltiest, but suspicion about Socrates’ connection to this brutal episode of Athenian history might lurk beneath the surface. As 5th-century Athenians, they belonged to a vibrantly intellectual society, but many of them regarded such practices as the study of astronomy with hostility and mistrust. And they considered impiety not a personal but a community matter, capable of drawing the wrath of the gods. Perhaps most importantly, when our “lawyers” turned into “jurors” voting on Socrates’ guilt or innocence after the trial, they were to pretend to be unaware that, when given an opportunity to propose a counter-penalty to the execution that the prosecution demanded, Socrates would not suggest exile but that his “punishment” should be to dine at state expense like an Olympic victor.

We did indeed vote Socrates guilty, and a very high rate of abstention during the penalty phase of the trial – which I had not anticipated – suggests that the students respected the thorny ethical, religious and intellectual problems facing the Athenian jurors even while maintaining their own beliefs. The use of the dissoi logoi thus asked us, as a class, to consider the perspective of a different culture with its own value system, one of the key goals of any liberal arts education. I hope that this exercise helped to broaden the students’ mindsets just as the ancient philosophers intended.

Working with German students
It is always great fun to introduce the works of Ancient Greece and Rome to students encountering them for the first time, but the UCF students are really something special. I’ll confess that I had a preconception of German students in mind before I came here, and I anticipated having to work hard to encourage creative thinking and conversation – how wrong I was! I discovered students who are passionately curious, intellectually driven, eager to wrestle with the big questions that Greek and Roman literature poses for us and to appreciate its beauty. It has truly been a joy to teach at UCF, and I will take great pleasure in watching these students make their way in the world in coming years.

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