NEH Summer Seminar on Socrates, Lewis & Clark College, June 22 - July 25, 2014

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The NEH Summer Seminar for College and University Teachers at Lewis & Clark College for the Summer of 2014 has been made possible in part by a major grant from the National Endowment for the Humanities. Any views, findings, conclusions or recommendations expressed in this program and website do not necessarily represent those of the National Endowment for the Humanities.


Seminar Overview:
According to Cicero, Socrates was "the first who brought philosophy down from the heavens, placed it in cities, introduced it into families, and obliged it to examine into life and morals, and good and evil" (Tuscan Disputations V.10-11). The influence of Socrates on the way philosophy came to be done by later Greeks and Romans is obvious enough from the many later schools who claimed to derive their teachings from Socrates (Platonists, Peripetetics, Elians, Megarians, Cynics, Cyrenaics, Stoics and Academic and Pyrrhonian Skeptics), or, as opponents of the Socratic approach (as with the Epicureans). The positions scholars have attributed to Socrates continue to be reassessed, and many contemporary philosophers are finding so-called “Socratic” views increasingly attractive and plausible.

The last time the National Endowment for the Humanities sponsored a Summer Seminar for College and University Teachers on this important figure in the history of philosophy was in the 1980's, directed by Gregory Vlastos. The Director of the 2014 NEH Summer Seminar on Socrates, Nicholas D. Smith, was fortunate to have attended one of Vlastos's NEH Seminars on Socrates (in 1983), and has been one of the most significant contributors to this area for over three decades now. The main goal of the proposed Seminar is to give NEH Summer Scholars the opportunity to think together about the main questions that continue to be debated about the philosophical figure of Socrates. Many of these debates have their recent origins in the important work of Vlastos himself, in the late 20th century. But the field has gone very far since Vlastos breathed new life into it, and it is fair to say that Vlastos’s work has begun to fade in importance as scholarship has gained considerable sophistication in the past decades. So the task for scholars now working in this field is to figure out what the best of the current approaches are, where to find these, and how to engage them in their own work.  It is these goals that participants will pursue in common in the 2014 NEH Summer Seminar on Socrates.

The seminar will begin with “the Socrates Problem,” which concerns the difficulty in discerning what the historical Socrates was like from inconsistent ancient sources. The remaining four weeks will focus on the main areas that philosophers and scholars generally agree are the most interesting ones from the point of view of contemporary philosophy: Socrates’ doctrine of obedience to civil law, which seems to oppose modern liberalism and its conception of individual autonomy; Socrates’ profession of ignorance and its implications for human inquiry and for what human knowledge would be, if someone were to achieve it; Socrates’ eudaimonism—the doctrine that value is to be understood in terms of human happiness or flourishing; and Socrates’ commitment to intellectualism, both in the explanation of human motivation and also in terms of how virtue is to be understood, so that in either case, cognition, rather than emotion or some other desiderative element, will be central to explanation.

    Qualifications of Candidates: This seminar is intended for teacher/scholars whose academic work includes or anticipates special attention to Socrates--the historical street philosopher of that name, and/or the character in Plato's dialogues generally, or more specifically in Plato's "early" or "Socratic" dialogues, and/or the character of that name who appears in any of our other ancient sources, including especially (but not limited to) Aristophanes, Xenophon, and Aristotle. The selection committee will seriously consider any applicant whose teaching and/or scholarly interests show some focus on Socrates, including (but not limited to) those from academic departments such as (in alphabetical order) Classics, Comparative Literature, Greek, History, Philosophy, and Political Science.  Two of the NEH Summer Scholars to be included in this seminar will be current graduate students working in this area, and so graduate students in any of the above academic disciplines are encouraged to apply.  

    Useful links for further information about this seminar:


    Please note that application materials are to be sent directly to the Seminar Director, who strongly prefers that these all be sent electronically (by attachment in any combinations of PDF, MSWord, or RTF formats).  

    Send to: Professor Nicholas D. Smith (  

    The most important part of the application is the essay of no more than four double spaced pages (see "Application Information and Instructions," above). This essay should include your reasons for applying to the specific project; your relevant personal and academic information; your qualifications to do the work of the project and make a contribution to it; what you hope to accomplish; and the relation of the study to your teaching.  Please also indicate in this document a specific research program you intend to be pursuing during the seminar which you would be at least willing to describe and discuss with the other participants and director.  The description of this program need not be given in more detail than a few sentences or a single paragraph at most.  Note that actual letters of reference are not required, though names of references and their contact information should be provided.

    Any specific questions should be directed to the seminar director at the above email address.