Academics and Research / Magazine Feature

Students to get firsthand look at democracy’s beginnings in Greece

When Rich Rockwell lands in Athens, Greece, in June, he says he can’t wait to walk around the area where Socrates taught.

“To be there and soak it in after all I’ve studied about ancient Greece will be incredible,” says Rockwell, a graduate student in international studies who has taken many ancient political theory classes at DU. “I’ve kind of fallen in love with ancient political theory.”

The trip is actually a class Rockwell and about 10 other DU students are taking called Socrates in Athens, which is part of DU’s Interterm program that offers classes for students between quarters.

The course will examine the trial and death of Socrates, and some classes will be held near the cave where Socrates was imprisoned.

Alan Gilbert, the course instructor and a professor in the Graduate School of International Studies, says he chose to teach the class because he says Greek political philosophy is the “founding political theory, the freshest and richest.”

“Athens’ celebration of what [Georg Wilhelm Friedrich] Hegel called ‘beautiful individuality and democracy’ is very attractive,” Gilbert says.

He adds that the trial and death of Socrates is “the most remarkable example” of personal integrity. “It served as a model, despite differences, for the story of the crucifixion of Christ, particularly in Greek Orthodox Christianity.”

Gilbert also wants students to know that many people misinterpret Socrates as being identical with Plato.

“Plato believed that a tyrant becomes a philosopher-king and rules wisely but tyrannically,” Gilbert says. “But Socrates provided an alternative to those views, and this course will underline the differences today between loyalty to justice and neo-conservatism.”

Those who hold Plato’s view have “embraced authoritarian politics” in the U.S. and believe in “endless aggression, preemptive wars and unprovoked attacks on the peoples of other states,” Gilbert says.

The Athenian leader Pericles says in a speech that Athenians didn’t cast “withering looks” on each other about private matters — Gilbert adds, so long as each upheld a public good. “Modern Americans could learn from this.”

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