Professor Alex Priou Wants Students to 'Be Strong, and Philosophize'
Founding Faculty
Jun 14, 2024

Professor Alex Priou Wants Students to 'Be Strong, and Philosophize'

Education's higher ends are 'the formation of character and the refinement of the intellect,' Dr. Priou says.

Maggie Kelly
Maggie Kelly
University of Austin

Welcome to Meet the Founding Faculty, a series of interviews introducing the world-class teachers and scholars building the University of Austin's academic culture and shaping its intellectual life.

Associate Professor of Political Philosophy Alex Priou received a Ph.D. and M.A. in Philosophy from Tulane University, an M.A. in Liberal Arts from St. John’s College, and a B.A. in Political Science from the University of Connecticut.

Dr. Priou is the author of three books on Plato: Becoming Socrates: Political Philosophy in Plato’s "Parmenides" (2018), Defending Socrates: Political Philosophy Before the Tribunal of Science (2023), and Musings on Plato’s "Symposium" (2023). He has also written essays on the history of philosophy for various journals and edited volumes in Classics, Philosophy, Political Science, Literature, and Film, including studies of Homer, Hesiod, Parmenides, Plato, Aristotle, and beyond. He also engages in public scholarship, occasionally writing for a general audience, but most frequently with The New Thinkery, a weekly podcast he co-hosts with his two close friends, Gregory McBrayer and David Bahr. Together, they aim to model friendly and fun conversations between friends on texts and topics in the history of philosophy.

UATX: You are joining UATX as Associate Professor of Political Philosophy. Could you offer a brief introduction to the field in general and to your areas of research?

Dr. Alex Priou: My background is in the history of philosophy, especially of political philosophy, with a primary focus on Plato. 

The field of political philosophy is too heterogenous to admit of a brief introduction, so let me offer a truncated version of what Plato shows us. Philosophy is, according to Plato, concerned with the question of the good life, as we all are. But it is distinct in that it attempts to transcend our mere opinions about how to live well and so arrive at clear and certain knowledge of it.  In this attempt, we quickly discover that our opinions about the good life are fundamentally informed by the political regime under which we live. 

The question of the good life thus begins as a critique of that regime’s conception of the good, of how it has distorted our understanding of the good and thus miseducated us. It thus leads to an examination of how we ought to live with others and as individuals. It asks, therefore, about the place of justice and moral goodness in the good life as a whole.

From here, a series of important questions arise: What is virtue or human excellence? How are the moral virtues related to the intellectual virtues? What sort of education produces decent and thoughtful citizens? What political orders are necessary for supporting and preserving such an education? What is friendship? What is the place of friendship and groups of like-minded friends in the community at large and in the life of the happy individual? 

I could keep going, but it should by now be clear that political philosophy begins from the phenomena of ordinary or natural human life. Academic political philosophy certainly gets in the weeds and employs its own technical jargon, but at bottom it shares its initial concerns, not to say its methods, with the ordinary, thoughtful citizen.

Tell us more about The New Thinkery, the weekly podcast you co-host with Gregory McBrayer and David Bahr. What are some of your goals for the podcast this fall?

On The New Thinkery, we focus primarily on political philosophy, especially the canonic texts and topics in the field. But we’ve also often ventured into literature, film, history, and more. We’ve been discussing amongst ourselves how we could broaden our platform, with a new array of guests and formats. We’d like to do more one-on-one interviews, and with guests who aren’t academics or academic-adjacent—guests who actually live the very issues that we discuss in a theoretical or detached way. 

We’ve done that in the past, for example when we talked with Damian Jungermann, a combat vet who found guidance in handling the trauma of battle through the Great Books.  It was a fascinating and moving conversation. We’d like to do more of that, engaging with those actually involved in politics, or in political life in the broad sense, about how the permanent questions manifest in their lives.

You are among several UATX staff and faculty with a connection to St. John’s College in Annapolis, Maryland, having received an M.A. in Liberal Arts from the college. How do you see St. John’s resembling the UATX curriculum and culture? How will UATX be different in its approach to the Great Books?

There’s a lot of overlap, but obviously we’re doing something very different. Like St. John’s, we’ll have a core set of courses that are focused on the Great Books and that every student takes, and these courses will be in a seminar format. But whereas at St. John’s such courses make up the whole of the education, or nearly so, at UATX students will have considerable freedom to pursue their own projects and interests, most notably through the Polaris projects. 

Another difference is that the program at St. John’s proceeds chronologically and by discipline, whereas our courses are generally organized around themes, with texts drawn from various disciplines and periods. 

There are other departures from the St. John’s model, but these two, major differences suggest that we want to emphasize to our generally entrepreneurial student body the need to be acquainted with a set of basic, enduring issues that they should bear in mind as they assume their roles as leaders and innovators. 

My hope is that the coursework impresses on them the need to evaluate the place they will eventually take in the larger world, not simply with their careers and finances in mind but with a sort of split vision. They should attend, first, to how they seek to shape the world around them. But second, and more importantly, they should also attend to how the permanent, human problems already have and will continue to shape that same world, themselves included.

You said of your current book project on Plato’s Republic that you hope to show how Socrates’ investigation of the good life amid the political and moral decline of imperial Athens can serve as a model for us today, confronted as we are by similar circumstances. What similar contemporary circumstances are you referring to?

I gave a list of questions that political philosophy considers, but I left out perhaps the central or most conspicuous question, that of the best political order or regime.  Plato’s great work on this question is the Republic. But Plato doesn’t explore this question himself, directly, but rather dramatizes it as posed by Socrates with the assistance of two young men, and primarily Plato’s brothers Glaucon and Adeimantus. Glaucon and Adeimantus’s interests and concerns reflect those of their community: Athens in the midst of the Peloponnesian War, an imperial democracy at the height of its powers but in moral and political decline. They are conflicted about Athens, at once tempted and dismayed by the decadent delights on offer in their home city. 

My sense from speaking with students today is that they find themselves in a similar conflict: they have unprecedented and continuous access to ever-new sources of pleasure, while also bearing witness to increasingly chaotic and unscrupulous political division.  They’re not sure how to free themselves from this thicket.  I think this dialogue offers them guidance.

My book will offer an interpretation of the Republic’s political psychodrama along these lines. It will be unique, I think, in hewing extremely closely to how the brothers grow at every stage of the argument. In so doing, I hope to draw my fellow scholars’ attention to this overarching narrative. But I hope, too, to use Glaucon and Adeimantus as examples for young people today, for my students especially, so as to offer real guidance to those among them who seek to live a good and happy life despite the temptations and turmoil around them. For that reason, I will derive some concrete, practical lessons from the text.

I’m particularly excited to teach two sections of a course on Plato’s Republic in the Winter term of my first year at UATX. I look forward to seeing how students will respond to this interpretation, specifically whether and to what degree it informs them about their souls.

You posted on X recently that “there is great wisdom in Plato’s Letters” and highlighted the quote “be strong, and philosophize.” Could you say a bit more about what you meant by that?

I had been reading Plato’s Letters for an episode of The New Thinkery, and the line jumped out to me. There’s an age-old caricature of the philosopher as spending all his time indoors, reading and talking until he’s pale and soft. That certainly fits many members of my discipline. Personally, I strive to have a wise mind and a tanned hardbody.

What does it mean to be a founding faculty member? Could you offer some examples of what that will involve for you in particular?

It’s both an honor and a responsibility. UATX is a very exciting enterprise, with impressive people across the board—from the administration, to my fellow faculty members, to the students. So, to have been chosen to join this group amid a very competitive field is truly an honor. For that reason, too, I feel great responsibility to do everything I can as a founding faculty member to assure the success of our collective mission. 

The heart of the university will, of course, be the students, so promoting rigorous and rich conversations at every step of their education will be crucial. 

The heart of the university will, of course, be the students, so promoting rigorous and rich conversations at every step of their education will be crucial. This is true of class, of course, but also with public lectures, reading groups, activities, mentorship, and beyond.

So much of higher education these days is transactional: students want good grades, credits, and degrees so they can get a decent job, and faculty and administration are all too happy to help them commodify their education. These are of course important concerns, but they tend to eclipse the higher ends of education: the formation of character and the refinement of the intellect. 

I see my role as urging students to see how the curriculum and activities on offer bear on their own lives, so that the conversations we have aren’t for solely the sake of a grade or degree but are part and parcel of living a good and happy life. 

Education does not begin and end when class does but is ongoing, even endless. For the questions and problems we face as human beings are both permanent and inexhaustible. That will always remain at the forefront of my mind.

What do you hope students remember about their UATX experience 20 years after graduating?

To be strong, and philosophize.

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