Recommended translation: Plato: "Protagoras" and "Meno," trans. Robert C. Bartlett (Cornell, 2004).
Plato famously remarks in his Second Letter that “no writing of Plato exists or ever will exist, but those now said to be his belong to a Socrates grown young and beautiful” (341c). Thirty-five dialogues and a series of thirteen letters attributed to Plato have come down to us. As soon as we turn to the dialogues of Plato we are confronted with the striking fact that Plato never speaks as a character in them, although we hear that he was present at the trial depicted in the Apology of Socrates and absent for the conversations of the Phaedo. How, then, is one to begin to understand Plato’s teaching?
When we deal with treatises such as Aristotle’s Politics, the book’s title indicates its subject. The titles of Plato’s dialogues, however, do not usually indicate their theme directly. Of the dialogues, twenty-five are named for an individual, who in one way or another participates in the conversation (e.g., Gorgias, Parmenides, Meno). In two cases (Hipparchus, Minos), the name refers not to a participant, but to a famous man of the remote past, who is spoken about by the dialogue’s interlocutors. The name of Plato’s teacher, Socrates, appears in the title of only one dialogue, the Apology of Socrates. Other titles refer to the theme of the dialogue (e.g., Republic, Laws, Statesman, Sophist). Twenty-six of the dialogues are dramatic or performed (e.g., Gorgias), and nine are narrated (e.g., Republic). Of the narrated dialogues, six are narrated by Socrates, three by someone else; two are narrated to a named man, two to an unnamed companion, and five are narrated to an unknown audience. One important challenge in understanding Plato is to make sense of these differences.
Approaching Plato’s Oeuvre
Besides pondering the significance of the titles of the dialogues, one may begin to study Plato’s works by arranging them in several different ways. One starting point is to examine the sequence of seven dialogues surrounding the trial and death of Socrates: Theaeteus, Euthyphro, Sophist, Statesman, Apology of Socrates, Crito, Phaedo.
Theaetetus raises but does not appear to answer the question, What is knowledge? Euthyphro then turns to the query, What is piety? The remaining five dialogues in this group examine the differences between the sophist, the statesman, and the philosopher generally, or Socrates. We are given treatments of the sophist and the statesman in eponymous dialogues, but the treatment of the philosopher would seem to take place in the three dialogues devoted to the trial and death of Socrates: Apology of Socrates, Crito, and Phaedo.
Another way to approach Plato’s thought is to begin with what is generally thought to be his masterwork, and one of the great works of thought generally, the Republic. The Republic focuses on the question, What is justice? It explores the best political order, and also the most just or happiest soul, and clarifies the manner in which the life devoted to knowledge—philosophic inquiry in the broad sense that includes mathematics as well as what today we mean by philosophy—may itself be the best way of life. Plato’s political inquiries in the Republic may be further explored by examining his Laws, which is devoted to the question of the best practicable form of government, or “regime.” Both the Republic and Laws involve the relationship between political affairs in deed and cities in speech—between actual politics and philosophy—what is lawful and traditional compared to what is rationally or by nature good.
Still another group of Plato’s work consists of the dialogues devoted mainly to the relationship between eros, rhetoric, and philosophy. Phaedrus and the Symposium, for example, look at two aspects of eros: the desire of the lover for his beloved, and the description of eros itself. We are likewise presented with dual accounts of rhetoric in Gorgias and Phaedrus. One might also approach Plato by considering the dialogues that are devoted to the virtues: Laches, on courage; Charmides, on moderation; the Republic, on justice; Theages, on wisdom; Euthyphro, on piety; and Protagoras and Meno on virtue generally. These dialogues are not the only ones in which virtues are discussed, and they are also connected to the other groups we have mentioned. This complexity should remind us that the dialogues both stand on their own and can be paired with or divided from others; Plato thus gives us practice in “dialectics.” So, for example, while the Republic is devoted to justice, it may be seen as being in conversation with the other dialogues devoted to virtues.
The Dramatic Form
One primary interpretive question raised by Plato’s use of the dramatic dialogue is the extent to which Socrates (or a Socratic figure) serves as the voice of Plato. Some interpreters argue that Plato’s Socrates, whose arguments usually convince his opponents or leave them speechless, effectively presents Plato’s thought in toto. Others, however, argue that Plato’s Socrates is only a character in Plato’s dialogues—an important character, certainly, but nevertheless only one character—and should no more be taken to represent the entire thought of Plato than any one of Shakespeare’s characters could represent the entire thought of Shakespeare. Proponents of the latter view also draw attention to the ironic character of the Platonic Socrates’ speeches (in the classical Greek sense of knowing more than he revealed). These commentators emphasize that the context of Socrates’ speeches, his interactions with other characters, and the setting and action of the dialogue must be taken into account in interpreting Plato. In sum, they argue that Plato’s philosophic teaching and Plato’s understanding of the Socratic and philosophic life are distinct from what Plato’s Socrates or any other character says in any given dialogue.
An important example of this point of view is Leo Strauss’ interpretation of Plato’s Republic. Strauss argues that the best regime described by Plato’s Socrates was intended to be understood ironically and that one should not simply accept Socrates’ speeches at face value. In Strauss’ view, Plato’s Republic is not a call for the actual rule of philosopher-kings, with the attendant abolition of families and so forth, or even intended to inform a specific political program or regime. It is rather an exploration of the inherent tension between philosophy and the practical politics and traditions of civil life.
The bibliography section of this website includes links to interpretive essays and arguments offering a wide range of perspectives. The central issue is the relation between the substance of Plato’s discussions and the subtleties and ironies of the conversation in which this substance is displayed.
Plato’s doctrine of “forms” or “ideas” (eide, in Greek) is explicitly discussed in many dialogues (including the Republic, Phaedo, Parmenides, Euthyphro, Sophist, and others) and arguably presents itself in all of Plato’s work. Yet Plato never provides a complete analysis; his understanding of the “ideas” must be drawn together from several dialogues.
One can begin to understand Plato’s “forms” or “ideas,” however simplistically, through some common examples. Dogs come in many colors and sizes, and can vary widely in appearance. Yet we are able to call an entire class of things “dogs.” The character that can allow one to grasp and then define an entire class of individual beings—in this case, the “dogness” of dogs—points toward a “form” or “idea” of dogs. Something’s likeness or similarity to the idea of a dog determines whether we speak of that thing as a dog or not. Human art (techne) also relies upon and can be used to clarify the ideas. An artisan who builds a table imitates the idea of a table in his creation of an actual table. In the Timaeus, Socrates posits a “demiurge,” or divine craftsman, who creates the existing world from matter according to his knowledge of the ideas.
Furthermore, no actual, existing dog or table represents or embodies the idea of a dog or table fully. The idea of a dog remains separate from any particular dog. Any particular thing will change over time and eventually pass away or cease to be. The ideas, however, do not change; they are eternal. The ideas are able to “be” without being subject to change; they are beyond “becoming” or changing and thus constitute pure “being” and essential truth.
This suggests that the ideas are ultimately more likely to involve what we can notice apart from any embodiment—the beauty, or justice, say, that is different from any beautiful thing or just law, or the “two” that we cannot touch, feel, or see in any two things—than they are to involve directly dogs and tables. Moreover, nothing in existence is itself and only itself: dogs are also fast or slow; both people and sunsets can seem beautiful. The ideas, however, are themselves, alone. Still, there are many ideas, so the question of their connection is a difficult one. This fact points to the possibility of something higher or more comprehensive than the ideas, which in Plato’s Republic he calls “the good” (agathon) or “the idea of the good” or “the idea of the ideas,” that is the source of the ideas.
Plato was not the first thinker to confront the questions of being and nonbeing, universal and particular, or the unique character of reasoned speech (logos). But Plato’s doctrine of the ideas is the foundation of what we now call metaphysics or ontology. Questions concerning the meaning and primacy of Plato’s ideas have shaped philosophic inquiry and perhaps even our basic understanding of concepts such as “truth” and “being” since he first outlined them.
Philosophy and Politics
Much of the conversation in the dialogues does not deal with abstract speculation but with ordinary, everyday matters. The Socrates seen in Plato’s dialogues converses with extraordinarily diverse interlocutors, including, inter alia, aristocrats, slaves, soldiers, rhetoricians, playwrights, sophists, pre-Socratic philosophers, and, in the Apology, a large assembly of jurors. These conversations often ascend to lofty, theoretical questions, but they typically involve commonplace subjects, such as cooking, horse training, piloting a ship, or, as is often the case, politics.
Moreover, Socrates often directs his inquiries explicitly toward political and moral themes, unlike his “pre-Socratic” predecessors. He asks: “What is virtue?” “What is justice?” and so on. To quote Cicero, “Socrates called philosophy down from heaven, and placed it in cities, and introduced it even in homes, and drove it to inquire about life and customs and things good and evil.” Still, one should notice that a discussion about “justice in practice” is, finally, a discussion of the idea of justice.
Although Plato’s “ideas” may be invisible, the quest for wisdom and the experience of philosophy remain rooted in daily life and practical concerns, and philosophy may be brought to bear on political and moral questions. In Plato, questions concerning the best way of life or the best political regime are, for the first time, treated as matters of philosophic inquiry. Plato’s Socrates is constantly raising the possibility that what is “just” or “virtuous” or “true” is not simply what is conventional or traditional or what others can be persuaded or commanded to believe. Socrates’ philosophic questioning asks, for example, whether a law might be just or virtuous or true “by nature”—that is, grounded in the ultimately eternal and universal truth of the ideas.
The philosopher, therefore, does not ignore the unphilosophic opinions of the city but ascends from them, through dialectical discussion, to the understanding of the highest and most comprehensive things, the ideas. However, the philosopher’s inquiring about matters of political and ethical importance can cause the city to turn against the philosopher because he challenges its conventions in principle, if not usually in practice. Running across several dialogues (Apology, Crito, Phaedo) is Plato’s account of Socrates’ trial and subsequent death. In these dialogues and, indeed, throughout all of his writings, Plato invites us to consider not only particular philosophic questions, but, more broadly, what it means to live a life devoted to philosophy.
Plato presents philosophy as an erotic quest. “The only thing I claim to know is erotic things,” says Socrates in the Symposium. In that dialogue, Socrates, in recounting a previous discussion with Diotima (the woman who he claims taught him what he knows about eros), describes eros as the desire of “the good’s being one’s own always” and the desire to “bring forth in beauty both in terms of the body and in terms of the soul.” For Socrates/Diotima, eros is not only the ceaseless striving for the good and the beautiful, but also for immortality. Socrates/Diotima then presents an ascending order of eros. First is the desire of physical or sexual beauty and the achievement of a type of immortality through reproduction. Next is the love of honor, or the desire to win immortality through the public remembrance of one’s great deeds in politics. Finally, the highest form of eros is the desire to contemplate the truly eternal and beautiful ideas through philosophy.
The love of wisdom is thus sustained by eros. The quest to behold the eternal and beautiful ideas is an unending and intoxicating desire. Whatever the complexities and subtleties of the dialogues, the reader ought not to forget that, for Plato, philosophy is never wholly removed from this “Dionysian madness.”
For further introductory reading, see also:
Leo Strauss, “Plato,” History of Political Philosophy, Eds. Leo Strauss and Joseph Cropsey, Chicago: 1987.
The Cambridge Companion to Plato, ed. Richard Kraut, Cambridge: 1992.