Category: Plato’s Dialogues

Plato’s Dialogues: Republic

My friends, the eternal snows appear already past, and the first clouds and mountains seem the last. In the list of Plato’s dialogues, the Republic is at the centre of it all, being the halfway point of the reading order I’m using, as well as Plato’s most famous work and, arguably, most important (going by reputation and my observations so far, of course). This also means that it is, arguably, the most important work by the most important philosopher in the history of Western civilisation, so, hey – no pressure on us amateurs trying these towering Alps. Let’s trust in what we’ve learned so far, though, and soldier on.

So, Republic is by far the longest and most wide-ranging dialogue so far, with only Protagoras even in the same ballpark; the rest weren’t even in the same league, and hardly even playing the same sport. Now, though Socrates and friends cover many different topics, it is worth keeping in mind that the central question is “What is justice?” Many people get caught up in debating the utopian society Socrates and the others imagine and discussing the various aspects of that, and though that can be interesting it’s worth remembering that it’s meant as an aid for identifying justice in the individual. Since defining justice in the individual is difficult, they decide that it may be easier if they work at a larger scale, and so begin building this city. One occasionally sees arguments over whether Plato really intended this city to be ideal or what, because there are a few seemingly crazy ideas connected to it, but everything about it, I feel safe saying, is meant as an allegory for some aspect of the soul.

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Plato’s Dialogues: Phaedrus

Since I’m among the brave few who dislike the Symposium, I was a little disappointed at first that most of Phaedrus covers the same subject, love. However, it also covers a couple other things that I find much more interesting, and it’s also back to having just one interlocutor for Socrates. Rather than the more-or-less hostile exchanges that characterised the dialogues with the Sophists, though, this conversation is much more amiable, similar to some of the earlier dialogues like Lysis and Laches. Socrates’ discussion with Phaedrus isn’t a debate, but a conversation between two friends while out for a walk, albeit at a much higher level than any conversation I’ve ever had.

One interesting observation comes early on. Socrates happened to cross paths with Phaedrus while the latter was out taking a walk, and they happen to cross a river near the point where Boreas was said to have seized Orithyia. Phaedrus asks Socrates whether he believed the myth to be true, and he says this:

I should be quite in the fashion if I disbelieved it, as the men of science do. I might proceed to give a scientific account of how the maiden, while at play with Pharmacia, was blown by a gust of Boreas down from the rocks hard by, and having thus met her death was said to have been seized by Boreas, though it may have happened on the Areopagus, according to another version of the occurrence. For my part, Phaedrus, I regard such theories as no doubt attractive, but as the invention of clever, industrious people who are not exactly to be envied, for the simple reason that they must then go on and tell us the real truth about the appearance of centaurs and the Chimera, not to mention a whole host of such creatures, Gorgons and Pegasuses and countless other remarkable monsters of legend flocking in on them. If our skeptic, with his somewhat crude science, means to reduce every one of them to the standard of probability, he’ll need a deal of time for it. I myself have certainly no time for the business, and I’ll tell you why, my friend. I can’t as yet ‘know myself,’ as the inscription at Delphi enjoins, and so long as that ignorance remains it seems to me ridiculous to inquire into extraneous matters. Consequently I don’t bother about such things, but accept the current beliefs about them, and direct my inquiries, as I have just said, rather to myself, to discover whether I really am a more complex creature and more puffed up with pride than Typhon, or a simpler, gentler being whom heaven has blessed with a quiet, un-Typhonic nature.

Recall that Socrates will later be charged with corrupting the youth, and encouraging impiety. Yet, apparently there were “men of science,” which I take to be an ironic phrase roughly equivalent to calling the New Atheist twats “brights” or “fedoras,” who spent a good deal of time in trying to explain myths surrounding the gods rationally. Socrates, though, says that he accepts the common beliefs around these myths. That doesn’t mean he has no doubts, of course, but he focuses on other, more important matters first.…

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Plato’s Dialogues: Symposium

Guys, I’m not gonna lie to you: if I hadn’t already committed to discussing every dialogue, I’d punt on the Symposium. I know, it’s probably Plato’s second-most famous dialogue, after the Republic, and love seems like as universally interesting as a topic can be, but it just didn’t grab me as every other work has so far. It is the first so far to have some storytelling to it; even the dramatic Apology is essentially just a record of one speech. I’m sure Plato chose the form carefully and with a purpose in mind, but I’m not really here for storytelling and much prefer philosophy written in the more straightforward style of, say, Aristotle or St. Thomas Aquinas. I think I’ve been receptive to the dialogues so far because, with only one or a few interlocutors, they feel almost like a single author developing an idea slowly, but with purpose. The Symposium, though, starting with someone asking for a second-hand account of the event in question, a series of loosely-connected speeches by multiple people, and an interruption by yet another group of people, making it oddly chaotic. Again, probably intentional, but not at all how I want to read this sort of material.

To get into the dialogue itself, though, one weird thing about Symposium is that it’s essentially all a double narration. Apollodorus is our primary narrator, and he’s been asked by a friend to talk about a discussion of love that had taken place some time earlier between a number of people at a party celebrating Agathon’s recent victory in a competition for a tragedy he’d written. Apollodorus wasn’t there himself, though, and furthermore this was a few years ago. Rather, he’d heard about it from Aristodemus, who had attended. We could hardly have a more unreliable account, then, and I could only guess why Plato decided to relate the dialogue this way.

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Plato’s Dialogues: Lesser Hippias

I’m sure that the mother of Lesser Hippias loves him just as much as Greater Hippias, which is good because no one else seems to like this dialogue. Edith Hamilton and Huntington Cairns, in their introduction to it, say “This dialogue can be ascribed to Plato only because it always has been, from Aristotle’s days on. It is inferior to all the others.” That opening sentence isn’t just them being gratuitously insulting, either, as there has been some doubt over whether Lesser Hippias is authentic or not. Benjamin Jowett, though he ultimately does accept it as genuine, places it among Plato’s doubtful works, alongside Menexenus and First Alcibiades. His full comments are worth reading, but he says that one mark against it is that it’s of lesser quality than Plato’s undoubtedly genuine work, which sometimes signals the work of either a counterfeiter or a lesser follower whose work was mistakenly ascribed to the master.

Now, this makes it sound as if the dialogue sucks so badly that people don’t even believe it’s Plato’s, but Jowett gives it some deserved credit, even if it is weaker than all the others so far. For one thing, we have the return of Hippias, the great and wonderful, who in the course of his conversation with Socrates unabashedly calls himself a great arithmetician, geometrician, and astronomer. Socrates also recounts Hippias’ boasting from the recent Olympic games:

[Y]ou [i.e., Hippias] said that upon one occasion, when you went to the Olympic games, all that you had on your person was made by yourself. You began with your ring, which was of your own workmanship, and you said that you could engrave rings; and you had another seal which was also of your own workmanship, and a strigil and an oil flask, which you had made yourself; you said also that you had made the shoes which you had on your feet, and the cloak and the short tunic; but what appeared to us all most extraordinary and a proof of singular art, was the girdle of your tunic, which, you said, was as fine as the most costly Persian fabric, and of your own weaving; moreover, you told us that you had brought with you poems, epic, tragic, and dithyrambic, as well as prose writings of the most various kinds; and you said that your skill was also pre-eminent in the arts which I was just now mentioning, and in the true principles of rhythm and harmony and of orthography; and if I remember rightly, there were a great many other accomplishments in which you excelled. I have forgotten to mention your art of memory, which you regard as your special glory, and I dare say that I have forgotten many other things[.]

Typically, arrogant men annoy those around them with their self-praise and posturing, but at some point boasting becomes so over-the-top that it turns comical and even endearing. Yes, Hippias like everyone else comes out looking rather shabby after their rhetorical grappling matches in these works, and though I don’t think Plato wrote these dialogues as character assassinations, it is worth keeping in mind that as characters these men were written specifically so Socrates could dunk on them. We can also sympathise with his frustration in dealing with Socrates. He’s apparently willing to talk to anyone who wishes to question him, even though he knows how this conversation in particular is likely to go. “Socrates,” he says at one point, “you are always weaving the meshes of an argument, selecting the most difficult point, and fastening upon details instead of grappling with the matter in hand as a whole.” We can look at the full body of Plato’s works see why Socrates approaches these discussions as he does, but no doubt, it would look different if we were the ones getting the dialectical swirlie.…

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Plato’s Dialogues: Gorgias

We’ve spent a lot of time in the dialogues talking to and about Sophists, but Socrates has an awfully hard time figuring out exactly what a Sophist is and what they teach. In Protagoras, Socrates’ friend Hippocrates wants to take lessons from Protagoras, but when questioned can’t quite explain what he expects to learn, and Protagoras doesn’t really give a straight answer. In Greater Hippias, we’re able to gather from the greatest Sophist of them all (in his own estimation) that they are primarily concerned with public speaking. So, though Protagoras and Hippias do say that they teach a number of subjects, including moral instruction, their speciality is rhetoric.

For most of us that would be good enough, but of course, we’re hanging out with Socrates, and there’s no way “rhetoric” is an adequate answer here. What, exactly, is rhetoric? In Gorgias, we’re going to try to get at the truth of this, with not one, not two, but three interlocutors. First, we have the Sophist Gorgias (his friends called him “Gorgeous”), who I rather like. He may be a capital-S “Sophist,” but he’s not a small-s sophist. He’s quicker than Hippias in catching on to what Socrates wants to know from him, is more agreeable than Protagoras, and for the most part keeps his answers straightforward. Unfortunately, he has a couple of his groupies with him. One is Polus, who, when Socrates first asks what sort of art Gorgias would say he practices, gives a non-answer for him, blathering for a minute about how there are many arts and that Gorgias practices the greatest of them, without actually saying what that art is. Polus isn’t too grating, though, and is willing to concede defeat at some point. He’s a prince of a guy compared to the last interlocutor, Callicles, who, well, is a bit of a jerk, never conceding a point and getting pissy when it becomes clear that he’s totally outgunned by Socrates.

To the work itself, though. We begin with some of the runaround typical to Socratic dialogues. What is rhetoric? The art of using words, in particular to persuade others. Don’t other arts, like mathematics and medicine, also use words? Yes, but they use them only incidentally, and persuade people primarily through facts. In the parlance of a later age, we might say that words are accidental and not essential to mathematics and medicine, or only incidental to them.

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Plato’s Dialogues: Greater Hippias

When we last saw Socrates, he was debating the Sophist Protagoras on whether virtue was something that could be taught, as well as giving his young friend some words of warning about trusting Sophists, or anyone, as teachers due to the peril of bad instruction for his soul. Today we move on to Greater Hippias, where Socrates comes across another Sophist, Hippias, who happens to be the world’s greatest teacher, as he is happy to tell you, based on the extraordinary amount of money he makes giving his lectures and in service to the State. He tells Socrates:

If you were told how much I have earned, you would be astounded. To take one case only – I went to Sicily once while Protagoras was there. He had a great reputation and was a far older man than I, and yet in a short time I made more than one hundred and fifty minas. Why, in one place alone, Inycus, a very small place, I took more than twenty minas. When I returned home with the money I gave it to my father, reducing him and his fellow citizens to a condition of stupefied amazement. And I feel pretty sure that I have made more money than any other two Sophists you like to mention, put together.

Hippias doesn’t exactly come across as a modest man, though he did apparently give his great earnings to his father, so give him some credit for filial piety. Interestingly, that he did this makes it seem that his goal as a Sophist isn’t to make a lot of cash, but rather for fame. He gives specific figures to add credibility to his story, but his emphasis is on how his success impresses others. Socrates “would be astounded,” he succeeded despite the competition with Protagoras, his father and countrymen were in “stupefied amazement,” he’s made more than any other two Sophists put together. As a later example, he asserts that a troublesome person who’s been giving Socrates a hard time in a certain debate must accept his definition of a certain term, “on pain of ridicule,” ridicule apparently being among the worst things Hippias can think of.…

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Plato’s Dialogues: Protagoras

Crito’s attempt to save Socrates has failed, so now we’ll go back and begin working through Plato’s dialogues from earlier in his life. First up are some discussions with various sophists, beginning with Protagoras.

This dialogue begins with a somewhat odd framing device; a friend meets Socrates walking through the city, and learns that he’s just come from speaking with Protagoras, who has recently arrived in Athens to work as a teacher. So, the rest of the work is Socrates recounting the meeting, so there’s a double narration going on, and the frame is never closed. I’m sure there’s been discussion enough of why the dialogue is structured this way, but I could only guess.

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Plato’s Dialogues: Crito

To the sorrow of all of his friends and students, us included, Socrates has been condemned, and normally would have been executed shortly after the trial. However, a state galley had been sent on a sacred mission at about the same time and no executions could be carried out until it returned, so instead he sat in a jail cell for almost a month. Shortly before its return, Crito, one of Socrates’ students, came to visit his teacher to say that he expected the ship to return soon, but that he could easily help Socrates escape by placing a few bribes. Socrates, though, always true to form, doesn’t jump at this chance to save himself, but instead insisted on discussing whether this would truly be the right thing to do.…

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Plato’s Dialogues: Socrates’ Defense

When we last left Socrates, he had just finished an unproductive discussion with Euthyphro, and was on his way to court to face charges of corrupting the youth of Athens. Socrates’ Defense, also commonly called the Apology, is not a dialogue, aside from a few lines, but a speech given by Socrates in answer to his accusers’ charges against him. This is the first time so far that Socrates speaks mostly of himself, and my understanding is that it’s the only time he does so at much length.

One interesting tidbit is that this is the first work so far to mention Plato by name. This makes the speech feel authentic, since the author explicitly puts himself at the scene, though of course, that doesn’t mean this is an accurate depiction of the trial.

In any case, Socrates begins by apologising for not being a great orator like his opponents. We should take this with a grain of salt since this claim is actually good rhetoric, disarming the audience from looking for slick oratory. He says that resentful men, like his accusers, have unjustly given him a bad name because of his past arguments with them, and their slander has prejudiced those who haven’t yet met him. As evidence of his good intentions, a bit later, Socrates cites his own poverty, and points out that he has always taught openly and free of charge. Clearly, then, he was not trying to stir up trouble or personally benefit from his vocation.…

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Plato’s Dialogues: Euthyphro

So, we’ve made it to one of Plato’s most famous dialogues, Euthyphro. Socrates is on his way to court, having been charged with corrupting the youth of Athens, when he meets a young man, Euthyphro, who is there to charge his father with murder. The primary question here is how to define piety, but with a theme throughout the dialogue of intellectual humility, even more so than in the other works so far.

Now, Euthyphro’s case is a difficult one. One of his father’s servants had killed a man, so his father had bound him and, while deciding what to do with him, the servant died. He certainly caused his servant’s death, though not intentionally, and few would find much sympathy for the murderous servant. There’s also, of course, the question of whether one should charge one’s father with a crime at all. Socrates doesn’t seem to think so, at least in most cases, and he says to Euthyphro in astonishment, “And the man your father killed, was he a relative of yours? Of course he was? You never would prosecute your father would you, for the death of anybody who was not related to you?”

It may be helpful to compare another philosopher’s opinion on a similar subject; the situation reminds me of an exchange in The Analects, in Book XIII:

The duke of Sheh informed Confucius, saying, ‘Among us here there are those who may be styled upright in their conduct. If their father have stolen a sheep, they will bear witness to the fact.’

Confucius said, ‘Among us, in our part of the country, those who are upright are different from this. The father conceals the misconduct of the son, and the son conceals the misconduct of the father. Uprightness is to be found in this.’

Translator James Legge notes, “[Confucius’] expression does not absolutely affirm that this is upright, but that in this there is a better principle than in the other conduct. Anybody but a Chinese will say that both the duke’s view of the subject and the sage’s were incomplete.”…

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