Written in the form of debates, Great Dialogues of Plato comprises the most influential body of philosophy of the Western world—covering every subject from art and beauty to virtue and the nature of love.
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Plato (c. 427–347 b.c.) founded the Academy in Athens, the prototype of all Western universities, and wrote more than twenty philosophical dialogues.
W.H.D. Rouse was one of the great 20th century experts on Ancient Greece, and headmaster of the Perse School, Cambridge, England, for 26 years. Under his leadership the school became widely known for the successful teaching of Greek and Latin as spoken languages. He derived his knowledge of the Greeks not only from his wide studies of classical literature, but also by travelling extensively in Greece. He died in 1950.
SYMPOSIUM (The Banquet)
THE APOLOGY (The Defence of Socrates)
Shortly before his death, Plato had a dream that he was a swan flitting from tree to tree and eluding the bird-catchers. When Simmias the Socratic heard this, he interpreted it to mean that all men would try to grasp Plato’s meaning but that none would succeed, and each would interpret him according to his own views.
—From an ancient commentator on Plato*
I. PLATO AND PHILOSOPHY
The Greek word philosophia means “love of wisdom”—“love” because what is at stake is not just intellectual interest but passionate engagement, and “wisdom” because the goal is not just to acquire expertise but to gain a deeper understanding of the world, of ourselves, and of our place in the world. There are, of course, other claimants to such wisdom—religion, mythology, the arts, and science, to name just a few. But philosophy makes a special claim, that it privileges neither revelation nor inspiration nor experimentation but, rather, rigorous logic and rational argument. And among philosophers, Plato has always held pride of place.
It may not be strictly accurate to say, as Alfred North Whitehead did, that “...the European philosophical tradition...consists of a series of footnotes to Plato.”† But Plato is arguably not only the first real philosopher of the West but also one of the greatest, since he set so much of the agenda for future thinkers. His writings range over most of the subfields in which philosophy is now practiced—from epistemology to metaphysics, and from ethics to aesthetics; and he ventured also into other disciplines such as political theory, psychology, linguistics, and education. True, it is not always clear how (or even if) the parts of his philosophy are meant to fit together systematically; his arguments are more than occasionally tendentious; and his own views (when they can be discerned) are sometimes unrealistic and even, some have said, dangerous. Nonetheless, Plato manages to identify so many of the important and perennial questions, and the artistic skill with which he explores them—the way in which his dialogues enact the thrilling play of ideas—sets him up as a standard of literature as well as of thought.
To appreciate the significance and beauty of Plato’s works, one needs to know something about their historical context (section II below), the intellectual milieu out of which they arose (section III), the importance of Socrates and Plato’s own philosophical project (section IV), and the literary style and form of the dialogues (section V).*
II. HISTORICAL BACKGROUND
Plato was born in Athens around 429 BCE and died in 347 BCE.† His family was aristocratic and politically prominent. Indeed, his relatives, Critias and Charmides (who appear in the dialogues), were leading members of the antidemocratic or oligarchic faction. Perhaps destined for a public career like theirs, Plato received a fine education, in the course of which he fell under the influence of Socrates. But this was a difficult time for Athens. When Plato was just a child, the Peloponnesian War broke out and pitted agains teach other Athens and Sparta (and their respective allies). When the war finally ended after more than two decades (431–404 BCE), Athens had been defeated. Although Plato and his contemporaries might not have realized it, the once-great city of Pericles had begun a slow and irreversible decline.
Things were so different just fifty years before Plato’s birth. In 490 BCE the Greek city-states were not fighting among themselves but had banded together against fierce odds to defeat two invasions launched by the powerful Persian empire. When the Persian Wars ended in 479 BCE, Athens, which had taken a leadership role, had itself become an empire. With the prestige, confidence, and riches it had thereby acquired, the Athenian democracy fostered a burst of intellectual and cultural activity with few parallels in history. This is the moment in which the great Greek tragedies were performed, when historiography was invented by Herodotus (who wrote about the Persian Wars), when the Parthenon was built, and when the Greek Enlightenment really took hold, freeing human minds to question old assumptions and to examine the world with fresh eyes.
We can get a sense of this creativity and excitement from Plato’s dialogues, which were written in the fourth century BCE but are mostly set in the second half of the fifth, before Athens’ defeat. They portray intellectual, cultural, and political leaders discussing such heady topics as the nature of justice, love, courage, beauty, and piety; the ideal form of the state; the best way to educate the young; the place of the arts in society; the objects of knowledge and ways of knowing; and the existence of the soul. The historian of the Peloponnesian War, Thucydides, reports that the great statesman Pericles characterized Athens at this time as rich, confident, open, and free—a city that nurtured creativity and whose citizens tempered self-interest with a concern for the common good. Athens, he said, was “an education to Greece” and a city with which all should “fall in love.”*
It is ironic that Pericles’ exposition of the ideology of the democracy was delivered as a funeral oration for those who had recently died in the first year of the Peloponnesian War. A year later Pericles himself was dead, a victim of a plague that descended on Athens as a result of wartime conditions. From then on, as Thucydides analyzes the situation, the war led to Athens’ moral and political deterioration.
Plato grew up in this time of insecurity and upheaval. Like other conservatives, he disapproved of the radical democracy whose demagoguery and adventurism had led to Athens’ defeat. But he also disapproved of the ruthless oligarchy, the Thirty Tyrants, who overthrew the democracy after the war, even though several of their leaders were his relatives. His disillusionment was complete when the democracy was restored in 401 BCE, and one of its first acts was to put his teacher Socrates on trial. The death of Socrates in 399 BCE was a watershed event for philosophy. Deciding not to pursue a political career, Plato left Athens to travel and reflect. When he returned over a decade later, he founded a school, the Academy (so named from its location by a grove sacred to the hero Academus). Here, in what was arguably the first university of Europe (it lasted until the Roman emperor Justinian closed the pagan schools in 529 CE), he spent the rest of his days studying, teaching (one of his pupils was Aristotle), and writing philosophical dialogues, all of which—remarkably—survive.†
III. INTELLECTUAL BACKGROUND
When Plato began to write he was reacting not only to political disappointments but also to intellectual provocation by prior or “pre-Socratic” thinkers—specifically, the natural philosophers and the sophists.
The Natural Philosophers
During the sixth century BCE, the prosperous cities of Greek Asia Minor saw the rise of a group of intellectuals (the physiologoi) who inquired into the nature (physis) of the physical universe (the cosmos)—how it came to be, what it is composed of, and how it is organized. These “natural philosophers” (as they are sometimes called) rejected the traditional stories (mythoi) that the poets had told about the creation of the world and about arbitrary and willful gods who intervened in it. Instead, they used rational arguments (logoi) to demonstrate the underlying substance or reality of the world and then to explain its apparent diversity and changeability as the result of basic principles like chance or necessity.
For Thales this basic substance was water, for Anaximenes air, and for Anaximander something he called “the boundless.”* Parmenides pursued the implications of such thinking by asserting that if reality is one substance, change is not possible. Heraclitus, on the other hand, argued that there is much more change than even the senses reveal and that everything is in flux. Attempting to solve this contradiction, Empedocles argued for the existence of four permanent elements (fire, air, water, earth) and two principles of motion (love/attraction and hate/repulsion) that would account for change. Anaxagoras, on the other hand, seems to have affirmed that Mind is the origin of motion and change. Finally, the Pythagoreans took an entirely different approach, arguing that reality is to be found not in material substances at all but rather in the mathematical proportions of their mixtures, i.e., in numbers. It is not surprising that, by the time of Socrates and Plato, a thinker like the atomist Democritus could take a skeptical position and claim that an objective world exists but that we cannot fully know it.
Obviously there was great disagreement among the natural philosophers. There was also very little basis on which to choose among their conflicting theories; in a sense, incapable of being tested, they were speculations not unlike the myths they were designed to disenthrone. Finally, these theories attempted to explain only the how and not the why of things. Thus they had little connection to our lived experience or to the deeper questions human beings have about the purpose and meaning of the universe and of our place in it.
An alternative approach arose in the fifth and early fourth centuries among another group of thinkers, the sophists (from the Greek sophos, “wise” or “skilled,” but later acquiring the pejorative sense of “[too] clever”). Traveling from city to city and teaching for a fee, they focused less on the physical world and more on individuals and on society. Like the natural philosophers, sophists such as Protagoras, Hippias, Gorgias, and Prodicus are known to us largely from fragmentary texts and accounts by other writers, especially Plato, who had an ax to grind. It is, therefore, difficult to reconstruct a consistent body of teachings, if any existed. But it is clear that their main claim was that they could teach aret. Often translated as “virtue,” the word actually means “excellence,” and the excellence that the sophists promised to impart was not primarily ethical but, rather, a set of competencies that would promote success in public life, from a knowledge of general culture to the techniques of public speaking and debate.
Redirecting attention from the physical to the human world, the sophists were often critical of traditional ideas and practices, questioning whether things were as they were because of nature (physis) or simply because of convention (nomos). Thus, the famous statement attributed to the sophist Protagoras, that “man is the measure of all things,” affirms the central importance of human beings; but it also expresses a strong relativistic perspective: what appears true to one person is in fact true for that person. Such views laid the sophists open to the charge made by Plato and others that they were not really interested in searching for the truth. Their project was teaching people how to succeed in the world, and that necessitated working within existing belief structures rather than challenging them. Thus, the techniques of persuasion and debate the sophists taught were often aimed at scoring points rather than arriving at the truth, and some even bragged that they could teach their pupils how to make the weaker argument the stronger.
IV. FROM SOCRATES TO PLATO
So far, we have seen that Athens’ political experiences at the end of the fifth century resulted in defeat and disillusionment. Similarly, intellectual developments had also reached an impasse. The theories of the natural philosophers were abstract and of little relevance; and the sophists, who focused on practical matters affecting human beings, failed to advance knowledge and sometimes even distorted the truth.
It is at this point that Socrates appears on the scene and suggests a way out of these quandaries.* Born in Athens in 469 BCE, he did not participate actively in politics, though he was once chosen by lot to serve on the Council and he fought in several battles of the Peloponnesian War. We don’t know how he supported himself, but he seems to have spent most of his time conversing with people whose opinions he exposed as unfounded. He attracted a following, especially among the city’s youth, who delighted to see pretension punctured. But in doing this, Socrates also irritated many other people, a fact to which Plato refers when he compares Socrates to a gadfly (Apology 30D–31A) or a stingray (Meno 79E–80B).
The earliest representation of Socrates is in Aristophanes’ comedy The Clouds. He is depicted there as the master of a school, the “Think Shop” (Phrontisterion), where he hangs from a basket looking upward at the skies, and where he teaches young men to be disputatious for a fee. This portrayal caricatures Socrates as both a natural philosopher and a sophist. Interestingly, the charges that were brought against Socrates almost a quarter of a century later—that he was impious and corrupted the young—have much in common with this earlier, albeit parodic, portrayal. The Apology, which is Plato’s version of the speeches Socrates gave in his own defense, even refers to Aristophanes’ play. But here in the Apology (19A–19D), Socrates denies that he was ever a natural philosopher; and while he elsewhere (Phaedo 96A–99D) admits to a youthful infatuation with the subject, he says that he abandoned it because its exponents explained the world as the product of chance or necessity rather than as the work of a purposeful and intelligent designer. Similarly, while Socrates resembled the sophists in that youths gathered around him to hear his conversations, they did so voluntarily and never paid a fee (Apology 19B–20C). More important, the lessons they learned from him were very different from those the sophists taught—not how to speak but how to think.
How, then, did Socrates get in trouble? In the Apology Plato has the philosopher tell how his old friend Chaerophon had once asked the Delphic oracle if anyone was wiser than Socrates. When the answer came back that no such person existed, Socrates was perplexed and set out to refute the oracle by interrogating politicians, poets, and craftsmen, all of whom claimed to be wise. That examination, however, only exposed their ignorance and earned Socrates their displeasure.* He was forced to conclude that the oracle was right: he was wise in at least this one respect, namely, that he did not think he knew what he did not really know.
Many of Plato’s dialogues depict Socrates conducting jus...
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Book Description Signet, 2008. Mass Market Paperback. Book Condition: New. Never used!. Bookseller Inventory # P110451530853
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