Plato: Suggestions for further study
The most useful literary background for reading Plato comes from Homer, as Lessons 11 through 14 have indicated.
Important historical background for Plato's Athens is provided by Thucydides, History of the Peloponnesian War (cir. 431 BC). See also Sven Delille's Peloponnesian War web site. For general reference on pre-Socratic philosophy see also Internet Encyclopedia of Philosophy
Apart from Plato, our chief source of knowledge about Socrates is Xenophon's memoirs of Socrates (Xenophon c. 428- c. 354 BC). Xenophon's treatment of Socrates, unlike Plato's, is non-poetic, as Xenophon was a practical military man and scholar who spent most of his adult life outside Athens. Nonetheless, Xenophon admired Socrates, and his account generally supports and occasionally enlarges the picture of Socrates that we find in Plato.
Aristophanes' comedy The Clouds (419 B.C.) presents a satiric send-up of Socrates by one of his contemporaries.
My strongest recommendation for further study of Plato is to read more of the dialogues. There are some 26 of them in all, give or take a few whose authorship is disputed, plus several letters whose authorship also is disputed.
The individual dialogues usually are classified as early, middle or late, even though there is no substantial proof as to the chronological order in which Plato composed them. The "early" dialogues include those that are short and inconclusive in their arguments (the technical term is aporetic), like the Euthyphro, which goes nowhere in its discussion of piety. The "middle" group includes the most famous of the dialogues; it reflects the supposed mature thought of Plato, like the Phaedo with its elaborate account of life after death, the Republic with its detailed description of the ideal political state, and the Phaedrus and the Symposium with their discussions about love. The "late" dialogues are longer, less dramatic, and more expository, including the Sophist, the Statesman, the Philebus, and the Laws, dialogues in which the figure of Socrates plays a passive role or no role at all.
Many of the dialogues also can be arranged in narrative order according to the story of Socrates' life and death. These include the following:
The Parmenides presents Plato's only picture of Socrates as a young man. Socrates argues unsuccessfully with the mystic philosopher Parmenides, then an old man. Parmenides proves the abstruse proposition that "all is one," or "there is no many." The mystical riddling in this dialogue is meant to show the state of Greek thinking prior to Socrates' career
The Socrates of the Protagoras is not yet old. In this dialogue he visits a house full of sophists and wins the praises of the famous elder of sophistry, Protagoras. The Euthydemus and the Gorgias present other comic encounters against sophists in Socrates' career. Plato obviously was anxious to distinguish Socrates from other thinkers who could be branded as sophists.
The Republic, the longest and best known of the Socratic dialogues, addresses the question: what is justice? It contains the earliest utopia (="nowhere") in western literature, as Socrates describes at length his dream city or theoretically ideal political state. Of course this fantasy kingdom is a place where the philosopher is king. The Republic contains some of Plato's most brilliant poetic images, including the Allegory of the Cave and the Myth of Ur, as well as his famous criticism of poets and playwrights for their usual failures to provide constructive social models for the improvement of humankind. Interestingly, this "dialogue" is in the form of a monologue; Socrates is the only speaker, but he reenacts his dialogues from the previous day by assuming the roles of all of the characters, including himself.
The Timaeus and the Critias occur on the day after the Republic. Socrates wants to be entertained by his wise friends Timaeus and Critias in exchange for the entertainment that he provided to them in describing the ideal city. He particularly wants to hear them "give motion to his artwork." He likens the stiff abstract ideals of the Republic to motionless paintings or lifeless drawings. (In other words, Socrates acknowledges that he is the failed Daedalus whose ideas are impractical, unworkable, unable to be set in motion.)
In the Timaeus Socrates listens to the astronomer Timaeus' account of the creation of the universe, the creation of the gods, and the creation of mankind. Timaeus' description is not scientific by modern or even ancient standards; it is a dream-universe in which the dream-city of the Republic is compatible. That is, Timaeus' story of creation is poetic or teleological (from "telos," meaning "logic" or "purpose"), showing the way that things should be, the way that we want them to be, the way that a loving God would have designed them for our benefit. (Example: why are human intestines so long? Answer: if intestines were shorter, people would be eating constantly, so they wouldn't have time for philosophy!)
The Critias, a short fragmentary dialogue, contains the famous description of the lost city of Atlantis, which sank beneath the waves 9,000 years earlier. Critias tells this story because he thinks that the early Athenians who battled the Atlanteans once formed a perfect society of the same kind that Socrates imagines in the Republic. In other words, simply through his powers of thought, Socrates has uncovered the basic features of the life of his remote ancestors from 10,000 BC. Too bad that most of this dialogue is lost along with Atlantis!
Then come the dialogues leading up to Socrates' trial and death. Meno addresses the question: can virtue be taught? Socrates angers Anytus (the politician who will become one of his accusers) by defending the sophists (especially Protagoras) as teachers and by claiming that even the best modern politicians in Athens have been unable to teach virtue to their own children. Anytus accuses Socrates of slander and storms away without hearing Socrates finish his argument. (No doubt the argument would have turned to opposing the sophists, if Anytus had been patient.) Socrates concludes with young Meno that virtue can't be taught by sophists or anybody else; virtue is an instinct or inspiration that comes only from God.
Theaetetus ends with Socrates going off to answer the charges that have been brought against him. In the dialogue Socrates refutes sophistry (especially the relativity of values taught by Protagoras), and he tries unsuccessfully to define knowledge. The best known section of the dialogue is a long digression contrasting the character of the philosopher (or life of the mind) with that of the lawyer (the active life or life of mere words). Socrates here also invents several great images of human consciousness: the mind is a block of wax which takes impressions from experience; the mind is an aviary or elaborate bird cage where the thoughts are flying birds. After Theaetetus was "corrupted" by this talk with Socrates, he went on to become a well known mathematician, one who instructed Euclid, the famous writer on geometry. (We have this perspective on the dialogue because the setting is Euclid's home at the time of Theaetetus' death in about 369 BC, 30 years after Socrates' death; Socrates' conversation with young Theaetetus is read from notes that Euclid wrote down from Theaetetus' lengthy descriptions of it.) So Theaetetus is another Socrates-impersonator, like Phaedo; with his pug nose and bulging eyes, he even looks as ugly as Socrates!
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Lesson 12: The Apology- our academic so-called life.
Lesson 13: Crito- why you should accept your doom politely.
Lesson 14: Phaedo- Socrates returns to the clouds.
Suggestions for further study- YOU ARE HERE!
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