Classical Philosophy. Collected Papers: Platos Ethics

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Julia Annas

Plato's Pythagorean influences seem especially evident in his fascination with mathematics, and in some of his political ideals see Plato's political philosophy , expressed in various ways in several dialogues. Nonetheless, it is plain that no influence on Plato was greater than that of Socrates. This is evident not only in many of the doctrines and arguments we find in Plato's dialogues, but perhaps most obviously in Plato's choice of Socrates as the main character in most of his works.

According to the Seventh Letter, Plato counted Socrates "the justest man alive" e. According to Diogenes Laertius, the respect was mutual 3. Supposedly possessed of outstanding intellectual and artistic ability even from his youth, according to Diogenes, Plato began his career as a writer of tragedies, but hearing Socrates talk, he wholly abandoned that path, and even burned a tragedy he had hoped to enter in a dramatic competition D. Whether or not any of these stories is true, there can be no question of Plato's mastery of dialogue, characterization, and dramatic context.

He may, indeed, have written some epigrams; of the surviving epigrams attributed to him in antiquity, some may be genuine. Plato was not the only writer of dialogues in which Socrates appears as a principal character and speaker.

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A recent study of these, by Charles H. Kahn , , concludes that the very existence of the genre—and all of the conflicting images of Socrates we find given by the various authors—shows that we cannot trust as historically reliable any of the accounts of Socrates given in antiquity, including those given by Plato. But it is one thing to claim that Plato was not the only one to write Socratic dialogues, and quite another to hold that Plato was only following the rules of some genre of writings in his own work. Such a claim, at any rate, is hardly established simply by the existence of these other writers and their writings.

We may still wish to ask whether Plato's own use of Socrates as his main character has anything at all to do with the historical Socrates. The question has led to a number of seemingly irresolvable scholarly disputes. At least one important ancient source, Aristotle, suggests that at least some of the doctrines Plato puts into the mouth of the "Socrates" of the "early" or "Socrates" dialogues are the very ones espoused by the historical Socrates. Because Aristotle has no reason not to be truthful about this issue, many scholars believe that his testimony provides a solid basis for distinguishing the "Socrates" of the "early" dialogues from the character by that name in Plato's supposedly later works, whose views and arguments Aristotle suggests are Plato's own.

One way to approach this issue has been to find some way to arrange the dialogues into at least relative dates. It has frequently been assumed that if we can establish a relative chronology for when Plato wrote each of the dialogues, we can provide some objective test for the claim that Plato represented Socrates more accurately in the earlier dialogues, and less accurately in the later dialogues. In antiquity, the ordering of Plato's dialogues was given entirely along thematic lines. The best reports of these orderings see Diogenes Laertius' discussion at 3.

The uncontroversial internal and external historical evidence for a chronological ordering is relatively slight. Aristotle Politics 2. Internal references in the Sophist a and the Statesman also known as the Politicus; a, b show the Statesman to come after the Sophist. The Timaeus 17bb may refer to Republic as coming before it, and more clearly mentions the Critias as following it 27a. Similarly, internal references in the Sophist a, c and the Theaetetus e may be thought to show the intended order of three dialogues: Parmenides, Theaetetus, and Sophist. Even so, it does not follow that these dialogues were actually written in that order.

At Theaetetus c, Plato announces through his characters that he will abandon the somewhat cumbersome dialogue form that is employed in his other writings. Since the form does not appear in a number of other writings, it is reasonable to infer that those in which it does not appear were written after the Theaetetus. Scholars have sought to augment this fairly scant evidence by employing different methods of ordering the remaining dialogues.

One such method is that of stylometry, by which various aspects of Plato's diction in each dialogue are measured against their uses and frequencies in other dialogues. Originally done by laborious study by individuals, stylometry can now be done more efficiently with assistance by computers. Another, even more popular, way to sort and group the dialogues is what is called "content analysis," which works by finding and enumerating apparent commonalities or differences in the philosophical style and content of the various dialogues. Neither of these general approaches has commanded unanimous assent among scholars, and it is unlikely that debates about this topic can ever be put entirely to rest.

Nonetheless, most recent scholarship seems to assume that Plato's dialogues can be sorted into different groups, and it is not unusual for books and articles on the philosophy of Socrates to state that by "Socrates" they mean to refer to the character in Plato's "early" or Socratic dialogues, as if this Socrates was as close to the historical Socrates as we are likely to get.

We have more to say on this subject in the next section. Perhaps the most thorough examination of this sort can be found in Gregory Vlastos's, Socrates: Ironist and Moral Philosopher Cambridge and Cornell, , chapters , where ten significant differences between the "Socrates" of Plato's "early" dialogues and the character by that name in the later dialogues are noted. Our own view of the probable dates and groups of dialogues, which to some extent combine the results of stylometry and content analysis, is as follows all lists but the last in alphabetical order :.

Early-Transitional Either at the end of the early group or at the beginning of the middle group, c. Late-Transitional Either at the end of the middle group, or the beginning of the late group, c. Late c. Except for the Timaeus, all of Plato's works were lost to the Western world until medieval times, preserved only by Moslem scholars in the Middle East.

In Henri Estienne whose Latinized name was Stephanus published an edition of the dialogues in which each page of the text is separated into five sections labeled a, b, c, d, and e. The standard style of citation for Platonic texts includes the name of the text, followed by Stephanus page and section numbers e. Republic d. Scholars sometimes also add numbers after the Stephanus section letters, which refer to line numbers within the Stephanus sections in the standard Greek edition of the dialogues, the Oxford Classical texts.

Several other works, including thirteen letters and eighteen epigrams, have been attributed to Plato. These other works are generally called the spuria and the dubia. The spuria were collected among the works of Plato but suspected as frauds even in antiquity. The dubia are those presumed authentic in later antiquity, but which have more recently been doubted. Ten of the spuria are mentioned by Diogenes Laertius at 3.

To the ten Diogenes Laertius lists, we may uncontroversially add On Justice, On Virtue, and the Definitions, which was included in the medieval manuscripts of Plato's work, but not mentioned in antiquity. Works whose authenticity was also doubted in antiquity include the Second Alcibiades or Alcibiades II , Epinomis, Hipparchus, and Rival Lovers also known as either Rivals or Lovers , and these are sometimes defended as authentic today. If any are of these are authentic, the Epinomis would be in the late group, and the others would go with the early or early transitional groups.

Seventeen or eighteen epigrams poems appropriate to funerary monuments or other dedications are also attributed to Plato by various ancient authors.

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Most of these are almost certainly not by Plato, but some few may be authentic. None appear to provide anything of great philosophical interest. The dubia present special risks to scholars: On the one hand, any decision not to include them among the authentic dialogues creates the risk of losing valuable evidence for Plato's or perhaps Socrates' philosophy; on the other hand, any decision to include them creates the risk of obfuscating the correct view of Plato's or Socrates' philosophy, by including non-Platonic or non-Socratic elements within that philosophy.

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The dubia include the First Alcibiades or Alcibiades I , Minos, and Theages, all of which, if authentic, would probably go with the early or early transitional groups, the Cleitophon, which might be early, early transitional, or middle, and the letters, of which the Seventh seems the best candidate for authenticity. Some scholars have also suggested the possibility that the Third may also be genuine.

If any are authentic, the letters would appear to be works of the late period, with the possible exception of the Thirteenth Letter, which could be from the middle period. Nearly all of the dialogues now accepted as genuine have been challenged as inauthentic by some scholar or another. In the 19th Century in particular, scholars often considered arguments for and against the authenticity of dialogues whose authenticity is now only rarely doubted. Of those we listed as authentic, above in the early group , only the Hippias Major continues occasionally to be listed as inauthentic.

The strongest evidence against the authenticity of the Hippias Major is the fact that it is never mentioned in any of the ancient sources. However, relative to how much was actually written in antiquity, so little now remains that our lack of ancient references to this dialogue does not seem to be an adequate reason to doubt its authenticity. In style and content, it seems to most contemporary scholars to fit well with the other Platonic dialogues.

Although no one thinks that Plato simply recorded the actual words or speeches of Socrates verbatim, the argument has been made that there is nothing in the speeches Socrates makes in the Apology that he could have not uttered at the historical trial. At any rate, it is fairly common for scholars to treat Plato's Apology as the most reliable of the ancient sources on the historical Socrates.

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The other early dialogues are certainly Plato's own creations. But as we have said, most scholars treat these as representing more or less accurately the philosophy and behavior of the historical Socrates—even if they do not provide literal historical records of actual Socratic conversations. Some of the early dialogues include anachronisms that prove their historical inaccuracy. It is possible, of course, that the dialogues are all wholly Plato's inventions and have nothing at all to do with the historical Socrates.

Contemporary scholars generally endorse one of the following four views about the dialogues and their representation of Socrates:. Now, some scholars who are skeptical about the entire program of dating the dialogues into chronological groups, and who are thus strictly speaking not historicists see, for example, Cooper , xii-xvii nonetheless accept the view that the "early" works are "Socratic" in tone and content. With few exceptions, however, scholars agreed that if we are unable to distinguish any group of dialogues as early or "Socratic," or even if we can distinguish a separate set of "Socratic" works but cannot identify a coherent philosophy within those works, it makes little sense to talk about "the philosophy of historical Socrates" at all.

There is just too little and too little that is at all interesting to be found that could reliably be attributed to Socrates from any other ancient authors. Any serious philosophical interest in Socrates, then, must be pursued through study of Plato's early or "Socratic" dialogues. In the dialogues generally accepted as early or "Socratic" , the main character is always Socrates.

Socrates is represented as extremely agile in question-and-answer, which has come to be known as "the Socratic method of teaching," or "the elenchus" or elenchos , from the Greek term for refutation , with Socrates nearly always playing the role as questioner, for he claimed to have no wisdom of his own to share with others. Plato's Socrates, in this period, was adept at reducing even the most difficult and recalcitrant interlocutors to confusion and self-contradiction. In the Apology, Socrates explains that the embarrassment he has thus caused to so many of his contemporaries is the result of a Delphic oracle given to Socrates' friend Chaerephon Apology 21ab , according to which no one was wiser than Socrates.

As a result of his attempt to discern the true meaning of this oracle, Socrates gained a divinely ordained mission in Athens to expose the false conceit of wisdom.

Socrates and Plato

The embarrassment his "investigations" have caused to so many of his contemporaries—which Socrates claims was the root cause of his being brought up on charges Apology 23cb —is thus no one's fault but his "victims," for having chosen to live "the unexamined life" see 38a. The way that Plato's represents Socrates going about his "mission" in Athens provides a plausible explanation both of why the Athenians would have brought him to trial and convicted him in the troubled years after the end of the Peloponnesian War, and also of why Socrates was not really guilty of the charges he faced.

Even more importantly, however, Plato's early dialogues provide intriguing arguments and refutations of proposed philosophical positions that interest and challenge philosophical readers. Platonic dialogues continue to be included among the required readings in introductory and advanced philosophy classes, not only for their ready accessibility, but also because they raise many of the most basic problems of philosophy.

Unlike most other philosophical works, moreover, Plato frames the discussions he represents in dramatic settings that make the content of these discussions especially compelling. So, for example, in the Crito, we find Socrates discussing the citizen's duty to obey the laws of the state as he awaits his own legally mandated execution in jail, condemned by what he and Crito both agree was a terribly wrong verdict, the result of the most egregious misapplication of the very laws they are discussing.

The dramatic features of Plato's works have earned attention even from literary scholars relatively uninterested in philosophy as such. Whatever their value for specifically historical research, therefore, Plato's dialogues will continue to be read and debated by students and scholars, and the Socrates we find in the early or "Socratic" dialogues will continue to be counted among the greatest Western philosophers.

The philosophical positions most scholars agree can be found directly endorsed or at least suggested in the early or "Socratic" dialogues include the following moral or ethical views:. In these dialogues, we also find Socrates represented as holding certain religious beliefs, such as:. In addition, Plato's Socrates in the early dialogues may plausibly be regarded as having certain methodological or epistemological convictions, including:. Scholarly attempts to provide relative chronological orderings of the early transitional and middle dialogues are problematical because all agree that the main dialogue of the middle period, the Republic, has several features that make dating it precisely especially difficult.

As we have already said, many scholars count the first book of the Republic as among the early group of dialogues. But those who read the entire Republic will also see that the first book also provides a natural and effective introduction to the remaining books of the work. If this central work of the period is difficult to place into a specific context, there can be no great assurance in positioning any other works relative to this one. Nonetheless, it does not take especially careful study of the transitional and middle period dialogues to notice clear differences in style and philosophical content from the early dialogues.

The most obvious change is the way in which Plato seems to characterize Socrates: In the early dialogues, we find Socrates simply asking questions, exposing his interlocutors' confusions, all the while professing his own inability to shed any positive light on the subject, whereas in the middle period dialogues, Socrates suddenly emerges as a kind of positive expert, willing to affirm and defend his own theories about many important subjects. In the early dialogues, moreover, Socrates discusses mainly ethical subjects with his interlocutors—with some related religious, methodological, and epistemological views scattered within the primarily ethical discussions.

In the middle period, Plato's Socrates' interests expand outward into nearly every area of inquiry known to humankind. The philosophical positions Socrates advances in these dialogues are vastly more systematical, including broad theoretical inquiries into the connections between language and reality in the Cratylus , knowledge and explanation in the Phaedo and Republic, Books V-VII. This theory of Forms, introduced and explained in various contexts in each of the middle period dialogues, is perhaps the single best-known and most definitive aspect of what has come to be known as Platonism.

In many of his dialogues, Plato mentions supra-sensible entities he calls "Forms" or "Ideas". So, for example, in the Phaedo, we are told that particular sensible equal things—for example, equal sticks or stones see Phaedo 74ad —are equal because of their "participation" or "sharing" in the character of the Form of Equality, which is absolutely, changelessly, perfectly, and essentially equal. Plato sometimes characterizes this participation in the Form as a kind of imaging, or approximation of the Form. The same may be said of the many things that are greater or smaller and the Forms of Great and Small Phaedo 75c-d , or the many tall things and the Form of Tall Phaedo e , or the many beautiful things and the Form of Beauty Phaedo 75c-d, Symposium e, Republic V.

When Plato writes about instances of Forms "approximating" Forms, it is easy to infer that, for Plato, Forms are exemplars. If so, Plato believes that The Form of Beauty is perfect beauty, the Form of Justice is perfect justice, and so forth. Conceiving of Forms in this way was important to Plato because it enabled the philosopher who grasps the entities to be best able to judge to what extent sensible instances of the Forms are good examples of the Forms they approximate. Scholars disagree about the scope of what is often called "the theory of Forms," and question whether Plato began holding that there are only Forms for a small range of properties, such as tallness, equality, justice, beauty, and so on, and then widened the scope to include Forms corresponding to every term that can be applied to a multiplicity of instances.

In the Republic, he writes as if there may be a great multiplicity of Forms—for example, in Book X of that work, we find him writing about the Form of Bed see Republic X. He may have come to believe that for any set of things that shares some property, there is a Form that gives unity to the set of things and univocity to the term by which we refer to members of that set of things.

Knowledge involves the recognition of the Forms Republic V. In the early transitional dialogue, the Meno, Plato has Socrates introduce the Orphic and Pythagorean idea that souls are immortal and existed before our births. All knowledge, he explains, is actually recollected from this prior existence. In perhaps the most famous passage in this dialogue, Socrates elicits recollection about geometry from one of Meno's slaves Meno 81ab.

Socrates' apparent interest in, and fairly sophisticated knowledge of, mathematics appears wholly new in this dialogue. It is an interest, however, that shows up plainly in the middle period dialogues, especially in the middle books of the Republic. Several arguments for the immortality of the soul, and the idea that souls are reincarnated into different life forms, are also featured in Plato's Phaedo which also includes the famous scene in which Socrates drinks the hemlock and utters his last words.

Stylometry has tended to count the Phaedo among the early dialogues, whereas analysis of philosophical content has tended to place it at the beginning of the middle period. Similar accounts of the transmigration of souls may be found, with somewhat different details, in Book X of the Republic and in the Phaedrus, as well as in several dialogues of the late period, including the Timaeus and the Laws.

No traces of the doctrine of recollection, or the theory of reincarnation or transmigration of souls, are to be found in the dialogues we listed above as those of the early period. The moral psychology of the middle period dialogues also seems to be quite different from what we find in the early period. In the early dialogues, Plato's Socrates is an intellectualist —that is, he claims that people always act in the way they believe is best for them at the time of action, at any rate.

Hence, all wrongdoing reflects some cognitive error.

Plato's Ethics: An Overview (Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy/Spring Edition)

But in the middle period, Plato conceives of the soul as having at least three parts:. Republic IV. It seems clear from the way Plato describes what can go wrong in a soul, however, that in this new picture of moral psychology, the appetitive part of the soul can simply overrule reason's judgments. One may suffer, in this account of psychology, from what is called akrasia or "moral weakness"—in which one finds oneself doing something that one actually believes is not the right thing to do see especially Republic IV.

In the early period, Socrates denied that akrasia was possible: One might change one's mind at the last minute about what one ought to do—and could perhaps change one's mind again later to regret doing what one has done—but one could never do what one actually believed was wrong, at the time of acting. The Republic also introduces Plato's notorious critique of the visual and imitative arts. In the early period works, Socrates contends that the poets lack wisdom, but he also grants that they "say many fine things.

Most of poetry and the other fine arts are to be censored out of existence in the "noble state" kallipolis Plato sketches in the Republic, as merely imitating appearances rather than realities , and as arousing excessive and unnatural emotions and appetites see esp. Republic X. Several passages and images from these dialogues continued to show up in Western culture—for example, the image of two lovers as being each other's "other half," which Plato assigns to Aristophanes in the Symposium.

Also in that dialogue, we are told of the "ladder of love," by which the lover can ascend to direct cognitive contact with usually compared to a kind of vision of Beauty Itself. In the Phaedrus, love is revealed to be the great "divine madness" through which the wings of the lover's soul may sprout, allowing the lover to take flight to all of the highest aspirations and achievements possible for humankind. In both of these dialogues, Plato clearly regards actual physical or sexual contact between lovers as degraded and wasteful forms of erotic expression. For this reason, Plato thinks that most people sadly squander the real power of love by limiting themselves to the mere pleasures of physical beauty.

One of the novelties of the dialogues after those of the middle period is the introduction of a new philosophical method. This method was introduced probably either late in the middle period or in the transition to the late period, but was increasingly important in the late period. In the early period dialogues, as we have said, the mode of philosophizing was refutative question-and-answer called elenchos or the "Socratic method". Although the middle period dialogues continue to show Socrates asking questions, the questioning in these dialogues becomes much more overtly leading and didactic.

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The highest method of philosophizing discussed in the middle period dialogues, called "dialectic," is never very well explained at best, it is just barely sketched in the divided line image at the end of Book VI of the Republic. The correct method for doing philosophy, we are now told in the later works, is what Plato identifies as "collection and division," which is perhaps first referred to at Phaedrus e. In this method, the philosopher collects all of the instances of some generic category that seem to have common characteristics, and then divides them into specific kinds until they cannot be further subdivided.

This method is explicitly and extensively on display in the Sophist, Statesman, and Philebus. One of the most puzzling features of the late dialogues is the strong suggestion in them that Plato has reconsidered his theory of Forms in some way. Although there seems still in the late dialogues to be a theory of Forms although the theory is, quite strikingly, wholly unmentioned in the Theaetetus, a later dialogue on the nature of knowledge , where it does appear in the later dialogues, it seems in several ways to have been modified from its conception in the middle period works. Perhaps the most dramatic signal of such a change in the theory appears first in the Parmenides, which appears to subject the middle period version of the theory to a kind of "Socratic" refutation, only this time, the main refuter is the older Eleatic philosopher Parmenides, and the hapless victim of the refutation is a youthful Socrates.

The most famous and apparently fatal of the arguments provided by Parmenides in this dialogue has come to be known as the "Third Man Argument," which suggests that the conception of participation by which individual objects take on the characters of the Forms falls prey to an infinite regress: If individual male things are male in virtue of participation in the Form of Man, and the Form of Man is itself male, then what is common to both The Form of Man and the particular male things must be that they all participate in some other Form, say, Man 2.

But then, if Man 2 is male, then what it has in common with the other male things is participation in some further Form, Man 3, and so on. That Plato's theory is open to this problem gains support from the notion, mentioned above, that Forms are exemplars. If the Form of Man is itself a perfect male, then the Form shares a property in common with the males that participate in it. But since the Theory requires that for any group of entities with a common property, there is a Form to explain the commonality, it appears that the theory does indeed give rise to the vicious regress.

There has been considerable controversy for many years over whether Plato believed that the Theory of Forms was vulnerable to the "Third Man" argument, as Aristotle believed it was, and so uses the Parmenides to announce his rejection of the Theory of Forms, or instead believed that the Third Man argument can be avoided by making adjustments to the Theory of Forms. Of relevance to this discussion is the relative dating of the Timaeus and the Parmenides, since the Theory of Forms very much as it appears in the middle period works plays a prominent role in the Timaeus.

Thus, the assignment of a later date to the Timaeus shows that Plato did not regard the objection to the Theory of Forms raised in the Parmenides as in any way decisive. In any event, it is agreed on all sides that Plato's interest in the Theory shifted in the Sophist and Stateman to the exploration of the logical relations that hold between abstract entities. In the Laws, Plato's last and unfinished work, the Theory of Forms appears to have dropped out altogether.

Whatever value Plato believed that knowledge of abstract entities has for the proper conduct of philosophy, he no longer seems to have believed that such knowledge is necessary for the proper running of a political community. In several of the late dialogues, Socrates is even further marginalized.

He is either represented as a mostly mute bystander in the Sophist and Statesman , or else absent altogether from the cast of characters in the Laws and Critias. In the Theaetetus and Philebus, however, we find Socrates in the familiar leading role. The so-called "eclipse" of Socrates in several of the later dialogues has been a subject of much scholarly discussion. Plato's famous myth of Atlantis is first given in the Timaeus, which scholars now generally agree is quite late, despite being dramatically placed on the day after the discussion recounted in the Republic. The myth of Atlantis is continued in the unfinished dialogue intended to be the sequel to the Timaeus, the Critias.

The Timaeus is also famous for its account of the creation of the universe by the Demiurge. Unlike the creation by the God of medieval theologians, Plato's Demiurge does not create ex nihilo, but rather orders the cosmos out of chaotic elemental matter, imitating the eternal Forms. Plato takes the four elements, fire, air, water, and earth which Plato proclaims to be composed of various aggregates of triangles , making various compounds of these into what he calls the Body of the Universe. Of all of Plato's works, the Timaeus provides the most detailed conjectures in the areas we now regard as the natural sciences: physics, astronomy, chemistry, and biology.

In the Laws, Plato's last work, the philosopher returns once again to the question of how a society ought best to be organized. Unlike his earlier treatment in the Republic, however, the Laws appears to concern itself less with what a best possible state might be like, and much more squarely with the project of designing a genuinely practicable, if admittedly not ideal, form of government. The founders of the community sketched in the Laws concern themselves with the empirical details of statecraft, fashioning rules to meet the multitude of contingencies that are apt to arise in the "real world" of human affairs.

A work enormous length and complexity, running some Stephanus pages, the Laws was unfinished at the time of Plato's death. According to Diogenes Laertius 3. For, he says, he has spent his life going round talking to people who might know more than he does, and he shows the various conditions for knowledge or wisdom that each of them fails.

His argument is that all of these people are mere pretenders to knowledge, because they fail these conditions on knowledge, while he alone is the person who understands what knowledge is. The hair-raisingly exciting thing about this text is that on the back of the forensic oratory there is this examination of what we might think the value of knowledge is, how we might understand its dimensions, and what we might think about its scope.

The second thought is ethical. Socrates recalls where in the Iliad Achilles, who had the great advantage of being the son of a goddess — which gives you some extra perks — was allowed to choose his future. He could either choose a really dull long life, go home from Troy, get married, have lots of children, be really bored but live to be very old; or he could have great glory in front of Troy, and die in the clamour of battle.

Socrates imagines himself with this kind of choice, confronted by the possibility that he might be put to death by the jury. I choose the second: death is preferable to giving up philosophy. Is it that life has its value when it just goes on for a very long time, without the things in it that make it valuable; or does it consist in the things that make it valuable?

You must explain what it is for a life to have value: until you can do that your ethical theories are empty and void. But he keeps saying that if they kill him, there will be nobody left to ask the questions he asks — and that this will be a great loss to the Athenians. The way that this is set up gives us this philosophical content, although it appears to be a standard piece of rhetoric. This is so much more sophisticated as writing than most philosophy written today. This is the question of how to read Plato.

Some people think that in a dialogue like the Apology you get only a tiny bit of philosophy — something about what value is, something about what knowledge is — but that actually it is a rhetorical tour de force, and not much else. That seems to me to miss something utterly fundamental about the way that Plato writes. He writes so that the philosophy goes all the way through. That, I think, is an impoverished reading of Plato that he himself gives us the material to reject.

This is a famous play by a great comic writer. The play is the story of Strepsiades, who is in debt because his son keeps spending his money on horses, and he hopes that Socrates can educate him so he can win his cases in court and get out of debt. But the Clouds is also a philosophical play. If you read it in some kind of relation to the things that Plato says in The Republic or the Phaedo , or the Apology , there are all sorts of philosophical moves in The Clouds that are familiar from other more serious passages in Plato. For example, the chorus there were choruses in classical comedies, just as in tragedies is a chorus of clouds.

Why do you need any other gods? The old slander is not too careful in its attribution. In the Apology Socrates suggests that this play has damaged his chances of getting a fair hearing in court, and there is the play — and you can see not only why it would have done so much harm, but also how deeply into the fabric of Greek thinking philosophical ideas had permeated. There you can see a great deal about what it would have been like to live in the terrifying ferment of Athens at that time with the Spartans at the gates any moment.

How do we decide between the two? Do we need to decide? So I reject the question, I think. What you might think is that the explicit reference in the Apology to the representation of Socrates in The Clouds makes us see as we read especially if we read the two texts side by side that the Socrates of the Apology is a representation too, just as much as the Socrates of The Clouds. That makes us rethink how we treat representations of particular thinkers: whether the representation is supposed to give us a lens on some historical reality, or is doing something quite different.

The Socrates of the Theaetetus looks more like the Socrates of the Apology than the Socrates of the Republic , which many think was written between the Apology and the Theaetetus. The Socrates of the Republic is in control, and takes the main role in the elaboration of what is said; and although what is said there is often marked as tentative or provisional, the dialogue is not one that ends in impasse, or aporia.

The Theaetetus , by contrast, provides what seems to be a thoroughgoing impasse, and descriptively reminds us of the represented figure of Socrates as we saw him in The Apology and some of the earlier works. But that makes us think rather harder about the Theaetetus itself — how it is constructed and whether the Socratic representation is here integrated with the heavy-duty arguments about knowledge. So this opening offers a theme and variations on the figure of Socrates offered by the Apology , or the Euthyphro , or the Laches , focussing on how we go about philosophical discussion, how we tackle philosophical enquiry, and how we engage with each other.

Then some even more dense argumentation on knowledge and belief ends the dialogue in a final impasse. Ultimately, the dialogue provokes many more questions than it solves about knowledge, about the structure of reality, about the nature of perception ; but it also offers a challenge in its representations of Socrates: why is all this sharp argumentation bracketed by these twin passages on the nature of the philosopher, or the representation of this philosopher in particular?

And why does Plato — interested as he clearly is in the representation of a philosopher, whether an historical figure or a stereotype — juxtapose that rich material here to the highly abstract discussions of knowledge and reality. We seem to have a series of different paradigms here, some of them identified with Socrates and some identified with other figures Socrates produces for us — but all of them are somehow inconclusive.

The inconclusiveness of these models of philosophy mirrors the inconclusiveness of the dialogue, and invites the reader to think not only about knowledge and ignorance, and how we are disposed towards them, but returns us, in the figures of the philosophers, to the question of how that sort of inquiry is, or should be a part of a life. The Theaetetus is the most extraordinary version of that. I think it may be undermined, though, by the features of the Theaetetus I was mentioning, as well as by the connections between the Theaetetus and other dialogues — Apology, Phaedo, Republic, for example.

For the Theaetetus is much more reflective than it is dogmatic — in thinking about the figure of the philosopher, it makes us think about the two paradigms at once, and ask whether either is the right way of going about things. But reflectiveness like this is not the same as scepticism — the running puzzles and impasses and uncertainties of the dialogues, and of the figures represented in the dialogues, are not, I think, just an enormously sophisticated system of scepticism. Rather Plato repeatedly puts the paradigm of knowledge, of philosophy up and makes us see how the paradigm might fail.

The purpose of that, in my view, is to make us think about the paradigm, rather than make us think that knowledge is impossible and that we should just go and sit in a barrel. There is a lot more of the second in Plato than we might think or the tradition would have us believe.

Indeed, he often sets up a critical relation between one dialogue and another, again perhaps to make us reflect on the arguments and claims they offer, rather than to demand commitment to some particular thesis or another. So it may be well worth thinking about a triangular relation between the figure of the philosopher in The Apology, the Socrates figure of the Republic, and the two philosopher figures given in the Theaetetus, in the context of the Theaetetus question about whether we understand what knowing is, the conditions we put on knowledge: is it true belief, true belief with an account, or perception?

You get stuck trying to give a general account of what, for example, beauty is, but Socrates suggests conditions that must be put on the answer. Philosophical enterprise is at that level: at the level of thinking about thinking. Vlastos was a great figure in ancient philosophy in the US, in the second half of the twentieth century.

For Vlastos, Socrates is transparently present in the dialogues, and has philosophical theories which are exclusively ethical. Then Plato comes along and he does the metaphysics and the epistemology and talks about knowledge and what there is. So in some sense the book offers the distinction I have been drawing — between the figure of the philosopher, and the more austere features of theorising about what it is to know, or what there is. Vlastos saw the figure of Socrates as someone to aspire to be — not merely to think about what he said, but to be that person.

That comes across in his writing. Get the weekly Five Books newsletter. When we see the figure of Socrates and he says things which we take to be ironical, what do we think that means? Irony is not sarcasm. Instead, Socrates offers a puzzle with the gap between where Socrates means what he says, and where he does not; and that gap is itself susceptible of explanation and account.

As a consequence we can understand what Socrates says in terms of truth and falsity; but in terms of truth and falsity at different levels of implication and explicitness. The philosophical work is done by the negotiation between these two levels; but the figure of Socrates himself remains throughout innocent of deception. The figure of Socrates, thus, can remain a moral paradigm even while he forces argumentative clarity from his interlocutor by not saying what he means.

The discussion of knowledge and what there is always inextricably bound to the questions of value and goodness. The difference between Vlastos and Nehamas is a fundamental one, and goes to the heart, I think, of the ways in which they think differently about how philosophy is done. For Nehamas, by contrast, the ironical figure of Socrates is, as it were, cut from whole cloth: Socrates is always concealed, always resistant to this kind of piecemeal interpretation.

In that case, the only way that we can think about the figure of Socrates is as the representation it is not of some actual figure, but a representation, through and through. Vlastos, by contrast, seeks some kind of certainty beneath the puzzles about Socratic knowledge and ignorance. The two books, taken together, gives you a snapshot of how it is that thinking about the difference between represented figures and itemised arguments might make a difference as to how we read these texts, a philosophical difference. The sense of vertigo or incompleteness may indeed go all the way down.

This means, among other things, that questions about knowledge or what there is cannot in fact be separated from questions about how to live; the ways in which Socrates lives his philosophical life is not detachable from the content of the arguments, once the context as a whole is fully taken into account.

So the arguments stand, but they are always finessed by their context; conversely the context is itself reflected upon by the arguments. The figure of Socrates stands in the middle. You talked about Vlastos trying to emulate Socrates. Should we think that there is really a Socrates at all? In all of these versions of him, he is a construct or a fiction.

Classical Philosophy. Collected Papers: Platos Ethics Classical Philosophy. Collected Papers: Platos Ethics
Classical Philosophy. Collected Papers: Platos Ethics Classical Philosophy. Collected Papers: Platos Ethics
Classical Philosophy. Collected Papers: Platos Ethics Classical Philosophy. Collected Papers: Platos Ethics
Classical Philosophy. Collected Papers: Platos Ethics Classical Philosophy. Collected Papers: Platos Ethics
Classical Philosophy. Collected Papers: Platos Ethics Classical Philosophy. Collected Papers: Platos Ethics
Classical Philosophy. Collected Papers: Platos Ethics Classical Philosophy. Collected Papers: Platos Ethics
Classical Philosophy. Collected Papers: Platos Ethics Classical Philosophy. Collected Papers: Platos Ethics
Classical Philosophy. Collected Papers: Platos Ethics Classical Philosophy. Collected Papers: Platos Ethics
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