Exploring Ancient World Cultures
Essays on Ancient Greece

Plato and His Dialogues

Bernard F. Suzanne

(Traduction en français par l'auteur : Platon et ses dialogues)

Plato's Autobiography

When I was young, I felt like so many in that situation: I expected, as soon as I would become master of myself, to go straight to the city's affairs. And here is how I happened to find the state of public affairs then: many being dissatisfied with the existing constitution, a revolution took place...,

[This revolution took place in 404 BCE; Plato was born in all probability in 427 BCE, so he was about 23 at the time.]
... and fifty-one men took the leadership of the revolution, eleven in town and ten in Piræus -- each one of these two groups having in charge the marketplace and all the urban affairs -- while thirty assumed full power as commanders in chief. Of these were some of my relatives and acquaintances...
[Plato belonged to one of the leading families of Athens: his father Ariston was said to descend from Kodros, the last legendary king of Athens, and the family of his mother Perictione was connected to Solon; Critias, who played a leading role in the government of the Thirty, was his mother's cousin, and Charmides, another one of the Thirty, his mother's brother.]
... who immediately asked me to join them, as in something fit for me. Feeling not the least surprised, owing to my youth, I expected them to govern the city so as to lead it from a life of injustice toward a just behavior, and so I watched with the utmost attention what they would do, only to see these men make in very little time the former state of affairs look like a golden age.

Among other things, they called on my friend, old Socrates, whom I wouldn't shy to call the most just man there was in his time, to join some other men in arresting one of their fellow citizens that was to be put to death, in order to involve him in their activity, whether he liked it or not. But he didn't obey, preferring to expose himself to all sorts of troubles rather than getting associated with their impious deeds....

[Plato, in the Apology of Socrates, at 32,c-d has Socrates tell his judges of that incident.]
... Seeing all this, and other no less serious affairs, I couldn't stand it and fled away from the evils of the time. It didn' take long, though, for the Thirty to fall, and with them, all their constitution;
[The aristocratic, Sparta-sponsored government of the Thirty, had fallen by the summer of 403, and was replaced by a democratic government in which Anytos, the future accuser of Socrates, played a leading role.]
... so, once again, though more languidly, the desire to get involved in public affairs and politics was dragging me. Yet there were, like in any such troubled time, many unbearable deeds, and there is nothing surprising that, in revolutions, some people take greater revenge on those that have become their enemies. However that may be, those who came back from exile at the time displayed in truth great fairness. And yet, by a twist of fate, some of those in power brought that same Socrates, our friend, to court, throwing at him a most sacrilegious accusation, one least of all deserved by Socrates; it is for impiety that the ones assigned him, while the others condemned and put to death the one who at the time had not accepted to take part in an impious deed against one of their then banished friends, when they were in distress, being themselves banished....
[Socrates' trial and death took place in 399 BCE; Plato would have been about 28.]

... Considering all this and the kind of men who where active in politics and ultimately the laws and manners, the more deeply I considered these things while growing older, the more difficult it appeared to me to be right in managing public affairs. Neither was it possible to act without friends and trusted associates, nor was it easy to find some among those in charge, for our city was no longer managed according to the manners and habits of our fathers and it was impossible to easily win new ones; besides, the legislative records and the manners were corrupted and relaxed to such an amazing degree that I, at first full of zeal for working in public affairs, looking at all this and seing everything going in all directions, ended up feeling dizzy; yet, on the one hand, I didn't give up watching if by chance all these things, and especially the whole constitution, might in any way improve, while on the other hand, I kept always waiting for the right time to act, until I ended up understanding that all the cities of this time are all together badly administered -- actually, the state of their laws is almost incurable without incredible preparations along with luck -- and I was of necessity driven to acknowledge, in praise of true philosophy, that through it only is it possible to come to fully conceive justice in public as well as private affairs; therefore, humankind will not put an end to evils until either the kind of those who rightly and truly philosophize takes a leading role in public affairs, or that of those who hold power in cities, by some sort of divine share, really gets to philosophizing.

Such was the state of my thought when I went to Italy and Sicily for the first time." (VIIth letter, 324b-326b)

[Plato's fist visit to Sicily took place in 388 BCE, when he was about 40. While there, he started a long friendly relationship with Dion, who was the twenty year old brother-in-law of the tyrant of Syracuse, Denys the Elder. Twenty years later, Dion would call Plato back to Syracuse to help Denys the Younger implement his [Plato's] political theories after the death of Denys the Elder. But this second trip, as well as a third one a few years later, ended in a fiasco; later, when Dion tried to overthrow Denys the Younger and seize power in Syracuse, he was asssassinated by some of his own friends from Athens.]

Investing in Education for Political Purpose

So speaks Plato of his early life at the beginning of the seventh letter, which was addressed to Dion's Sicilian parents and friends, and written probably soon after his assassination, around 354 BCE. Plato would have been about 73 years old at the time. (He died about seven years later, around the age of 80). These few lines tell us more about Plato's life and state of mind during his early years than the tons of biographies written ever since, whether ancient or recent, all based mostly on conjecture. (The earliest biographies that we have of Plato, those by Apuleius and Diogenes Lærtius, date from the second and third centuries CE, and therefore several hundred years after the fact.)

In a few lines, we come to understand that Plato's goals have always been political. Contrary to a widespread stereotype, Plato was no dreamer withdrawing from earthly matters in some remote "world of forms." He was not that "stargazer" falling in a ditch while looking at the sky, in the manner of the so-called philosopher he ironically portrays at the very center of the Theætetus (Theætetus, 173c-176a). Rather, he became a teacher and the founder of the most successful school of antiquity for political reasons. When he came to realize that it is impossible to be a good leader without proper training from early youth on (this is probably what he means when he mentions "incredible preparations" in his letter), he quit dreaming of being himself a leader to become the teacher of future leaders and lawmakers. He hoped in this way to better fight the evil he saw in the cities of his day than in risking his life in revolutions. In other words, Plato gave up a political career in the present to become a politician for the future and "invest" in education. But unlike Socrates, his master, who had come to similar conclusions, -- remarking (in the words Plato puts in his mouth at his trial), "Had I decided long ago to become active in public affairs, I would be long dead by now and would have been of no use to either you or me" (Apology, 31c-32a) -- Plato did not content himself with roaming through the agora, questioning whomever luck might put in his way. Instead, he decided, probably some time after returning from his first trip to Sicily, that is about halfway through his life, to open a school in Athens and develop a consistent program of education for future leaders. That school, known as the Academy, lasted for the next ten centuries.

The Just Man and the Philosopher-King

This quotation also provides two keys for understanding Plato. The "unjust" death of Socrates, whom he calls "the most just man of his time," in the above quotation and, almost in the same terms, at the end of the Phædo, after retelling his last day and his death (see Phædo, 118a), is the historical, visible, "physical" center of gravity of his life while the theoretical, intelligible, "logical" center of gravity of his thought is the so-called principle of the "philosopher-king," which is stated both above and, in almost identical terms, at the exact center of his most central work, the Republic:

"Unless either philosophers become kings in the cities, or those who are now called kings and rulers sincerely and adequately get to philosophize, and there can be found in the same person both political power and philosophy, the crowd of those who are nowadays driven by their nature toward either one exclusive of the other having been forcibly set aside, there can be no end, dear Glaucon, to the evils in cities, nor, methinks, to those of humankind." (Republic, V, 473c-d)

The letter also hints at some of the deepest tenets of Plato's thought, namely, the individual and social character of justice, and the fact that justice implies a "divine share."

When Plato tells us that only true philosophy enables us to "fully conceive justice in public as well as private affairs" (see above), we may understand "justice in private affairs" as nothing more than that part of law that deals with relations between persons as private citizens, as opposed to relations with and involvement in government. Yet, for Plato, it is much more than that, and indeed, the whole purpose of the Republic is to make us understand that there can be no social justice with people who are not "just" within themselves: men cannot get along with one another and live in peace, social peace that is, unless they first bring peace and harmony between the various sides of their own selves, between their passions and their reason, between their thoughts, their words, and their acts. To make the point, the Republic so masterfully blends psychological and political dimensions of "justice" that for centuries readers have wondered whether the dialogue was political or psychological. But Plato is not a man of "either ... or ...," he is the man of "and ... and ...." His primary goal is to make us realize how intimately intertwined the two sides of man's life are. On the one hand, there is no way we, as human beings -- that is, as living "material" creatures endowed with reason, with logos -- can be truly happy if we don't acknowledge and satisfy the due needs of all parts of our being, our body as well as our "soul," according to a "logical" (that is, insprired by logos) balance and order. On the other hand, there can be no order, no kosmos (the Greek word for "order"), in the cities of this "political animal" called man, unless all citizens contribute their share, to the best of their ability, to that order, and through it, to the happiness of all the citizens, under the leadership of those whose logos can translate this order into laws. Indeed, because "cities" are the work of man, the "social" order is an "image" of the peace of mind, only in "larger letters" (see Republic, II, 368d-369b).

When Plato refers to a "divine share (theia moira)" needed for leaders to become philosophers (see above), he uses a word, moira, evoking the Fates (Moirai), the three daughters of Necessity (Anagkè), who preside over the souls' own choice of destiny in the myth of Er, at the end of the Republic (Republic, X, 617c-e). We may understand this "share" to be the divine inspiration invoked by Socrates at the end of the Meno (Meno, 99e and 100b) as the source of the "true opinion" that allows even the most famous politicians to succeed despite their lack of actual knowledge. A god gives it and takes it when and to whom he pleases, in much the same way as he instills "vision" into a seer through rather odd devices and despite his shortcomings.

Or we may turn once again to the Republic, where Plato mentions this "divine share" as the only thing a good-natured man gifted for philosophy should count on to avoid corruption by "the many" (Republic, VI, 492e-493a). But in this context, where Socrates is defending his principle of the philosopher-king against the image given in everyday life by those who call themselves philosophers, we should come to realize that the theia moira has a lot more to do with the god-given logos, the rational, divine part of our soul, handed over by the demiourgos of the Timæus to the lesser gods who build our whole body to host it (Timæus, 41c-d).

Looking at it this way, we come to understand why we shouldn't be expecting the gods to again take part in human affairs and miraculously come to the rescue when things go wrong. The gods gave us, with the logos, all the tools we need to manage our own lives and cities, and now, they respect our freedom. This logos enables us to look at the world, work of a divine maker, "the God of gods, Zeus, who reigns through laws..." (Critias, 121b), and to find in its order (kosmos in Greek), a model whose contemplation (theôria, in Greek) should inspire us in building our cities and bringing order to them through laws.

This is the message implied by the structure of the last three dialogues of Plato (Timæus, Critias, Laws) taken as a whole. In order to fulfill the program set by Socrates at the beginning of the Timæus -- to bring life and movement to the ideal city of men described in the Republic (Timæus, 19b-c) -- Plato starts with the most comprehensive "contemplation" of God's work in his dialogues (the "myth" of Timæus). He then puts the reader's own judgment to a test by suddenly interrupting Critias' myth of Atlantis when he is about to have Zeus talk and come to the rescue of messed up human affairs (Critias' name comes from the Greek word krisis, which means "judgment"). Furthermore, he replaces the announced dialogue, the Hermocrates, (Critias, 108a-b) that would have staged a Syracusan general who defeated the Athenian expedition to Sicily, and whose name means "endowed with the power of Hermes, messenger of the gods," with the Laws, leaving the reader with two options. On the one hand there are those who miss the end of the story of Atlantis, which is nothing more than a new Iliad "rewriting" the recent history of Athens and the Medean Wars to better defuse Socrates' revolutionary message and back up Athens' imperialistic policy championed by Critias the tyrant; those who spend the rest of their life looking for the site of the mythical island and see in Plato's last work the dusty legislative utopia of a past long since gone, of interest only to historians of law. On the other hand, there are those who are willing to walk along with the Athenian stranger and take over Socrates' part (the Laws is the only dialogue where Socrates doesn't appear), because they understand that it is not Zeus who will come down to us, but we who should move up to him, by listening to god's "messenger" within ourselves, not Hermes or some Hermo-crates, but the logos that helps us bring order through laws.

These two tenets, the dual character of justice and the divine share in man, are themselves grounded in two hypotheses which structure the whole organization of Plato's thought. These two hypotheses are most clearly expressed in the Republic, symetrically on either side of the central principle of the philosopher-king. They are the threefold structure of human soul and the fourfold division of the whole of being.

Soul Searching

Central to Plato's thought is the soul (psuchè in Greek). Its nature (phusis) is at the heart of the Phædrus, when, driven by love (eros), it expresses its feelings through speech (logos), uncovering in the process its divine origin. Its behavior occupies the Republic, when it must find in its own self-made harmony the root of justice in the city. Its destiny is investigated in the Phædo, when faith in its eternity helps it accept the death of the body. As a prelude to this trilogy, Plato depicts in the Symposium, the dialectics of eros, the soul's driving power, that may lead it from the physical love of one body all the way up to the intellectual love of everlasting "ideas."

Thus, the central inquiry into the soul unfolds between a night in the life of Socrates and a day in his death. The night in the life of Socrates is retold in the Symposium, an all night drinking party that opens a window on the whole of Socrates' social life with the speech of a drunken Alcibiades (Symposium, 215a-222b) and that ends with Socrates alone awake and well at the crowing of the cock (Symposium, 223c) to walk home to another day's business. The day in Socrates "death" is retold in the Phædo, a sober drinking vigil (Socrates drinks the poison at the end) that opens a window on the whole of Socrates' inner life with his own "intellectual autobiography" (Phædo, 96a-100a) and that ends with Socrates alone going into an everlasting "sleep" after asking Crito to offer Asclepios, the god who cures bodies, the cock that will no longer be needed to awaken his body (Phædo, 118a). We should note that, behind the comedy of the drinking party and the "erotic" speeches on love of the Symposium, lies the tragedy of the "loss" of Alcibiades' soul that couldn't be saved by Socrates' love, and behind the tragedy of the poison party and the unconvincing speeches on the soul's immortality in the Phædo, lies the joy of Socrates' definitive victory over injustice and "perfection" of his self.

All this shows that for Plato, from the outset, man cannot be limited to a purely material being. Evidence of this fact is that he can share in truths relating to "forms" that are outside time and space. (An experimental proof of this, based on mathematical constructs, is given through the dialogue with the slave in the Meno (Meno, 82a-85b).) But we should be careful not to import into Plato's dialogues a preconceived notion of the soul, whether a Christian one or whatever, but rather to let Plato tell us what he means by that word. In the end, the soul is everything in man that is not matter, and the whole purpose of the Phædo is to figure out what might happen to it when it departs from matter in death. Indeed, the Phædo doesn't try to "prove" that the soul "survives" the body; it defines death as the separation of the material from the "immaterial" (whatever that may be) parts in man (Phædo, 64c and again 67d). It only purports to figure out what becomes of the immaterial part, or parts, at death, based on their nature.

So, we must start by figuring out the nature and structure of the soul. In the Republic Plato investigates the structure of the soul and, there, he shows it to be threefold (Republic, IV, 436a-441d). One part of the soul relates to the body, to the material dimension of being, to the feelings and passions. Plato calls this the "desiring" part, the epithumiai. Another part relates to the mind, the immaterial realities, "forms" and the like, and he calls it the logos. In between is a third part, the one that has to make choices, to lean toward either one or the other of the first two parts, and that he calls the thumos, the "fighting" part, akin to the will.

But this description doesn't pretend to "anatomical" precision! It must be understood as much by what it excludes as by what it says. By presenting a threefold structure of the soul, Plato eliminates both monistic and dualistic approaches. On the one hand, Plato tells us that man is not a monistic being whose unity is given at the outset. He is not a potentiality that only has to unfold over time to become in the end what was implicitely given at the start, in an Aristotelean entelechy or in a DNA string, hoping only that "nature" will not be prevented from following its "usual" course by external events, and with no freedom whatsoever to change this course by himself. But he is not a dualistic being either. He is not a battlefield between two antagonistic principles, one good and one evil, that might be seen as the independant "creators," or origins, of body and soul, of mind and matter, with man caught in between, with no freedom of his own and no say whatsoever on the outcome of the fight.

Once both monism and dualism have been ruled out, it no longer matters much how many parts there are, so long as there is a governing principle of unity (the logos), and a sphere of freedom (the thumos) capable of ruling over reason as well as passion. Indeed, the third part is called epithumiai, desires, with a plural to show that they are many.

The fact is that man in this world of becoming is a being in the making; he is defined by what he should be in the end, not by what he is at the beginning or at any given point during the process. Man's unity is not there at the outset but has to be built over a lifetime. Because man is free, this unity may or may not be achieved. It can be achieved only if man partakes of the idea (rather than "form") of man. But this idea is not a map, a drawing, an "image" of man up in the sky. Rather, it is the ideal of justice depicted in the Republic, the principle of unity within and without for man.

Plato hints at this when he starts the Timæus by reminding us of the principles of the Republic (Timæus, 17a-19b) before presenting, within a long monologue by Timæus that he himself calls a "myth" (Timæus, 29d), three different "forms" of man. The "ideal" of the Republic is evoked at the outset, before the myth starts, to show that it is outside space and time, while the three other "candidates" to the "form" of man are all to be found within the myth that describes the genesis of the universe and of man within it. One is the "form" of matter man and the world are made up from, displayed in the first "mathematical" model of matter, a model based on triangles. This is the "form" best understood by physicists, even though this specific model is utterly outdated by now. Another one is the "biological form" of his body, described through its pattern drawn by the lesser gods for the sole purpose of hosting the divine soul handed over by the demiourgos. This is the "form" best understood by physicians. The last is the "form" of his soul, the mixed principle of becoming and being, bridging between the visible and the intelligible, whose making by the demiourgos is described at length. This one is the "form" best understood by psychologists and maybe priests.

Indeed, man may satisfy himself with either one of these three explanations of himself. He may, like Gyges, the "earthly" man by his name, in the story told by Glaucon at the beginning of the Republic (Republic, II, 359c-360b), move deep down in matter, within a cave opened by cosmic forces (the laws of physics, if you prefer) in search of his own self. But all he will find there is a dead body with a materialistic wooden soul shaped like an animal (the horse that serves as an image of the lower parts of the soul in the Phaædrus, but also a reminder of the trojan horse, the fighting device which brought ruin over Greek cities) and unable to hold man's will. Though the body may look larger than nature under the scalpel of science, it is in fact a prisoner of this semblance of soul that is no more than the social and historical environment that surrounds and conditions him. But this materialistic science may also offer him the golden ring of a seemingly broken chain that will allow him to escape all responsibility in social life by making him invisible when looking at himself. This will allow him to use his eros in an egoistic way to win power by killing the king (the leading part of the soul) and to enslave his kinsmen in place of the sheep he was meant to oversee. Or he may listen to the teacher who will free him from his unfelt chains and lead him out of the cave where he was a prisoner, and up the hill all the way to the sight of the good itself. Then, and only then, knowing the true eternal ideal of man, may he go back in the cave built for him by god, to help his kinsmen free themselves (Republic, VII, 514a-517a).

The Whole of Being

As must be evident by now, being, for Plato, is not limited to material being. But it would be equally wrong to assume that Plato's world is limited to a "world of forms," a world of immaterial everlasting truths in some sky high above. The image that he gives of the whole of "being" in the Republic is that of a line divided in four segments (Republic, VI, 509e-511e). A first division distinguishes a "visible" and an "intelligible" segment. Each of these two segments is further divided in two, to distinguish images and whatever they are images of. A painting, for instance, or a photograph, is, in the visible part, an image of a man, himself a visible being; but a word, as an "intelligible" thing, is also in a sense no more than an intelligible "image" of the being or beings it names.

The first split, between visible and intelligible, means that Plato is neither a son of the earth nor a friend of forms, the two extreme positions he has an Elean stranger criticize in the Sophist (see Sophist 245e-249d; the expression sons of the earth -- gegeneis -- is at 248c, that of friends of forms -- tous tôn eidôn philous -- is at 248a). If the stranger must commit a parricide in thought in betraying Parmenides' dogmas of the unity of being and the identity of being and thought -- a parricide that is the exact counterpart in the "intelligible world" of the trial and murder of Socrates by his fellow Athenians in the "visible world" -- it is precisely to flee away from the "either ... or ..." alternative between materialism and idealism and lead us into the "world" of "and ... and ...," both in words, in our description of the whole of being, and in deeds, in our action as statesmen. It is the price to pay to free our minds from empty dialectical paradoxes of the kind examplified in the Parmenides and give us access to true dialectical thinking, demonstrated in the Sophist and Statesman.

So, what is "being" for Plato? He gives a definition of it throught the mouth of the Elean stranger in the Sophist, which is supposed to be provisionally used against the materialists, but is never challenged or replaced later, and is thus meant to hold. The stranger attributes "being" to "anything whatsoever endowed with the power (dunamin) either to act on whatever other creature you'd like, or to endure the smallest thing from the part of the slightest thing, be it only once" (Sophist, 247d-e). In other words, yes! whatever I may think of "is" (has "being"), and in this respect, Parmenides was somehow right. It has being if only by the mere fact that I think it, which is a form of "enduring" (or being acted upon) for the thought I think. But so what? The point is that, for Plato, being is the least meaningful predicate of all, because it is the one that has the greatest extension. It applies to everything. The problem for him is not that of "being" but that of "the good beyond being" (Republic, VI, 509b). The problem is not for "something" to have being, it is to figure out the relationship this "being" entertains with other "beings."

Yes! Whatever I may think has being as soon as I think it. Think it, and not think of it, which would imply something existing outside my mind, when this is precisely the problem. Whatever I think has being at least in my mind, but because it has being in my mind, it doesn't mean it has being outside my mind, or rather "pictures" something that has being outside my mind or relates to something outside my mind. Indeed, the world is not limited to beings, images, inside my mind. There are things outside, both visible and intelligible, I may not relate to, I may not see or understand. I am not the maker of the whole. Thus the question becomes, how do the beings in my mind relate to beings outside? In this problem, there is room for error in both thought and speech.

Indeed the question is, does that thought, that "being" inside my mind, relate to other beings outside my mind, and if so, in what manner? Does the relationship between this being in my mind and other beings in my mind somehow mirror a relationship between things outside my mind. For instance, does the relationship between the image in my mind of Theætetus and the image of the act of flying I have in my mind in saying "Theætetus flies" (Sophist, 263a) somehow mirror the actual Theætetus and the effective act of flying in the visible world outside my mind? Is there a difference in that respect between saying "Theætetus flies" and saying "Theætetus sits"? And, more importantly, what do these relations have to do with my own "being" and the "forms" or "ideas" I should participate in to become what I am meant to be, in other words, to reach my own "good," which is the fullness, the telos, of my being? If Plato was interested in the problem of man's being, and surely he was, then man is the important word, not being! "Know thyself." This precept written at the doors of the temple at Delphi and commonly associated with Socrates means, for him and Plato at least, precisely that: know what you are meant to be, what it means to be a man, how you relate to that "idea of man," and what you can do to better "partake" of it.

Rhetoric vs Dialectic

One of the most important things man has to know about himself is the power and limits of logos, a Greek word which means at the same time speech, definition, rationale and reason, among other things!

So, before introducing us to dialectic in the Sophist, Plato gives us an example, in one of his "funniest" dialogues, the Euthydemus, of what happens when people take words for "the real thing" and "play" with them with no care for what's in the "real" world. One of the biggest fights Socrates and Plato had to fight was against the rhetors, that is, those who, like Gorgias, relied solely on the power of words and speech to reach their goals, especially when these goals were political power, as was the case with the likes of Callicles, whose discussion with Socrates makes up the second half of the Gorgias. These men were not, like Euthydemus and his brother Dionysodorus, merely playing with words in so-called "eristic" debates for the sake of silencing their opponent in idle chatter. Like them, they had very little care for truth, but they were only concerned with efficiency, that is with the persuasive power of words.

Such a cult of the power of words was the (probably unexpected) consequence of Parmenides' doctrines (Gorgias is said to have been a disciple of Parmenides) combined with the relativism of those who, like Protagoras, would say that man is his own measure, and that there is no eternal truth he should measure himself against. This position was held, in the time of Plato, by Isocrates, the most brilliant disciple of Gorgias (and the head of a very successful school in Athens that was competing with the Academy), who, unable to understand the difference between Socrates and Euthydemus, considered platonic dialectic to be mere hair-splitting with no practical application. (We must keep in mind that Isocrates was very proud of making a lot of money with his teaching.) In the Menexenus, a text that could hardly be called a dialogue, Plato gives us an example of the political rhetoric of statesmen who are not ashamed of using the services of professionnal speechwriters to eulogize citizens dead at war in front of their grieving parents and friends as easily as they would use these same services to send them on the next occasion to a likely death in another war, if this would keep them in power. Such a speech, reminiscent of those by Pericles, might well represent the culmination of the educational program of Isocrates, but, for Plato, it is the caricature of politics of those who have not overcome Parmenides and mastered true dialectic. Such a politics of words contrasts with the politics of thought described in the Statesman as the culmination of true dialectic, in much the same way the eristic of the Euthydemus contrasts with the dialectic of the Sophist.

Man's Happiness in the City

But the "politics of thoughts" advocated By Plato, if it is politics by an elite, is not politics for an elite. Immediately after the Statesman comes the Philebus whose purpose is to set the goal for political leaders in showing them the good of man, that is, what can make a happy life for man here on earth. Again, the recipe is not, as some might expect, to withdraw from worldly matters and live in pure thought, but to give each part of the soul its due, and its share of pleasure, only under the leadership of the logos, who alone is able to understand what the due share of each part is. Thus, the happy life is depicted as a mixed life associating measured bodily and intellectual pleasures, as examplified by Socrates in the Symposium. Plato doesn't shy away from calling pleasure "the path toward one's own being" (Philebus, 32b). By that, he means that, as embodied beings in the making in this earthly world of becoming, it is only through our feelings that we can get moving. We only move toward what's pleasurable to us and away from what's painful to us.

This is the true meaning of the often criticized saying by Socrates that "nobody does evil willingly," which might better be translated as "nobody willingly harms himself," as all discussions of it in the dialogues show (see for instance Protagoras, 358b-c, Gorgias, 468d-e, Meno, 77c-78a). Socrates never meant to say that man will never do something he knows to be "evil" in a broad, abstract, moral sense (like a "sin"). He new perfectly well that a man can do something he knows harmful to someone else, so long as he thinks it is less harmfull to him than not doing it. But to him may mean to his body or to his soul, and there lies the problem! This brings us back to the "know thyself." How we understand the difference between the pleasures and pains of our body, which are dependant on time and that we may control only to a certain extent, and those of our soul, which are not "felt" the same way by the body here on earth, is what determines what is truly pleasurable for us. So we may be wrong, not in our feelings of pleasures and pains at any given time, but in our opinions about them, in our understanding of them, which is the task of the logos in our soul, and which alone may change our feelings over time by educating our true self. We will always only desire what is pleasurable to us. But with an adequate understanding of what is truly pleasurable and of what is our true self, following our pleasures will lead us in the right direction.

If everyone is not able to "know thyself," in keeping with the Delphic motto that was Socrates' leading principle, the task is clearly set for those who are able; they must take charge of their less fortunate fellow men, not to enslave them like Gyges, but to help each one reach the happiness he deserves and "perfect" his soul. The Laws, which is the last word of Plato's educational program, is very clear about the fact that the city is for man, for all men, and not man for the city (see Laws, VI, 769a-771a, which is about the middle of the dialogue, and especially 770c-d). This does not mean that each one can do as he likes, but that the city doesn't have a soul of its own; it is only an earthly construct intended to disappear over time, and whose purpose is solely to provide the proper setting for man's making, for the building of his self, that is, the "perfecting" of his soul. Man is a "political animal," as Aristotle would say (here inspired by Plato), which means that he cannot live alone. Thus his happiness depends on the proper order of the "city" he lives in and the sacrifices he makes for the good, not of the whole as if it were a sort of metaphysical "totalitarian" entity, but of all other men and women in the city, taken as individuals engaged in a common enterprise.

Know Thyself

So the only thing that matters is to know what it is to be a man, a philo-sophos aner (a man friend of wisdom). This issue, in fact, was set from the outset in a "trilogy" of dialogues that analyzes each part of the question: the Lysis, the Laches and the Charmides. The Lysis asks what philia (friendship) means. The Charmides deals with sophia (wisdom), or, more fittingly for the kids that are staged in the dialogue, a milder version of it called sophrôsunè, that is, moderation. In between, the Laches goes about defining andreia, that is, manhood. Indeed, the goal is to become, at least in this world, philo-sophoi, friends of wisdom, not sophoi, wisemen, that is, to establish and improve a relationship with something that is and remains outside of us rather than to reach a state which may only come with death, when our being is "perfected."

If that is really the question that matters, then Socrates is right to say that he knows nothing! Nothing that is really worth it, that is. All the knowledge in the world -- that is, the scientific and technical knowledge that he so often takes as an example in discussions only to show that there is no way you can succeed unless you know what your goal is -- may give you a means of changing the world, the world of becoming, but it will never tell you how to use it in order to reach your goal, the goal of perfecting your self in becoming a philo-sophic man. Scientific and technical knowledge is neutral with regard to good and evil. It is man who must chose what he does with it, and the more knowledgable you are in one area, the more predictably you may reach good or evil results in that area, as Socrates show in the Hippias minor.

Knowledge of self, knowing the "ideal" of man, then, is not of the same kind as knowing how to double the surface of a square! In that matter, like it or not, you must be content with opinion, with doxa, and yet live, and die, by it, only hoping that your opinion was a true opinion. Socrates was of the opinion that what makes a man is his soul, that justice of the kind he describes in the Republic is the ideal of man, and that the soul is everlasting and will be rewarded in eternity according to its share with this justice. Yet, after a dialogue full of unconvincing demonstrations on the immortality of the soul, at the end of the Phædo, minutes before drinking the poison that will kill him, the only thing he could say was that to live and die by this belief is a "beautiful risk" (Phædo, 114d). Indeed, it is because he lived and died by this belief that he, not Plato, is our guide all through the dialogues.

This is also is the reason why it is between his logical death at the end of the Crito, at the conclusion of a trilogy started with the Euthyphro and centered on his trial, and his physical death at the end of the Phædo, in the central dialogues making up the "tetralogy" Symposium, Phædrus, Republic, Phædo, that Socrates reveals to us his highest beliefs on love, the soul, its ideal of justice and its destiny. It is there that he moves us from the visible to the intelligible "world," where, resurrected in words, he may now be able to teach us true dialectic, only to leave us on our own when the time finally comes for us to get serious and write new laws for the city, to move back down to earth and build our own lives while walking toward god's "cave." (The whole dialogue of the Laws, Plato's last work, and the only one where Socrates is totally absent, takes place during a day-long walk toward Zeus' cave and shrine on mount Ida (Laws, I, 625b): the cave of the Republic has become God's cave when it's time for us to move back into it!)

Theôria Platonikè

Now, how do the dialogues fit into Plato's program? The first thing we must be aware of is that Socrates, Plato's beloved master, never wrote a page, and that Plato himself was quite suspicious of writing. At the end of the Phædrus, after describing how true rhetoric, the true art of speech, should be a "soul's driving" (psuchagogè), he goes on to state his distrust of written speech, which cannot answer objections by readers and may lead to whatever interpretation the reader wants (Phædrus, 275d-e). Furthermore, in the VIIth Letter quoted at the beginning of this essay, written when he was more than 70 years old, and in which he never refers to any published works of his, even when one might expect such references on topics so close to those of some dialogues, and with readers that where supposed to know him well, he says: "from me anyway, on such topics, there doesn't exist any writing, and never will there be any ... If it had seemed to me they could be appropriately put in writing and expressed for the many, what could have been a better accomplishment in my life than to put in writing something so advantageous to men and to bring to light the nature of all things? But I don't think that, for men, the so-called argumentation on these topics be good, except for a few of them who are able to find by themselves with only a few indications." (VIIth Letter, 341c-e). Without entering the debate about possible interpretations of such statements in the face of all the dialogues Plato left, let me add a few remarks.

First and foremost, it must be understood that Plato was not a dogmatist, and he never tried to put into writing the answers he might have himself given to all the questions he has us rehash with the dialogues, at least not under the form of well-crafted doctrines of the kind his pupil Aristotle was so fond of. He knew too well that each one must find the answers in himself and by himself, and give them not only in words, but in deeds. That, he couldn't do for us. The best he could hope for was to be a teacher, a guide along the road from the depth of the cave up the hill, giving us along the way a "few indications" that might help us find the answers. (In that respect, the whole of this essay so far is highly unplatonic, unless it makes you, the reader, wonder and want to find out more by yourself, not about scholarship on Plato, but about yourself and the meaning of your life.)

Add to this the fact that, contrary to the feeling left by an abundant platonic literature in recent times, we know nothing about the history of Plato's literary activity. When and how did he write each of the dialogues, when did he publish them and for what purpose? On all these questions, the only things we have are hypotheses as was already the case when Diogenes Lærtius wrote about Plato sixteen or seventeen centuries ago. Seventeen centuries combined with all the computers in the world to the rescue of a darwinian "theory of evolution" have not changed an iota of that, no matter what scholars may say.

Even so, the main stream theory for more than a century -- and we must emphasize the word "theory" -- has been that Plato started writing his dialogues soon after Socrates' death and kept writing them all through his life, and that during such a long period of time, about fifty years, his philosophy "evolved." This assumed "evolution" provides an easy explanation for seeming discrepancies, if not outright contradictions, that scholars claim to find betweeen the "doctrines" supposedly held by Plato in what are termed "early" and "late" dialogues. But perhaps this explanation is too easy in explaining away contradictions that are only apparent on deeper readings of the texts. We must always keep in mind that this evolutionary thesis rests on a set of still unproved (perhaps unprovable) assumptions, and that it is equally possible that Plato meant what he said when he announced in the VIIth letter that he had written nothing so far. (Indeed, if it is the case that Thomas Aquinas wrote the entire Summa Theologiæ in the last seven yars of his life, while traveling all over Europe at a time when there were no planes to go from city to city, then we must admit that it is at least possibile that a mind such as Plato's could have written the entire Platonic corpus in the last ten years of his life!) But then again, maybe Plato meant something else in the VIIth Letter.

The only hard facts are the dialogues themselves, still extant in full; and they are one of the greatest achievements of human mind ever, an unsurpassed masterpiece of literature and philosophy. Nowhere else have all the aspects of writing, form, images, settings, style, been so artfully blended and put to the service of the thoughts developed by an author, and nowhere else have such deep thoughts been made so living in front of the reader's eyes.

This is why, as far as I am concerned, rather than stressing discrepancies from dialogue to dialogue that might well be the result of misunderstandings on the part of the reader, I prefer to suppose that Plato was not a university teacher eager to keep publishing in order to get promoted or to make money. I prefer to give him the benefit of a presumption of consistency until he is proven guilty beyond reasonable doubt of blatant inconsistencies. I prefer to suppose that, if there is an "evolution" from dialogue to dialogue, it is not Plato's evolution, at least not his evolution while writing the dialogues, but the evolution that is necessary from a pedagogical standpoint to adapt to the progress of the reader as he proceeds through the dialogues. I believe that this evolution was fully mastered by the author-teacher from the outset, possibly modeled after his own earlier evolution, the one in part described in the introductory section of the VIIth Letter quoted at the beginning of this essay.

I prefer to see in the dialogues, 28 of them at least that I hold genuine, a single highly strucured work that unfolds in seven tetralogies starting with the wonderment of a young Alcibiades at Socrates' love for his soul when he is about to enter in politics, and ending on a model of laws for the cities of men, drawn on the way toward God's cave to help a namesake of Alcibiades' father, Clinias, build a new city. Each of these seven tetralogies is made up of an "introductory" dialogue followed by a trilogy, the three dialogues of each trilogy moving through the three parts of the soul mentioned above.

The tetralogies lead us from the statement of the question "what it is to be a philosophos aner (a philosophic man, see above)" (Alcibiades + Lysis / Laches / Charmides) to the suggested recipe for man's happiness that we model on the order (kosmos) in God's creation to write the laws of our cities (Philebus + Timæus / Critias / Laws, see above). Along the way, we move through all segments of the whole, on either side of a central tetralogy on the soul, that serves as a bridge between the visible and intelligible (Symposium + Phædrus / Republic / Phædo). The rest of the dialogues fit nicely into this paradigm, but additional details fall beyond the scope and purpose of this essay. You may read more about my theses on my web site, Plato and his dialogs.

I want to thank Anthony F. Beavers for the wonderful editing job he did on this essay. He helped me better focus my thought and bring my style to a more palatable English. He showed remarkable patience in doing so over the net, while busy on many other tasks. But, in the end, he always let me have my way, so that, if imperfections remain either in content or style, and surely there are quite a few, they are mine, not his.

Bernard Suzanne is a data processing systems' architect and life-long student of Plato. He lives in Montpellier, in the south of France, near the Mediterranean.

A List of Plato's Works

The next section lists, in alphabetical order, all works that have come down to us under Plato's name, including works which are now considered as not from Plato by almost everybody. Dialogue names are followed by letters in parentheses according to the following code:

In this list, links are provided, when they exist, to both the Greek text and English translations at Perseus, and to B. Jowett's English translations at The Tech Classics Archive at MIT. Perseus provides searchable text loaded by small sections and accessible at any reference, while Jowett's translations load most of the dialogues as one document that you can then keep locally for further reference.

All references to Plato's dialogues in this essay are set up as links to the English translation at Perseus. Note that the display may start a little before the quoted part, and/or only include the beginning of the quotation. In the later case, the Perseus page tells you how to get to the next page of text to get the continuation of the quotation. But it is up to you to stop where the quotation ends, since Perseus is not provided with the ending reference, but only with the starting reference.

The URL for searching a given reference in Plato at Perseus is:



List of Dialogues

Plato's Quotation System

All quotations from Plato's dialogues and other works refer to the pagination of a Renaissance edition by Henri Estienne, called the Stephanus Edition, which is reproduced in most modern editions and translations. This edition was in three volumes, and its pages were divided in five parts referenced a to e. Thus a quotation gives the page number followed by a letter between a and e and refering to the subsection in the page for the starting and ending lines of the quoted section (the volume number is never included, but there is no ambiguity, because no work spreads over several volumes). Some quotations have the letter for the page subsection followed by a line number within the subsection. This may be useful when quoting a single word or a small sequence of words, but is harder to get, because very few editions respect or provide the exact line numbering of the Stephanus edition, and, besides, this is lost in all translation, and may therefore be only approximate.

Last updated August 22, 1996
© 1996 Bernard SUZANNE (click on name to send your comments via e-mail)
Quotations from theses pages are authorized provided they mention the author's name and source of quotation (including date of last update). Copies of these pages must not alter the text and must leave this copyright mention visible in full.