How to read Plato (1995)


How to read Plato

E-mail Archives :
How to read Plato

April 4, 1995

This page is part of the “e-mail archives” section of a site, Plato and his dialogues, dedicated to developing a new interpretation of Plato’s dialogues.
The “e-mail archives” section includes HTML edited versions of posts that I submitted on various e-mail discussion lists about Plato and ancient philosophy.
Note: I have corrected this mail on October 21st, 2017, seing that it was still frequently accessed, to reflect a change I made on June 6, 2009 to the order of the dialogues in the second tetralogy : at the time I wrote this mail, I thought the order was Protagoras +Hippias major/Gorgias/Hippias
, but later, I came to the conclusion that the last two dialogues had to be permuted, to arrive to the order Protagoras +Hippias major/Hippias

To: Dimitri
Date : February 8, 1995, 22:15:19
Subject : Re: Plato

…[Personal introductory comments deleted]…

Now to your question. my advice if you want to come to appreciate Plato
and understand him would be: forget about the scholars, forget all you
were told by your teachers, all you read in your manuals and read Plato
himself. You will have ample time then to go back to the litterature on
the dialogues!…

My take is that Plato is probably THE greatest philosopher of all times,
and the best teacher there is on philosophy, and that the dialogues are
intended to be a manual to form, not university teachers of philosophy,
but philosophers in the real world, that is, philosopher-kings.

Read the dialogues, all the dialogues, in the order I assume
they were intended to be read, that is:

  • 1st tetralogy (getting started): Alcibiades I + Lysis/Laches/Charmides
  • 2nd tetralogy (the sophists): Protagoras +Hippias major/Hippias
    /Gorgias (updated 10/21/2017, see note above)
  • 3rd tetralogy (Socrates’trial): Meno + Euthyphro/Apology/Crito
  • 4th tetralogy (the soul): Symposium + Phædrus/Republic/Phædo
  • 5th tetralogy (logos): Cratylus + Ion/Euthydemus/Menexenus
  • 6th tetralogy (dialectic): Parmenides + Theætetus/Sophist/Statesman
  • 7th tetralogy (kosmos): Philebus + Timæus/Critias/Laws

(these are my tetralogies, and I have the weakness to beleive
they were Plato’s, but that is another story…)

In reading the dialogues, remember the following points:

1) Make the assumption that Plato was a smart guy (A. N. Whitehead once
wrote that all western philosophy is but a set of footnotes on Plato’s
dialogues…) and, if you find some place where there is a dumb way of
reading the text and a smart one, assume Plato had the smart one in mind,
even if Aristotle tried to make us believe he had the dumb one, especially
if that’s the case (I think Aristotle could not understand most of what
Plato taught him, but thought he had, and that most of what is good in
Aristotle is Plato’s, often ill digested; but if you haven’t heard of Aristotle
yet, you are lucky and enjoy your luck as it last, and forget about Aristotle;
only be aware that even if you don’t know it, Aristotle had a great influence
on our way of understanding the world, and contributed to instilling in
our mind the wrong notions about Plato, this picture of Plato as an idealist
dreaming in a world of “ideas” or “forms” unconnected
with the real world).

2) To further elaborate on the previous point: darwinism may be true
in science, but it is not in philosophy, at least to a certain point :
just because Aristotle was later than Plato does not mean that he was smarter!
In philosophy, man has been struggling with the same problems for centuries,
without making much progress toward the ultimate answers to ultimate questions…
And I think that Plato was closer to the answers than most philosophers
of our time, let alone those of earlier times.

3) Read the dialogues with the idea that they are all related to one
another as parts of a coherent whole, and that the earlier ones pave the
way for the later ones. Just because Plato doesn’t give an answer does
not mean he does not have one. Plato knew all too well that it is
useless to give somebody an answer to a problem that is not that person’s
problem. No answer is an answer if it does not come from within yourself.
So the problem is not to give all the answers (as would do Aristotle later
on), but to lead the student toward the right questions, and then, but
only then, toward the right answers. But even at that point, the answers
must be yours, and Plato will not give them to you himself. How can you
search for something if you think you know? All of Socrates work was to
move people from the position of someone who does not know but think he
knows to that of someone who knows that he doesn’t know.

4) The so-called “aporetic”, or “Socratic” dialogues
of the first tetralogies, are not just questions for the sake of questions
(what is courage? what is piety? what is philia? etc…) but they
are “constructive” in some sense, because knowing what a thing
is not, what the wrong answers are, is the first step toward
knowing what it may be (for centuries, the Roman Catholic church didn’t
do otherwise to “define” its dogmas: it only pronounced “anathemæ”
in councils, that is condemnation of errors, in other words what you could
not hold true and stay a catholic; some people think it was a mistake,
but if you think about it, you will come to realize that, with ultimate
truths, that are beyond our rational grasping, it may be the only way to
proceed). A good example of this is the first part of the Parmenides:
Socrates and Parmenides discuss several ways of understanding the famous
platonic “forms”, and reject them one after another. And yet,
in the end, they both agree that not believing in “forms” is
even worst than rejecting them just because we can’t figure out in a “materialistic”
way what they are!

5) Remember that there are things which are beyond words and can’t be
expressed satisfactorily with them, but can only be approached by “images”,
analogies, and that Plato was perfectly aware of this. Getting rid of the
false beliefs, and building the picture one touch at a time with both logos
and muthos was his way of working. So, in reading the dialogues,
you must go beyond the litterality of words and let the “ideas”
behind them work within you. Be patient, this takes time…

6) Never forget that Plato is not philosophysing for the sake of it,
but to prepare men and women to use their logos, their reason, to
bring more law and order in the world, more kosmos (this is the
Greek word for “order”), through “political” action,
to work towards making more people happier in their lives in the true sense
of happiness, which is not obvious to all, and assumes we know what we
are on earth for, that is, what it is to be a man. And, in
order to do that, man must answer all these questions and other: what is
logos and what are its limits, what is speech, what is eros,
what is pleasure, is man only a limited material creature or does he have
a “soul”? And if so, what is this soul? And so on… But these
are only steps toward the goal of becoming what we are meant to

… But enough for today! I tell you to forget about what has been said
about the dialogues and to read them, and I write pages on the dialogues!…
So, may be you should also forget about all you just read. Even the order
of reading I suggest to you is but the translation of my interpretation
of the dialogues…

So read, read and read again the dialogues, take your time, and see
what happens…

…[Final personal comments deleted]…

Plato and his dialogues : Home
– Biography – Works and
links to them – History
of interpretation
– New hypotheses – Map
of dialogues : table version or non
tabular version
. Tools : Index of persons
and locations
– Detailed and synoptic
chronologies – Maps of Ancient Greek World.
Site information : About the author.

First published December 8, 1996 ;
Last updated October 21st, 2017
© 1996 Bernard SUZANNE
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