Tuesday, March 7, 2023

Many of Plato's early Socratic dialogues - It was quite lovely.

I’ve been enjoying Plato’s dialogues recently.  I’d read some of them before, at university or during my last Greek phase 25 years ago, and this time I hope to read almost all of them.

I will make some notes on them in a few posts.  Give them a tag if nothing else, and make some comments on what Plato was doing.

Given the care with which the manuscripts were preserved compared to the Greek plays or almost anything other Greek literature, it surprised me that almost nothing is known about the dates of composition of the dialogues.  They are plausibly divided into three groups – early, middle, and late – based on easily observable characteristics.

For this month’s look at Socrates as such, independent from Plato, I recommended reading Euthyphro, Apology, and Crito, the three short dialogues on the death of Socrates.  These are civilization-defining texts, great stuff.  My guess is that they are the first dialogues Plato wrote.  He wanted to defend his great teacher and hero.  Then he used the dialogue form to explore other major themes of Socrates’s life.  The early period dialogues always feature Socrates, are more likely to reflect his thought rather than that of Plato, and often end inconclusively.  Socrates does not know the answers but is wise because he knows he does not know.

The early dialogues also often feature scene-setting and character-building and even little plots that I associate with literature.

Gorgias – Gorgias is a Sophist who teaches rhetoric, but what is rhetoric?  As will be common in the dialogues, Socrates deftly shows that no one really knows.  The conversation takes a surprising turn, though, to the question of power and virtue, with Socrates arguing that true power is doing good and nothing else.  A new opponent, Callicles, emerges from the crowd; he is a hedonist and an immoralist, arguing that power and the good are whatever is good for him, with no exceptions.  Socrates, as far as I can tell, has no logical answer, retreating to religion (good people will go to heaven, bad to hell).

A frustration of later Plato, certainly visible in The Republic, is that no one seriously challenges Socrates.  He just marches forward, constructing his ideas.  Not in Gorgias, though.

Protagoras – another Sophist in the title, perhaps the most respected one.  Protagoras believes he is teaching virtue and gives a long defense of his practice.  Socrates believes virtue cannot be taught.  After a long discussion about the nature of virtue, Socrates concludes that virtue in fact can be taught while Protagoras thinks it cannot.  Perverse!  Surprising, at least.

This dialogue has some of Plato’s most elaborate scene-setting.  This excerpt describes some of the “chorus” of followers of Protagoras:

There were some locals also in this chorus, whose dance simply delighted me when I saw how beautifully they took care never to get in Protagoras’ way.  When he turned around with his flanking groups, the audience to the rear would split into two in a very orderly way and then circle around to either side and form up again behind him.  It was quite lovely.  (315b, tr. Stanley Lombardo and Karen Bell)

None of this is necessary for the philosophical part of the dialogue, as Plato eventually decides for himself.

Also, I will note that although most of the dialogues are written as if they are plays, some, like Protagoras, are narrated by Socrates.

Charmides – what is sophrosune, or temperance, or moderation?  No one, as usual, knows.  More proto-novel comedy:

He did come, and his coming caused a lot of laughter, because every one of us who was already seated began pushing hard at his neighbor so as to make a place for him to sit down.  The upshot of it was that we made the man sitting at one end get up, and the man at the other was toppled off sideways. (155d, tr. Rosamond Kent Sprague)

Lesser Hippias – who is the greater liar, Achilles or Odysseus?

Laches – what is courage?

Lysis – what is friendship?  Discussed with a group of attractive, moony teenage boys.

Ion – is the poet knowledgeable or inspired?  Socrates argues for divinely inspired.  “As long as a human being has his intellect in possession he will always lack the power to make poetry or sing prophecy” (534c, tr. Paul Woodruff)  We will revisit this in The Republic.

More scraps of Plato tomorrow.


  1. Given the care with which the manuscripts were preserved compared to the Greek plays or almost anything other Greek literature, it surprised me that almost nothing is known about the dates of composition of the plays.

    Should the last word be "dialogues"?

  2. "A frustration of later Plato, certainly visible in The Republic, is that no one seriously challenges Socrates. He just marches forward, constructing his ideas." Excellent point. Jules Faguet, a French book reviewer who once was shortlisted for the Nobel Prize together with Anatole France, Tagore and Thomas Hardy, illustrated this point in his book Why Read Plato?
    "Plato abuses his dialectic, meticulous and precise, but that gives the sensation of a hammer striking the same nail over and over again while taking care to not fully drive it in:

    "The whole, isn't it, Callicles, greater than the part?
    - No doubt.
    - And the part is smaller than the whole?
    - Certainly!
    - But if the part is smaller than the whole, does it follow that the whole is greater than the part?
    - I think so.
    - And if the whole is greater than the part, then the part is smaller than the whole?
    - Obviously.
    - Is it that obvious? Would you conceive of a part that would contain the whole?
    - Not at all.
    - But do you conceive a whole that contains a part?
    - I sure do.
    - So the part, being contained in the whole, is it smaller than the whole?
    - Certainly.
    - And the whole, containing the part, is greater than it?
    - Yes.
    - Therefore the philosophers must be the leaders of the state.
    - How so?
    -Without a doubt. Let's start again. The whole is greater than the part...

  3. That is a wonderful parody, especially of The Republic. Annoyingly perfect.

    Nice to hear from you again!

  4. Jarry had some fun with this too, in the 10th chapter of "Faustroll.":

    (Doug Skinner)

  5. Now there the Greek does me in. I feel I am learning something about the role of Plato in the French educational system in the 1890s or so.