Wednesday, March 8, 2023

Middle period Plato - He’s garbage, he cares about nothing but the truth.

Assembling yesterday’s post I saw that I was only missing one dialogue from Plato’s early period, so I knocked off Greater Hippias last night.  The early dialogues are generally short; the three in the “death of Socrates” group are only fifty pages total, for example.

Hippias is the highest paid of the Sophists, so he is treated as a braggart and a fool, unable to understand what Socrates is asking.  The quotation in the title of the post is Socrates describing himself in Greater Hippias (288d).

The debate is over the definition of “fineness” or “excellence,” not just what is excellent about a painting or horse or god but what the term means abstractly.  Socrates concludes that since no one can define the term, he can no longer say anything at all is fine or excellent.  What nonsense, but Hippias is not the punching bag for this fight.  As usual, Plato is groping towards his Theory of Forms, where all will become clear.

I have read four masterpieces from the middle period, or five counting The Republic from thirty years ago.  Socrates is more likely in these dialogues to be a mouthpiece for Plato, but Symposium, which many of us read last fall, is thought to be “middle.”  It is a creative period for Plato, when he greatly expands the form of the dialogue.

Euthydemus – I mentioned this one a few weeks ago as an anti-Sophist classic.  The title Sophist and his partner are like a comedy duo, astounding potential students with paradoxes and blatant logical fallacies, arguing simultaneously that everyone knows everything and that no one knows anything.

Socrates in the end backhandedly defends Euthydemus and his partner.  Either drop philosophy completely or learn what you can from everyone, even from these goofballs.

I would love to know more about how Plato’s dialogues were read, how they were used.  I assume, for example, that many of the logical fallacies, including those of Socrates, are in the text for pedagogical reason.  The attentive reader is supposed to spot fallacies and false premises and wild leaps in logic.  Or so I imagine.  Maybe not.

Meno – “Can you tell me, Socrates, can virtue be taught?” is how this begins (tr. G. M. A. Grube).  So now I know that the discussion will quickly move, inconclusively, to “What is virtue?”  Along the way Socrates describes his crackpot theory that we do not learn anything but are born with all knowledge.  What we call learning is really just bits of this inherent knowledge being knocked loose.  He proves his point by leading a boy through a geometrical proof, an extraordinary scene. 

Near the end of Meno a new character, Anytus, enters the dialogue, directing it back to the original question.  The Sophists, he argues, teach virtue.  Anytus was, or in the fiction of the scene will be, one of the lead accusers of Socrates.  He angrily leaves the dialogue with a warning:

I think, Socrates, that you easily speak ill of people.  I would advise you, if you will listen to me, to be careful.  Perhaps also in another city, and certainly here, it is easier to injure people than to benefit them.  I think you know that yourself.  (94e)

Sinister and chilling.  Meno is among the best of Plato, and I believe one of the most-taught.

Theaetetus – I think I will save this complex work – it is, for example, hard to spell right – for its own post.

I have tried just one dialogue from Plato’s “late” period, Sophist.  In the late dialogue Socrates is often barely present, as here where he only has a few lines.  “What is a Sophist?” is the question, with an explicit contrast to the statesman (the next dialogue is Statesman) and the philosopher.  Many definitions are proposed and dismantled in detail.  I found it quite tedious.  I have doubts that I will read all of the late dialogues.  Critias is fifteen pages long and features the story of Atlantis – I am not skipping that one.


  1. I was going to recommend Critias, but I see I don't have to. I'll still recommend Timaeus, also not long, but fairly nutty, and (if I recall correctly) one of the few available in Latin before Ficino did his translations.

    And I see you read "Locus Solus." Any thoughts on that one? A favorite of mine, but Roussel is certainly an acquired taste.

    (Doug Skinner)

  2. TImaeus has the creation of the universe, I think. Tempting.

    I should say that Locus Solus is on the edge of my French competence, so there may be limits to how well I read it. The format, the series of tableaux presented and them explained, became tedious at times. But episode by episode it was of great interest, with elements of horror, beauty, nonsense, everything. I enjoyed that a lot. I also enjoyed Roussel's complex sentences.

  3. The creation of the universe is one of my favorite literary genres.

    Roussel polished those sentences obsessively! I find him astonishing, tedious, clumsy, precise, and complex all at once; an acquired taste, but very tasty all the same. Jules Verne's "Le Château des Carpathes" probably influenced "Locus Solus," if you're curious.

    (Doug Skinner)

  4. I have been thinking about reading more Verne soonish. Maybe that one; thanks.