Revisiting Plato

I sometimes say that I hate Plato. By this, I really mean that I hate Platonism. And by this, I mean that I hate the rationalistic idealism that I have tended to associate, rightly or wrongly, with Plato. The more of his Dialogues I read, the more I think that I have been mistaken in my understanding of Plato’s philosophy.

In college, I read just a few of Plato’s Dialogues (viz. the Apology, the Euthyphro, the Meno, the Crito, the Phaedo, and excerpts from the Republic). I never particularly cared for the dialogue format, but the primary thing I found troubling in the Dialogues I read was Plato’s apparent insistence on the primacy of perfect, immaterial forms, rather than of the material world and the entities therein. Being an inexperienced philosopher, I failed to read Plato as charitably as I should have. It appeared to me that his primary purpose was to expound a metaphysical theory, which then had some implications for how we ought to conduct ourselves in the world. A website that I recently discovered, however, has made me think differently.

Bernard Suzanne argues that Plato’s Dialogues ought to be taken as a unified body of texts written for a common pedagogical purpose. Rather than expounding a system of metaphysics and deducing the ethical consequences of the system, Plato was instead attempting to lead his readers through a process of thought that would result in the development of a well-ordered soul and the capacity to rule over one’s fellow men in a well-ordered polis. He writes that Plato meant “to help people understand what it means to put their logos (reason) to task to bring kosmos (order) in the city of men, because that’s what it means to be men, that is ‘logical’ (rational) political animals.”

If Suzanne is right, then I have been wrong in my characterization of Plato as an otherworldly idealist. His concerns are practical, rooted in embodied human life. The parts of Platonism that I view as having infected philosophy and theology for millennia (e.g. the primacy of the soul over the body, the unreality of the material world) may stem from a misreading of Plato, or at least an incomplete reading. Maybe Plato wasn’t really a Platonist.

On his website, Suzanne offers a way to organize Plato’s Dialogues that fits with what he claims to be Plato’s goal. I am following his suggestions as I read through all of the Dialogues.

Overview
of tetralogies
a i t i a
(cause)
epithumiai (desires)

phusis (nature)

thumos (will)
krisis (judgment)
èthos (behavior)
logos (reason)
kosmos (order)
Tetralogy 1 :
The start of the quest
what is man ?
ALCIBIADES
man
LYSIS
friendship
(philo-)
LACHES
manhood
(andreia)
CHARMIDES
wisdom
(-sophos)
Tetralogy 2 :
The sophists
eikasia (conjecture)
  PROTAGORAS
relativism
  HIPPIAS Major
illusion of
beauty
  HIPPIAS Minor
illusion of
the “hero”
GORGIAS
illusion of
logos
Tetralogy 3 :
Socrates’ trial

pistis (true belief)
MENO
pragmatism
EUTHYPHRO

letter of the
law

THE APOLOGY
OF SOCRATES
law
in action
CRITO

spirit of the
law

Tetralogy 4 :
The soul

psuchè

 THE SYMPOSIUM
the driving
force :
eros
PHÆDRUS
nature of
the soul :
erôs<=>logos
 THE REPUBLIC
behaviour of
the soul :
justice
PHÆDO
destiny of
the soul :
being
Tetralogy 5 :
Speech (logos)
dianoia
(knowledge)
CRATYLUS
the words of
speech
ION
logos of the
poet
  EUTHYDEMUS
logos of the
sophist
MENEXENUS
logos of the
politician
Tetralogy 6 :
Dialectic
epistèmè (science)
PARMENIDES
the traps of
reason
THEÆTETUS
the limits of
reason
THE SOPHIST
the laws of
reason
  THE STATESMAN
the goals of
reason
Tetralogy 7 :
Man in the world
kosmos (order)
PHILEBUS
the good of
man
TIMÆUS
contemplating
(theôria)
CRITIAS
deciding
(krisis)
THE LAWS
acting
(erga)

Thus far, I have read through the first Tetrology. An initial thought: these Dialogues seem to me to be more interesting from a literary perspective than the ones that I have read in the past. Of course, when I revisit the ones that I have read already, I may find that reading them with different assumptions about what Plato is up to might make them more enjoyable, for me.

It might be the case, of course, that Plato was actually a Platonist, and that his primary philosophical project was to prove the metaphysical primacy of invisible, unchanging forms. But even if this is true, this new way of looking at Plato’s Dialogues is helping me to extract what I can from Plato’s philosophy, to be more charitable toward him than I would otherwise be. And I would be a fool not to search through the work of history’s most important philosopher to find whatever I can within it that is useful and good and true.

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