Unlike last year when I subjected you to an extensive series of reviews on the entire collected works of Xenophon, I’m starting Plato’s introduction on the site slowly. We’re just going to be examining six of his most famous dialogues, and we’re going to put them together all in a single review. Considering that I’m writing this post in April and have book reviews scheduled out into September, I’m not exactly hurting for content right now.
I’m honestly not a huge fan of the dialogue format, for as much as I have been known to use it myself. As my wife and I noted while I was reading this, it’s a good thing that my voice has a magical ability to put people to sleep, because otherwise my tendency to engage in Socratic-style arguments would probably have people force-feeding me hemlock. To me, the dialogue format is fantastic for having real-life, philosophical discussions and debates, but not so useful for presenting philosophical ideas in a textual format. Then again, Socrates would have been displeased that Plato was writing philosophy at all, so we should probably be thankful that we have any record of this foundational period of Western thought.
Last year (right around this time, actually, by some strange coincidence), I plowed through the collected works of Xenophon, and posted reviews for all of those works; if you were following the site at the time, you probably remember weeks’ worth of Thursday book reviews covering Xenophon’s writing on everything from his adventures in Persia to how to run a proper ancient Greek farmstead. Assuming that you didn’t get bored and start skimming those, the first of these Plato dialogues will look familiar to you: both Xenophon and Plato wrote versions of the Apology dialogue detailing Socrates’ defense to the charges levied against him by the Athenians. Scholars who study such things point to important differences in the presentation between the two, and observe that unlike Xenophon, Plato was actually present, but reading Plato’s version of events I did not identify any significant differences.
In fact, my main sense was of having read this before – logical, considering that I had read Plato’s Apology several years ago, when I first started digging into hobbyist philosophy. Apology is far from my favorite of Plato’s (or Xenophon’s) works; I don’t think it provides any noteworthy insights, and there are several places where Socrates either makes claims that contradict his earlier statements, and exhibits a certain false humility that is more off-putting than simple arrogance (and is probably why the fed him hemlock). In retrospect, especially reading it so soon after Mistborn: Final Empire and its examination of religions, one wonders whether Socrates was actually hoping to be “unjustly” executed so that he would be preserved in memory as a philosophical martyr; if he was truly so conniving, then he was singularly successful, considering that Socrates is now considered the foundation of Western philosophical thought, and his teachings are often put on a level with Jesus and Buddha.
There are scholars who have claimed that Socrates did not exist, and was instead a sort of stock character invented by philosophers like Plato as a literary device by which to present their musings and thoughts – a wise move if you’re looking to avoid being force-fed hemlock for trumped-up charges about corrupting the youth. My suspicion is that there was a real person named Socrates who did have teachings much like are presented in writings like Apology, and who was probably even executed for those teachings, but that after his execution philosophers like Plato started to put some of their own teachings into Socrates’ mouth both as a way to assume philosophical authority, and to distance themselves from the threat of execution.
For me, Crito is where this story of Socrates’ trial and execution, whoever it might be presented by, gains in interest and philosophical impact. Taking place after he has been sentenced to death but before the execution takes place, the Crito dialogue begins with one of Socrates’ friends/supporters approaching him furtively under cover of darkness to propose breaking him free. Socrates launches into a lengthy discussion of the implications and morality of fleeing from justice, effectively a debate that has continued well into modern times, with resonances in everything from morality’s source (is conduct right because the gods demand it, or do the gods demand it because it is right), to John Locke’s ideas of a social contract, to Abraham Lincoln’s essay on justice and the law, to Martin Luther King’s Letters from a Birmingham Jail. From whence does right action derive? Can right action be other than legal? Is the consent of the governed significant in the rightness of obedience to laws?
Socrates’ decision to remain (spoiler, in case you didn’t know that Socrates dies at the end) is based on a logic not dissimilar from Abraham Lincoln’s assertion that there can be no justice outside of the law, with the additional reasoning that because he has actively consented to be governed by the laws of Athens, it is therefore right, just, honorable, and moral to live (and die) in obedience to those laws, regardless of their apparent “fairness” in a specific case. Athens at the time had the interesting feature of offering a choice to those born in the city: they could “opt in” to being an Athenian at their age of majority, after they have had a chance to experience it, or they could “opt out” and seek their fortunes elsewhere. Socrates’ logic is therefore that since he knowingly agreed to the Athenian system, he is bound by its dictates.
This is a heavy topic, and worthy of greater discussion than I have given it here; it remains an open question. Martin Luther King would have strongly disagreed, arguing that there is a morality independent of the law and that if the law arrives at an immoral conclusion then it is in fact the moral duty of those affected to disobey it. This is the logic behind his philosophy of peaceful protest, for he sought to change immoral laws without violating moral ones – which necessarily brings us back to the source of that morality. Although Socrates dances around this idea in Crito, even he (or Plato) fails to offer a definitive answer.
The first two dialogues in this collection were relatively short; this one was as long as both of them combined. It would figure, therefore, that I found it more tedious and less insightful than either of its predecessors. Set just before Socrates’ execution, after his trial and after he rejects Crito’s offer of jailbreak, it is Socrates using his last moments of life to explain to his friends why they should rejoice for his opportunity to reach the pinnacle of philosophical achievement, rather than mourning his death.
I had problems with this dialogue on several levels. The most off-putting part was Socrates’ treatment of his family. When his wife and children show up and interrupt him talking with his friends on the morning before he is to be executed, he berates them for wasting his time and embarrassing him by being sad, and for disturbing him from his much more important friends. Whatever else we may think of Socrates, the way he treats his family is definitely a black mark on his record.
At a more intellectual level, the dialogue spends most of its time discussing the existence and immortality of the soul, in which discussion Socrates both falls into and lays a variety of logical traps. First, he clearly starts from the premise of the soul’s existence and immortality, and proceeds to seek arguments by which to enjoin others to share his opinion. To do this, he primarily relies upon analogies. He’ll say, for instance, how the soul might be like the music from a lyre, where the lyre is the crude matter of the mortal body, and the soul is logically therefore as immortal as the music that the lyre created. This is barely logic, and it certainly proves nothing, but it seems to be convincing enough for his friends in the abstract.
I could condense this review into a single statement: just read Aristotle’s Art of Rhetoric instead. However, I know that you readers expect more from me, especially in reviewing one of Plato’s classic dialogues, so I will attempt to provide a modicum of additional insight. This is another dialogue featuring Socrates (either as a real person or a literary device), but it is not at all associated with his eventual trial and execution, taking place instead some indeterminate period of time before those events.
Two main arguments compose this dialogue: one regarding the nature of love, and one regarding the art of rhetoric. Socrates starts out telling us that love is a base physical sensation that distracts from the pursuit of wisdom and philosophical perfection, but then changes his mind and admits that certain types and circumstances of love can be legitimate. While mildly interesting, I did not find the dialogue particularly insightful – I also question the wisdom of placing wisdom upon such an unapproachable pedestal. The subsequent discussion on rhetoric would have been fascinating, had I not already read Aristotle’s Art of Rhetoric, which provides a better organized and more rigorous treatment of the topic.
A tiny segment of the whole dialogue was the most interesting to me, and that was Socrates’ rant against writing as a means of recording information. To paraphrase, he claims that writing information down will leave no reason for anyone to actually know or remember that information, and that therefore writing will create the illusion of omniscience without the reality of knowledge or concomitant wisdom. I’ve written before about some of my thoughts on the role, importance, and purpose of memorization, and while I won’t go to the extreme that Socrates does, I do think that there is merit to the idea that just having the information recorded does not make it useful. Although only a sliver of the dialogue, this is an immensely relevant topic in the context of today’s “Information Age,” and helps make this one worth reading.
Xenophon also wrote a version of Symposium, which I described in my review for it as a comedic one-act play. Plato’s version is similar in form and setting – it involves some people getting drunk at a party – but takes a more serious tone. The topic is primarily that of love: the nature of love, the purpose of love, the rightness or wrongness of love. I did not find the insights offered on the particular topic enlightening; what I most took out of this dialogue was cultural history.
It is difficult to fully immerse oneself in another culture, especially one that is extinct. Aspects of the culture you know will inevitably intrude in the form of basic assumptions that you do not even think to question until you are confronted with evidence contrary to those assumptions. We can start to think, therefore, that a culture like that of ancient Athens is really not all that much different from something that we might encounter today, until some fact or offhand comment recorded in a dialogue remind us that this was a very different time, with very different mores, understandings, and expectations.
Take marriage and family, for instance. I might dedicate a whole post to the topic of marriage and family in speculative fiction writing, but for now, suffice to say that we tend to assume a certain degree of uniformity in perspectives on ideas of marriage and family. Many of those assumptions are counter to what was the norm in fifth century BCE Athens: family was not so much of a priority, for instance.
A myth is related about the origins of man and woman, which might have been my favorite part of this dialogue. In the story, humans were originally one being with four legs, four arms, and so forth. These “whole” humans were very powerful, and challenged the gods. In order to prevent the humans from destroying them, the gods split humans in two, into men and women, and that is why we are always looking for companionship and love – because we are literally incomplete.
There were a lot of words in this dialogue, without all that much being said (maybe like some of my blog posts). Maybe this is why I’m not a true philosopher – this kind of philosophy does not hold my attention very well. Fortunately, The Republic is much more my kind of philosophy.
If you’ve never read Plato’s Republic, you’ve still probably heard of it – it is one of the most famous pieces of ancient writing – and you also probably have a completely mistaken idea of what it’s about, since while this dialogue, which composes more than half by length of the content includes in this six dialogue collection, covers a lot of ground, what it talks about hardly at all is the formulation of an ideal republic, at least as we would understand that constitutional system today. That was certainly the case the first time that I read it, and while I had a better idea of what I was in for this time, parts of it still took me by surprise.
The dialogue begins with a discussion of justice, and one of the characters in the dialogue steps in and confronts Socrates. I don’t know what image you have in your head of Socrates, but after reading six dialogues featuring him, I found myself getting excited any time someone showed up to call him out on his shenanigans. While he has some fantastic insights, he also has a tendency to twist peoples’ words around in such a way that they lose track of the original argument, and he will often fail to address at all important questions to which he does not have ready answers.
Anyway, from a discussion of justice, Socrates eventually declares that the best way to understand the just individual is to magnify the concepts into a just state, with the idea being that since a state can be conceived like an individual writ large, they will be more able to analyze justice than on the small scale of a human. With that, Socrates launches into his description of the constitution of the “perfect state.”
In the West, we revere Hellenic civilization as the birthplace of democracy and representative government, and we look to the writings of that place and time to guide us today – they supposedly helped to inform the US Constitution, among other central pillars of modern democratic states. You might think that a dialogue entitled The Republic would be a key document, and would go about describing in Socrates’ customary detail the formulation of an idea republic. I thought that, before reading it. I could hardly have been more mistaken.
The “perfect state” that Socrates describes is about as antithetical to many of our core notions of a republican system of governance as it is possible to be. It is, in fact, a benevolent dictatorship (which many political scientists will tell you is, in fact, the ideal form of governance, but that’s a subject for another post – this review is already too long), and Socrates flat-out asserts that the state’s goal is not the happiness of fulfillment of the individuals composing it, but rather the glorification and fulfillment of the state itself. Contrary to the assertions of latter-day philosophers like John Locke and his social contract, Socrates claims that the people exist to serve the perfect state, not the other way around.
Suffice to say, for now, that I disagree, but this is supposed to be a book review, not a philosophical rebuttal of Socrates’/Plato’s ideas of the perfect system of governance. I may disagree, but the treatment was still fascinating, not least for its insights on Hellenic culture of the time, and reading alternative perspectives is always a valuable experience.
After waxing eloquent and at great length about the formulation of his perfect state, Socrates finally returns to the original topic of justice, and proceeds to examine justice through the lens of several different types of states, including his hypothetically perfect one. It is as much an exercise in logic and argument as it is in actually achieving an understanding of justice.
Oh, it’s also worth noting that the famous allegory of a cave is included in this dialogue – it’s one of those things that is much more insightful without the added context, in my opinion.
I may have had problems with some of its assertions, but this was still, by far, the most interesting, influential, and insightful of the dialogues included in this collection, and even if it were not a classic, I would recommend it if you have any interest at all in philosophy, governance, or justice (and really, we should all have some amount of interest in civics and justice).
That brings us to the end of this review. I know that it’s lengthy, but that’s probably better than subjecting you to over a month of reviews of Socratic dialogues. These are the sorts of works that have sunk themselves into our collective societal consciousness, but from which we have become sufficiently removed that we tend to no longer know what they are really saying, and why they became classics in the first place. If I had my choice, these are the sorts of classics that should be taught in schools, and maybe spend a little less time on Shakespeare. Since they are not, it’s left to people like me to persuade you that it’s worth taking the time to read something like this, but I really hope you do.