Reading Plato

Plato has a mixed reputation in modern times. Most people who have read Plato are introduced to him through The Republic. College undergraduates are often forced to read some part of The Republic, which can’t endear them much to the author. The Republic is a large and somewhat tedious book to read. Students who have not been prepared for such writing in high school perceive The Republic as only a study in political theory. Seen from this perspective, Plato’s philosopher run monarchy seems backwards in comparison with modern democratic governments. However, there is much to learn from the writings of Plato if we would read him correctly.

Plato writes in a manner that is unusual in our era. Typically, authors writing on a subject choose to communicate with their audience propositionally. The author tells readers directly what he or she was to tell them, like I am doing now. Such is the style of Plato’s student Aristotle. Plato follows a more indirect approach to communicating to his audience. He is not only concerned with what he is trying to communicate but the form his communication takes as well. For this reason, Plato frames his books as dialogues or conversation between two of more characters.

Socrates, who was Plato’s teacher, is the main character of Plato’s writings. A typical book by Plato might begin with a group of young men wandering through the streets of Athens. Running into into Socrates, they invite him to one of their homes for supper. After dinner, with glasses of wine in hand, they goad him into a dialogue. As a character says in Phaedrus, “A pastime, Socrates, as noble as the other is ignoble, the pastime of a man who can be amused by serious talk, and can discourse merrily about justice and the like.” Socrates leads the young men in an exploration of their chosen subject through his use of carefully chosen questions and observations.

Another difficulty people have when approaching Plato is that they picture philosophy as an esoteric discipline, involving obscure and dusty subjects. Philosophy’s origins were actually quite practical. Life is full of questions. Philosophy started when people set out to explore these questions in a purposeful way. As pope emeritus Benedict XVI says, “Philosophy at that time was not generally seen as a difficult academic discipline, as it is today. Rather, the philosopher was someone who knew how to teach the essential art: the art of being authentically human-the art of living and dying.”

Plato’s main concern was the state of the human soul. Our soul is that part of ourselves which is not physical. It is also the part of us which Plato believed was eternal and undying. For example, The Republic is not primarily a book about politics but a book about justice. Someone had asserted to Socrates, in the course of conversation, that justice is simply the interests of the strong. Stated another way, “Might makes right.” Most humans have some innate sense that this view is wrong. Socrates too believes that it is wrong. What then is justice? It can’t be what people feel is right because that too boils down to the will of the strong.

Socrates is faced with another related problem. The people we consider unjust often succeed in life, while those whom we consider just often suffer. Asaph finds himself with the same struggle in Psalms 73. Socrates, however, is a Greek pagan. He doesn’t have a revelation from God like Asaph. He must built a standard of justice on what he sees in the world around him. He must use what theologians call general revelation to create a standard for justice. Since describing a just human being is difficult, Socrates suggest that he and his listeners imagine a city. This city will serve as a large scale model of the just soul.

Not only is Plato teaching about justice and a well ordered soul in The Republic, but he is teaching his reader how to think. The dialogue is a model for how someone can explore an idea or subject. The dialogue need not even happen out loud, it could be carried out in the mind.

I think that some variation of the Socratic dialogue is one of the best ways to learn. Gather a small group of people, find a comfortable place to relax, provide food and drink, and then begin an orderly discussion.

There is a strange idea abroad that in every subject the ancient books should be read only by the professionals, and that the amateur should content himself with the modern books. Thus I have found as a tutor in English Literature that if the average student wants to find out something about Platonism, the very last thing he thinks of doing is to take a translation of Plato off the library shelf and read the Symposium. He would rather read some dreary modern book ten times as long, all about “isms” and influences and only once in twelve pages telling him what Plato actually said. The error is rather an amiable one, for it springs from humility. The student is half afraid to meet one of the great philosophers face to face. He feels himself inadequate and thinks he will not understand him. But if he only knew, the great man, just because of his greatness, is much more intelligible than his modern commentator. The simplest student will be able to understand, if not all, yet a very great deal of what Plato said; but hardly anyone can understand some modern books on Platonism. It has always therefore been one of my main endeavours as a teacher to persuade the young that firsthand knowledge is not only more worth acquiring than secondhand knowledge, but is usually much easier and more delightful to acquire.
-C.S. Lewis in the introduction to Athanasius on the Incarnation

As Lewis says, it is far better to go to the source than to listen to someone (like me) talk about Plato. If you are looking for a first book to read by Plato I would recommend the Apology (Though the Symposium is also a good starter). The Apology is short and fairly easy to follow. It doesn’t make as much use of dialogue as other works, but that is okay.

‘Apology’ comes from a Greek word meaning “to give a defense.” It is from this same Greek word that we get the term apologetics. In Plato’s Apology, Socrates is an old man defending himself before an Athens court. The leading citizens of the city have charged him with introducing new gods and corrupting the city’s youth. Socrates defends himself by telling the audience that he once received word from the god Apollo, through the oracle at Delphi, that he was the wisest man in the world. Socrates decided to test the oracle by going to the those who were considered wise and examining them with questions. Those who were considered wise in Athens were the politicians and other public figures.

Someone who decided to do this today would probably fare as well as Socrates did. When Socrates probed the wisdom of the wise, their ideas of justice, morality, and the nature of the soul, he discovered that they weren’t as wise as they appeared. Adding to this, much of his questioning probably took place in the agora or marketplace. Such public exposure of the “wise” of Athens naturally earned him many enemies. Furthermore, Socrates’ behavior attracted a following of young men who began to imitate his style of questioning. His opponents were finally able to drag Socrates into court on charges which he argues are unjustified.

When reading the Apology, it is important to remember that Plato has a variety of motives for what he is writing. He is obviously trying to defend the legacy of his teacher and his style of philosophy. Furthermore, the Apology is being presented as a model of what a skilled apology should look like. One can imagine Plato using this work to teach his students rhetorical skills and techniques. Rhetoric was an important subject in the schools of Ancient Greece and later became one of the three main subject taught in Roman education system.

The Apology has some relevance to interpreters of Scripture because the genre of apology can be found in the Bible. Paul uses the rhetoric of apology in his epistles. Techniques used in Plato’s Apology can be found in Paul’s own apologies in 1 Corinthians 9 and 2 Corinthians 10-12 and in his letter to Philemon. There is also an interesting similarity between Peter’s two apologies before the chief priests and the Sadducees in the book of Acts and Socrates’ own apology. In Acts 5:29 Peter declares, “We must obey God rather than men.” This is almost identical to Socrates’ statement of “but I shall obey God rather than you” (29d). This adds further significance to the astonishment of the Sadducees when they learned that Peter and John were “uneducated, common men” (Acts 4:13).


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