With Plato, the tradition of critical Western speculation begins in the historic person of Socrates, a fifth-century B.C. Greek sage in ancient Athens during that city’s renaissance in democracy, art, and culture.
The primary sources for knowing Socrates are his student Plato and an historian and soldier, Xenophon. Others wrote in lighter ways about Socrates, including the comedic writer and his contemporary Aristophanes, whose comic play Clouds ridicules Socrates as a sophist and verbal pretender. But only Plato’s dialogues sustain a level of artistry that makes them singular and unique in the history of art.
The historical and cultural environment is critical for understanding Socrates and Plato. Although that history and culture is too much to cover for this introduction, I will mention two key influences.
First is the importance of mathematics, in terms of geometry and music. Socrates was strongly influenced by an understanding of Pythagorean mathematics, which highlighted the divine character of number, geometric forms, and musical intervals. Pythagoras, like Socrates, did not write down his philosophy. He led a secret group of followers in a religious application of mathematics to understand God and the orderliness of creation. He believed in reincarnation and the immortality of the Soul. Pythagoras stands as a permeating influence on Socratic and Platonic philosophy.
Second in importance to Socrates are the Ionian physicists, whom he opposed fiercely. These physicists included Thales, Heraclitus, Anaxagoras, Anaximander, Anaximenes, Archelaus, and Diogenes of Apollonia. They created a materialistic, rationalistic explanation for nature that precluded the need for myths, gods, and religious meaning. Nature was merely material that was in constant chaotic change or flux, a meaningless explanation for sense perception. It had no ultimate purpose.
Socrates opposed these physicists because he saw how these naturalistic philosophies created a kind of skepticism that undermined language and law, forming a foundation for political sophistry and manipulation through language, which ultimately removed the need for people and societies to have a moral character.
Socrates believed in political and moral order, and Plato’s dialogues are works of art designed to make the case for political and moral order, both of which are connected to healthy individuals and communities.
In Plato’s view, Athens killed the most just Athenian, Socrates, who least deserved punishment. They lacked judgment and the ability to make wise decisions, both in killing Socrates and engaging in the Peloponnesian Wars, which resulted in the collapse of Athenian democracy.
So Plato set out to create works of art to address the ability of people to overcome ignorance and make better decisions. And he did this by following Socrates, who where possible avoided relying on dogma.
The early dialogues tend to be aporetic, meaning that they end without a resolution. Socrates is not trying to get people to accept his definition of virtue, knowledge, justice, and so on. He does not even offer a definition. He is trying to get his partner in conversation (through dialectic as opposed to rhetoric) to think for himself: to think through the definitions, the weaknesses and contradictions, to become aware of how the mind holds false opinions, and is fundamentally ignorant in knowing truth.
With the middle dialogues, such as the Protagoras and Gorgias, Socrates begins to offer his own understanding of definitions. His purpose is to attack sophistry directly.
Plato’s later dialogues, such as the Laws, drop the character of Socrates altogether, and present a shift from pure dialectic (one to one) to rhetoric (one to many).
Plato is a poet who writes. Socrates is a sage who writes nothing. Plato, as a poet like Shakespeare, writes dramatically and symbolically. Nothing is wasted. Every line is important. In fact, I would say myth and poetry are more important in Plato than logic.
Logical analysis of Plato has great value, but in the last century, much has been lost in recognizing the poetic and mythic value of the dialogues. If you read a portion of a dialogue and think it is of lesser value than another that you think has the real meat of the conversation, you are missing out on Plato’s art.
The way a dialogue is framed at the beginning tells the reader something about the dialogue itself. A digression may actually be the central purpose of the dialogue.
For example, in the beginning of the Republic, Socrates says:
I went down yesterday to the Piraeus with Glaucon the son of Ariston, that I might offer up my prayers to the goddess; and also because I wanted to see in what manner they would celebrate the festival, which was a new thing.
If you take Plato at face value, you read the beginning of this dialogue as something merely descriptive. But Plato is an artist, a poet. Beginnings are important to Plato, and they set a symbolic tone.
For example, whenever you see in Plato someone ascending or descending, you can bet that Plato is symbolically illustrating where the person is going on the philosophical scale.
Later in the Republic, as the discussion on Justice heats up, Plato has Glaucon talk about the story of Gyges:
According to the tradition, Gyges was a shepherd in the service of the king of Lydia; there was a great storm, and an earthquake made an opening in the earth at the place where he was feeding his flock. Amazed at the sight, he descended into the opening…
Gyges finds a ring that makes him invisible. He uses his new power to kill the rightful king and take over the kingdom. Glaucon argues approvingly that anybody would do as Gyges had done.
Like Gyges, Glaucon has descended on the philosophical scale.
Plato’s artistry continually illustrates the difference between seeming and being. Like Shakespeare, Plato is concerned with seeming, which is the domain of rhetoric or public speaking to persuade a group, and being, which is the domain of dialectic or one-on-one conversation to agree on the truth.
Socrates does not want to tell the truth. Socrates wants the persons he talks with to state the truth themselves. (Shakespeare as a dramatist shows the seeming, but as a poet he reveals the being. The Merchant of Venice on stage seems to be anti-Semitic, portraying a bad Jew, but to the reader paying attention to the poetry and symbolism of the play, Shakespeare reveals the being of the Christian characters, who in their un-Christian treatment of Shylock, reveal their true hypocritical selves. Have you ever noticed what the opening words of each of the major Christian characters have in common?)
Plato, especially in the person of Socrates, does not want to tell you what to think. His dialogues are artfully designed to exercise how you think. Some of Socrates’ partners in conversation are lazy and do not want to exercise their minds, which often brings the dialogue to an end without a resolution. Meno, in the dialogue of that name, is lazy and does not want to think. He wants Socrates to tell him the answer. He is a bad student.
But sometimes Socrates has a good student, like Theaetetus, in the dialogue of that name, who exercises his mind strongly and thus allows Socrates to engage at a different level of conversation.
Socrates wants to push you towards knowledge by expanding the domain of your ignorance. For he knows what all sages know: you must make room for real knowledge by letting go of false knowledge.
from the Editor’s Introduction: The Best Complete Plato