Plato the Artist: Seeing the Dialogues as a Whole

You have to read Plato two or three times before you can read Plato for the first time.

Seeing Plato dialogue by dialogue is a fine start. But a new world of wonder opens up when you see the dialogues as an artistic whole, a view that only comes about when you know them well enough to sense how they play off each other.

Here is an example:

In the Apology and the Phaedo, we learn how the citizens of Athens regarded Socrates as a sophist, a mere manipulator of words, and as such condemned him to death. Socrates argues persuasively that he is not a sophist, not a mere exploitive rhetorician. His dialectical approach is clearly educative and improves those who come into contact with him.

In the Protagoras, we get a look at a bunch of real sophists gathered together in the home of Callias. One of Socrates’ students wakes him before the sunrise so that they can go to Callias’s home and talk with the famous sophist and intellectual Protagoras.

Socrates firsts says that they can’t go so early in the morning. Instead, they should walk around first until the sun is up. Thus, as in so many dialogues, we get a journey motif.

It’s important to pay attention to the dialogues where journeys are involved. As you may come to realize, Plato is setting up Socrates as the new hero of the Greeks, replacing Homer’s hero Odysseus.

Socrates wants to arrive when the sun is up. The sun is a motif across dialogues representing the realm of the forms, or true knowledge. (See in the Republic the myth of the cave.)

While they walk, they engage in conversation about, What is a sophist? What do you want to learn from a sophist? Socrates educates his student through dialectic, but does not charge a fee.

This journey illustrates that Socrates engages in true education and improvement, but not as a profit as do the sophists.

First we get a view of the Socratic way of educating. Later we get a contrasting view of how the sophists educate.

So they reach the home of Callias and are met by a eunuch. The eunuch appears overwhelmed by the presence of sophists, who make long speeches and do not seem to listen to each other. The eunuch sees Socrates and his student and turns them away, saying that there is no more room for more sophists. Socrates replies that they are not sophists.

Here we see a glance at the Apology and the Phaedo. The eunuch, like the citizens of Athens, cannot tell the difference between a sophist and a real educator.

And you can imagine why Plato would allude to the Athenians being philosophical eunuchs.

Here’s is an example from the Republic, which contains ten dialogues in Books (as divided by scholars), and is so large that one must keep in mind that there is a larger artistic vision here playing out symbolically:

In Book VIII, Plato reveals the five kinds of souls, four of which are harmful and which relate to the four kinds of bad governments. (In the Republic Plato explores the best form of government in his view, which is the government of Philosopher Kings.)

From better to worse the bad governments are: Timocracy, Oligarchy, Democracy, and Tyranny.

The alert reader will also recognize that the four kinds of bad government are represented by those who question Socrates: Glaucon (Timocracy), Adeimantus (Oligarchy), Polemarchus (Democracy), and Thrasymachus (Tyranny). Socrates of course represents the government of Philosopher Kings.

And the alert reader will also see that as the Republic progresses, each questioner moves up the ladder. For example, in Book I Thrasymachus clearly advocates for Tyranny, but then in the beginning of Book V, after much silence, he agrees with the others and asks that Socrates continue and discussion the education of women (where Socrates reveals himself to be the first feminist).

In other words, Thrasymachus moves from being the Tyrannic Man and becomes the Democratic Man, a step up on the journey to the Philosopher King.

Plato is famous for his Theory of Forms, which is articulated most fully in the Republic. Many people could read the Republic and think Plato advances the theory and design of the state as fixed Platonic doctrine. But in a later dialogue, the Parmenides, Plato offers a powerful critique of his own theory, one that clearly plagues Plato the rest of his life. He was an honest philosophy, honest enough to acknowledge the critical weaknesses in his own theory.

You do not finish reading all of Plato’s dialogues knowing the answers. But you do finish having developed stronger mental processes of approaching questions and truth in a way that creates a more healthy intellectual and spiritual understanding.

And you achieve a high view of artistic truth and beauty.


from the Editor’s Introduction: The Best Complete Plato


2 thoughts on “Plato the Artist: Seeing the Dialogues as a Whole

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