The Language of Plato

We live in an age of simple sentences. Some may say we have moved into an age of simple words, or even simple letters and numbers where smartphone texting rules all.

Language embodies consciousness, and simple sentences embody simple states of consciousness. The ancient Greeks, and philosophers for the next 2,500 years after, expressed complex thoughts requiring complex sentences.

Today’s readers often stop reading when faced with complex sentences that can run an entire paragraph, not realizing that to exercise one’s mind with such complex sentences creates the same kinds of opportunities that exercising one’s body with complex exercises creates.

The mind benefits from development as much as the body.

The ancient Greek language allowed for ever-increasing complexity of thought. Thinkers could command an array of language tools to develop complex and subtle relationships among ideas, both coordinate and subordinate.

Here’s an example of a paragraph that expresses several ideas as twelve simple sentences, leaving the reader with a set of simple, coordinate ideas:

A polluted soul is impure at the time it departs. It is the companion and servant of the body. It is in love with the body. It is fascinated with the body and its desires and pleasures. The soul sees the body as truth. Such truth exists only in touch, sight, and taste. The body is used for lusts. Such a soul is accustomed to hate and fear. That soul avoids the intellectual. The body’s eye views the intellect as dark and invisible. The intellectual can only be attained by philosophy. Will such a soul depart pure and unalloyed?

Now here is the same set of ideas expressed by Plato in the Phaedo in a single sentence. Notice the subordinate and relative relationships established. Notice the subtlety of expression that he accomplishes.

But the soul which has been polluted, and is impure at the time of her departure, and is the companion and servant of the body always, and is in love with and fascinated by the body and by the desires and pleasures of the body, until she is led to believe that the truth only exists in a bodily form, which a man may touch and see and taste, and use for the purposes of his lusts—the soul, I mean, accustomed to hate and fear and avoid the intellectual principle, which to the bodily eye is dark and invisible, and can be attained only by philosophy—do you suppose that such a soul will depart pure and unalloyed?

For new or inexperienced readers of Plato, and the commentaries of commentators and translators who follow him, please do not be put off by the complexity of the sentences.

Stretch yourself; exercise your mind. Although initially wearing, like physical exercise, your mind will appreciate the expansion given it by your continuing efforts.

One great value of eliminating all of the in-text editorial comments, citations, and annotations is that you can grapple directly with Plato and build valuable mental muscles without distraction.

For in reality, Plato is not that difficult. The exercise equipment is simple. It’s the set of exercises and regimen that challenges.

Plato is also rewarding because he reveals how so much of current thought is a repeat of thought 2500 years ago. If you are interested in Western philosophy, and to some extent Eastern philosophy as seen in Socrates’ voice, start with Plato.

Although each dialogue provides introductions by the translators, I recommend the reader tackle each dialogue first. Why spoil a first reading with someone else’s opinion? Sometimes a fresh mind sees things others have missed.

Also keep in mind that, although Plato writes seriously, his writing is filled with humor. Socrates is a funny guy. He is constantly making jokes and sly ironic comments. Plato’s humor may seem to lapse more in some of the late dialogues, but it is always there, especially when Socrates is on the scene.

So read these dialogues with good humor.

Enjoy the journey!

*****

from the Editor’s Introduction: The Best Complete Plato

Cover-Plato-3-100

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