The Plato Project – Introduction

Jacques-Louis David, “The Death of Socrates,” 1787. The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York

Short version – I’m going to read and blog about Plato’s dialogues, beginning with The Apology of Socrates by next Sunday – I invite you to join in.

Longer explanation – Last fall, I took a class about Thucydides’ History of the Peloponnesian War.  In addition to being interesting in its own right, reading Thucydides made me think more historically about the Greek texts with which I was already familiar: mostly Homer, Sophocles, Aristotle, and most notably Plato.  I had already read them just as these monumental Classics of universal significance, rarely stopping to consider who actually wrote them, when and why and how.

I did not realize until taking this course (and listing to James Redfield talk about it) just how many of the characters appearing in Plato’s dialogues are based on historical figures.  The most prominent, of course, is Socrates, but Alcibiades appears in six different dialogues, and even some as seemingly minor as Crito had a real-world counterpart.  From what I remember, most of the characters become more archetypes than historically accurate portrayals (after all, Plato was a philosopher, not a dramatist or a historian, even if those categories didn’t mean what they mean to us now back then).  Still, learning what we do know about their historical realities seems interesting to me, and hopefully, to the other authors of this blog.

I’m not only interested in history, and given that David and Nates are actual working philosophers (unlike yours truly, just a lowly PhD dropout turned high school teacher) I thought a fresh consideration of these texts might spur some interesting dialogue.  Probably each of us has studied different Plato texts with different purposes in mind, but they are definitely the sort of things that reward re-reading, especially in light of new questions and perspectives.

I propose that we work Plato’s dialogues at the rate of about one per week.  If/when we get to the longer dialogues, we can break those into smaller sections and talk about them.

There’s been lots of debate down through the years about the order of composition of Plato’s dialogues, and thus no consensus, but it does seem like there is general agreement that we can break them into early, middle, and late (there is also some arguably spurious work).

One sequence is probably as good as another for the purposes of this blog, so I’ll take the one Wikipedia endorses (below – it includes clickable links to the Wikipedia article on each of those dialogues).  You can follow those through to available online texts too, mostly from the Jowett translation, which I’ll be reading because I have an old 2-volume set I’ll be using for my own reading.  I’m sure that’s not the best or most recent translation, and of course we can argue about translation too if that happens.

This list also has the advantage of beginning with one of the most widely read of all the Platonic texts: The Apology of Socrates.  We’ll likely go viral.

I’m going to re-read The Apology and post about it by next Sunday (1/11) evening.

Anyway, here’s the Wikipedia list, which is divided by period and then alphabetical after that [I really wanted to work in a joke here about “spades, then reverse-alphabetical after that” but was unable to, so I’ve just resorted to a bracketed reference to Greenwood-style 5-card stud].

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5 Responses to The Plato Project – Introduction

  1. Nates says:

    I think Greenwood-style reading order would be: Laws first, and then in reverse-order of length. But starting with the Apology seems reasonable.

    My sense of the chronology debates is that there’s increasing skepticism about the whole early/middle/late ordering. I remember Ian Mueller expressing doubts about it during our reading groups–but then he was skeptical by inclination. The direct evidence is surprisingly limited. We have testimony that the Laws was left unfinished at Plato’s death, and we know from internal references that Timaeus/Critias was written after the Republic (if I’m remembering correctly). But that’s about it. Attempts to establish relative date by style changes are interesting, but inconclusive. Content-based proposals differ wildly from one another, and have changed over the centuries as scholars changed their focus of attention.

    Honestly, I think what sustains this ordering system is simply its attractiveness as a teaching tool: namely, that we need some way of explaining to our students why Plato seems to contradict himself all the time. But maybe he wasn’t interested in systematic consistency.

    Anyway, looking forward to this project. I’ll chip in where I can!

  2. Josh says:

    Could you give me a couples of references (if you have them) to articles/book about the issue of sequencing and Plato?

    One of the reasons I love dabbling in the classics is that pretty much every position has been staked out, and generally it’s been staked out multiple times among people who aren’t even aware of each other (across eras, schools of thought, regions, etc). Redfield put it by saying that given the finite number of Greek and Latin texts we have and the ever growing number of PhD’s, every possible position has likely already been held by someone else if not multiple others. Which is either depressing or reassuring depending on how you see it.

    The only things I ever read (and I don’t even remember anymore who I’m referring to) were more sanguine about the prospects of stylistic analysis leading to firmer conclusions about Plato’s sequence. Now that I think about it, though, I probably just took their word for it, not really being in a position to assess their claims. I seem to remember them centering around relatively meaning-neutral words (particles, conjunctions) and comparing them with other Greek works for which we had more reliable dates? It seemed like a good approach because Greek is a particle-rich language. The techniques of cryptography and other data-analysis fields seem likely to offer at least something to say.

    Perry’s arguments about Homer and multiple authorship rely on similar analyses, more about whether there are ever multiple metrically equivalent phrases used in similar situations or not. He then compared that frequency with texts we knew to be singly authored (Virgil, mostly), or alternatively, recordings of performances that were orally composed (some contemporary Serbians he recorded a lot of). The frequencies in Homer were more in accord with the Serbians’ performances than with Virgil’s writings. But again, I certainly didn’t know those texts well enough even to know whether his counts were accurate, much less the analyses he based upon them.

    So a question that arises is – what, if anything, counts as good evidence in such a case (whether Homer or Plato)? And what inferences are reasonable to draw on the basis of that evidence?

    [I agree – by the way – that analysis based on the substance of the arguments would be difficult given that it requires the non-trivial move of establishing interpretive claims about the texts themselves, which would always make it harder to reach non-question-begging conclusions. But I suppose there’s a version of that argument you can make against non-meaning-dependent analyses too.]

  3. Nates says:

    Yes, I think the method of stylometry makes sense in theory, but it works better over long periods of time. It’s much harder to establish a sequence within the lifetime of a single author’s works. The changes end up being much more subtle, and you have to hope that these (presumably unconscious) changes are steady in one direction. With the results ending up somewhat inconclusive–and often pointing in different directions, some of the defenders of these chronologies have been accused of cherry-picking the data to support their preferred orders.

    There’s a helpful and brief overview of the state of the field in Zuckert, Plato’s Philosophers (pp. 1-5). I was reading her book for a paper I’m working on, but I ended up getting caught up in this topic instead. She also has useful citations to other recent critical pieces. For the positive case, you could try Thesleff, Platonic Patterns. I had it on interlibrary loan, but I didn’t get a chance to look at it too closely before I had to return it. Seems interesting though.

    As much as I respect Redfield as a scholar of ancient thought, I think there’s still plenty of room for innovation in Plato studies. I’ll even make the bold claim that I have first person evidence for this! I believe I have a reading of Plato’s account of the soul at the end of the Republic that is new and solves some interpretive puzzles. At any rate, I’ve found no previous version of this particular reading, despite much searching. But now I’m just hijacking the thread. Maybe I’ll write a separate post on my interpretation.

  4. Josh says:

    Hijack away… so you’re currently working on Plato? I didn’t realize.

  5. Nates says:

    “Currently” is maybe too strong. I do have a paper. It’s been well received at a conference, but rejected by a journal. This summer I’ll fix it up a little more and send it back out.

    Admittedly, it’s kind of ridiculous my trying to publish on Plato, but I do like the paper. One of the benefits of my job is that tenure is based entirely on teaching and professional development, not research. This makes it possible for me to pursue quixotic projects such as this one.

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