To have everything of Plato in one volume, regardless of whether or not it has been ascribed to him correctly, is a fortunate event: one can survey all at once the man himself and his history, what he certainly wrote and what others foisted on him as well as what at different times, both in the past and at the present, has been denied to be his. In the so-called Thrasyllan edition, there are thirty-six genuine pieces, arranged in nine tetralogies.

Plato hides himself behind his characters, and in this sense his dramas are more like Greek tragedies than comedies.

The editor of the present edition, which contains translations by several hands, is John M. Cooper, who teaches philosophy at Princeton University. Cooper puts an asterisk against six of the Thrasyllan dialogues, which he says are generally agreed not to be Plato’s, a dagger against two others, whose authorship is still disputed, and a double dagger against the thirteen letters, some of which are thought now to be genuine. The asterisk is also put against eight others that were not part of the Thrasyllan corpus. There are, then, twenty-seven dialogues with which the reader can confidently begin. But how to begin? There were in antiquity various proposals designed to show the way to begin the reading of Plato; but, as they were all geared to a neo-Platonic orthodoxy, they are, despite their apparent plausibility, unsuitable for a contemporary beginner who is not grounded in any school.

Plato hides himself behind his characters, and in this sense his dramas are more like Greek tragedies than comedies, for the tragic poet never appears and lets the action stand in for his thought. Socrates, however, is the main speaker in twenty of the dialogues, and the instigator of five others. He is Plato’s representation of the philosopher, through whom we are meant to understand what philosophy is. Plato has thus given us a riddle: the universality of a way of thinking is concentrated into an individual, whose eccentricities, both of an outward and inward kind, resist any attempt at universalization. The essential anonymity of mind should, we are led to believe, be embodied in the stranger, who is always at home in his homelessness. “The other” is, according to Diotima in the Symposium, Eros, and Eros appears to take on his human form in Socrates; but in this form Eros is completely at home in Athens and never the stranger.

It is unfortunate that both Nicholas P. White and C. J. Rowe, the translators respectively of the Sophist and Statesman, whose main speaker is a stranger and is addressed throughout as such, chose to turn him into a “Visitor,” and change the vocative “Oh Stranger” into “Sir,” and also that Trevor J. Saunders, the translator of the Laws, whose main speaker is again a stranger, chose to label him “Athenian,” and again have him addressed as “Sir.” In suppressing the alien in the stranger, the translators have put an unnecessary block in the way of our confronting directly the radical difference between two versions of what the philosopher is, one of whom presumably comes closer to being the philosopher while appearing to be as far away from the other as possible.

If we start with the puzzle of the apparent conflation of the universal and the particular in Socrates and the self-evidence of their separation, we have before us in a Platonic fiction the mystery of the so-called Platonic Forms or Ideas. According to this theory, particulars are said to participate in the universal Forms but always fall short of realizing them fully. The incarnation of the fully real in Socrates is radically defective. An elementary reflection, then, on the vividly brought-to-life Socrates—all of whose features, from his bulging eyes and swaggering gait to his comprehensive irony, carry universal implications—seems to lead at once to the most metaphysical of questions. The ease with which this can be done forces one to pull back, and question whether one must not start from the one point in the real that Plato could not make up, though it naturally lent itself to symbolic representation: the trial and death of Socrates.

Apart from his death, “Socrates” could just as well be “Nobody,” and the name no more than a rigid designator for whatever speeches Plato wanted to assign to it. The problem of appearance and self-identity seems once more to be tied in with that series of events in which Socrates finally turns into a corpse and ceases to be who he is, for as he says on that occasion, “I am this Socrates, the one who is now conversing and putting in order each of the things being said.” The first indication we have, then, of how to arrange the dialogues is to put together the seven dialogues which revolve around Socrates’ trial and death. These seven include some that are held to belong to Plato’s earliest and latest stages of his life. He was always thinking, it seems, about the meaning of the last days of Socrates. The temporal sequence of the dialogues is: Theaetetus, Euthyphro, Sophist, Statesman, Apology of Socrates, Crito, Phaedo.

The Theaetetus raises the question, What is wisdom or knowledge? and the Euthyphro puts this question in its pre-philosophic form, What is piety? Both of these dialogues end in failure: neither philosophy nor non-philosophy has an answer. The next two dialogues are meant to answer a three-part question Socrates puts to a stranger who was trained in the school of Parmenides. The philosophy of the One is to explain whether sophist, statesman, and philosopher are one, two, or three. The stranger says that they are three, but Plato decides to give us only two of them, and thus seems to imply that the third, the missing Philosopher, is to be found in the Apology, Crito, and Phaedo. We are, then, back where we started, for Socrates was the riddle and not the answer.

This constellation of seven dialogues is not the only ordered set in the Platonic galaxy. The pair of the first magnitude are the Republic and Laws, the first of which deals with the nature of the political and the best political order, and the second of which handles simultaneously the principles of law in general and the structure of the best lawful regime. Each of these has its own prelude, which though now regarded as spurious does put a frame around the issues with which the major works deal. The Clitophon prefaces the Republic; it is a vehement denunciation of the know-nothing Socrates, who exhorts everyone to start on the road to virtue but then stands squarely in the way of the converted. The Minos prefaces the Laws and has Socrates declare, “The law wants to be the discovery of what is.” Malcolm Schofield, the translator of the Minos in this volume, garbles it: “Then ideally law is discovery of reality.”

Be that as it may, the Republic brings in its train the Timaeus, which begins with a summary by Socrates of what appears to be a fragment of the Republic (from Book II to the middle of Book V) and ends with a construction of a universe in which the citizen of Socrates’ best city could have his home. The Timaeus is followed by the unfinished Critias, which was to tell the story of the preexistence of Socrates’ city in Athens’ distant past. These three dialogues were to be completed by a missing fourth: Hermocrates, based on the Syracusan general who defeated the Athenian invasion force in a decisive engagement of the Peloponnesian War, was to round out the program Socrates set. Once more, then, we are given the suggestion of completion only to be disappointed. Does the solution to the enigma of Socrates always end in another enigma?

On at least one occasion, Plato completed a square. The two forms that public sophistry can take, rhetoric and sophistry proper, are dealt with in the Gorgias and Protagoras respectively. And the two forms in which eros shows itself, either in the speech the lover makes to the beloved or in the experience of the lover in himself, appear in two separate dialogues, the Phaedrus and Symposium. It is clear that Socrates, with his double erotic art, is meant to stand in opposition to both the sophistry of Protagoras and the rhetoric of Gorgias, and that even a reformed Gorgianic rhetoric, with justice and punishment at its core, should have nothing to do with either lover or beloved. Since, however, justice and eros are either in conflict through the law or experientially intertwined in jealousy, the Socratic claim to an unencumbered eros involves him in a dispute with either the political version of eros, the tyrant—whose basest form is the rock-star—or its poetical understanding in comedy and tragedy. It is for this reason that all the characters in the Protagoras reappear in the Symposium but have to be supplemented by Aristophanes.

The square, then, that these four dialogues form can be attached to another set of political dialogues, for in the Gorgias Socrates makes rhetoric out to be the phantom image of justice and thus all but invites us to think of the Republic as the place where the reality of justice is to be found, and he likewise makes sophistry out to be the phantom image of the art of legislation, which points in turn to the Laws as its reality. Two constellations, then, are thereby connected, and though there is only one dialogue, the Theaetetus, that explicitly gets linked with two others, it seems that a tentative road map can be drawn elsewhere to guide us in our reading. The diacritical and syncritical ways of Socratic dialectic are thus at work in the parting and pairing to which the collection of Platonic dialogues, large and small, regular and irregular, is itself subject.

Does the solution to the enigma of Socrates always end in another enigma?

Each Platonic dialogue seems both to stand on its own and to declare its dependence on others. The Republic is concerned with a single virtue, justice. It therefore has to be put together with those dialogues that deal with the three other classical virtues. The Charmides handles moderation or σωφροσύνη (sophrosyne), self-knowledge and self-control, and echoes Socrates’ definition of justice in the Republic—it is to mind one’s own business—placed in the mouth of the future tyrant Critias, who seems to find in Socrates’ definition a free pass to complete tyranny. It is to be stressed, though, that however close moderation and justice come together they are still apart, for in the Charmides moderation is never called a virtue. The Laches handles courage and is as ostensibly aporetic as the Charmides.

Why should justice gain a definition but the other virtues in which Socrates’ guardians are trained fail to obtain a final form when they are treated apart? At the end of the Statesman, the stranger suggests that their unity is only in philosophy. What, then, of the fourth virtue, wisdom? Why does Plato once again fail to complete the square? What do these missing fourths stand for? The unfinishability of philosophy and the ultimately insoluble questions? The Republic is concerned with justice in its double form—the right order of the soul and the right order of society. It therefore calls attention to what it does not handle, the pattern of right and the experience of right. The relation between the pattern of right—what is called poetic justice—and the experience of right is the theme of tragic poetry, where the satisfaction its plot may bring is at odds with the terror the exaction of right induces. Tragic poetry is accordingly a central theme of Plato, for the pattern of right belongs to the image the poet makes while the experience of right carries with it all the conviction of the real.

We are forced to wonder whether Plato himself as the master poet has not reproduced something of this kind philosophically. Is there a philosophic experience that accompanies a philosophic argument that escapes being written and yet is still an argument? Is going through an argument, with an awareness of all its slips and slides, merely the first step to the understanding of the argument? Is the conclusion of an argument just as unsatisfactory by itself as the disappearance of Oedipus at the end of Oedipus at Colonus if one cannot see in it his double crime and bind together three things: his poking his own way to death without a guide, the condition of his bound feet when he was exposed as an infant, and his solution to the riddle of the Sphinx? Oedipus’s final moment collapses his life in time.

In the Phaedrus, Socrates makes two epideictic speeches. The first faults the lover, the second praises him. Socrates later says that these two speeches are one. He urges us, against the self-evident differences of the two speeches, which we have read in order, taken each by itself, to view them in their bilateral symmetry as capable of being mapped onto one another in such a way that they become one.

At the center of the Phaedrus is the famous image of the soul as the union of a noble white horse and obstreperous black horse driven by a charioteer. The obvious morality of Socrates’ first speech is represented by the right hand and thus equivalent to the noble white horse of the second speech; the left hand is equivalent to the black horse in the second. Though the right hand cannot be made congruent with the left by any spatial transformation, we are asked to find a way in thought to smuggle the first speech into the second such that the structure of the soul with its three or four parts does not stand at odds with the principle of soul as self-motion. It seems essential that this is to be done despite the obvious difficulty that it would entail the dissolution of the difference between human and divine madness upon which Socrates’ whole argument seems to turn. What encourages us to consider the recommendation as not sheer playfulness is that the ill-shaped and unmanageable black horse has the snub nose of Socrates. Inasmuch as the Phaedrus is the only writing of Plato that deals with writing, it would seem to follow that Socrates’ injunction to us in that dialogue stands for a universal exhortation to undertake our own moral transformation. Now, in this single volume the Greekless reader has everything he needs in order to begin the fulfillment of this not unpleasant task.

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This article originally appeared in The New Criterion, Volume 16 Number 6, on page 70
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