Five ways of reading Plato
This position is very speculative, certainly, but there are grounds to it if we are to understand Greek philosophers in a particular way. But let us also be clear that Socrates’ aims were not simply to taunt his opponents or to have fun at their expense. Perhaps because he did not hold any views dogmatically himself, he only aimed to remove dogmatism of his fellow citizens; to this end, any argument would do and there is no need to have non-contradictory statements. Equally, it is then crucial to detach the historical Socrates from his student Plato. Plato did not aim to antagonise, only Socrates did, and the inconsistencies are then amply possible precisely because the thoughts are no longer of Plato who records, but of Socrates to antagonises.1
The polished Socrates
The previous way of reading Plato is not without problems. In the dialogues, Plato often presents hypothetical arguments that either Socrates or one of his interlocutors hold. Socrates aims not only to taunt his opponents, but also to change their opinion, to rid them of their dogmatism, to persuade of a certain ethical position. The meaning of virtue plays a dominant role – ‘how one ought to live’ is not easily reducible to skepticism without sacrificing the very core of virtuous life. In this regard, it is possible to read Plato as adding value to Socrates, as directing him towards particular aims and polishing up the quick remarks that were made in the agora. What follows then, is a set of ethical principles that are attributed to Socrates by Plato. I am not saying that Plato simply used Socrates as a mouthpiece for his own views, or that he changed Socrates’ views to fit his own – only that he adapted, as one inevitably does, Socrates’ views towards specific doctrines.
This view, just like the first, is of course very problematic regarding the contradictions. It shows a level of academic sloppiness – but it is also not surprising that it is mostly academics who puzzle themselves over the contradictions in Plato. We should, however, consider that Plato was writing for at least 40 years – is it not plausible that someone writing for such a long period of time would change his opinions more than once? There are contradictions in almost every author, they change opinions, and they present new ones every so many years.2
- I hold this position only speculatively, and I do not endorse it in any way. It is my belief that Ancient Greeks did not aim for an eternal truth, but for contingent wisdoms, which can only come by abandoning all dogmatic notions (eternal truth entails dogmatism). The inconsistent Socrates is an embryo of what would later come in Sextus Empiricus as Outlines of Pyrrhonism (Amazon, and my article here).
- I have once read that ‘if Nietzsche does not contradict himself on an issue, he has not thought about that issue long enough’ (paraphrasing). I am not entirely sure of the author, but I think it was Karl Jaspers. The same, I contend, applies to Plato.