Five ways of reading Plato

How to read Plato; and was Socrates real?

Five ways of reading Plato

When approaching Plato’s dialogues, we are led to a quandary concerning several contradictory positions held, and yet attributed to Socrates. The most blatant of these is between the positions held in Protagoras and Gorgias regarding the Socrates’ view(s) on pleasure. In the former he equates what is ‘good’ with pleasure; while in the latter he rejects this equation put forward by one of his interlocutors (Callicles).

I am not interested in resolving this contradiction. Many respected academics have tried to, and typically have come with opposing views. My interest in this article is to elucidate the varying possibilities of reading Plato’s dialogues; and indeed on the character of Socrates in these dialogues. I see five ways to approach Plato’s dialogues, all of which say something about the contradictions and, hopefully, can clear up the confusion arising from reading his work. It should go without saying that a combination of these ways is not only possible, but even recommended for an in-depth understanding of Plato. Yes, that could lead to contradictions (and much headache), but will also make the reading more pleasant and hopefully also clearer.

Plato as Socrates’ student

The view currently held by most scholars in the field is that Plato’s dialogues are based on a historical figure of Socrates. As his student, Plato thought as Socrates did (or thought that he thought as Socrates did) and aimed to represent Socrates’ views through his dialogues. What we thus have is Plato playing lip service to his master in his early work, aiming to spread Socrates’ views through his writing. As he matures, Plato engages in philosophy for its own sake and, while still playing lip service to Socrates, he in fact develops his thoughts further, changes his mind and becomes less ‘Socratic’ and more ‘Platonic’. The change from clear dialogical/conversational style in Plato’s early work to more scholarly work in his later dialogues is meant to testify to this end as well.

Holding this view explains the inconsistencies/contradictions – Plato grew from a student of Socrates to a philosopher in his own right. This reading may not explain all contradictions in Plato’s work, but it remains the most dominant one, and perhaps the most natural one to hold. We think it natural because, as teachers know, students more often than not start by mimicking their teachers for a very long time (and we hate that) and usually reproduce the college lectures to the best of their ability. It is only later in their research (if they become researchers) that their own voice slowly starts coming through.

Pedagogical method

It is often opined that some of Socrates’ positions and arguments are so poorly thought through, that it is almost embarrassing to even have put them to writing by his student. But what if Plato only intended to propose a pedagogical method? It is possible that his intentions were to have the reader think about the issues that are discussed, and find the answers by reading between the lines, between the different characters. Contemporary educators find great pleasure in this kind of ‘sadism’ – but the truth of the matter is that it also works very well. Studies have shown that giving answers to students up front is almost useless (I am exaggerating), and that going through the problem is of much more benefit (here I am not exaggerating). Some universities are slowly shifting towards something called Problem Based Learning (and similar, like Bloom’s taxonomy, etc.) precisely because going through problems is deemed of higher benefit to students than spoon-feeding them the right answers.

According to this view, the inconsistencies in Plato do not really matter – after all, neither Plato nor Socrates are then believed to hold any concrete views but only aim to encourage the reader/listener to think. In support of this claim, there is The Seventh Letter, which reveals the existence of his ‘secret teachings’ or ‘esoteric doctrine’, communicated orally and not written down in his dialogues. If this is the case, as some scholars have argued, then we can easily disregard the contradictions and hold the pedagogical method having some weight.

Plato the frivolous writer

Additionally, it can be held that Plato did not hold any particular views. He was merely exploring different possibilities, writing his thought processes down.  He was writing frivolously and without any particular outcome in mind. Any writer can confirm that we often do this – the aim is to strike that moment of inspiration from which something beautiful will come out. In Plato’s case, what came out are numerous dialogues of good quality on their own/individual standing. Their merit is precisely in that they can convince the reader of a position held in that one dialogue. The dialogues are then not meant to be compared to one another, but only to present the reader of a position. Any inconsistencies are irrelevant because Plato was not ‘dogmatically’ holding to any position but only aimed to write – he was, as it were, writing out loud. A lot of thought experiments in history of philosophy are in fact nothing more than this particular approach of thinking on a piece of paper – a ‘what if?’.

The point here is not to diminish Plato’s work as a mere thought experiment without any value, but in contrast to enrich it beyond the scholarly/academic philosophical reflection. Contradictions in his work become superfluous, the reader is enthused with a position – how far he aims to go with that position is then up to the reader. As long as the reader finds value in, and does not aim for some absolute truth beyond that value, becomes irrelevant.

Some recent scholars have pointed out that Plato was only using Socrates as a genre – the so-called Sôkratikoi logoi were written throughout this period and there is evidence of similar writings by Phaedo, Aeschines, Antisthenes, Euclides, and Aristippus (next to the better-known Plato and Xenophon whose works remain). The aim of this genre was to present a believable depiction of the real Socrates discussing similar topics that he would, but remaining fictitious at heart. The aim was, in other words, only to resemble the real Socrates by capturing his spirit and not to reproduce him. We have only somehow assumed that Plato was writing philosophical treatise, or historical narratives; in reality he was writing fictitious meetings of Socrates with great men and arguing certain positions. In this regard, Plato simply wrote as a tribute to Socrates, but did not aim to capture his thought, nor to present his own – in neither case do the contradictions then matter.1

The inconsistent Socrates

It is, of course, also simply possible that Socrates himself was somewhat of an eccentric person. My analysis of his trial certainly points to this direction – he aimed to antagonise his opponents, perhaps make fun of them, show their dogmatism and lack of grounds for their beliefs. Socrates may have been crazy and irrational, perhaps somewhat mad even, and believed opposing views simultaneously. Perhaps, as I have suggested before, he changed his mind on the issue depending with whom he was arguing, precisely for the reason of keep that passionate agon alive – ‘the Greek spirit’ as Arendt calls it. Socrates then was not interested in truth, as most contemporary philosophers are thought to be (very few in fact are), but only in the process of philosophising. Plato then only recorded the master’s words and deeds, he was a mere historian/biographer – impressed by a philosopher of great stature, he aimed to reproduce his words in writing for all to witness the ample abilities of his teacher to persuade whomever that they are wrong in whatever it is that they are believing.

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.2

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.3

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  1. Cf. further Osborne, C. (2006). Socrates in Platonic Dialogues. Philosophical Investigations, 29 (1), pp. 1-21.
  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).
  3. 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.

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4 Responses

  1. I really like your readings, and I think they are mutually compatible and reinforce each other nicely.

    I particularly like view (3), because I tend to develop my own ideas through frivolous writing and do not expect them to have great consistency over time. Dialogues with ‘prophets’ or ‘moral exemplars’, in the particular form of Socratic dialogue, also seems like a popular medium of the time and since. However, I also doubt this view given that writing and publishing in Athens would have been significantly more difficult than it is today, even for somebody as wealthy as Plato. I can’t imagine that Plato would write frivolously instead of developing his philosophy through discussion with students, as Socrates before him and Aristotle after him did.

    • ippolit says:

      Frivolous writer should probably be between hyphens. I tend to agree with you that it is doubtful that Plato would simply write down whatever came to his mind; much thought definitely went into the dialogues, and much preceding discussion with his students, etc.

      My point is of course, as you understand, that he wrote not with a particular consistency in mind, but for the sake of writing. As the last paragraph of that view shows, there was a genre of writing where Socrates would meet people of fame and have arguments with them. The aims of the dialogue are irrelevant then, there is a level of entertainment, rather than learning, involved. And the audience then is very limited to the similar writers, not academics over two millennia later. But as other views, this is only a speculation. But I think it fruitful to occasionally approach Plato from this position as well, as you say, and I say too, a combination of these ways are always possible and indeed encouraged.

  2. Stefan Schindler says:

    It would likely be useful to distinguish between contradiction and paradox, where the latter is seen as viable, in the sense of a middle way encompassing the validity of seemingly opposed positions — much in the way that the Tao sign encompasses both yin and yang, and yin and yang each contain the other. Heraclitus and Hegel are paradigmatic. A paradoxical thinker is dialectical, and has a Zen sensibility. And Kierkegaard rightly said: “A thinker without paradox is like a lover without passion.” Socrates and Plato had a profound sense of irony. Dialectic, irony and paradox overlap, and offer a viable alternative to the rigidly dualistic thinking that always demands either/or. Even Aristotle understood this, when he asserts that a statement (or position) cannot be true and false at the same time IN THE SAME WAY. It’s that latter qualification that shows that Aristotle learned from Plato (who learned from Socrates and Pythagoras) the value of common sense in seeing that a statement (or position) can be true IN ONE SENSE while — at the same time! — be false IN ANOTHER SENSE. For example, I am daily proud of my country (in terms of the ideals upon which it was founded, and the freedoms it still partly embodies) and deeply ashamed of the many ways it has betrayed those ideals and continues to do so. In Norman Mailer’s terms — I love and despise my country (at the same time, but for different reasons), and this is a paradox, not a contradiction. In sum, I feel that your essay could benefit from a greater sensitivity to nuance by employing the terms and categories I have suggested, with a greater application of what goes by the name of “Socratic irony.” Your essay is inspired and astute, and exhibits an edifying structure and direction. But I suspect there are types of logic and layers of meaning which need to be more fully explored and explicated in order to achieve the lucidity and profundity you are hoping for.

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