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First published Sat Mar 20, 2004; substantive revision Tue Aug 1, 2017

Plato (429?–347 B.C.E.) is, by any reckoning, one of the mostdazzling writers in the Western literary tradition and one of the mostpenetrating, wide-ranging, and influential authors in the history ofphilosophy. An Athenian citizen of high status, he displays in hisworks his absorption in the political events and intellectual movementsof his time, but the questions he raises are so profound and thestrategies he uses for tackling them so richly suggestive andprovocative that educated readers of nearly every period have in someway been influenced by him, and in practically every age there havebeen philosophers who count themselves Platonists in some importantrespects. He was not the first thinker or writer to whom the word“philosopher” should be applied. But he was soself-conscious about how philosophy should be conceived, and what itsscope and ambitions properly are, and he so transformed theintellectual currents with which he grappled, that the subject ofphilosophy, as it is often conceived—a rigorous and systematicexamination of ethical, political, metaphysical, and epistemologicalissues, armed with a distinctive method—can be called hisinvention. Few other authors in the history of Western philosophy approximatehim in depth and range: perhaps only Aristotle (who studied with him),Aquinas, and Kant would be generally agreed to be of the same rank.

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1. Plato's central doctrines

Many people associate Plato with a few central doctrines that areadvocated in his writings: The world that appears to our senses is insome way defective and filled with error, but there is a more real andperfect realm, populated by entities (called “forms” or“ideas”) that are eternal, changeless, and in some senseparadigmatic for the structure and character of the world presented to our senses. Among themost important of these abstract objects (as they are now called,because they are not located in space or time) are goodness, beauty,equality, bigness, likeness, unity, being, sameness, difference,change, and changelessness. (These terms—“goodness”, “beauty”, and so on—areoften capitalized by those who write about Plato, in order to callattention to their exalted status; similarly for “Forms”and “Ideas.”) The most fundamental distinction in Plato'sphilosophy is between the many observable objects that appear beautiful(good, just, unified, equal, big) and the one object that is whatbeauty (goodness, justice, unity) really is, from which those manybeautiful (good, just, unified, equal, big) things receive their namesand their corresponding characteristics. Nearly every major work ofPlato is, in some way, devoted to or dependent on this distinction.Many of them explore the ethical and practical consequences ofconceiving of reality in this bifurcated way. We are urged to transformour values by taking to heart the greater reality of the forms and thedefectiveness of the corporeal world. We must recognize that the soulis a different sort of object from the body—so much so that itdoes not depend on the existence of the body for its functioning, andcan in fact grasp the nature of the forms far more easily when it isnot encumbered by its attachment to anything corporeal. In a few ofPlato's works, we are told that the soul always retains the ability torecollect what it once grasped of the forms, when it was disembodied prior to its possessor's birth(see especially Meno), and that the lives we lead are to someextent a punishment or reward for choices we made in a previousexistence (see especially the final pages of Republic). But inmany of Plato's writings, it is asserted or assumed that truephilosophers—those who recognize how important it is todistinguish the one (the one thing that goodness is, or virtue is, orcourage is) from the many (the many things that are called good orvirtuous or courageous )—are in a position to become ethicallysuperior to unenlightened human beings, because of the greater degreeof insight they can acquire. To understand which things are good andwhy they are good (and if we are not interested in such questions, howcan we become good?), we must investigate the form of good.

2. Plato's puzzles

Although these propositions are often identified by Plato's readersas forming a large part of the core of his philosophy, many of hisgreatest admirers and most careful students point out that few, if any,of his writings can accurately be described as mere advocacy of acut-and-dried group of propositions. Often Plato's works exhibit acertain degree of dissatisfaction and puzzlement with even thosedoctrines that are being recommended for our consideration. Forexample, the forms are sometimes described as hypotheses (see forexample Phaedo). The form of good in particular is describedas something of a mystery whose real nature is elusive and as yetunknown to anyone at all (Republic). Puzzles are raised—and not overtlyanswered—about how any of the forms can be known andhow we are to talk about them without falling into contradiction(Parmenides), or about what it is to know anything(Theaetetus) or to name anything (Cratylus). When onecompares Plato with some of the other philosophers who are often rankedwith him—Aristotle, Aquinas, and Kant, for example—hecan be recognized to be far more exploratory, incompletely systematic,elusive, and playful than they. That, along with his gifts as a writerand as a creator of vivid character and dramatic setting, is one of thereasons why he is often thought to be the ideal author from whom oneshould receive one's introduction to philosophy. His readers are notpresented with an elaborate system of doctrines held to be so fullyworked out that they are in no need of further exploration ordevelopment; instead, what we often receive from Plato is a few keyideas together with a series of suggestions and problems about howthose ideas are to be interrogated and deployed. Readers of a Platonicdialogue are drawn into thinking for themselves about the issuesraised, if they are to learn what the dialogue itself might be thoughtto say about them. Many of his works therefore give their readers astrong sense of philosophy as a living and unfinished subject (perhapsone that can never be completed) to which they themselves will have tocontribute. All of Plato's works are in some way meant to leave furtherwork for their readers, but among the ones that most conspicuously fallinto this category are: Euthyphro, Laches,Charmides, Euthydemus, Theaetetus, andParmenides.

3. Dialogue, setting, character

There is another feature of Plato's writings that makes himdistinctive among the great philosophers and colors our experience ofhim as an author. Nearly everything he wrote takes the form of adialogue. (There is one striking exception: his Apology, whichpurports to be the speech that Socrates gave in his defense—theGreek word apologia means “defense”—when,in 399, he was legally charged and convicted of the crime of impiety.However, even there, Socrates is presented at one point addressingquestions of a philosophical character to his accuser, Meletus, andresponding to them. In addition, since antiquity, a collection of 13letters has been included among his collected works, but theirauthenticity as compositions of Plato is not universally accepted amongscholars, and many or most of them are almost certainly not his. Mostof them purport to be the outcome of his involvement in the politics ofSyracuse, a heavily populated Greek city located in Sicily and ruled bytyrants.)

We are of course familiar with the dialogue form through ouracquaintance with the literary genre of drama. But Plato's dialogues donot try to create a fictional world for the purposes of telling astory, as many literary dramas do; nor do they invoke an earliermythical realm, like the creations of the great Greek tragediansAeschylus, Sophocles, and Euripides. Nor are they all presented in theform of a drama: in many of them, a single speaker narrates events inwhich he participated. They are philosophical discussions—“debates” would, in some cases, also be an appropriate word—among a small number of interlocutors, many of whom can beidentified as real historical figures; and often they begin with adepiction of the setting of the discussion—a visit to a prison,a wealthy man's house, a celebration over drinks, a religious festival,a visit to the gymnasium, a stroll outside the city's wall, a long walkon a hot day. As a group, they form vivid portraits of a social world,and are not purely intellectual exchanges between characterless andsocially unmarked speakers. (At any rate, that is true of a largenumber of Plato's interlocutors. However, it must be added that in someof his works the speakers display little or no character. See, forexample, Sophist and Statesman—dialogues inwhich a visitor from the town of Elea in Southern Italy leads thediscussion; and Laws, a discussion between an unnamed Athenianand two named fictional characters, one from Crete and the other fromSparta.) In many of his dialogues (though not all), Plato isnot only attempting to draw his readers into a discussion, but is alsocommenting on the social milieu that he is depicting, and criticizingthe character and ways of life of his interlocutors. Some of thedialogues that most evidently fall into this category areProtagoras, Gorgias, Hippias Major,Euthydemus, and Symposium.

4. Socrates

There is one interlocutor who speaks in nearly all of Plato'sdialogues, being completely absent only in Laws, which ancienttestimony tells us was one of his latest works: that figure isSocrates. Like nearly everyone else who appears in Plato's works, he isnot an invention of Plato: there really was a Socrates just as there really was a Crito, a Gorgias, a Thrasymachus, and a Laches. Plato was notthe only author whose personal experience of Socrates led to thedepiction of him as a character in one or more dramatic works. Socratesis one of the principal characters of Aristophanes' comedy,Clouds; and Xenophon, a historian and military leader, wrote,like Plato, both an Apology of Socrates (an account ofSocrates' trial) and other works in which Socrates appears as aprincipal speaker. Furthermore, we have some fragmentary remains ofdialogues written by other contemporaries of Socrates besides Plato and Xenophon (Aeschines,Antisthenes, Eucleides, Phaedo), and these purport to describeconversations he conducted with others. So, when Plato wrote dialoguesthat feature Socrates as a principal speaker, he was both contributingto a genre that was inspired by the life of Socrates and participatingin a lively literary debate about the kind of person Socrates was andthe value of the intellectual conversations in which he was involved.Aristophanes' comic portrayal of Socrates is at the same time a bittercritique of him and other leading intellectual figures of the day (the420s B.C.), but from Plato, Xenophon, and the other composers (in the390's and later) of “Socratic discourses” (as Aristotlecalls this body of writings) we receive a far more favorableimpression.

Evidently, the historical Socrates was the sort of person whoprovoked in those who knew him, or knew of him, a profound response,and he inspired many of those who came under his influence to writeabout him. But the portraits composed by Aristophanes, Xenophon, andPlato are the ones that have survived intact, and they are thereforethe ones that must play the greatest role in shaping our conception ofwhat Socrates was like. Of these, Clouds has the least valueas an indication of what was distinctive of Socrates' mode ofphilosophizing: after all, it is not intended as a philosophical work,and although it may contain a few lines that are characterizations offeatures unique to Socrates, for the most part it is an attack on aphilosophical type—the long-haired, unwashed, amoralinvestigator into abstruse phenomena—rather than adepiction of Socrates himself. Xenophon's depiction of Socrates,whatever its value as historical testimony (which may be considerable),is generally thought to lack the philosophical subtlety and depth ofPlato's. At any rate, no one (certainly not Xenophon himself) takesXenophon to be a major philosopher in his own right; when we read hisSocratic works, we are not encountering a great philosophical mind. Butthat is what we experience when we read Plato. We may read Plato'sSocratic dialogues because we are (as Plato evidently wanted us to be)interested in who Socrates was and what he stood for, but even if wehave little or no desire to learn about the historical Socrates, wewill want to read Plato because in doing so we are encountering anauthor of the greatest philosophical significance. No doubt he in someway borrowed in important ways from Socrates, though it is not easy tosay where to draw the line between him and his teacher (more about thisbelow in section 12). But it is widely agreed among scholars that Platois not a mere transcriber of the words of Socrates (any more thanXenophon or the other authors of Socratic discourses). His use of afigure called “Socrates” in so many of his dialogues shouldnot be taken to mean that Plato is merely preserving for a readingpublic the lessons he learned from his teacher.

5. Plato's indirectness

Socrates, it should be kept in mind, does not appear in all ofPlato's works. He makes no appearance in Laws, and there areseveral dialogues (Sophist, Statesman,Timaeus) in which his role is small and peripheral, while someother figure dominates the conversation or even, as in theTimaeus and Critias, presents a long and elaborate,continuous discourse of their own. Plato's dialogues are not a staticliterary form; not only do his topics vary, not only do his speakersvary, but the role played by questions and answers is never the samefrom one dialogue to another. (Symposium, for example, is aseries of speeches, and there are also lengthy speeches inApology, Menexenus, Protagoras,Crito, Phaedrus, Timaeus, andCritias; in fact, one might reasonably question whether theseworks are properly called dialogues). But even though Plato constantlyadapted “the dialogue form” (a commonly used term, andconvenient enough, so long as we do not think of it as an unvaryingunity) to suit his purposes, it is striking that throughout his careeras a writer he never engaged in a form of composition that was widelyused in his time and was soon to become the standard mode ofphilosophical address: Plato never became a writer of philosophicaltreatises, even though the writing of treatises (for example, onrhetoric, medicine, and geometry) was a common practice among hispredecessors and contemporaries. (The closest we come to an exceptionto this generalization is the seventh letter, which contains a briefsection in which the author, Plato or someone pretending to be him, commits himself to several philosophical points—while insisting, at the same time, that no philosopher willwrite about the deepest matters, but will communicate his thoughts only in private discussion with selected individuals. As noted above, the authenticityof Plato's letters is a matter of great controversy; and in any case,the author of the seventh letter declares his opposition to the writingof philosophical books. Whether Plato wrote it or not, it cannot beregarded as a philosophical treatise, and its author did not wish it tobe so regarded.) In all of his writings—except in the letters,if any of them are genuine—Plato never speaks to his audiencedirectly and in his own voice. Strictly speaking, he does not himselfaffirm anything in his dialogues; rather, it is the interlocutors inhis dialogues who are made by Plato to do all of the affirming,doubting, questioning, arguing, and so on. Whatever he wishes tocommunicate to us is conveyed indirectly.

6. Can we know Plato's mind?

This feature of Plato's works raises important questions about howthey are to be read, and has led to considerable controversy amongthose who study his writings. Since he does not himself affirm anythingin any of his dialogues, can we ever be on secure ground in attributinga philosophical doctrine to him (as opposed to one of his characters)?Did he himself have philosophical convictions, and can we discover whatthey were? Are we justified in speaking of “the philosophy ofPlato”? Or, if we attribute some view to Plato himself, are webeing unfaithful to the spirit in which he intended the dialogues to be read? Ishis whole point, in refraining from writing treatises, to discourage the readers of his works from asking what their author believesand to encourage them instead simply to consider the plausibility orimplausibility of what his characters are saying? Is that why Platowrote dialogues? If not for this reason, then what was hispurpose in refraining from addressing his audience in a more directway? There are other important questions about the particular shape hisdialogues take: for example, why does Socrates play such a prominentrole in so many of them, and why, in some of these works, does Socratesplay a smaller role, or none at all?

Once these questions are raised and their difficulty acknowledged,it is tempting, in reading Plato's works and reflecting upon them, toadopt a strategy of extreme caution. Rather than commit oneself to anyhypothesis about what he is trying to communicate to his readers, onemight adopt a stance of neutrality about his intentions, and confineoneself to talking only about what is said by his dramatispersonae. One cannot be faulted, for example, if one notesthat, in Plato's Republic, Socrates argues that justice in thesoul consists in each part of the soul doing its own. It is equallycorrect to point out that other principal speakers in that work,Glaucon and Adeimantus, accept the arguments that Socrates gives forthat definition of justice. Perhaps there is no need for us to say more—to say, for example, that Plato himself agrees that this is howjustice should be defined, or that Plato himself accepts the argumentsthat Socrates gives in support of this definition. And we might adoptthis same “minimalist” approach to all of Plato'sworks. After all, is it of any importance to discover what went oninside his head as he wrote—to find out whether he himselfendorsed the ideas he put in the mouths of his characters, whether theyconstitute “the philosophy of Plato”? Should we not readhis works for their intrinsic philosophical value, and not as tools tobe used for entering into the mind of their author? We know whatPlato's characters say—and isn't that all that we need, for thepurpose of engaging with his works philosophically?

But the fact that we know what Plato's characters say doesnot show that by refusing to entertain any hypotheses about what theauthor of these works is trying to communicate to his readers we canunderstand what those characters mean by what they say. We shouldnot lose sight of this obvious fact: it is Plato, not any of hisdramatis personae, who is reaching out to a readership andtrying to influence their beliefs and actions by means of his literaryactions. When we ask whether an argument put forward by a character inPlato's works should be read as an effort to persuade us of itsconclusion, or is better read as a revelation of how foolish thatspeaker is, we are asking about what Plato as author (not thatcharacter) is trying to lead us to believe, through the writing that heis presenting to our attention. We need to interpret the work itself tofind out what it, or Plato the author, is saying. Similarly, when weask how a word that has several different senses is best understood, weare asking what Plato means to communicate to us through the speakerwho uses that word. We should not suppose that we can derive muchphilosophical value from Plato's writings if we refuse to entertain anythoughts about what use he intends us to make of the things hisspeakers say. Penetrating the mind of Plato and comprehending what hisinterlocutors mean by what they say are not two separate tasks but one,and if we do not ask what his interlocutors mean by what they say, andwhat the dialogue itself indicates we should think about what theymean, we will not profit from reading his dialogues.

Furthermore, the dialogues have certain characteristics that aremost easily explained by supposing that Plato is using them as vehiclesfor inducing his readers to become convinced (or more convinced thanthey already are) of certain propositions—for example, thatthere are forms, that the soul is not corporeal, that knowledge can beacquired only by means of a study of the forms, and so on. Why, afterall, did Plato write so many works (for example: Phaedo,Symposium, Republic, Phaedrus,Theaetetus, Sophist, Statesman,Timaeus, Philebus, Laws) in which onecharacter dominates the conversation (often, but not always, Socrates)and convinces the other speakers (at times, after encountering initialresistance) that they should accept or reject certain conclusions, onthe basis of the arguments presented? The only plausible way ofanswering that question is to say that these dialogues were intended byPlato to be devices by which he might induce the audience for whichthey are intended to reflect on and accept the arguments andconclusions offered by his principal interlocutor. (It is noteworthythat in Laws, the principal speaker—an unnamed visitorfrom Athens—proposes that laws should be accompanied by“preludes” in which their philosophical basis is given asfull an explanation as possible. The educative value of written textsis thus explicitly acknowledged by Plato's dominant speaker. Ifpreludes can educate a whole citizenry that is prepared to learn fromthem, then surely Plato thinks that other sorts of written texts—for example, his own dialogues—can also serve aneducative function.)

This does not mean that Plato thinks that his readers can becomewise simply by reading and studying his works. On the contrary, it ishighly likely that he wanted all of his writings to be supplementaryaids to philosophical conversation: in one of his works, he hasSocrates warn his readers against relying solely on books, or takingthem to be authoritative. They are, Socrates says, best used as devicesthat stimulate the readers' memory of discussions they have had(Phaedrus 274e-276d). In those face-to-face conversations witha knowledgeable leader, positions are taken, arguments are given, andconclusions are drawn. Plato's writings, he implies in this passagefrom Phaedrus, will work best when conversational seeds havealready been sown for the arguments they contain.

7. Socrates as the dominant speaker

If we take Plato to be trying to persuade us, in many of his works,to accept the conclusions arrived at by his principal interlocutors (orto persuade us of the refutations of their opponents), we can easilyexplain why he so often chooses Socrates as the dominant speaker in hisdialogues. Presumably the contemporary audience for whom Plato waswriting included many of Socrates' admirers. They would be predisposedto think that a character called “Socrates” would have allof the intellectual brilliance and moral passion of the historicalperson after whom he is named (especially since Plato often makesspecial efforts to give his “Socrates” a life-like reality,and has him refer to his trial or to the characteristics by which hewas best known); and the aura surrounding the character called“Socrates” would give the words he speaks in the dialogueconsiderable persuasive power. Furthermore, if Plato felt stronglyindebted to Socrates for many of his philosophical techniques andideas, that would give him further reason for assigning a dominant roleto him in many of his works. (More about this in section 12.)

Of course, there are other more speculative possible ways ofexplaining why Plato so often makes Socrates his principal speaker. Forexample, we could say that Plato was trying to undermine the reputationof the historical Socrates by writing a series of works in which afigure called “Socrates” manages to persuade a group ofnaïve and sycophantic interlocutors to accept absurd conclusionson the basis of sophistries. But anyone who has read some of Plato'sworks will quickly recognize the utter implausibility of thatalternative way of reading them. Plato could have written into hisworks clear signals to the reader that the arguments of Socrates do notwork, and that his interlocutors are foolish to accept them. But thereare many signs in such works as Meno, Phaedo,Republic, and Phaedrus that point in the oppositedirection. (And the great admiration Plato feels for Socrates is alsoevident from his Apology.) The reader is given everyencouragement to believe that the reason why Socrates is successful inpersuading his interlocutors (on those occasions when he does succeed)is that his arguments are powerful ones. The reader, in other words, isbeing encouraged by the author to accept those arguments, if not asdefinitive then at least as highly arresting and deserving of carefuland full positive consideration. When we interpret the dialogues inthis way, we cannot escape the fact that we are entering into the mindof Plato, and attributing to him, their author, a positive evaluationof the arguments that his speakers present to each other.

8. Links between the dialogues

There is a further reason for entertaining hypotheses about whatPlato intended and believed, and not merely confining ourselves toobservations about what sorts of people his characters are and whatthey say to each other. When we undertake a serious study of Plato, andgo beyond reading just one of his works, we are inevitably confrontedwith the question of how we are to link the work we are currentlyreading with the many others that Plato composed. Admittedly, many ofhis dialogues make a fresh start in their setting and theirinterlocutors: typically, Socrates encounters a group of people many ofwhom do not appear in any other work of Plato, and so, as an author, heneeds to give his readers some indication of their character and socialcircumstances. But often Plato's characters make statements that wouldbe difficult for readers to understand unless they had already read oneor more of his other works. For example, in Phaedo (73a-b),Socrates says that one argument for the immortality of the soul derivesfrom the fact that when people are asked certain kinds of questions,and are aided with diagrams, they answer in a way that shows that theyare not learning afresh from the diagrams or from information providedin the questions, but are drawing their knowledge of the answers fromwithin themselves. That remark would be of little worth for an audiencethat had not already read Meno. Several pages later, Socratestells his interlocutors that his argument about our prior knowledge ofequality itself (the form of equality) applies no less to other forms—to the beautiful, good, just, pious and to all the other thingsthat are involved in their asking and answering of questions (75d).This reference to asking and answering questions would not be wellunderstood by a reader who had not yet encountered a series ofdialogues in which Socrates asks his interlocutors questions of theform, “What is X?” (Euthyphro: what is piety?Laches: what is courage? Charmides: What ismoderation? Hippias Major: what is beauty?). Evidently, Platois assuming that readers of Phaedo have already read severalof his other works, and will bring to bear on the current argument allof the lessons that they have learned from them. In some of hiswritings, Plato's characters refer ahead to the continuation of theirconversations on another day, or refer back to conversations they hadrecently: thus Plato signals to us that we should readTheaetetus, Sophist, and Statesmansequentially; and similarly, since the opening of Timaeusrefers us back to Republic, Plato is indicating to his readersthat they must seek some connection between these two works.

These features of the dialogues show Plato's awareness that hecannot entirely start from scratch in every work that he writes. Hewill introduce new ideas and raise fresh difficulties, but he will alsoexpect his readers to have already familiarized themselves with theconversations held by the interlocutors of other dialogues—evenwhen there is some alteration among those interlocutors. (Meno does notre-appear in Phaedo; Timaeus was not among the interlocutorsof Republic.) Why does Plato have his dominant characters(Socrates, the Eleatic visitor) reaffirm some of the same points fromone dialogue to another, and build on ideas that were made in earlierworks? If the dialogues were merely meant as provocations to thought—mere exercises for the mind—there would be no need forPlato to identify his leading characters with a consistent andever-developing doctrine. For example, Socrates continues to maintain,over a large number of dialogues, that there are such things asforms—and there is no better explanation for this continuitythan to suppose that Plato is recommending that doctrine to hisreaders. Furthermore, when Socrates is replaced as the principalinvestigator by the visitor from Elea (in Sophist andStatesman), the existence of forms continues to be taken forgranted, and the visitor criticizes any conception of reality thatexcludes such incorporeal objects as souls and forms. The Eleaticvisitor, in other words, upholds a metaphysics that is, in manyrespects, like the one that Socrates is made to defend. Again, the bestexplanation for this continuity is that Plato is using both characters—Socrates and the Eleatic visitor—as devices for thepresentation and defense of a doctrine that he embraces and wants hisreaders to embrace as well.

9. Does Plato change his mind about forms?

This way of reading Plato's dialogues does not presuppose that henever changes his mind about anything—that whatever any of hismain interlocutors uphold in one dialogue will continue to bepresupposed or affirmed elsewhere without alteration. It is, in fact, adifficult and delicate matter to determine, on the basis of our readingof the dialogues, whether Plato means to modify or reject in onedialogue what he has his main interlocutor affirm in some other. One ofthe most intriguing and controversial questions about his treatment ofthe forms, for example, is whether he concedes that his conception ofthose abstract entities is vulnerable to criticism; and, if so, whetherhe revises some of the assumptions he had been making about them, ordevelops a more elaborate picture of them that allows him to respond tothat criticism. In Parmenides, the principal interlocutor (notSocrates—he is here portrayed as a promising, young philosopherin need of further training—but rather the pre-Socratic fromElea who gives the dialogue its name: Parmenides) subjects the forms towithering criticism, and then consents to conduct an inquiry into thenature of oneness that has no overt connection to his critique of theforms. Does the discussion of oneness (a baffling series ofcontradictions—or at any rate, propositions that seem, on thesurface, to be contradictions) in some way help address the problemsraised about forms? That is one way of reading the dialogue. And if wedo read it in this way, does that show that Plato has changed his mindabout some of the ideas about forms he inserted into earlier dialogues?Can we find dialogues in which we encounter a “new theory offorms”—that is, a way of thinking of forms that carefullysteers clear of the assumptions about forms that led to Parmenides'critique? It is not easy to say. But we cannot even raise this as anissue worth pondering unless we presuppose that behind the dialoguesthere stands a single mind that is using these writings as a way ofhitting upon the truth, and of bringing that truth to the attention ofothers. If we find Timaeus (the principal interlocutor of the dialoguenamed after him) and the Eleatic visitor of the Sophist andStatesman talking about forms in a way that is entirelyconsistent with the way Socrates talks about forms in Phaedoand Republic, then there is only one reasonable explanationfor that consistency: Plato believes that their way of talking aboutforms is correct, or is at least strongly supported by powerfulconsiderations. If, on the other hand, we find that Timaeus or theEleatic visitor talks about forms in a way that does not harmonize withthe way Socrates conceives of those abstract objects, in the dialoguesthat assign him a central role as director of the conversation, thenthe most plausible explanation for these discrepancies is that Platohas changed his mind about the nature of these entities. It would beimplausible to suppose that Plato himself had no convictions aboutforms, and merely wants to give his readers mental exercise bycomposing dialogues in which different leading characters talk aboutthese objects in discordant ways.

10. Does Plato change his mind about politics?

The same point—that we must view the dialogues as theproduct of a single mind, a single philosopher, though perhaps one whochanges his mind—can be made in connection with the politics ofPlato's works.

It is noteworthy, to begin with, that Plato is, among other things,a political philosopher. For he gives expression, in severalof his writings (particular Phaedo), to a yearning to escapefrom the tawdriness of ordinary human relations. (Similarly, he evincesa sense of the ugliness of the sensible world, whose beauty pales incomparison with that of the forms.) Because of this, it would have beenall too easy for Plato to turn his back entirely on practical reality,and to confine his speculations to theoretical questions. Some of hisworks—Parmenides is a stellar example—doconfine themselves to exploring questions that seem to have no bearingwhatsoever on practical life. But it is remarkable how few of his worksfall into this category. Even the highly abstract questions raised inSophist about the nature of being and not-being are, afterall, embedded in a search for the definition of sophistry; and thusthey call to mind the question whether Socrates should be classified asa sophist—whether, in other words, sophists are to be despisedand avoided. In any case, despite the great sympathy Plato expressesfor the desire to shed one's body and live in an incorporeal world, hedevotes an enormous amount of energy to the task of understanding theworld we live in, appreciating its limited beauty, and improvingit.

His tribute to the mixed beauty of the sensible world, inTimaeus, consists in his depiction of it as the outcome ofdivine efforts to mold reality in the image of the forms, using simplegeometrical patterns and harmonious arithmetic relations as buildingblocks. The desire to transform human relations is given expression ina far larger number of works. Socrates presents himself, in Plato'sApology, as a man who does not have his head in the clouds(that is part of Aristophanes' charge against him in Clouds).He does not want to escape from the everyday world but to make itbetter. He presents himself, in Gorgias, as the only Athenianwho has tried his hand at the true art of politics.

Similarly, the Socrates of Republic devotes a considerablepart of his discussion to the critique of ordinary social institutions—the family, private property, and rule by the many. Themotivation that lies behind the writing of this dialogue is the desireto transform (or, at any rate, to improve) political life, not toescape from it (although it is acknowledged that the desire to escapeis an honorable one: the best sort of rulers greatly prefer thecontemplation of divine reality to the governance of the city). And ifwe have any further doubts that Plato does take an interest in thepractical realm, we need only turn to Laws. A work of suchgreat detail and length about voting procedures, punishments,education, legislation, and the oversight of public officials can onlyhave been produced by someone who wants to contribute something to theimprovement of the lives we lead in this sensible and imperfect realm.Further evidence of Plato's interest in practical matters can be drawnfrom his letters, if they are genuine. In most of them, he presentshimself as having a deep interest in educating (with the help of hisfriend, Dion) the ruler of Syracuse, Dionysius II, and thus reformingthat city's politics.

Just as any attempt to understand Plato's views about forms mustconfront the question whether his thoughts about them developed oraltered over time, so too our reading of him as a political philosophermust be shaped by a willingness to consider the possibility that hechanged his mind. For example, on any plausible reading ofRepublic, Plato evinces a deep antipathy to rule by the many.Socrates tells his interlocutors that the only politics that shouldengage them are those of the anti-democratic regime he depicts as theparadigm of a good constitution. And yet in Laws, the Athenianvisitor proposes a detailed legislative framework for a city in whichnon-philosophers (people who have never heard of the forms, and havenot been trained to understand them) are given considerable powers asrulers. Plato would not have invested so much time in the creation ofthis comprehensive and lengthy work, had he not believed that thecreation of a political community ruled by those who arephilosophically unenlightened is a project that deserves the support ofhis readers. Has Plato changed his mind, then? Has he re-evaluated thehighly negative opinion he once held of those who are innocent ofphilosophy? Did he at first think that the reform of existing Greekcities, with all of their imperfections, is a waste of time—butthen decide that it is an endeavor of great value? (And if so, what ledhim to change his mind?) Answers to these questions can be justifiedonly by careful attention to what he has his interlocutors say. But itwould be utterly implausible to suppose that these developmentalquestions need not be raised, on the grounds that Republic andLaws each has its own cast of characters, and that the twoworks therefore cannot come into contradiction with each other.According to this hypothesis (one that must be rejected), because it isSocrates (not Plato) who is critical of democracy in Republic,and because it is the Athenian visitor (not Plato) who recognizes themerits of rule by the many in Laws, there is no possibilitythat the two dialogues are in tension with each other. Against thishypothesis, we should say: Since both Republic andLaws are works in which Plato is trying to move his readerstowards certain conclusions, by having them reflect on certainarguments—these dialogues are not barred from having thisfeature by their use of interlocutors—it would be an evasion ofour responsibility as readers and students of Plato not to ask whetherwhat one of them advocates is compatible with what the other advocates.If we answer that question negatively, we have some explaining to do:what led to this change? Alternatively, if we conclude that the twoworks are compatible, we must say why the appearance of conflict isillusory.

11. The historical Socrates: early, middle, and late dialogues

Many contemporary scholars find it plausible that when Platoembarked on his career as a philosophical writer, he composed, inaddition to his Apology of Socrates, a number of short ethicaldialogues that contain little or nothing in the way of positivephilosophical doctrine, but are mainly devoted to portraying the way inwhich Socrates punctured the pretensions of his interlocutors andforced them to realize that they are unable to offer satisfactorydefinitions of the ethical terms they used, or satisfactory argumentsfor their moral beliefs. According to this way of placing the dialoguesinto a rough chronological order—associated especially withGregory Vlastos's name (see especially his Socrates Ironist andMoral Philosopher, chapters 2 and 3)—Plato, at this pointof his career, was content to use his writings primarily for thepurpose of preserving the memory of Socrates and making plain thesuperiority of his hero, in intellectual skill and moral seriousness,to all of his contemporaries—particularly those among them whoclaimed to be experts on religious, political, or moral matters. Intothis category of early dialogues (they are also sometimes called“Socratic” dialogues, possibly without any intended chronological connotation) are placed: Charmides,Crito, Euthydemus, Euthyphro,Gorgias, HippiasMajor, HippiasMinor, Ion, Laches, Lysis, andProtagoras, (Some scholars hold that we can tell which ofthese come later during Plato's early period. For example, it issometimes said that Protagoras and Gorgias are later,because of their greater length and philosophical complexity. Otherdialogues—for example, Charmides and Lysis—are thought not to be among Plato's earliest within this early group,because in them Socrates appears to be playing a more active role inshaping the progress of the dialogue: that is, he has more ideas of hisown.) In comparison with many of Plato's other dialogues, these“Socratic” works contain little in the way of metaphysical,epistemological, or methodological speculation, and they therefore fitwell with the way Socrates characterizes himself in Plato'sApology: as a man who leaves investigations of highfalutin’ matters (which are “in the sky and below theearth”) to wiser heads, and confines all of his investigations tothe question how one should live one's life. Aristotle describesSocrates as someone whose interests were restricted to only one branchof philosophy—the realm of the ethical; and he also says thathe was in the habit of asking definitional questions to which hehimself lacked answers (Metaphysics 987b1, SophisticalRefutations 183b7). That testimony gives added weight to thewidely accepted hypothesis that there is a group of dialogues—theones mentioned above as his early works, whether or not they were all written early in Plato's writing career—in which Plato usedthe dialogue form as a way of portraying the philosophical activitiesof the historical Socrates (although, of course, he might also haveused them in other ways as well—for example to suggest andbegin to explore philosophical difficulties raised by them).

But at a certain point—so says this hypothesis about thechronology of the dialogues—Plato began to use his works toadvance ideas that were his own creations rather than those ofSocrates, although he continued to use the name “Socrates”for the interlocutor who presented and argued for these new ideas. Thespeaker called “Socrates” now begins to move beyond anddepart from the historical Socrates: he has views about the methodologythat should be used by philosophers (a methodology borrowed frommathematics), and he argues for the immortality of the soul and theexistence and importance of the forms of beauty, justice, goodness, andthe like. (By contrast, in Apology Socrates says that no oneknows what becomes of us after we die.) Phaedo is often saidto be the dialogue in which Plato first comes into his own as aphilosopher who is moving far beyond the ideas of his teacher (thoughit is also commonly said that we see a new methodologicalsophistication and a greater interest in mathematical knowledge inMeno). Having completed all of the dialogues that, accordingto this hypothesis, we characterize as early, Plato widened the rangeof topics to be explored in his writings (no longer confining himselfto ethics), and placed the theory of forms (and related ideas aboutlanguage, knowledge, and love) at the center of his thinking. In theseworks of his “middle” period—for example, inPhaedo, Cratylus, Symposium,Republic, and Phaedrus—there is both a changeof emphasis and of doctrine. The focus is no longer on riddingourselves of false ideas and self-deceit; rather, we are asked toaccept (however tentatively) a radical new conception of ourselves (nowdivided into three parts), our world—or rather, our two worlds—and our need to negotiate between them. Definitions of the mostimportant virtue terms are finally proposed in Republic (thesearch for them in some of the early dialogues having beenunsuccessful): Book I of this dialogue is a portrait of how thehistorical Socrates might have handled the search for a definition ofjustice, and the rest of the dialogue shows how the new ideas and toolsdiscovered by Plato can complete the project that his teacher wasunable to finish. Plato continues to use a figure called“Socrates” as his principal interlocutor, and in this wayhe creates a sense of continuity between the methods, insights, andideals of the historical Socrates and the new Socrates who has nowbecome a vehicle for the articulation of his own new philosophical outlook.In doing so, he acknowledges his intellectual debt to his teacher andappropriates for his own purposes the extraordinary prestige of the manwho was the wisest of his time.

This hypothesis about the chronology of Plato's writings has a thirdcomponent: it does not place his works into either of only twocategories—the early or “Socratic” dialogues, andall the rest—but works instead with a threefold division ofearly, middle, and late. That is because, following ancient testimony,it has become a widely accepted assumption that Laws is one ofPlato's last works, and further that this dialogue shares a great manystylistic affinities with a small group of others: Sophist,Statesman, Timaeus, Critias, andPhilebus. These five dialogues together with Laws aregenerally agreed to be his late works, because they have much more incommon with each other, when one counts certain stylistic featuresapparent only to readers of Plato's Greek, than with any of Plato'sother works. (Computer counts have aided these stylometric studies, butthe isolation of a group of six dialogues by means of their stylisticcommonalities was recognized in the nineteenth century.)

It is not at all clear whether there are one or morephilosophical affinities among this group of six dialogues—that is, whether the philosophy they contain is sharplydifferent from that of all of the other dialogues. Plato does nothingto encourage the reader to view these works as a distinctive andseparate component of his thinking. On the contrary, he linksSophist with Theaetetus (the conversations theypresent have a largely overlapping cast of characters, and take placeon successive days) no less than Sophist andStatesman. Sophist contains, in its opening pages, areference to the conversation of Parmenides—andperhaps Plato is thus signaling to his readers that they should bringto bear on Sophist the lessons that are to be drawn fromParmenides. Similarly, Timaeus opens with a reminderof some of the principal ethical and political doctrines of Republic. It could beargued, of course, that when one looks beyond these stage-settingdevices, one finds significant philosophical changes in the six latedialogues, setting this group off from all that preceded them. Butthere is no consensus that they should be read in this way. Resolvingthis issue requires intensive study of the content of Plato's works.So, although it is widely accepted that the six dialogues mentionedabove belong to Plato's latest period, there is, as yet, no agreementamong students of Plato that these six form a distinctive stage in hisphilosophical development.

In fact, it remains a matter of dispute whether the division ofPlato's works into three periods—early, middle, late—doescorrectly indicate the order of composition, and whether it is auseful tool for the understanding of his thought (See Cooper 1997,vii–xxvii). Of course, it would be wildly implausible to supposethat Plato's writing career began with such complex worksas Laws, Parmenides,Phaedrus, or Republic. In light of widely acceptedassumptions about how most philosophical minds develop, it is likelythat when Plato started writing philosophical works some of the shorterand simpler dialogues were the ones he composed: Laches, orCrito, or Ion (for example). (Similarly,Apology does not advance a complex philosophical agenda orpresuppose an earlier body of work; so that too is likely to have beencomposed near the beginning of Plato's writing career.) Even so, thereis no good reason to eliminate the hypothesis that throughout much ofhis life Plato devoted himself to writing two sorts of dialogues at thesame time, moving back and forth between them as he aged: on the onehand, introductory works whose primary purpose is to show readers thedifficulty of apparently simple philosophical problems, and thereby torid them of their pretensions and false beliefs; and on the other hand,works filled with more substantive philosophical theories supported byelaborate argumentation. Moreover, one could point to features of manyof the “Socratic” dialogues that would justify puttingthem in the latter category, even though the argumentation does notconcern metaphysics or methodology or invoke mathematics—Gorgias, Protagoras, Lysis,Euthydemus, Hippias Major among them.

Plato makes it clear that both of these processes, one preceding theother, must be part of one's philosophical education. One of hisdeepest methodological convictions (affirmed in Meno,Theaetetus, and Sophist) is that in order to makeintellectual progress we must recognize that knowledge cannot beacquired by passively receiving it from others: rather, we must workour way through problems and assess the merits of competing theorieswith an independent mind. Accordingly, some of his dialogues areprimarily devices for breaking down the reader's complacency, and thatis why it is essential that they come to no positive conclusions;others are contributions to theory-construction, and are therefore bestabsorbed by those who have already passed through the first stage ofphilosophical development. We should not assume that Plato could havewritten the preparatory dialogues only at the earliest stage of hiscareer. Although he may well have begun his writing career by taking upthat sort of project, he may have continued writing these“negative” works at later stages, at the same time that hewas composing his theory-constructing dialogues. For example althoughboth Euthydemus and Charmides are widely assumed tobe early dialogues, they might have been written around the same timeas Symposium and Republic, which are generallyassumed to be compositions of his middle period—or evenlater.

No doubt, some of the works widely considered to be early really aresuch. But it is an open question which and how many of them are. At anyrate, it is clear that Plato continued to write in a“Socratic” and “negative” vein even after hewas well beyond the earliest stages of his career: Theaetetusfeatures a Socrates who is even more insistent upon his ignorance thanare the dramatic representations of Socrates in briefer andphilosophically less complex works that are reasonably assumed to beearly; and like many of those early works, Theaetetus seeksbut does not find the answer to the “what is it?” questionthat it relentlessly pursues—“What is knowledge?”Similarly, Parmenides, though certainly not an early dialogue,is a work whose principal aim is to puzzle the reader by thepresentation of arguments for apparently contradictory conclusions;since it does not tell us how it is possible to accept all of thoseconclusions, its principal effect on the reader is similar to that ofdialogues (many of them no doubt early) that reach only negativeconclusions. Plato uses this educational device—provoking thereader through the presentation of opposed arguments, and leaving thecontradiction unresolved—in Protagoras (oftenconsidered an early dialogue) as well. So it is clear that even afterhe was well beyond the earliest stages of his thinking, he continued toassign himself the project of writing works whose principal aim is thepresentation of unresolved difficulties. (And, just as we shouldrecognize that puzzling the reader continues to be his aim even inlater works, so too we should not overlook the fact that there is somesubstantive theory-construction in the ethical works that are simpleenough to have been early compositions: Ion, for example,affirms a theory of poetic inspiration; and Crito sets out theconditions under which a citizen acquires an obligation to obey civiccommands. Neither ends in failure.)

If we are justified in taking Socrates' speech in Plato'sApology to constitute reliable evidence about what thehistorical Socrates was like, then whatever we find in Plato's otherworks that is of a piece with that speech can also be safely attributedto Socrates. So understood, Socrates was a moralist but (unlike Plato)not a metaphysician or epistemologist or cosmologist. That fits withAristotle's testimony, and Plato's way of choosing the dominant speakerof his dialogues gives further support to this way of distinguishingbetween him and Socrates. The number of dialogues that are dominated bya Socrates who is spinning out elaborate philosophical doctrines isremarkably small: Phaedo, Republic,Phaedrus, and Philebus. All of them are dominated byethical issues: whether to fear death, whether to be just, whom tolove, the place of pleasure. Evidently, Plato thinks that it isappropriate to make Socrates the major speaker in a dialogue that isfilled with positive content only when the topics explored in that workprimarily have to do with the ethical life of the individual. (Thepolitical aspects of Republic are explicitly said to serve thelarger question whether any individual, no matter what hiscircumstances, should be just.) When the doctrines he wishes to presentsystematically become primarily metaphysical, he turns to a visitorfrom Elea (Sophist, Statesman); when they becomecosmological, he turns to Timaeus; when they become constitutional, heturns, in Laws, to a visitor from Athens (and he theneliminates Socrates entirely). In effect, Plato is showing us: althoughhe owes a great deal to the ethical insights of Socrates, as well as tohis method of puncturing the intellectual pretensions of hisinterlocutors by leading them into contradiction, he thinks he shouldnot put into the mouth of his teacher too elaborate an exploration ofontological, or cosmological, or political themes, because Socratesrefrained from entering these domains. This may be part of theexplanation why he has Socrates put into the mouth of the personifiedLaws of Athens the theory advanced in Crito, which reaches theconclusion that it would be unjust for him to escape from prison.Perhaps Plato is indicating, at the point where these speakers enterthe dialogue, that none of what is said here is in any way derived fromor inspired by the conversation of Socrates.

City

Just as we should reject the idea that Plato must have made adecision, at a fairly early point in his career, no longer to write onekind of dialogue (negative, destructive, preparatory) and to write onlyworks of elaborate theory-construction; so we should also questionwhether he went through an early stage during which he refrained fromintroducing into his works any of his own ideas (if he had any), butwas content to play the role of a faithful portraitist, representing tohis readers the life and thought of Socrates. It is unrealistic tosuppose that someone as original and creative as Plato, who probablybegan to write dialogues somewhere in his thirties (he was around 28when Socrates was killed), would have started his compositions with noideas of his own, or, having such ideas, would have decided to suppressthem, for some period of time, allowing himself to think for himselfonly later. (What would have led to such a decision?) We should insteadtreat the moves made in the dialogues, even those that are likely to beearly, as Platonic inventions—derived, no doubt, by Plato'sreflections on and transformations of the key themes of Socrates thathe attributes to Socrates in Apology. That speech indicates,for example, that the kind of religiosity exhibited by Socrates wasunorthodox and likely to give offense or lead to misunderstanding. Itwould be implausible to suppose that Plato simply concocted the ideathat Socrates followed a divine sign, especially because Xenophon too attributes this to his Socrates. But what of the variousphilosophical moves rehearsed in Euthyphro—thedialogue in which Socrates searches, unsuccessfully, for anunderstanding of what piety is? We have no good reason to think that inwriting this work Plato adopted the role of a mere recording device, orsomething close to it (changing a word here and there, but for the mostpart simply recalling what he heard Socrates say, as he made his way tocourt). It is more likely that Plato, having been inspired by theunorthodoxy of Socrates' conception of piety, developed, on his own, aseries of questions and answers designed to show his readers howdifficult it is to reach an understanding of the central concept thatSocrates' fellow citizens relied upon when they condemned him to death.The idea that it is important to search for definitions may have beenSocratic in origin. (After all, Aristotle attributes this much toSocrates.) But the twists and turns of the arguments inEuthyphro and other dialogues that search for definitions aremore likely to be the products of Plato's mind than the content ofany conversations that really took place.

12. Why dialogues?

It is equally unrealistic to suppose that when Plato embarked on hiscareer as a writer, he made a conscious decision to put all of thecompositions that he would henceforth compose for a general readingpublic (with the exception of Apology) in the form of adialogue. If the question, “why did Plato writedialogues?”, which many of his readers are tempted to ask,pre-supposes that there must have been some such once-and-for-alldecision, then it is poorly posed. It makes better sense to break thatquestion apart into many little ones: better to ask, “Why didPlato write this particular work (for example:Protagoras, or Republic, or Symposium, orLaws) in the form of a dialogue—and that one(Timaeus, say) mostly in the form of a long andrhetorically elaborate single speech?” than to ask why he decidedto adopt the dialogue form.

The best way to form a reasonable conjecture about why Plato wroteany given work in the form of a dialogue is to ask: what would be lost,were one to attempt to re-write this work in a way that eliminated thegive-and-take of interchange, stripped the characters of theirpersonality and social markers, and transformed the result intosomething that comes straight from the mouth of its author? This isoften a question that will be easy to answer, but the answer might varygreatly from one dialogue to another. In pursuing this strategy, wemust not rule out the possibility that some of Plato's reasons forwriting this or that work in the form of a dialogue will also be hisreason for doing so in other cases—perhaps some of his reasons,so far as we can guess at them, will be present in all other cases. Forexample, the use of character and conversation allows an author toenliven his work, to awaken the interest of his readership, andtherefore to reach a wider audience. The enormous appeal of Plato'swritings is in part a result of their dramatic composition. Eventreatise-like compositions—Timaeus and Laws,for example—improve in readability because of theirconversational frame. Furthermore, the dialogue form allows Plato'sevident interest in pedagogical questions (how is it possible to learn?what is the best way to learn? from what sort of person can we learn?what sort of person is in a position to learn?) to be pursued not onlyin the content of his compositions but also in their form. Even inLaws such questions are not far from Plato's mind, as hedemonstrates, through the dialogue form, how it is possible for thecitizens of Athens, Sparta, and Crete to learn from each other byadapting and improving upon each other's social and politicalinstitutions.

In some of his works, it is evident that one of Plato's goals is tocreate a sense of puzzlement among his readers, and that the dialogueform is being used for this purpose. The Parmenides is perhapsthe clearest example of such a work, because here Plato relentlesslyrubs his readers' faces in a baffling series of unresolved puzzles andapparent contradictions. But several of his other works also have thischaracter, though to a smaller degree: for example, Protagoras(can virtue be taught?), Hippias Minor (is voluntarywrongdoing better than involuntary wrongdoing?), and portions ofMeno (are some people virtuous because of divineinspiration?). Just as someone who encounters Socrates in conversationshould sometimes be puzzled about whether he means what he says (orwhether he is instead speaking ironically), so Plato sometimes uses thedialogue form to create in his readers a similar sense of discomfortabout what he means and what we ought to infer from the arguments thathave been presented to us. But Socrates does not always speakironically, and similarly Plato's dialogues do not always aimat creating a sense of bafflement about what we are to think about thesubject under discussion. There is no mechanical rule for discoveringhow best to read a dialogue, no interpretive strategy that appliesequally well to all of his works. We will best understand Plato's worksand profit most from our reading of them if we recognize their greatdiversity of styles and adapt our way of reading accordingly. Ratherthan impose on our reading of Plato a uniform expectation of what hemust be doing (because he has done such a thing elsewhere), we shouldbring to each dialogue a receptivity to what is unique to it.That would be the most fitting reaction to the artistry in hisphilosophy.

Bibliography

Today

The bibliography below is meant as a highly selective and limitedguide for readers who want to learn more about the issues coveredabove. Further discussion of these and other issues regarding Plato’sphilosophy, and far more bibliographical information, is available inthe other entries on Plato.

Translations into English

TimesTipp City Dating Times
  • Cooper, John M. (ed.), 1997, Plato: Complete Works,Indianapolis: Hackett. (Contains translations of all the works handeddown from antiquity with attribution to Plato, some of which areuniversally agreed to be spurious, with explanatory footnotes and botha general Introduction to the study of the dialogues and individualIntroductory Notes to each work translated.)

Tipp City Dating Times Archives

General Overviews

  • Allen, Danielle, S., 2010, Why Plato Wrote, Malden, MA:Wiley-Blackwell.
  • Annas, Julia, 2003, Plato: A Very Short Introduction,Oxford: Oxford University Press.
  • Benson, Hugh (ed.), 2006, A Companion to Plato, Oxford:Blackwell.
  • Bobonich, Christopher, 2002, Plato's Utopia Recast: His LaterEthics and Politics, Oxford: Oxford University Press.
  • Dancy, Russell, 2004, Plato's Introduction of Forms, Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.
  • Fine, Gail (ed.), 1999, Plato 1: Metaphysics and Epistemology,Oxford: Oxford University Press.
  • ––– (ed.), 1999, Plato 2: Ethics, Politics,Religion, and the Soul, Oxford: Oxford University Press.
  • ––– (ed.), 2008, The Oxford Handbook ofPlato, Oxford: Oxford University Press.(Essays by many scholars on a wide range of topics, including severalstudies of individual dialogues.)
  • Guthrie, W.K.C., 1975, A History of Greek Philosophy,Volume 4, Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.
  • –––, 1978, A History of Greek Philosophy,Volume 5, Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.
  • Irwin, Terence, 1995, Plato's Ethics, Oxford: OxfordUniversity Press.
  • Kraut, Richard (ed.), 1992, The Cambridge Companion toPlato, Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.
  • –––, 2008, How to Read Plato, London:Granta.
  • McCabe, Mary Margaret, 1994, Plato's Individuals,Princeton: Princeton University Press.
  • –––, 2000, Plato and His Predecessors: TheDramatisation of Reason, Cambridge: Cambridge UniversityPress.
  • Meinwald, Constance, 2016, Plato, London: Routledge.
  • Nails, Debra, 2002, The People of Plato: A Prosopography ofPlato and Other Socratics, Indianapolis: Hackett. (Anencyclopedia of information about the characters in all of thedialogues.)
  • Rowe, Christopher, & Malcolm Schofield (eds.), 2000, Greekand Roman Political Thought, Cambridge: Cambridge UniversityPress. (Contains 7 introductory essays by 7 hands on Socratic andPlatonic political thought.)
  • Russell, Daniel C., 2005, Plato on Pleasure and the GoodLife, Oxford: Clarendon Press.
  • Rutherford, R.B., 1995, The Art of Plato: Ten Essays inPlatonic Interpretation, Cambridge, MA: Harvard UniversityPress.
  • Schofield, Malcolm, 2006, Plato: Political Philosophy,Oxford: Oxford University Press.
  • Silverman, Allan, 2002, The Dialectic of Essence: A Study of Plato'sMetaphysics, Princeton: Princeton University Press.
  • Vasiliou, Iakovos, 2008, Aiming at Virtue in Plato,Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.
  • Vlastos, Gregory, 1995, Studies in Greek Philosophy (Volume 2:Socrates, Plato, and Their Tradition), Daniel W. Graham (ed.),Princeton: Princeton University Press.
  • White, Nicholas P., 1976, Plato on Knowledge and Reality,Indianapolis: Hackett.
  • Zuckert, Catherine H., 2009, Plato's Philosophers: TheCoherence of the Dialogues, Chicago: University of Chicago Press.

On Socrates

  • Ahbel-Rappe, Sara, and Rachana Kamtekar (eds.), 2006, A Companion to Socrates,Oxford: Blackwell.
  • Boys-Stone George, and Christopher Rowe (eds.), 2013, TheCircle of Socrates: Readings in the First-Generation Socratics,Indianapolis: Hackett.
  • Brickhouse, Thomas C. & Nicholas D. Smith, 1994, Plato'sSocrates, Oxford: Oxford University Press.
  • Guthrie, W.K.C., 1971, Socrates, Cambridge: CambridgeUniversity Press.
  • Morrison, Donald R., 2012, The Cambridge Companion toSocrates, Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.
  • Peterson, Sandra, 2011, Socrates and Philosophy in theDialogues of Plato, Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.
  • Rudebusch, George, 2009, Socrates, Malden, MA:Wiley-Blackwell.
  • Santas, Gerasimos, 1979, Socrates: Philosophy in Plato's Early Dialogues,London: Routledge & Kegan Paul.
  • Taylor, C.C.W., 1998, Socrates, Oxford: Oxford University Press.
  • Vander Waerdt, Paul. A. (ed.), 1994, The Socratic Movement,Ithaca: Cornell University Press.
  • Vlastos, Gregory, 1991, Socrates: Ironist and Moral Philosopher,Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Interpretive Strategies

  • Blondell, Ruby, 2002, The Play of Character in Plato'sDialogues, Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.
  • Frede, Michael, 1992, “Plato's Arguments and the DialogueForm,” in Oxford Studies in Ancient Philosophy,Supplementary Volume 1992, Oxford: Oxford University Press, pp.201–220.
  • Griswold, Charles L. (ed.), 1988, Platonic Writings, PlatonicReadings, London: Routledge.
  • Kahn, Charles H., 1996, Plato and the Socratic Dialogue: ThePhilosophical Use of a Literary Form, Cambridge: CambridgeUniversity Press.
  • Klagge, James C. and Nicholas D. Smith (eds.), 1992, Methods ofInterpreting Plato and His Dialogue, Oxford Studies in AncientPhilosophy, Supplementary Volume 1992, Oxford: Clarendon Press.
  • Nails, Debra, 1995, Agora, Academy, and the Conduct ofPhilosophy, Dordrecht: Kluwer Academic Publishers.
  • Nightingale, Andrea, 1993, Genres in Dialogue: Plato and theConstruction of Philosophy, Cambridge: Cambridge UniversityPress.
  • Press, Gerald A. (ed.), 2000, Who Speaks for Plato? Studies in PlatonicAnonymity, Lanham, MD: Rowman & Littlefield.
  • Rowe, C.J., 2007, Plato and the Art of Philosophical Writing, Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.
  • Sayre, Kenneth, 1995, Plato's Literary Garden, NotreDame: University of Notre Dame Press.

Chronology of the Dialogues

  • Brandwood, Leonard, 1990, The Chronology of Plato's Dialogues,Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.
  • Kahn, Charles, 2003, “On Platonic Chronology,” inJulia Annas and Christopher Rowe (eds.), New Perspectives onPlato: Modern and Ancient, Cambridge, MA: Harvard UniversityPress, chapter 4.
  • Ledger, Gerald R., 1989, Re-Counting Plato: A Computer Analysis ofPlato's Style, Oxford: Oxford University Press.
  • Thesleff, Holger, 1982, Studies in Platonic Chronology,Commentationes Humanarum Litterarum 70, Helsinki: Societas ScientiarumFennica.
  • Young, Charles M., 1994, “Plato and Computer Dating,”Oxford Studies in Ancient Philosophy, 12:227–250.

Plato's Letters

  • Burnyeat, Myles and Michael Frede, 2015, The Pseudo-PlatonicSeventh Letter, Dominic Scott (ed.), Oxford: OxfordUniversity Press.

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Other Internet Resources

  • Links to Original texts of Plato's Dialogues (maintained by Bernard Suzanne)
  • In Dialogue: the Life and Works of Plato, a short podcast by Peter Adamson (Philosophy, Kings College London).

Related Entries

abstract objects | Aristotle | education, philosophy of | epistemology | metaphysics | Plato: ethics and politics in The Republic | religion: and morality | Socrates | Socratic Dialogues

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