Pagina principale Plato: A Very Short Introduction (Very Short Introductions)

Plato: A Very Short Introduction (Very Short Introductions)

Simply put, don't waste your money or your time on this book. It is poorly written and provides little guidance to the person wanting to begin their investigation of Plato.
Oxford University Press, USA
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A Very Short Introduction
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Julia Annas

A Very Short Introduction

Great Clarendon Street, Oxford ox2 6dp
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First published as a Very Short Introduction 2003
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List of illustrations
Arguing with Plato
Plato's name, and other matters
Drama, fiction, and the elusive author
Love, sex, gender, and philosophy
Virtue, in me and in my society
My soul and myself
The nature of things
Furth; er reading


List of illustrations

7. Jean Delville, The School of

1.Bust of Plato 7

Plato 51

Staatliche Antikensammlungen und
Glyptothek, Munich. Photograph by

Musée d'Orsay, Paris/Bridgeman Art
Library, London

8. Lottery mechanism from the

2.Illustration of Egyptian art 16

Athenian Agora 63

British Museum, London

American School of Classical
Studies, Athens. Photograph Craig

3.Illustration of Greek art 17
Kerameikos Museum, Athens.
Photograph Hirmer Verlag

9. Detail from Bust of a Young

4.Bust of Socrates 22

Man, Donatello 69

Museo Archivio Nazionale,
Naples/Bridgeman Art Library, London

Museo Nazionale del Bargello,
Florence. Photograph AKG Berlin/S.

5.Atlantis, pictured in Jules

Verne's Twenty Thousand
Leagues Under the Sea 41

10.God the Father creating the
world, from a medieval
manuscript 80

Mary Evans Picture Library

6.Attic black-figure cup with

Austrian National Library, Vienna.
Photograph AKG London

scene of man courting boy 44
Museum of Fine Arts, Boston


12.Saint Justin Martyr, from

11.Plato and Aristotle, from

Raphael's Dispute of the
Sacrament 89

Raphael's School of Athens

Stanza della Segnatura, Vatican.
Photograph AKG London, Pirozzi

Stanza della Segnatura, Vatican



Chapter 1
Arguing with Plato
The jury's problem

Imagine that you are on a jury, listening to Smith describe how he was set upon
and robbed. The details are striking, the account hangs together, and you are
completely convinced; you believe that Smith was the victim of a violent crime.
This is a true belief; Smith was, in fact, attacked.
Do you know that Smith was attacked? This might at first seem like an odd thing
to worry about. What better evidence could you have? But you might reflect that
this is, after all, a courtroom, and that Smith is making a case which his alleged
attacker will then try to counter. Can you be sure that you are convinced
because Smith is telling the truth, or might it be the way the case is being
presented that is persuading you? If it is the latter, then you might be worried; for
then you might have been convinced even if Smith had not been telling the truth.
Besides, even if he is telling the truth, is his evidence conclusive as to his being
attacked? For all you know, he might have been part of a set-up, and it's not as
though you had been there and seen it for yourself. And so it can seem quite
natural to conclude that you don't actually know that Smith was attacked, though
you have a belief about it which is true, and no actual reason to doubt its truth.


The Theaetetus

The Theaetetus is one of Plato's most appealing dialogues, but also one of his
most puzzling. In it, Socrates says that he is a midwife like his mother: he draws
ideas out of people, before testing them to see whether they hold up to reasoned
examination. Refusing to put forward his own ideas about what knowledge is
(though displaying sophisticated awareness of the work of other philosophers),
he shows faults in all of the accounts of knowledge suggested by young
Theaetetus. Pursuing the thought that if you know something, you can't be
wrong, Theaetetus suggests that knowing might be perceiving; then having a
true belief; then, having a true belief and being able to defend or &give an
account of' it. All these suggestions fail, and the dialogue leaves us better off
only in awareness of our own inability to sustain an account of knowing.
Socrates' insistence on arguing only against the positions of others, not for any
position of his own, made the dialogue a key one for the Platonic tradition which
took Plato's inheritance to be one of seeking truth by questioning those who
claim to have it (as Socrates often does in the dialogues) rather than by making
his own philosophical claims. Others, noting that in other dialogues we find
positive, ambitious claims about the nature of knowledge, thought of the
Theaetetus as clearing away only accounts of knowledge that Plato took to be
mistaken. Socrates here, the midwife of others' ideas who has no &children' of his
own, seems very different from the Socrates of other dialogues such as the
Republic, who puts forward positive ideas quite confidently. Readers have to
come to their own conclusions about this (some ancient and modern solutions
are discussed in Chapter 3).


In his dialogue Theaetetus Plato raises this issue. What can knowledge be,
young Theaetetus asks, other than true belief? After all, if you have a true belief
you are not making any mistakes. But Theaetetus is talking to Socrates (of
whom more in Chapter 2) and, as often, the older man finds a problem. For
persuading people in public is something that can be skilfully done. He means
the skill of what we would call lawyers, although he is talking about a system in
which there are no professional lawyers. The victim had to present his own case,
though many people hired professional speechwriters, especially since they had
to convince a jury of not 12 but 501 members.

How we refer to Plato's works
In 1578 the publisher Henri Etienne, the Latin form of whose
surname is Stephanus, produced the first printed edition of
Plato's works in Paris. The new technology enabled a much
greater number of people than hitherto to read Plato. And for
the first time it became possible to refer precisely to passages
within dialogues, since readers were for the first time using the
same pagination. We still refer to the page on which the
passage appeared in Stephanus's edition (for example, 200),
together with one of the letters a to e, which served to divide
the page into five areas from top to bottom. ‘Stephanus
numbers’ are printed in the margins of most Plato texts and
translations, and a reference such as ‘200e’ enables readers to
find a passage no matter what the pagination of the book they
are using.

Socrates continues:
SOCRATES: These men, at any rate, persuade by means of their
expertise, and they don't teach people, but get them to have


whatever beliefs they wish. Or do you think that there are any teachers so
clever as to teach the truth about what happened adequately, in the short
time allowed, to people who weren't there when others were robbed of
their property or violently attacked?
THEAETETUS: No, I don't think they could at all, but I think they could
persuade them.
SOCRATES: And by persuading them don't you mean getting them to
have a belief?
THEAETETUS: Of course.
SOCRATES: Well, when a jury has been persuaded fairly about something
about which you could only have knowledge if you were an eyewitness,
not otherwise, while they judge from what they've heard and get a true
belief, haven't they then judged without knowledge, though they were
persuaded of what's correct, since they made a good judgement?
THEAETETUS: Absolutely.
SOCRATES: But look, if true belief and knowledge were the same thing,
then an excellent juryman wouldn't have a correct belief without
knowledge. As it is, the two appear to be distinct.
(Theaetetus 201a1c)
This sounds convincing, indeed perhaps blindingly obvious. But, like the jury, we
can raise the question of whether we should be convinced. Why don't the jury
know that Smith was robbed?
What is required for knowledge?
One reason put forward by Plato for the claim that the jury lack knowledge is
that they have been persuaded, by someone whose main aim it is to get them to
believe what he wants them to believe. In this case he has persuaded them of
the truth, but we may think that he would have been able to persuade them even
if his story hadn't been true. At first this worry may seem far-fetched: if you have
acquired a true belief in a certain

way, why worry that you might have been persuaded of something false in that
same way? How can what didn't happen cast doubt on what did? But, in fact,
this worry about the power of persuasion is serious, because it casts doubt on
the route by which the belief is acquired. If it is a route by which I can acquire
false beliefs as readily as true ones, then it cannot guarantee me only true
beliefs. And this does raise a doubt in most people's minds that a belief that I
have acquired by that route could amount to knowledge.
Another reason put forward in the passage is that the sort of fact the jury have
been persuaded of, namely that Smith was attacked, is not the sort of fact that
you could have knowledge of anyway unless you had been there and seen it for
yourself. However convinced we are that Smith is telling the truth, all we are
getting is a version that is second-hand, and conveyed by an entirely different
kind of route from Smith's own. He experienced and saw the robbery; we are
only being told about it. However vivid the telling, it's still just a telling; only
somebody who was there and saw it can have knowledge of it. Again, this may
at first seem far-fetched. If we limit knowledge to what we can actually
experience first-hand for ourselves, then there won't be much that we can know;
nothing that we read or hear second-hand will count. Yet there is a powerful
thought being appealed to here, one that can be expressed by saying that
nobody else can know things for you or on your behalf. Knowledge requires that
you acquire the relevant belief for yourself. What it is to acquire a belief for
yourself will differ depending on the kind of belief it is, but with the belief that
Smith was robbed the only way you can acquire it for yourself with no
intermediary is, it seems, to be there yourself and actually see it.


A problem for us
Plato has given us two kinds of reason for rejecting the idea that the jury's true
belief could amount to knowledge. Both are strong, but how well do they go
together? The problem with persuasion was that it turned out to be a route that
could not guarantee that the beliefs we acquired from someone else would be
true. But for this to be a problem with persuasion there has to be the possibility
of a route of this kind that did have such a guarantee. Socrates complains that
the victim has to convince the jury in too short a time, and in circumstances that
are too emotional and fraught, for their acquisition of beliefs to be the right kind
for knowledge. This complaint is pointless unless there could be a way of
acquiring beliefs that didn't have these disadvantages-say, one where there were
no time constraints, and each member of the jury could examine witnesses and
victim as much as they required to satisfy every last scruple. So it looks as
though we are assuming that there is a way of conveying beliefs that could
amount to knowledge, though it isn't persuasion.
The second point, however, suggested that no way of conveying beliefs,
however careful and scrupulous, could amount to knowledge, since any belief
conveyed to you from another will be second-hand, and thus something that you
cannot know, because you cannot know it for yourself. Relying on someone
else's testimony, however sound, is never the same as experiencing the fact for
The problem now is that the second objection seems to conflict with the first.
The second supposes that knowledge cannot be conveyed, but must be
acquired by each person in their own case; but the first found fault with
persuasion in a way suggesting that there could be a way of acquiring a belief
from someone else which would amount to knowledge, so that knowledge is


1. Bust of Plato.


The reader comes in
At this point the reader is forced to think for herself about the passage, and
about what Plato is doing. The simplest response would be to conclude that
Plato has given Socrates mutually conflicting demands on knowledge because
Plato is himself confused; he just hasn't noticed that he is requiring knowledge to
be both conveyable and not conveyable. Unsympathetic readers may stop at this
We might probe a little further, however. For one thing, Socrates in this dialogue
repeatedly stresses that he is not putting forward positions of his own, only
arguing against those of others. He produces two objections to Theaetetus&
suggestion that true belief might amount to knowledge. Each is powerful against
that suggestion. Do we have to suppose that Plato, the author, was unaware that
these objections run up against each other? Not necessarily (and if we do not
have to suppose the author unaware of this, we also do not have to suppose
that he intended to portray Socrates as unaware of this problem-though this is a
further matter, on which readers may disagree). And given the sophisticated
level of argument in the Theaetetus, the reasonable course is to suppose that
Plato was aware of how these two objections are related.
Why then does Plato not appear to think that it matters? Here we have to take
seriously Socrates& stress in the dialogue that he is only arguing against the
views of others. This does not mean that he has no ideas on the subject himself,
but it does mean that the point of the dialogue is not to put these forward. The
problem we find when we reflect on Socrates& two grounds for rejecting
Theaetetus& suggestion doesn't undermine the conclusion that that suggestion
won't do; they do show that when we, or Plato, are working on a positive
account of knowledge we need to be aware of this problem.
In another dialogue, the Meno, we find the claim that knowledge is teachable
(87b-c), where this is a firmly accepted point. But it is

also in the Meno that we find one of Plato's most famous ideas, that knowledge
is really a sort of recollection. Socrates engages in a conversation with a boy
who knows no geometry, taking him through a geometrical proof which, though
simple to follow, contains a step that the boy will find counter-intuitive. Having
walked him through the proof, Socrates says (85c) that the boy is now in the
state of having true beliefs on the subject, but if someone asks him these same
things many times and in many ways, you know that in the end he will have
knowledge about them as accurate as anyone's. Socrates has taught the boy in
the sense of presenting the proof to him in such a way that the boy can come to
have knowledge of it for himself. The boy will not actually have knowledge until
he has done something for himself-making the effort to understand the proof.
The boy has to come to know the proof for himself, because only he can come
to understand it for himself. Socrates can't do that. But Socrates can convey
knowledge in that he can convey the proof to the boy in a way that will enable
the boy to make the effort for himself. Hence we can see how knowledge can be
teachable while it is still true that knowledge is something each person can
achieve only for himself. In a further move, Plato calls this recollection; for when
the boy comes to understand the proof, Plato holds that his soul has come to
recollect knowledge it had prior to embodiment, and thus prior to the boy's actual
experience. Clearly, though, the further step about recollection is not required by
the argument itself; it is Plato's bold and exciting way of interpreting the results
of the argument.

Arguing with Plato
In many ways, the jury passage in the Theaetetus provides a good introduction
to Plato's way of writing. We find right away that it is important to pay attention
to the way in which Plato writes, particularly to the role of argument in supporting
one's own position or attacking those of others. We find also that the reader is
drawn into the argument herself, needing to challenge Plato's arguments even
where Socrates in the dialogue easily wins.


The brief mention I have made of the Meno argument introduces us to another
feature of Plato's writing. In the Theaetetus, Plato uses the point that knowledge
is conveyable, and also the point that knowledge requires first-hand experience
of one's own. If we follow this through with an everyday example, like the jury's
judgement about the crime, we find problems. In the Meno we find both points in
a context in which they are not in conflict. But the context there is a geometrical
proof-an example of knowledge that is very different from the jury's judgement. A
geometrical proof is something articulated, abstract, and far removed from
everyday experience. There is something substantial to understand, and to
convey. It is no accident that when Plato struggles with the concept of
knowledge, he tends to conclude that what meets his standards for knowledge is
far more restricted than the range of things we normally assume that we know. If
we think about the differences between the jury example and a geometrical
proof, we can see why he tends to do this. For example, the notion of
understanding has less scope with an everyday example in which knowledge just
comes down to seeing the crime.
Plato is perhaps best known for what is often called the %Theory of Forms&, a set
of striking claims about what is real and what we can know. Forms, of which we
shall see more, do not figure in the Meno or Theaetetus, but we can detect in
these works lines of thought that make Plato's claims about Forms, when we
encounter them, more understandable.
Plato writes in a way which involves us in argument with him. He also puts
forward philosophical claims that have seldom been matched for their boldness,
and for the imaginative manner in which they are expressed. (The idea that
knowledge is %recollection& is one of the most famous of these.) Interpretations of
Plato tend to overemphasize one of these aspects at the expense of the other.
At times, he has been read as interested solely in engagement with the reader,
and distanced from any positive ideas. At other times, he has been read as a
bold theorist striding dogmatically ahead, indifferent


to argument. What is difficult and also rewarding to bear in mind about Plato is
that he is intensely concerned both with argument and with bold ideas, in a way
that is subtle and hard to capture without simplification. This introduction to Plato
does not pretend either to cover all of Plato's ideas or to provide a recipe for
interpreting him, but rather aims to introduce you to engagement with Plato in a
way that will, I hope, lead you to persist.


Chapter 2
Plato's name, and
other matters
Name or nickname?

Plato's name was probably Plato. The probably may surprise you; how can
there be any doubt? Plato's writings have come down to us firmly under that
name. But within the ancient biographical tradition there is a surprisingly
substantial minor tradition according to which Plato was a nickname which
stuck, while the philosopher's real name was Aristocles. This is credible; Plato's
paternal grandfather was called Aristocles, and it was a common practice to call
the eldest son after the father's father. We have, however, no independent
evidence that Plato was the eldest son. And Plato does not appear to be a
nickname; it turns up frequently in the period. Further, the explanations we find
for it as a nickname are unconvincing. Because Plato suggests platus, broad,
we find the suggestion that Plato had been a wrestler known for his broad
shoulders, or a writer known for his broad range of styles! Clearly this is just
guessing, and we would be wise not to conclude that Plato changed his name or
had it changed by others. But then what do we make of the Aristocles stories?
We don't know, and can't tell. And this is frustrating. A change of name is an
important fact about a person, but this fact slips through our fingers.
Our ancient sources about Plato often put us in this position. There are plenty of
stories in the ancient biographies of Plato, and


requently they would, if we could rely on them, give us interesting information
about Plato as a person. But they nearly always dissolve at a touch.

Facts and factoids
Plato was born in Athens in 427 BC and died in 347; we are fairly well informed
about his family.

Plato's family
Both Plato's father Ariston and his mother Perictione came
from old Athenian families. Plato in the Critias makes much of
his family's descent from the 6th-century statesman Solon, who
brought about reforms that put Athens on the road to eventual
democracy. Plato had two full brothers, Glaucon and
Adeimantus, to whom he allots parts in the Republic. After
Ariston's death, Perictione married Pyrilampes, who was
already the father of a son called Demos (referred to in the
Gorgias). By Pyrilampes Perictione had a son Antiphon, Plato's
half-brother, who took up philosophy but quickly lost interest;
he is given the role of narrating the entire conversation of the
Parmenides. Pyrilampes had strong democratic sympathies
(Demos is Greek for ‘The People’). After Athens’ utter defeat in
the long-drawn-out Peloponnesian War in 404 BC, antidemocratic sympathizers brought about a coup and set up a
government of 30 (known as the Thirty Tyrants). Perictione's
brother Critias and cousin Charmides (both of whom have
parts in the Charmides) were among them. Plato thus came
from a family divided by the civil war. We do not know his
own political views, though this has not stopped much
speculation about them. It is plausible that he was alienated
from the restored democracy by Socrates’ execution under it.


He was regarded as an outstanding philosophical and literary figure from early
on, someone around whom stories gathered. However, it was not until several
generations had passed that we find what we would call biographies, claiming to
give narratives about Plato the individual; in Plato's own time this kind of interest
had not developed. By then very few facts about Plato would have been
accurately recoverable, but people had begun to want to know about the person
behind the dialogues (as many of us still do). So we find narratives of Plato's life
in which facts about his life are appealed to, often in order to explain why a
passage in one of the dialogues says what it does, particularly if there is no
other obvious reason for its being there. Thus we find, for example, the claim
that Plato went on a journey to Egypt seeking wisdom. There is nothing
implausible about this. On the other hand, it is a claim made about many ancient
philosophers, particularly in later antiquity with the growth of the idea that Greek
wisdom originally came from older, Eastern countries. A passage in the dialogue
Laws may suggest that Plato had actually seen the stylized Egyptian art which
he prefers to the innovations of Greek art, but it does not compel us to that
conclusion. We simply do not know whether we have a fact that sheds light on
the Laws passage, or a factoid created later from that passage.
This matters chiefly in that we do not have independent access to Plato's
individual personality as we do for more recent philosophers. In the dialogues he
never speaks in his own voice. Whatever we make of this, we cannot evade it by
appealing to his life; our views of his life are irrevocably contaminated by the


Plato on Greek and Egyptian art
The Athenian in the Laws, the dialogue's main speaker, claims
that the Greeks have much to learn from the way the
Egyptians codified artistic styles and stuck to them, as opposed
to the restless craving for originality and new styles marking
Greek art of his day.
ATHENIAN: Long ago, it seems, [the Egyptians] recognized this
principle of which we are now speaking, namely that the
movements and songs that young people in cities practise
habitually should be fine ones. They drew up a list of what these
are and what they are like and displayed it in the temples.
Painters and others who produce any kinds of forms were
forbidden to innovate or invent anything nontraditional; and it
still is forbidden both to them and in the arts in general. If you
look, you will find that things painted or sculpted there ten
thousand years ago-and I mean literally ten thousand-are not at
all better or worse than what is produced now, but are produced
according to the very same skill.
CLEINIAS: It's amazing, what you say.
ATHENIAN: Rather, an exceptional product of legislative and
statesmanlike skill.

(Laws 656d–657a)
Some of this suggests that Plato had seen Egyptian art; some
suggests that he had not. It does not matter for his point: fixed
stylization in art is preferable to a developing tradition valuing


2. Example of Egyptian art. Stela of the sculptor Userwer, 12th dynasty.


3. Example of Greek art. Stela of Dexileos, 4th century.


Different interpretations
Two very differing interpretations are nearly contemporary with Plato himself. His
nephew Speusippus, who succeeded him as head of his philosophical school,
held that Plato's real father was not Ariston but the god Apollo. A whole
corresponding tradition grew up: Plato was born on Apollo's birthday; bees came
and sat on his infant lips; his teacher Socrates dreamed of a swan, Apollo's bird,
just before meeting Plato. Thinking of Plato as semi-divine, alien to us, is not so
startling in a world in which great families claimed descent from the gods. It
makes the point that would be made in later times by saying that Plato was a
genius, somebody altogether out of the ordinary, with talents that transcend the
historical circumstances of his birth and upbringing. A similar tradition grew up at
some point around Pythagoras. Plato is seen as a more than human figure
because of the profundity of his thought and the grandeur of his philosophical
conceptions. In this way of looking at him, what matter most are the large
pronouncements, rather than arguments and the idea of seeking for the truth. In
late antiquity, particularly, Plato was seen as this kind of towering figure, a
superhuman Sage. It is not too hard to find passages in Plato's writings that can
inspire this sort of interpretation (particularly in the Timaeus).
Probably contemporary with the (son of Apollo) interpretation is the utterly
different one found in the so-called (Seventh Letter). Among the body of works by
Plato that have come down to us are 13 works purporting to be letters by him to
various people. Most of them are of a much later date, but two, the seventh and
eighth, contain no definitive anachronisms. The (Seventh Letter) contains what
purports to be an autobiographical account by Plato of his early disillusionment
with politics, and his attempts, during mysterious visits to the Sicilian city of
Syracuse, to persuade the tyrant Dionysius II to submit to constitutional rule.
Whether authentic or not, the letter was accepted by many in the ancient world
as illuminating Plato's own very idealistic approach to


political philosophy. In the last two centuries it has formed the basis for a
stronger view, that Plato's impetus to philosophy in the first place was basically
political, but this claim is clouded by the persistent authenticity problems. It is a
mistake, in any case, to think of it as a psychologically revealing account of an
individual experience; it is a rhetorical exercise in defending Plato and Dionysius
opponent Dion, part of a debate of which we have only one side.
We can easily see why the "political interpretation has seemed more credible
and appealing to modern scholars than the "son of Apollo interpretation, and the
former has been widespread for many years. It fits our ways of thinking better to
see Plato's philosophy as politically motivated than it does to see it as the work
of a transcendent genius (let alone a god!). We should hesitate, however, to
claim that the "Seventh Letter takes us behind the dialogues and gives us the
"real Plato in a way that suggests that his own nephew was wrong.
Interpretations of Plato are contested. They were probably contested before he
was dead.

Socrates and the Academy
We do have two relatively firm points to grasp in approaching Plato. One is the
great influence on him of the Athenian Socrates, and the other is his founding of
the Academy, the first philosophical school.
Socrates thought of himself as seeking for the truth. He looked for it, however, in
a radically new way. Refusing to produce grand theories of the world, or
philosophical treatises-refusing, indeed, to write anything philosophical-he sought
the truth by talking to individuals and pressing on them the importance of
understanding what was being talked about. Plato was obviously impressed by
Socrates insistence that the grander tasks of philosophy will have to wait until
we achieve understanding of what we take for granted courage, justice, and
other virtues, the idea of living a good life, our own claims to understanding.
Socrates identified the philosophical

life as one of continuing enquiry and investigation, into others beliefs and one's
own. Plato was profoundly impressed by Socrates insistence on putting enquiry
before doctrine, and the search for understanding before ambitious claims.
Socrates also took the philosophical life as one to be lived seriously, and died
rather than compromise his values in defending his life. The best measure of
Plato's respect for Socrates is the fact that in most of the dialogues he wrote
Socrates is the main figure, and there is only one dialogue (the Laws) in which
he does not appear at all. Rather than write in
Socrates (about 468–399 BC) was the son of a stonemason and
a midwife. His wife, Xanthippe, has an aristocratic name, and
at one point he had the money to serve as a heavyarmed
soldier, but by the end of his life he was poor. Plato has
Socrates in his Apology (Defence) ascribe this to his devotion to
philosophy, to the neglect of his own affairs. He had three sons;
later tradition gives him a second wife, Myrto.
Socrates was tried and executed under the restored democracy
in 399. It has often been suspected that he was unpopular
because of his association with people who had overthrown the
democracy, but the circumstances are unrecoverable. He was
found guilty on vague charges of introducing new divinities
and corrupting the youth. The first charge probably relates to
Socrates’ ‘divine sign’ (daimonion), which at times held him
Socrates quickly became the symbolic figure of the
Philosopher, the person devoting their life to philosophical
enquiry and willing to die for it. He became a figurehead for
many different schools of philosophy; each could find their


own ideas or methods in Socrates, who left no writings. He was
a controversial person, inspiring both dislike and devotion. The
comic dramatist Aristophanes wrote an unpleasant play, The
Clouds, about him, and he was attacked after his death. Many
of his associates produced ‘Socratic writings’ to defend his
memory. We have some fragments by his followers Aeschines
and Antisthenes, who, along with another follower, Aristippus,
went on to develop very different kinds of philosophy. Our
main sources, however, are Xenophon and Plato. Disputes as
to who gives the ‘truer’ picture of Socrates are futile; Socrates
was from the first a figure on to whom very different positions
could be projected, and the differences between Xenophon's
Socrates and Plato's are best seen as differences between
Xenophon and Plato.
In Plato's dialogues Plato himself is never a character, and
Socrates is usually the chief figure, in dialogue which is
sometimes direct and sometimes narrated, by others or by
Socrates himself. Plato's Socrates varies enormously between
dialogues. Sometimes he is a persistent questioner of others’
positions; sometimes he puts forward his own views confidently
and at length; sometimes he is merely a bystander. Plato was
always inspired by Socrates as the ideal figure of the
philosopher, but his views as to what the tasks and methods of
philosophy should be are not constant, and so Socrates appears
in a variety of roles. In the dialogues in which Socrates is
marginal, Plato's conception of the philosopher goes beyond
what he thinks Socrates can plausibly represent. And where
Socrates is the main figure it is wiser to think of Plato as
developing different aspects of what Socrates represents for
him than to ask how close he is to (or far from) the ‘real’


[illustration unavailable]

4. Bust of Socrates.


his own person, Plato chose always to present Socrates as the figure of the
philosopher searching for truth.
At some point in his life, which we cannot pinpoint accurately, Plato made two
momentous decisions. He rejected his family and civic duty of marrying and
producing heirs. (Modern readers are unsurprised that Plato never married,
because his writings seem so obviously homosexual in temperament. But in
ancient Athens marriage was a duty for the continuance of the family and the
city, and had nothing to do with personal sexuality. In not marrying, Plato was
giving up having posterity of his own, a great loss in his society.) And he
founded the first school of philosophy, called the Academy after the gymnasium
where it met.
We know very little about the organization of the Academy, and academics of
every generation have been tempted to see in it some of the structure of their
own university system. Aristotle was there for 20 years, and when we hear of
him teaching we are tempted to think of him as an advanced graduate student or
junior professor; but we should remember that the Academy was always a public
gymnasium, and that it is unlikely that Plato's school had many of the
institutional features of a modern university. Plato did not charge fees, but only
those wealthy enough to spend time on philosophy were able to attend for long.
We know of one public lecture Plato gave, on +The Good., which was a fiasco
because the audience came to hear about the good life, while Plato talked about
mathematics. We have a parody of students in the Academy defining a
vegetable. Otherwise, the picture we get of the Academy is of a centre for
discussions, with no indication that students went there to learn Platonic
doctrines. Indeed, perhaps +students. is a misnomer; the first centre of further
education was in a world without degrees, grades, credentials, or tenure.
It is easy to see the founding of a philosophical school as being in tension with
Plato's devotion to the memory of Socrates. Socrates, after all, rejected
everything in philosophy that could be thought of

as academic. Yet as Plato presents Socrates, seeking the truth through enquiry
does not, as we shall see, preclude having positive opinions of your own. And
the Academy was not a place where those who came had to learn to agree with
Plato. Not only Plato's greatest pupil, Aristotle, but the next two heads of the
Academy disagreed quite fundamentally with some of Plato's ideas. So the
Academy can be seen as a school for learning to think philosophically, and so to
continue in the tradition of Socrates.
In one respect, however, Plato can be said to have moved on quite decisively
from Socrates, who lost interest in the theories of his time about the nature of
the world and focused on questions of how to live. In the ancient world Plato
was thought of as the first systematic philosopher, the first to see philosophy as
a distinctive approach to what were later to be called logic, physics, and ethics. If
we look at the dialogues as a whole, we can indeed see a large and systematic
set of concerns-systematic in that they are a continuing set of concerns, though
not a set of organized dogmas. Both in antiquity and later, some have further
systematized Plato's ideas as a set of doctrines, generally referred to as
&Platonism', but this is a step Plato himself never takes. He leaves us with the
dialogues, and we have to do for ourselves the work of extracting and organizing
his thoughts.
Plato is the first thinker to demarcate philosophy as a subject and method in its
own right, distinct from other approaches such as rhetoric and poetry. He is
sometimes said to have been the inventor of philosophy because of this
insistence on its difference from other forms of thought, and he seems to have
been the first to use the word philosophia, &love of wisdom', to capture what he
has in mind. He is certainly the inventor of philosophy as a subject, as a
distinctive way of thinking about, and relating to, a wide range of issues and
problems. Philosophy in this sense is still taught and learned in schools and
universities today.


Chapter 3
Drama, fiction, and the
elusive author
Theory and practice

Plato goes out of his way many times to insist that philosophy is the search for
truth, using methods of argument. At different times he puts forward different
candidates for the best philosophical method, which he often calls dialectic, but
he never compromises on the point that philosophy has a different (and higher)
aim, and a more austere method, than what he sees as its main cultural
competitors. There has always been hostility, he says at the end of the Republic,
between philosophy and poetry (he means publicly performed dramatic and epic
poetry, not the private reading of short poems). And in the Gorgias and
Phaedrus he establishes, in different ways, strong opposition between
philosophy and the practice of rhetoric. Philosophy aims only at the truth, not at
mere persuasion regardless of truth, which is a dubious enterprise in both its
intentions and its methods. (Recall the jury's problem in Chapter 1.) Perhaps
Plato is not so much building on already recognized distinctions between
philosophy and other kinds of intellectual activity, as actually establishing them,
by his pioneering of the idea that philosophy has its own aims and methods, that
it forms a distinct, and distinctive, subject which we should demarcate from other
ways of thinking. In any case, few philosophers have stressed as much as Plato
the need to distinguish philosophy's procedures sharply from procedures that
produce agreement by persuasive, non-rigorous means.


And yet Plato is the most literary philosopher, the philosopher most accessible
to non-specialists because of the readability and charm of (at least some of) his
writings. Some of his works are as famous for their literary as for their
philosophical aspects. Even the more subdued contain metaphors, comic
passages, and other attention-grabbers.
One of the most striking things about his works, moreover, is that they are all
cast in a dramatic form-either a dialogue between two or more people or a
monologue, sometimes reporting others dialogue. Many of these writings
characterize various speakers, guide the discussion, and keep the reader
involved with great skill. Nothing could seem further from the specialized, often
technical, and academic form in which most philosophers have written.
Moreover, such literary devices seem obviously open to the objections Plato
brings against the purveyors of mere persuasion: they attract the reader to the
conclusions, rather than relying on the bare intellectual force of argument. How
can so literary a writer be against what literature does? Is he not undermining
what he himself is doing?
Socratic ‘irony’
Socrates is talking to Hippias of Elis, a travelling ‘sophist’ who
sets up as a professional ‘wise man’, taking money for lessons in
private and public rhetoric, and managing public business
himself. How, Socrates asks, does Hippias explain the fact that
wise men in the old days were not rich public figures?
HIPPIAS: What do you think it could be, Socrates, other than
that they were incompetent and not capable of using their
wisdom to achieve in both areas, public and private?


SOCRATES: Well, other skills have certainly improved, and by
comparison with modern craftsmen the older ones are worthless.
Are we to say that your skill-sophistry-has improved in the same
way, and that the ancients who practised wisdom were worthless
compared to you?
HIPPIAS: Yes-you're completely right! …
SOCRATES: … None of those early thinkers thought it right to
demand money as payment, or to make displays of their own
wisdom before all sorts of people. That's how simpleminded they
were; they didn't notice how valuable money is. But each of the
modern people you mention [Gorgias and Prodicus] has made
more money from his wisdom than any other craftsman from any
skill. And Protagoras did it even before they did.
HIPPIAS: Socrates, you have no idea just how fine this is. If you
knew how much money I've made, you'd be amazed! … I';m pretty
sure that I've made more money than any two sophists you like put
SOCRATES: What a fine thing to say, Hippias! It's very
indicative of your own wisdom, and of what a difference there is
between people nowadays and the ancients.

(Hippias Major 281d–283b)
Hippias thinks Socrates is complimenting him. The reader,
however, sees clearly that Socrates despises the use of intellect
to make money, rather than to search for the truth, and hence
has complete contempt for Hippias. Socrates is often ‘ironical’
in this way, operating at the level of his interlocutor in such a
way that the reader can see that he does not share it. This is
not always an attractive trait, but it makes for many vivid and
comic passages in Plato's writing.


Plato's works
Unusually for an ancient philosopher, we can be fairly
confident that we have all Plato's ‘published’ works, including
one unfinished fragment (Critias) and some short works which
were attributed to Plato after his death but contain later style
and vocabulary (these are marked by *). Works about which
there is less consensus, which may be by Plato, are marked by
We have no external indications of the order in which Plato
wrote his dialogues (except that the Laws seems to have been
unfinished at his death). In the ancient world there was no one
privileged order either for teaching the dialogues or for
regarding them as a presentation of ‘Plato's philosophy’; much
depended on the reader's interests, aptitude, and level of
philosophical sophistication.
The following order of the dialogues was established by
Thrasyllus, a Platonist philosopher who was also the Emperor
Tiberius’ private astrologer. Thrasyllus put the dialogues in
groups of four for reasons which are not always clear. His order
has been used by many editions of Plato's text, as well as by
the Hackett translation of the complete works of Plato.
Euthyphro, Apology (Socrates’ Defence), Crito, Phaedo, Cratylus,
Theaetetus, Sophist, Statesman, Parmenides, Philebus,
Symposium, Phaedrus, Alcibiades, Second Alcibiades *,
Hipparchus, Lovers +, Theages +, Charmides, Laches, Lysis,
Euthydemus, Protagoras, Gorgias, Meno, Greater Hippias, Lesser
Hippias, Ion, Menexenus, Clitophon, Republic, Timaeus, Critias,
Minos *, Laws, Epinomis *, Letters +, Definitions *, On Justice
*, On Virtue *, Demodocus *, Sisyphus *, Halycon *, Eryxias *,
Axiochus *, Epigrams +


Detachment and authority
We can answer this by the thought that Plato is, indeed, undermining his own
philosophical activity, systematically denouncing the form he uses. We can take
him to be doing this either naively, simply not noticing that he uses persuasive
techniques to abuse persuasion, or else with a sophisticated theory in mind of
upsetting the reader's expectations. But there is a simpler, less extreme
explanation which fits much better with the content of Plato's views on
In presenting his works in the form of dialogue (direct or reported), Plato is
detaching himself, as the possessor of philosophical views, from the views of the
characters. The author is obviously present in all the characters in the dialogue,
since Plato is writing all the parts. The reader is presented with the development
of a debate between two or more people, and so with an argument, but then it is
up to her to make what she can of it; the author does not present her with
conclusions to be accepted on grounds that have the author's authority.
This point has sometimes been ignored, by interpreters who abstract Plato's
ideas from the dialogue form and treat them as though they were written out in
treatise form. And it has sometimes been exaggerated, by interpreters who
refuse to move from the dialogue to ascribing any positive ideas to Plato at all.
So it is worth examining first what does not follow from recognizing that Plato
detaches himself from the characters( views in all his works by writing in
dramatic form.
It doesn't follow that Plato is detached in the way that the author of an actual
play is; he is not constructing a dramatic world in which the figures interact for
our entertainment. Plato's works raise serious issues for the reader to engage
with; they are meant to get the reader involved in doing philosophy, not just
enjoying the drama. Hence, Plato doesn't present all the characters as equally


deserving of our time and attention. Some are obnoxious or ridiculous, and
others are colourless. The main character in many dialogues is Socrates, and it
is obvious that he is often idealized, and put forward as the embodiment of
philosophical activity in contrast to other kinds of life (what this is differs between
different dialogues).
Plato's use of the dialogue form is perfectly consistent with his having a position
on the issues discussed, and with his sometimes ascribing that position to
Socrates. In some dialogues Socrates argues with another person, showing him
that he lacks understanding of some matter on which he thought he was an
expert, but Socrates himself puts forward no positive views on the issue, and
may even declare that he also lacks understanding. It does not at all follow that
Plato has no position on the matter. Plato uses the character Socrates in many
ways, not simply to put forward his own views.
Why does Plato distance himself in this way? If he does have positions, and if it
is clear enough to the reader that if anybody in the dialogues presents these
views it will be Socrates, then what is the point of writing in a dramatic form?
Why doesn't Plato just come out and tell us what his position is?
Plato very much wants not to present his own position for the reader to accept
on Plato's authority. He was aware of philosophers who wrote authoritative
treatises, telling their readers what to think about a number of large and
important matters. Plato has very substantial and strongly held views on a
number of issues; that is why he is so prominent in Western philosophy. But he
also sees himself as a follower of Socrates, who wrote nothing, but examined
the views of others, trying to get them to understand for themselves. Plato wants
the reader to come to understand what is said for himself or herself. As we shall
see in more detail when we consider his views on knowledge and understanding
(and as we have already had a glimpse in the jury passage-recall Chapter 1),
the reader is


made to do his or her own work to come to understand what Plato is saying.
Plato is sure that he is right on a number of issues, but he doesn't want the
reader to pick up these views just because Plato says so.
It is easy to miss this point, because in some of Plato's most famous dialogues
Socrates is made to expound positive positions confidently and at some length,
while the people he is talking to (the !interlocutors") are given only comments
like, !Quite true, Socrates". We may think that in these passages there is no real
distancing; what Socrates says is just what Plato thinks. But Plato cannot know
anything for you; you have to do your own work to achieve understanding of
what is going on. Sometimes, indeed, the reader is aided in this by finding that
Socrates" claims are contested, or that he is on the defensive, or that the overall
intention of a passage, or a dialogue, is obscure. Further, formal detachment of
Plato from what is being said by Socrates (or, in some works, by a Visitor from
Elea) is always important, even where it is not dramatically very lively. For, even
if you have worked out what Plato thinks, there is still work to do; it isn't your
thought, as opposed to Plato's, until you have thought it through for yourself,
rather than just passively taking it in as being what Plato says. Only then can it
become something you understand.
In one famous passage, Plato shows us Socrates comparing himself to a
midwife, who delivers other people's ideas and tests them, rather than having
!children" of his own. The metaphor doesn't imply that Socrates has no ideas of
his own; it implies that he keeps two things separate: having his own ideas, and
testing the ideas of others. Plato writes philosophy as he does because he is
concerned to keep two things apart also: presenting his own positions, and
getting the reader to come to understand them for herself. Few philosophers
have presented their ideas as passionately as Plato. But he never confuses this
with foisting his ideas on the reader; formally, the reader never faces Plato's own
ideas, only ideas he presents in a detached way through other people.


Socrates the midwife
Socrates, the son of a midwife, Phaenarete, claims to practise a
kind of midwifery himself.
This at least is true of me as well as of midwives: I am barren of
wisdom, and it's a true reproach that many people have made
about me, that I ask other people questions but never put
forward my own position about anything, because I don't have
anything wise to say. This is the reason for it: the god compels me
to be a midwife, but has forbidden me to give birth. So I myself
am hardly a wise person, and I have no such discovery either that
has been born as the offspring of my soul. Take people who
associate with me, however. At first some of them seem quite
stupid, but as the association goes on all those to whom the god
grants it turn out to make amazing progress, as others think as
well as themselves. But this is clear: they have never learned
anything from me; rather they have discovered within themselves
many fine things, and brought them to birth. And for the delivery
the god and I myself are responsible.

(Theaetetus 150c–d)
Some think, on the basis of passages like these, that Plato is an
Academic, having no beliefs.

(Anonymous ancient commentator on the Theaetetus)
Why did god tell Socrates, in the Theaetetus, to be a midwife to
others, but not to give birth himself? … Suppose that nothing can
be apprehended and known by humans: then it was reasonable for
god to prevent Socrates giving birth to bogus beliefs, false and
baseless, and to force him to test others who had


opinions of that kind. Argument that rids you of the greatest evildeception and pretentiousness-is no small help, rather a major one
… This was Socrates’ healing, not of the body but of the festering
and corrupted soul. But suppose there is knowledge of the truth,
and that there is one truth then this is had not just by the person
who discovers it but no less by the person who learns from the
discoverer. But you are more likely to get it if you are not already
convinced that you have it, and then you get the best of all, just
as you can adopt an excellent child without having given birth

(Plutarch, Platonic Question 1)

Two traditions
In the ancient world there were two traditions of reading Plato, and of identifying
yourself as one of his philosophical followers. The less familiar to us came first.
After a period following Plato's death when his successors in the Academy
developed their own ideas about metaphysics and morality, the Academy was
(around 268 BC) recalled by a new head, Arcesilaus, to the method of argument
exemplified in the dialogues in which Socrates is shown arguing with someone
but not positively stating or arguing for his own position. Arcesilaus identified this
feature of Socratic argument-arguing with the other person on his own terms,
showing him that he has a problem regardless of what you think as the most
important aspect of doing philosophy in Plato's way. He probably appealed to
Plato's use of dialogue to detach himself from the positions put forward in order
to hold that the positive claims we find in Plato, however confidently stated,
always have the status merely of positions put forward for discussion, even
where it is relatively clear that Plato thinks them correct. At any rate, he put
Plato's school on a course which is, in ancient terms, *sceptical+ - that is,
enquiring and questioning the credentials of


others views, rather than committed to particular philosophical beliefs of one's
own. This New or Sceptical Academy continued as Plato's school, teaching
people to argue against current dogmas, until the institution came to an end in
the 1st century BC.
Not until Plato's own school had ended do we find a tradition starting, called
Platonist as opposed to the enquiring Academy, in which interpreters think of
Plato's works as putting forward a system of ideas, taken to be Platonism. For
this tradition, it is Plato's positive claims that are interesting, not just his
insistence on argument to demolish the claims of others and to enable one's
own understanding of others positions. From the 1st century BC to the end of
antiquity we find philosophers producing commentaries on Plato's dialogues,
designed to help readers with the language, the details, and the arguments.
They also wrote introductions to Plato, in which Plato's thought is set out as a
philosophical system, often in the later ancient format of three parts: logic (and
epistemology), physics (and metaphysics), and ethics (and politics). When
Plato's thought is treated in this way, the dialogues are thought of as sources for
his position on various issues.
This second tradition has been divided by modern interpreters into the Middle
Platonists, who produced on the whole dutiful and academic but unexciting
work, and Neo-Platonists, who, beginning from Plotinus brilliant rethinking of
Plato in the 3rd century ad, developed Plato's thought in original and innovative
ways. But this is a modern distinction; in the ancient world the only real
distinction was seen as that between two traditions. On the one hand, there was
the sceptical, enquiring Academy tradition of taking from Plato the practice of
arguing on the opponent's terms and detaching yourself from commitment to
your conclusions as authoritative pronouncements. On the other, there was the


tradition, doctrinal or dogmatic , for which what mattered were Plato's actual
ideas about the soul, the cosmos, virtue, and happiness. For thinkers in this
second tradition, philosophical activity took the form of lovingly studying Plato's
works, developing his ideas further in contemporary terms, or both.
It is the dogmatic Platonist tradition which is most familiar to us. We find it
natural for there to be editions and translations of Plato's texts, commentaries on
them, and both scholarly and popular books about his ideas (such as this one, of
course), even if we are less likely to expect modern philosophers to develop
Platonic themes. The alternative tradition, that it is Plato's method of doing
philosophy that he wants us to engage with rather than his own ideas, has been
present only fitfully in the 20th century, and has usually taken eccentric forms
that have prevented its being taken seriously. It has become better known in the
last few years, as students of ancient philosophy have taken more interest in
ancient methods of arguing.
Do these traditions have to be mutually hostile? At times they have been; but it
is possible for them to co-exist and even learn from each other. Even if you think
that what is interesting about Plato is his ideas about the soul, Forms, or the
good life, you can learn a lot from the way Plato distances himself from
commitment and stresses the importance of arguing on the opponent's terms.
And even if you think that what is compelling in Plato is his picture of Socrates,
always enquiring and never claiming knowledge, it is interesting to work out the
positive views within which Plato has Socrates function in this way.


Plato the sceptic?
Is Plato a sceptic-that is, in ancient terms, does he identify
philosophical activity with questioning the claims of others,
rather than putting forward conclusions as justified?
Cicero puts the case for saying yes:
The sceptical Academy is called the New Academy, but it seems
to me we can also call it the Old Academy, if we ascribe Plato to
the New as well as the Old Academy. In his works nothing is
stated firmly, and there are many arguments on both sides of a
question. Everything is subject to enquiry, and nothing is stated
as certain.

Sextus Empiricus, a different kind of sceptic, says no:
As for Plato, some have said that he is dogmatic, others aporetic,
others partly aporetic and partly dogmatic (for in the gymnastic
works, where Socrates is introduced either as playing with people
or as contesting with sophists, they say that his distinctive
character is gymnastic and aporetic; but that he is dogmatic
where he makes assertions seriously through Socrates or Timaeus
or someone similar….) Here … we say … that when Plato makes
assertions about Forms or about the existence of Providence or
about a virtuous life being preferable to a life of vice, then if he
assents to these things as being really so, he is holding beliefs; and
if he commits himself to them as being more plausible, he has
abandoned the distinctive character of Scepticism …

Many voices?


Plato has many voices, not, as some think, many doctrines. So says Arius
Didymus, an ancient scholarly philosopher, aware that when we read the
dialogues, we become progressively more puzzled as to how they are supposed
to add up. Even if we assume that the positions defended in some dialogues by
Socrates, or the Visitor from Elea, are all at least provisionally accepted by Plato,
we find differences of emphasis and perspective which make it difficult to judge
how important a given theme is, as well as radically different treatments of
similar ideas and sometimes what look like outright conflicts between the
positions in different dialogues.
Over the centuries there have been many reactions to this. One is to hold that
Plato wrote his dialogues to be read separately, and that it is mistaken to try to
build up a system of ideas from them jointly. It is hard to refute this position, but
it is also revealingly hard to carry it through, to read Apology,Crito, and Gorgias,
for example, as though the claims about goodness and happiness in them were
quite unconnected. And when we read what is said about pleasure in the
Protagoras and then go on to find an apparently conflicting position in the
Gorgias, it is unsatisfactory just to reflect that these are different dialogues.
There are strands of thought which run through many of Plato's dialogues, and
encourage us to try to put the ideas together.
What kind of unity do we find in these ideas, however? Some interpreters find a
very high degree of unity, but at the cost of dismissing, or downgrading, what
look like different approaches in different dialogues. The ancient Platonists tend
to do this. The extreme version of this view sees Platonism as a monolithic set
of ideas in Plato's mind independent of his presentation of them in the dialogues,
and also independent of his development of arguments for them. Proponents of
this view have given Plato a bad name among philosophers, as being more
interested in dogma than in


argument. In the 20th century more attention has been paid to the details of
Plato's arguments, and interpreters have been more open to the thought that he
may have returned to the same idea more than once, not always in the same
way. Until recently it was a standard assumption of Plato scholarship that Plato's
works display a development! of his thought, from early dialogues which
represent Socrates as arguing without coming to conclusions, to the middle! and
late! dialogues in which Plato puts forward his own ideas. The developmental
view rests on questionable assumptions about Plato's life, about the possibility of
dating texts, and about reading Socrates as simply a mouthpiece for Plato, and
is nowadays much queried. It does have answers for some problems created by
apparently conflicting passages, but there are other ways of meeting these
Plato's ideas can be seen as hanging together tightly or loosely. They can also
be seen as more or less dogmatically put forward. Many doctrinal Platonists
have been insensitive to Plato's refusal to commit himself in person; they too
have given Plato a bad name among philosophers, as though he were simply
using Socrates, or the Eleatic Visitor, as a mouthpiece to pontificate. But we can
respect Plato's refusal to dogmatize while remaining interested in his ideas.
Many people find that as they read through the dialogues they get an
increasingly cumulative impression of a distinctive set of ideas; they can also
recognize that Plato's statements of these ideas is never more than provisional.

Fiction, myth, and philosophy
The philosopher aims at truth-and so should have no use for the kind of
enterprise we call fiction, where we entertain ourselves by stories we know are
not true. Plato goes further, and is notoriously hostile to the fictions popular in
his culture, mainly taking the form of publicly performed drama and recitation. He
is aware of the power that such narratives have to shape our conceptions of
ourselves and of the social world we live in. He is strongly against

such power when used thoughtlessly to propagate traditional ideas, which can
be harmful. In the Republic especially, Plato makes the case that the traditional
cultural education of his time leaves people with false beliefs about the gods and
false ideals to live up to. The stories found in Homer and the ancient dramatists
(which played the role taken in our society by popular entertainment) glamorize
the values of a warrior society, and are bound to unfit people for living in civic
society, where they must act in co-operation with others.
Plato is intensely hostile to the way that what we would call creativity and
imagination are thoughtlessly put to trivial or damaging ends. But he is, as
already noted, a creative and imaginative writer himself, and hardly unaware of
this. His commitment to the philosophical search for truth alters his attitude to his
own gifts in two ways.
Firstly, he thinks of their role as limited. Some of the dialogues are written in
ways that will draw in the unphilosophical, but this is a level at which we are not
encouraged to stay. Even in the easier, attractive dialogues there is always a
clear message that philosophy goes on to argue, to examine, and to test claims
in a way that leaves behind their appeal to the imagination.
And further, Plato rejects the idea that imagination and creativity have value of
their own; he uses them only in the service of furthering what he takes to be true
positions. One of his most notorious views, one that has recommended him to
puritans in every age, is his rejection of the idea of harmless entertainment. For
him the appeal of a good story is valuable if it encourages us to think of, and
think further about, good values; otherwise it is harmful, since it encourages us
to feel satisfied with the unquestioned values of our culture.
Hence Plato is quite ready, in his own writings, to use traditional forms such as
narrative, descriptive images, and myth, stories


involving the superhuman. Their content, though, is thoroughly transformed,
particularly with respect to myth, where Plato rejects his culture's acceptance of
a plurality of mutually indifferent or hostile gods interfering in human life,
replacing it by a form of monotheism in which god is responsible only for what is
good. Plato's elaborate myths, in the Gorgias, Phaedo, Republic, Phaedrus, and
Statesman, underline the points made through argument in the dialogue by using
them as materials for an imaginative narrative.
One irony here is that in terms of sheer numbers of people affected, probably
the most influential thing Plato ever wrote was his unfinished story of Atlantis, in
the introduction to Timaeus and the fragment Critias. He begins a narrative
about ancient Athens, which embodied an ideal form of government, and a
threatened invasion by Atlantis, a rich, sophisticated civilization to the west of the
known Greek world. Atlantis itself was originally Utopian also, but it is flawed, in
ways that lead it to seek imperialist conquest. Even the beginnings of this story
have inspired a genre of Utopian writing, as well as romances, action stories,
and movies about exotic outsiders threatening 'our( civilization. (Most of these
are cruder than Plato's, which offers its readers no easy identification with 'the
good guys(, and no straightforwardly optimistic ending.)
Most interesting, however, is that Plato has his narrator begin the story with a
long preamble about getting it from Egyptian priests, who have, he says, far
older records than the Greeks, whose civilization has frequently been destroyed
and risen again, so that they are ignorant of their own history. This idea has a
deep appeal for many people determined to uncover a hitherto hidden version of
'our history(. The 'real( Atlantis has been 'discovered( in the Mediterranean, on
the island of Thera and at the site of Troy, and west of the Mediterranean, in
prehistoric Britain, Ireland, Denmark, South America, the Yucatan, the Bahamas,
North America, and as a lost continent now sunk in the Atlantic.


5. The travellers in Captain Nemo's submarine find the underwater ruins of
Atlantis, lit up by an underwater volcano, in Jules Verne's 1870 Twenty
Thousand Leagues Under the Sea. Atlantis has figured in late 19th- and
20th-century science fiction and film (including a Disney animation) as an
underwater city, sometimes with inhabitants, discovered by intrepid
adventurers from contemporary society.


The continuing industry of discovering Atlantis illustrates the dangers of reading
Plato. For he is clearly using what has become a standard device of fictionstressing the historicity of an event (and the discovery of hitherto unknown
authorities) as an indication that what follows is fiction. The idea is that we
should use the story to examine our ideas of government and power. We have
missed the point if instead of thinking about these issues we go off exploring the
sea bed. The continuing misunderstanding of Plato as historian here enables us
to see why his distrust of imaginative writing is sometimes justified.


Chapter 4
Love, sex, gender, and
Not seeing Plato whole

Plato is, according to Saint Augustine, the pagan philosopher who comes
nearest to Christianity. In their eagerness to co-opt Plato's authority in the
intellectual development of the Church, however, Augustine and other Church
Fathers looked away from something in Plato which was anathema to Judaism
and Christianity, and thus began an unfortunate tradition of selective and
sometimes dishonest attention to Plato's works.
Plato wrote in a society in which sexual and erotic relations between men were
taken for granted, and were often socially acceptable, particularly between an
adolescent boy and an adult man, where the older $lover% served as the younger
$beloved's% mentor and guide to the adult world. Such relationships were
romanticized, and not regarded as competitors to more prosaic relationships like
Plato's treatment of love as background to and possibly part of philosophy is
mostly to be found in the dialogues Symposium and Phaedrus, although it forms
part of the setting of some other dialogues. In what follows (and for the rest of
the book), I shall talk of Plato's views, assuming that the reader will not need
constant repetition of the points we have noted about the distancing produced by
the dialogue form.



Plato goes beyond accepting homoerotic relationships as part of his social world.
He takes the romantic view of them, and takes it further, in two ways. He
stresses the mentoring aspect of the loverbeloved relation, elevating it to an
idealized relation between teacher and pupil which is above physical attraction
and consists in concern for the other's soul-that is, their psychological and
mental well-being. This is what is often labelled Platonic love! - love with the
form of a romantic relation, but transformed by concern with the soul rather than
the body. Socrates is often depicted as concerned with the well-being of young
boys with whom he hangs out at the gymnasia. Indeed, sometimes he claims to
be an expert on love (ta erotika, love of the sexual and romantic sort).
This is, of course, liable to misunderstanding. Older men who hang round
gymnasia are usually, after all, interested in young men's bodies, not their souls.
In the Symposium there is a passage (215a+222b) designed to show what
Socrates! love really is. Alcibiades, a beautful, brilliant, and rich young Athenian,
is used to being pursued by older men, and becomes fascinated by the way
Socrates refuses to be drawn by his glamour. He discovers that only Socrates is
capable of getting him to feel ashamed of his superficial way of life and to aspire
to be a better person. Wanting Socrates as his mentor, he resolves to seduce
him into a sexual relationship. But, humiliatingly, he fails, even when he moves
from flirtation to spending the night with Socrates under the same cloak.
Socrates merely comments that, if he could indeed make Alcibiades a better
person, this would be a prize worth a great deal more than mere sex.
Despite the eloquence of this passage, misunderstanding was not always
averted. The later satirist Lucian has a Platonist philosopher reassure a father
nervous about having him as a tutor for his teenage son: it is the soul that
interests him, he says, not the body, and even when his pupils spend the night
under the same cloak they never complain!


Love and sex
Indeed, some passages, particularly in the Phaedrus, suggest that sex is not
totally excluded from a continuing philosophical relationship (not, however, the
highest sort), once it has progressed beyond the mentor-pupil relationship to one
of a more equal philosophical companionship. For Plato sex as such is not the
problem here; the issue is the extent to which lives can be dedicated to the
study of philosophy without becoming indifferent to the demands of everyday life.
There is a second way in which Plato uses the language of homoerotic romantic
love. Most notably in the Symposium, he represents the urge to philosophical
enquiry and understanding as itself being a transformation of sexual desire. In a
passage on the $ascent of love%, Socrates describes how erotic urging can
become sublimated and transfigured, leading the person to move beyond
particular gratifications, finding satisfaction only in the transformation from
individual possession to contemplation and understanding universal truths.
Plato's ideas here have been compared to Freud's, though they are arguably
less reductive: the human urge to understand is traced to a basic drive we all
share, but one which can, while retaining its energy and urgency, be transformed
into something with intellectual structure and complexity.
Why does Plato do anything as unlikely as trace the drive for philosophical
understanding to the energy of love? Perhaps because he is attracted, as often,
by an explanation which has the promise of harmonizing two very different
demands on what is to be explained. The drive to do philosophy has to come
from within you, and be genuine. Plato is struck by its likeness to the lover's
desire: it comes from within you in a way that cannot be deliberately produced,
and, like love, it drives you to focus all your efforts to achieve an aim which you
feel you cannot live without, however impossible attainment may seem. But
philosophy is also a joint activity; and few have stressed as much as Plato the
importance of mutual


discussion and argument; philosophical achievement is produced from the
conversations of two or more, not just the intense thoughts of one. Plato
stresses at times the way that love can produce a couple with joint concerns
which transcend what each gets separately out of the relationship; philosophy
similarly requires the stimulus and co-operation of joint discussion and argument.
Philosophy and love thus share puzzling features. How far love illuminates
philosophy is another matter; certainly Plato's discussion locates the place of
both in human life in a way that is original and inspiring.

Gender trouble
Inspiring to men, perhaps. But isn't there a problem for women reading these
works, in which romantic and erotic love is discussed entirely in homoerotic
terms, and women are not considered, or brought in only as an inferior or
rejected option? Plato talks of love between men producing intellectual %offspring&
which are far to be preferred to the mere physical offspring that men and women
produce together. Here he is probably just picking up contemporary contempt for
the feminine sphere in taking love between men to be superior, intellectually and
otherwise, to heterosexual love; though he probably exaggerates this contempt,
as well as the significance of homoerotic love in his society. (Love between
women does not interest him much; probably he knew little about it.) However,
Plato's attitude to women is complex. He is obviously not concerned about
women's sensitivities in his writings. But in the Symposium the account of the
%ascent& of love is actually put into the mouth of a woman, a priestess called
Diotima. And alongside the misogyny, Plato perceives that there is a problem
about women's lives and their expectations, a problem philosophers have until
recently rarely appreciated.
Women's potential, and the family
Plato's Republic, and to a lesser extent Laws, are famous for the idea that in an
ideally governed society the nuclear family would be

either abolished or severely limited. Plato is struck by the way that families often
serve as schools of selfishness and a competitive and hostile attitude to
outsiders, and that this often closes off the spread of attachment to wider
groups. Cities will have citizens with real attachment to their city and its ideals,
he thinks, only if the kind of influences provided within the nuclear family are
reined in. Among the benefits of this idea he sees a release of the potential in
women, who will exchange a narrow life of caring for husband and children at
home for one in which their physical and mental capacities can be developed in
wider contexts, just as those of men are.
In the Republic this idea is developed in a very idealized context in which it is
assumed that women can become both warriors and philosophers in the way
that men do. In the Laws the context is nearer to that of Plato's world, and
women are allowed some expansion of role beyond traditional ones, though the
nuclear family is retained. These ideas, even in a narrower version, were
revolutionary in Plato's day, calling forth ridicule and misunderstanding.
In a period when the issues have been thoroughly debated in an organized way,
we can clearly see many defects in Plato's approach. It is entirely unempirical,
resting on a priori claims about human nature, and hence has no clear
application to actual societies. As a heroic but unrealistic ideal, it has made little
actual impact through the centuries. Further, despite being theoretically
committed to equality between the sexes, Plato persists in thinking that women
will on the whole perform at a lower standard than men, both physically and
mentally. And there is a reason for this: he thinks of improving the lot of women
by enabling them to do what men do, and to play the roles that men play. He
sees nothing in women and their activities as they are in his society that is
worthy of respect, or of retention as something that both men and women should
do. This is a major reason why he continues to refer to women in misogynistic


So we can see why some have thought of Plato as the first feminist, because he
sees no reason why women should be barred from activities that men do, while
others have seen in him a deeply antifeminist strain, holding that women are
worth thinking about only to the extent that they can be socially reconstructed as
men. Considering the difficulty of the issue, and the way that feminism tends to
divide on the subject of whether traditionally feminine activities and traits should
be rejected or valued, we can appreciate why Plato sends mixed messages
here. It is open to us to attack him for his lack of appreciation for what women
actually are and do. Or we can be impressed by the fact that Plato does in fact
see that the position of women in society is a problem, and that ideally
something would be done about it. It is one of the marks of his originality that
almost no other philosophers have thought this. Aristotle, for example, with
greater respect for existing views, finds no problem at all in the fact that women
run domestic homes, lack political rights, and are not educated as men are; and
until recently he has been typical.
There is a story that there were two women pupils in the Academy, Lastheneia,
and Axiothea who came to the school disguised as a man after reading the
Republic. The story may be an invention in the light of the Republic, but, whether
historically true or not, it illustrates the way in which Plato was seen as holding
that gender is irrelevant to intellectual development.

Sex and gender
Until the 20th century, while Plato has often been prominent in the Western
philosophical tradition, his views on sex, love, and gender have been, for
different reasons, regarded as off-limits to philosophical discussion, and this has
resulted in a curious willed blindness to what is in the texts. Though not invented
then, the hypocrisy involved was particularly apparent in the 19th century, when
Plato's works became prominent in university education.


Victorian evasion of the homoerotic
element in Plato
Tom Stoppard's play The Invention of Love captures the
ambivalence of Victorian Oxford's attitude to Plato. Here we
meet Walter Pater, a repressed homosexual whose book Plato
and Platonism brought some aspects of Plato's love of male
beauty almost to the surface, and Benjamin Jowett, the Master
of Balliol College, who translated Plato into English and
pioneered the study of Plato, particularly the Republic, at
Oxford. In Stoppard's play Jowett charges Pater with writing
inappropriately fervid letters to a Balliol student.
PATER: … I am astonished that you should take exception to an
obviously Platonic enthusiasm.
JOWETT: A Platonic enthusiasm as far as Plato was concerned
meant an enthusiasm of the kind that would empty the public
schools and fill the prisons where it is not nipped in the bud. In
my translation of the Phaedrus it required all my ingenuity to
rephrase his description of paederastia into the affectionate
regard as exists between an Englishman and his wife. Plato would
have made the transposition himself if he had had the good
fortune to be a Balliol man.
PATER: And yet, Master, no amount of ingenuity can dispose of
boy-love as the distinguishing feature of a society which we
venerate as one of the most brilliant in the history of human
culture, raised far above its neighbours in moral and mental
JOWETT: You are very kind but one undergraduate is hardly a
distinguishing feature, and I have written to his father to remove
him…. The canker that brought low the glory that was Greece
shall not prevail over Balliol!


[illusatration unavailable]
7. Fin de siècle Plato.


Homosexuality was literally unspeakable, and Plato was made available in
bowdlerized and misleading translations. At the same time, there was a general
anxious half-awareness that Platonic love was not socially approved
heterosexual love. Jean Delville's Symbolist painting The School of Plato
expresses this attitude well. Plato is presented as a spiritual figure reminiscent of
Christ, with twelve disciples, who are depicted as naked and androgynous,
indicating that they are sexless souls, but who look unmistakably like feminized
beautiful young men grouped around an older mentor. The unspeakable is
strongly hinted at-in a way that would be baffling to Plato himself, for whom
same-sex relations were not seen as covert, or something to be coy about.
The idea that men's social roles should be available to women, while not literally
unspeakable, was regarded as a joke, until women's movements in the 19th
century turned it into a serious subject of political discourse. For 150 years the
Republic in particular has been discussed with this issue in mind. By this point,
studying Plato has little to contribute to modern feminist discussion: his starting
points and many of his assumptions are too remote from ours for him to be a
profitable partner in debate for very long.
Yet it is in his attitude to women that Plato is most radical and pioneering. Even
to have the idea that there is nothing natural about women's social roles, that
they can do what men do, is a surprising breakthrough. However, original though
his ideas about love and philosophy are, his focus on homoerotic love, when we
look at it dispassionately, required much less originality. It has been the troubled
attitude of so many later readers to this topic that has inflated it to the status of a
major issue.


Chapter 5
Virtue, in me and in
my society
How to be happy

In many dialogues Plato grapples with the question of how we are to live a good
life. He begins from an assumption which he shares with the rest of his society,
namely that we all seek happiness (eudaimonia). What we think of as ethics
emerges as the concern not just to live one's life, but to do it well, to make a
good job of it. We all seek to be happy, in the sense of living a good life
(something to be sharply distinguished from modern notions of happiness, which
identify it with feeling good; happiness in all ancient thinkers is the achievement
of someone who lives an admirable, enviable life). Plato never doubts that this is
where ethical concern starts. He gives, however, a radically different answer
than most people, and most other philosophers, to the question of what it is to
live an admirable, enviable life, and so to achieve happiness.
Many people, in the modern as much as in the ancient world, find it natural to
say that a happy life is one in which you are successful; the happy person will
be, typically, the rich, secure person who has achieved something in life. It
sounds odd, indeed perverse, to say that someone could be happy, could be
living a life you admire and try to emulate, if he or she turned out to be rejected
and unsuccessful. But Plato was influenced by the example of Socrates, who
gave up worldly success for philosophy, and who ended up

condemned as a criminal and executed-yet who clearly seemed to Plato to have
lived an admirable life. And so, most people must be wrong about how to
achieve a happy life.
Where do most people go wrong? They think that their life will go well, and that
they will be happy, if they have the things that most people think are goodhealth, wealth, good looks, and so on. But are these things good? Do they do
you any good-do they benefit you? Surely, thinks Plato, you are here like a
craftsperson with tools and material-they do not do you any good until you put
them to use, that is, do something with them. Moreover, you have to do the right
thing with them, put them to use which is expert and intelligent, or they will not
benefit you-indeed may do you harm. Someone who wins the lottery, for
example, may well not be made any happier by just having the money. Unless
she puts it to intelligent use, the money may do nothing for her, or even ruin her
life. Happiness cannot just be the stuff you have; you have to put it to good use,
deal with it in the way that a craftsperson deals with her materials, before it will
benefit you, and so make your life better.
Hence we find that the virtues, which enable us to deal well with the material
advantages of our life, are called (in the Laws) +divine goods,, in contrast to the
+human goods, constituted by those material advantages. Without the divine
goods, we will lose the benefit of the human ones. So the value for us of health,
wealth, and the like depends on our possession of virtues like courage and
justice. And the virtues depend in turn for their value in a human life on the
practical reasoning which forms them and guides their application. Hence in the
Euthydemus the virtues which make something out of the stuff of our lives are
identified with wisdom, the practical intelligence which guides virtuous living.
We obviously have a bold thought here, but just how bold? Is Plato saying that
things like health and wealth do not just by their presence make my life better,
but do make it better if practical


wisdom puts them to good use? If so, he thinks that they are good only
conditionally-only in the context of a well-lived life. Or does he think, more
austerely, that things like health and wealth are not good at all, and that it is only
the intelligent use I make of health, wealth, and other goods of fortune that
makes my life better, while their presence does not?
Plato seems not to have thought through the difference between these positions,
since we find language supporting both. Later ethical theories distinguished
them, and the second, more austere position, that of the Stoics, was generally
thought to have won in claiming Plato as its ancestor. One reason for this is that
the more austere view implies that being virtuous is in itself sufficient for a happy
life, and this is a position that finds support elsewhere in Plato.

What matters
In Apology (Socrates# defence speech), Crito, and Gorgias we find explicit
statements of a very uncompromising kind. Socrates claims that all that is
relevant to the issue of whether someone is happy or not is whether they are
virtuous. If we know that a course of action is wrong, then we should not do it,
and no amount of anything we could gain or lose by doing the action makes any
impact on this point. Even if your life is at risk, you should not try to save it by
compromising your values.
Why is Socrates so sure that the claims of virtue cannot be compromised-cannot
indeed be weighed up against considerations like those of money, security, and
so on? We have seen that virtue is not just one good thing for me to have,
something that might be measured against other good things, such as wealth or
security. Rather, virtue is a )divine# good-it is either the only unconditional good,
or the only thing which is good at all. And it holds this position because it is
virtue which enables us to put other conventionally good things to good usehence, it is what makes the

Uncompromising virtue
In the Crito (48c–d) Socrates, waiting for execution, examines
why he should or should not try to escape from prison.
SOCRATES: We should now examine this-whether it is just for
me to try to escape [from prison], or not. If it turns out to be just,
let us try, and if not, let's drop it. But these considerations you
mention, about spending money, and reputation, and bringing up
my children, I suspect, Crito, that these are in truth
considerations that appeal to … most people. But for us, since the
argument demands it, there is nothing else to examine except
what we just said, namely, whether we shall be acting justly [if
we arrange my escape] or whether we shall in truth be acting
unjustly if we do all this. And if this will clearly be an unjust
action for us to do, then there is no need at all for us to take into
account whether I will have to die if I stay and do nothing, or
have to suffer anything else whatever rather than do wrong.

difference between having things like health and wealth benefit us or do us no
good, or even ruin our lives. Hence virtue is often thought of as a kind of skill or
expertise-a kind of practical knowledge which is applied in making materials into
a unified and finished product.
The idea here is a powerful one. By the time I start thinking about how to live my
life well, I already, as we say, have a life-I have a set of commitments and
relationships, such as my family and my job, and a set of goals, my ambitions
and dreams. I also, typically, want to be a good person, to be courageous rather
than cowardly, fair rather than unjust, and the like. Plato tells us, uncompromisingly, that virtue has a special role, and a special kind of value. To be


virtuous is not just to have some goods like wealth, health, and so on, and also
virtue. Rather, virtue is the controlling and defining element in your life;
everything else is just materials for it to work on, and it produces a result which
is either a well-organized whole or, if it fails, a mess. If we look at things this
way, we can appreciate why Plato sees the role of virtue as so crucial in a life.
He does not, however, articulate the kind of precise theory that later
philosophers did produce as a result of thinking about, and refining, this idea of
virtue as the controlling element in a life.
Becoming like god
This may already strike modern readers as a demanding view. Most of us
probably have more sympathy with Aristotle's commonsensical position, which
allows that virtue is important as the basic organizing factor in your life, but
insists that conventional goods like health and wealth are also good and make
your life better if you have them (and, if you lose them, disrupt your life
sufficiently that you are no longer happy).
Plato's is without doubt a very demanding position, and was recognized as such
in the ancient world (as already indicated, it was generally identified with the
austere Stoic position). If he is right, my life should be lived very differently from
the way I now live it; instead of pursuing goals like wealth or power I should do
all I can to have my life organized and controlled by virtue-and for most people
this will make a tremendous difference.
Sometimes, however, we find Plato putting forward the idea that it is not enough
to transform your life by getting virtue to direct your priorities. Rather, you should
recognize that all our everyday concerns and worries are really petty and
unimportant. You should try to take the perspective from which the things that
people get worked up about are seen as merely trivial. Virtue requires, in other
words, detachment from everyday concerns, and hence from the mixture of good
and bad that is inevitable in ordinary life. For in life

as it is, there is no such thing as really being virtuous, being perfect that is why
we should try to flee as fast as we can from the world here to the world there.
This flight is coming to be like god as far as is possible, and this coming to be
like god is coming to be just and pious, with understanding. (Theaetetus 176ab.)
The idea of becoming like god would strike Plato's audience as shocking. Gods
are a different kind of being from humans, just as the other animals are.
Traditionally, for a human to seek to become a god was a transgression (one
that the traditional gods were quick to punish). What Plato has in mind is
naturally not this, but a philosophically refined view of what god is. God is purely
good, wholly without evil (unlike the traditional Greek gods), and to become like
god is to aspire to get as near to perfection as a human can.
The ideal of virtue as becoming like god runs against the main current of ancient
ethical thought, which takes virtue to be an ideal fulfilment of human nature and
its potential, not an attempt to transcend it and to become another kind of being
altogether in a quest for perfection that can be attained only in a withdrawal from
everyday life. Sidelined for many hundreds of years, the otherworldly ideal had a
new lease of life in late antiquity, in the NeoPlatonist interpretations of Plato and
the impact these had on the intellectual development of Christianity.
Educating good people
Attracted as he at times is to this idea, however, Plato for the most part thinks of
virtue as a practical kind of knowledge, exercised in and on the agent's life.
Moreover, as we have seen, he thinks that becoming virtuous is crucial for
someone hoping to achieve what everyone hopes to achieve, namely happiness.
How, though, is a person to become virtuous? Aristotle, Plato's pupil, later thinks
that we start by taking as role models the virtuous people in our community, and
proceed to emulate and to criticize the content of their deliberations. If we
develop well, we achieve virtue that is

richer, more reflective and unified than what we start with; but we will not go far
wrong in beginning from our community's standards. Plato wholly disagrees;
some of his most vivid passages present the person who aspires to virtue as
being quite at odds with their community, finding little sympathy or support for
their own ideas. The more talented and sensitive a person is, he suggests in one
passage, the more they will be moulded by the various kinds of pressure that
society brings to bear.
Plato recognizes that these pressures are not all of an overtly moral or political
kind. What we call a society's culture affects people in lots of ways. In particular,
Plato is the first to emphasize the importance of what we call the arts in forming
the values of the members of a society. The role played in our society by films,
television, and books was played in Plato's Athens by the performance of
dramas in the theatre, festivals, and by the learning and performance of various
kinds of poetry-epic (notably Homer's Iliad and Odyssey) and lyric. Plato takes
these very seriously, refusing to regard them as mere harmless entertainment.
In two of his longest works, the Republic and the Laws, the latter a work in
which he sketches a legal code for a new city, Plato insists on radical reform of
his community's culture, in the interests of the moral growth of its members. The
content of traditional culture, notably poetry, is to be thoroughly reformed, and
purged of passages which encourage selfish and uncooperative behaviour. And
Plato is suspicious of the very idea of dramatic representation. He thinks, as
have puritans in a number of traditions, that acting parts makes the actor's own
self weak and pliable. Moreover, he distrusts the effect of drama on the
audience; it encourages them to feel serious emotions lightly, weakening their
control over their own emotions. In the improved city of the Laws there is none
of the drama which made up so large a part of Greek popular culture (and which
has come down to us as )Greek tragedy*). Plato is unrepentant about the
impoverishment of people's creative and imaginative side; for him what matters
is moral development, and the energies


The levelling effect of popular opinion
Plato's distrust of the effects of popular culture in stifling
individual thought comes out vividly in this passage from the
Republic (492a–c).
SOCRATES: The nature of the person who loves wisdom, as we
laid it down, will necessarily arrive as it grows at every virtue, if,
that is, it gets appropriate teaching. But if it is sown, and
nurtured as it grows, in one that is inappropriate, then, unless
some god happens to rescue it, it must turn out quite the
opposite. Or do you too think what most people do, namely that
some young people are corrupted by sophists, and that it's some
sophists, private people, who do the corrupting to any great
extent? Don't you think that it's the very people who say this
who are the greatest sophists of all, and who do the most
complete educating, producing people to be the way they want
them, young and old, men and women?
When? he said.
When many of them are sitting together in an assembly, the lawcourts, the theatre, the camp or some other general meeting of a
lot of people; they make a huge uproar as they criticize some
things said or done and praise others excessively in both cases-by
yelling and banging, and as well as them, the rocks and the
surrounding place echo the uproar of praise and blame and return
it doubled. When things are like this, what heart will a young
man have, as the saying goes? What kind of individual education
of his will hold out and not be swept away by criticism and praise
of this sort, being carried off by the flood wherever it goes, so that
he agrees with them about fine and base things, practices what
they do, and becomes just like them?


on which the arts elsewhere draw are in Plato's ideal community strictly focused
on that.
The individual and the state
So far I have talked of community rather than state, but for Plato there is no
sharp boundary between the cultural and the political. His ideas on how states
should be organized reject the idea that politics provides a framework within
which individuals can develop as they see best in pursuing their own goals.
Indeed, Plato's political ideals are throughout driven by the thought that it is
competitive individualism which is the main political problem. People want to
!drag" things into their own houses and enjoy whatever they achieve privately,
instead of wanting to cooperate in the production of shared goods, which all can
enjoy publicly. In an avowedly fantastic sketch of an !ideal state" in the Republic,
and in a more detailed account in the Laws of how a new Greek city could be
organized on idealized lines, Plato reforms both political and educational
institutions to produce a person whose self-conception will be primarily that of a
citizen, someone whose life goals are shared with those of his fellow-citizensand her fellow-citizens, for even in the Laws Plato thinks that women should
think of themselves as citizens, sharing in public space rather than trapped in
individual domestic drudgery. In the Republic fantasy these ideas go to the
lengths of abolishing the nuclear family altogether; in the Laws Plato moves
rather to strengthening it as a basis for educating a communally minded
What does Plato think is the justification for such radical ideas, which would alter
institutions relentlessly in the interests of producing more socially minded
people? This is, he thinks, the only rational way of organizing society so as to
function as a whole rather than consisting in a bunch of conflicting individuals.
These ideas are always presented as an expert's solution, and constantly
compared with the authoritative pronouncements of the expert navigator or
doctor. In contrast, democracy, the accepted position in

Democracy and bureaucracy
Plato sees democracy as imposing stifling bureaucracy on
gifted individuals. Here (Statesman 298c–299b) he satirically
describes what navigation and medicine would be like if run by
Athenian democracy. He later admits that democratic control
is useful as a safeguard against abuse of power in our actual
VISITOR FROM ELEA: So suppose we were to make it our
policy … no longer to allow [either navigation or medicine] to
have full control over anyone, slave or free, but to call ourselves
together as an assembly … We permit both laymen and other
craftsmen to contribute their opinion about sailing and diseases,
as to how we should use drugs and the doctor's instruments on the
sick, and even as to ships themselves … and when this is written
on notice-boards and stone blocks … this is how for all future
time ships are to be sailed and the sick taken care of.
YOUNG SOCRATES: What you've described is very peculiar.
VISITOR FROM ELEA: And we'd also set up yearly officials
from the people … selected by lottery; and these on taking office
should fulfil it by steering the ships and curing the sick according
to the written rules.
YOUNG SOCRATES: This is even harder to accept.
VISITOR FROM ELEA: Consider also what follows after this.
When each official's year ends, courts will have to be set up …
and ex-officials have to be tried and investigated. Anyone who
wants to can accuse one of not steering the ships that year
according to the written rules … and the same goes for those
curing the sick. The court has to as