Greek, c. 429/427–347 BCE
If Plato is unambiguously one of the greatest philosophers in history, his relation to the art of prose is paradoxical. In dialogues such as the Protagoras and Gorgias, he expresses his suspicion of rhetoric. Yet throughout his works, he demonstrates a masterful command of rhetorical modes, figures, and register, from the formal oration to the colloquial conversation. In works such as the Ion and the second and third books of the Republic, he attacks the power and pretension of literature. Yet his works are realistic dramas, choreographing action and dialogue with the fluency of a playwright. Out of the historical Socrates, he creates one of the most memorable and well-formed characters in Western literature. Finally, in works such as the Cratylus and Phaedrus, he articulates his mistrust of written language. Yet Plato was one of the best stylists of classical Attic Greek prose. Even long works such as the Republic show the care and intricacy of a sonnet. Noting that Plato had a reputation for revision, the ancient critic Dionysus of Halicarnassus observed wryly that “up to his eightieth year Plato never ceased combing and curling and every way braiding his own dialogues.”
The dialogue developed out of Plato’s ambivalence about the limits of written language. The genre imitates the form of the dialectic, preserving the dynamic and openended character of conversation. One ancient commentator noted that “just as dialectic compels the soul to reveal the labors it undergoes… so also the dialogue may compel the reader to assent to the things said…” At the same time, it allows Plato to explore issues while suspending any final judgment on his own part. Plato himself is noticeably absent in most of the dialogues.
Plato’s philosophical and literary activities extend over a period of 50 years. His works fall into two categories: the letters and the dialogues. Of the letters, 13 are extant. Most are addressed to Dionysus the Tyrant of Syracuse, or to Dionysus’ son and successor, Dion, and are concerned with political advice and Plato’s aspirations for creating a philosopher-king. Of the dialogues, 26 can be firmly attributed to Plato, with several others of questionable authorship. Looking at shifts in philosophical doctrine and stylistic evidence, scholars divide them loosely into three periods, roughly bounded by his voyages from Athens to Sicily. Thus the Apologia, Crito, Laches, Lysis, Charmides, Euthyphro, Hippias minor, Protagoras, Gorgias, Ion, and perhaps Hippias major belong to the early period before his first trip around 387 BCE. The Meno, Phaedo, Republic, Symposium, Phaedrus, Euthydemus, Menexenus, and Cratylus belong to the middle period, the years of the Academy from 388 to 367 BCE. The late period falls between a second trip to Sicily around 367 and a third trip around 361, and includes the
Parmenides, Theaetetus, Sophist, Politicus (Statesman), Timaeus, Critias, Philebus, and Laws.
The dialogues of the first period generally feature Socrates in debate with some antagonist. These tend to focus on moral issues, in which the interlocutor, after whom the dialogue is named, makes a statement, and is then interrogated by Socrates. They are marked by the use of argument and counterargument, and represent the purest form of the Socratic method, the elenctic debate, a via negationis in which Socrates moves toward some understanding or truth by determining what he does not know, even if he cannot establish with certainty what he does know. Both the method and the moral themes closely reflect those attributed to the historical Socrates, but even at this early stage Plato plays an active role in shaping the material. This is evident, for example, when one compares Plato’s version of the Apology, Socrates’ defense of himself, with the account given by Xenophon.
The dialogues of the middle period take on a different tone. The animated and often hostile format of the debate gives way to more leisurely conversations. In turn, Socratic ignorance and dialectic give way to long stretches of exposition. The Symposium, for instance, Plato’s famous examination of love, is in the form of a succession of encomia by a group of friends at a drinking party. Although morality and virtue are important, these dialogues are more concerned with metaphysical issues, including an examination of love, language, and the afterlife. They also develop Plato’s theory of forms (or ideas).
The work of the third period extends the tendencies of the middle period; the figure of Socrates moves to the background in the Sophist and the Politicus, and disappears altogether in the Laws, replaced by an interlocutor simply identified as “the Athenian.” In these late works, Plato is primarily concerned with questions of knowledge, and a critical re-examination of his early ontological doctrines.
The importance of Plato’s dialogues was recognized almost immediately. References and allusions to almost every one of them can be found among ancient writers. More importantly, Plato’s dialogues created the genre, influencing all subsequent philosophical dialogues from Cicero’s Tusculanae disputationes (47–44 BCE), Thomas More’s Utopia
(1516), and George Berkeley’s Three Dialogues Between Hylas and Philonus (1713), to Giacomo Leopardi’s Operette morali (1827; Essays and Dialogues), to mention some of the best. While this genre has spawned many imitators, none has surpassed Plato’s command of language, the profundity of his thought, or the power of his dramatic invention. If Plato is one of the greatest philosophers, he is also one of the most eloquent.
See also Classical Influences
Born c. 429–427 BCE probably in Athens (possibly in Aegina). Met Socrates c. 407 and became his disciple; after Socrates’ execution, 399, Plato went with other Socratic disciples to Megara, then traveled for 12 years, visiting Egypt, Sicily, 390–388, where he met Dionysius I of Syracuse, and Italy, where he met Archytas of Tarentum; began teaching pupils near the grove of Academus outside Athens, 388, and continued until his death; summoned to court of Dionysius II of Syracuse by Dion, the ruler’s uncle, 366– 365, and by Dionysius II himself, 362–361. Died in Athens in 347 BCE.
Essays and Related Prose (dialogues in chronological order)
Hippias minor, edited by George Smith, 1895; translated by Floyer Sydenham, 1767, and Robin Waterfield, 1987
Hippias major (authorship questionable), edited by Dorothy Tarrant, 1928; translated by Floyer Sydenham, 1767, Paul Woodruff, 1982, and Robin Waterfield, 1987
Laches, edited by M.T.Tatham, 1888 (reprinted 1966), and F.G. Plaistowe, translated by T.R.Mills, 1898; translated by W.R. M.Lamb (Loeb Editin), 1924, Rosamund Kent Sprague, 1973, and Iain Lane, 1987
Charmides, edited by Richard F.Hipwell, 1951; translated by Rosamund Kent Sprague, 1973, T.G. and G.S.West, 1986, and Donald Watt, 1987
Ion, edited by George Smith, 1895, St. George Stock, 1909, and J. M.Macgregor, 1912; translated by Percy Bysshe Shelley, in The Banquet of Plato and Other Pieces, 1887, W.R.M.Lamb(Loeb Edition), 1925, Lane Cooper, 1938, W.H.D.Rouse, 1956, Paul Woodruff, 1983, and Trevor J.Saunders, 1987
Protagoras, edited by James and A.M.Adam, 1981; several translations, including by W.R.M.Lamb (Loeb Edition), 1924, W.K.C.Guthrie, 1956, B.A.F.Hubbard, 1982, Patrick Coby, 1987, and Stanley Lombardo and Karen Bell, 1992
Euthyphro, edited by C.E.Graves, revised edition, 1935, and C.J. Emlyn-Jones, 1991;
several translations, including by Lane Cooper, 1941, Basil Wrighton, 1948,
W.D.Woodhead, 1953, John Warrington, 1963, R.E.Allen, 1970, and G.M.A.Grube, 1986
Apologia, edited by Edward Henry Blakeney, 1929, Robin Barrow, 1977, and John Burnet, 1977; many translations, including by Lane Cooper, 1941, Basil Wrighton, 1948, W.H.D.Rouse, 1956, John Warrington, 1963, R.E.Allen, 1980, G.M.A. Grube,
1986, and Thomas C.Brickhouse, 1989
Crito, edited by John Burnet, 1977, and James Adam, 1988; many translations, including by Lane Cooper, 1941, Basil Wrighton, 1948, W.H.D.Rouse, 1956, John Warrington, 1963, A.D. Woozley, 1979, R.E.Allen, 1980, and G.M.A.Grube, 1986
Phaedo, edited by C.J.Rowe, 1994; many translations, including by Lane Cooper, 1941, Basil Wrighton, 1948, G.M.A.Grube, 1977, John Burnet, 1979, and R.Larson, 1980
Gorgias, edited by E.R.Dodds, 1959, revised edition, 1990; translated by W.R.M.Lamb (Loeb Edition), 1932, Lane Cooper, 1938, W.Hamilton, 1960, Terence Irwin, 1980, and D. J.Zeyl, 1986
Meno, edited by R.S.Bluck, 1961, and A.Sesonske and N. Fleming, 1965; several translations, including by W.R.M. Lamb (Loeb Edition), 1924, W.K.C.Guthrie, 1956, W.H. D. Rouse, 1956, R.W.Sharples, 1985, and G.M.A.Grube, 1986
Lysis, translated by W.R.M.Lamb (Loeb Edition), 1932, David Bolotin, 1979, Donald Watt, 1987, and Benjamin Jowett and E. O’Connor, 1991
Menexenus, edited and translated by T.R.Mills, 1902; several translations, including by Percy Bysshe Shelley, in The Banquet of Plato and Other Pieces, 1887, and A.S.Way, 1934
Euthydemus, edited by G.H.Wells, 1881, and E.H.Gifford, 3 vols., 1905; translated by W.R.M.Lamb, 1924, Rosamund Kent Sprague, 1972, and Robin Waterfield, 1987
Cratylus, edited by G.Pasquali, 1908; translated by Thomas Taylor, 1793
Symposium, edited by R.G.Bury, 1973, and K.J.Dover, 1980; many translations, including by W.R.M.Lamb (Loeb Edition), 1932, Lane Cooper, 1938, W.H.D.Rouse, 1956, R.Larson, 1980, Tom Griffith, 1986, A.Nehamas and Paul Woodruff, 1989, R.E.Allen, 1991, and Robin Waterfield, 1994
Republic, edited by James Adam, revised by D.A.Rees, 2 vols., 1963, and Allan Bloom, 1968; several translations, including by P.Shorey (Loeb Edition), 2 vols., 1930–35, W.H.D.Rouse, 1956, I.A.Richards, 1966, G.M.A.Grube, 1974, revised by C.
D.C.Reeve, 1992, Richard W.Sterling and William C.Scott, 1985, and Robin Waterfield, 1993
Parmenides, translated by A.E.Taylor, 1934, Francis M.Cornford, 1939, John Warrington, 1961, R.E.Allen, 1983, and Glenn R. Morrow and John M.Dillon, 1987
Theaetetus, edited by Lewis Campbell, 2nd edition, 1883; several translations, including by H.N.Fowler (Loeb Edition), 1921, Seth Benardete, 1986, and Robin Waterfield, 1987
Phaedrus, edited by W.H.Thompson, 1868; several translations, including by Lane Cooper, 1938, Robin Waterfield, 1982, and C. J.Rowe, 1986
Sophist, translated by H.N.Fowler (Loeb Edition), 1921, Francis M.Cornford, 1935, A.E.Taylor, 1961, John Warrington, 1961, and Seth Benardete, 1986
Statesman, translated by H.N.Fowler (Loeb Edition), 1925, A.E. Taylor, 1961, John Warrington, 1961, and Seth Benardete, 1986; as Politicus, translated by J.B.Skemp, 1952
Philebus, translated by F.Sydenham, 1767, R.Hackforth, 1945, A. E.Taylor, 1956, J.C.B.Gosling, 1975, and Robin Waterfield, 1982
Timaeus, edited by Christopher Gill, 1980; several translations, including by R.G.Bury (Loeb Edition), 1929, A.E.Taylor, 1929, Francis M.Cornford, 1937, and John Warrington, 1965
Critias, edited by C.Gill, 1981; translated by A.E.Taylor, 1929, and H.D.P.Lee, 1971
Laws, edited by E.B.England, 2 vols., 1921; translated by R.G. Bury (Loeb Edition), 2 vols., 1926, A.E.Taylor, 1934, Trevor S. Saunders, 1970, and Thomas L.Pangle, 1988
[Dialogues], edited by John Burnet, 5 vols., 1900–07; edited and translated by R.E.Allen, 3 vols., 1985–96; translated by Benjamin Jowett, 4 vols., 1868–71, Henry Cary, 1900,
H.N. Fowler and others (Loeb Edition), 12 vols., 1914–29; Collected Dialogues (including Letters), edited by Edith Hamilton and Huntington Cairns, translated by Lane Cooper and others, 1961
The Portable Plato (selected dialogues), translated by Benjamin Jowett, 1948; edited by Scott M.Buchanan, 1977
The Death of Socrates: An Interpretation of the Platonic Dialogues, translated by Basil Wrighton, 1948
Socratic Dialogues (selection), edited and translated by W.D. Woodhead, 1953
Great Dialogues of Plato, edited by Eric H.Warmington and Philip G.Rouse, translated by W.H.D.Rouse, 1967; revised edition, 1970
Five Dialogues, translated by G.M.A.Grube, 1986
Early Socratic Dialogues, edited by Trevor J.Saunders, translated by Saunders, Iain Lane, Donald Watt, and Robin Waterfield, 1987
The Roots of Political Philosophy: Ten Forgotten Socratic Dialogues, edited and translated by Thomas L.Pangle, 1987
Collected works editions: Works, translated by Thomas Taylor and Floyer Sydenham, 5 vols., 1804, reprinted 1995– (in progress); Platonis opere (Clarendon Edition), edited by E.A.Duke and others, 1995– (in progress).
McKirahan, Richard D., Plato and Socrates: A Comprehensive Bibliography, 1958–1973,
New York: Garland, 1978
Saunders, Trevor J., A Bibliography on Plato’s “Laws,” 1920–1970, with Additional Citations Through May 1975, New York: Arno Press, 1976
Brandwood, Leonard, The Chronology of Plato’s Dialogues, Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1990
Brickhouse, Thomas C., and Nicholas D.Smith, Plato’s Socrates, New York and Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1994
Frede, M, “Plato’s Arguments and the Dialogue Form,” in Oxford Studies in Ancient Philosophy, supplement, edited by Julia Annas and Robert H.Grimm, Oxford: Clarendon Press, and New York: Oxford University Press, 1988:201–19
Friedländer, Paul, Plato: An Introdtiction, Princeton, New Jersey: Princeton University Press, 1973 (original edition, 1928)
Grube, G.M.A., The Greek and Roman Critics, Toronto: University of Toronto Press, and London: Methuen, 1965
Guthrie, W.K.C., A History of Greek Philosophy, Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 4 vols., 1962–71
Hadas, Moses, Ancilla to Classical Reading, New York: Columbia University Press, 1961 (original edition, 1954)
Havelock, Eric A., Preface to Plato, Cambridge, Massachusetts: Harvard University Press, 1982 (original edition, 1962)
Irwin, Terence, Plato’s Ethics, New York and Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1995 Kahn, C.H., “Did Plato Write Socratic Dialogues?” Classical Quarterly 31 (1981):305– 20
Lesky, Albin, A History of Greek Literature, New York: Crowell, and London: Methuen, 1966 (original German edition, 1959)
Morgan, Michael L., Platonic Piety: Philosophy and Ritual in Fourth-Century Athens, New Haven, Connecticut and London: Yale University Press, 1990
Vlastos, Gregory, editor, Plato: A Collection of Critical Essays, Garden City, New York: Anchor, and London: Macmillan, 2 vols., 1972
Vlastos, Gregory, Socrates: Ironist and Moral Philosopher, Ithaca, New York: Cornell University Press, and Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1991
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