Wandering Thoughts on the Philebus

Plato’s Philebus is a teleological dialogue -it is focused on the finality of things. On the surface, the subject matter of the Philebus concerns the question of pleasure. The pursuit of pleasure, as opposed to Thomas Jefferson’s “pursuit of happiness”- is a limitless activity. However there is the question of the finality of the philosophic life -what is the end? Where is the horizon?

The Platonic answer is that the philosophic life finds its horizon in a limitless pursuit of eidos (“ideas” like the true, the good, and the beautiful). However, throughout the Platonic dialogues, we encounter Socrates, whom Cicero once called the man who brought philosophy ‘down from the heavens,’ as a political man. In the Philebus is project is directed clearly, and at times explicitly, to subordinate the true and the good to the beautiful. That is, Socrates’s desire might be said to dethrone the political or ethical questions in favor of the arts and sciences, though his quest is often situational and the locust depends on the person he is speaking with. For example, occasionally an interlocutor needs to pursue the true, rather than the beautiful or the good.

In the Philebus we encounter a series of Socratic jokes about stamina, tiredness, and willingness. It becomes apparent that neither Philebus nor Protarchus possess the same willingness that other Socratic interlocutors possess, like Theaetetus, to continue along with Socrates. In addition, unlike other Socratic dialogues, I have very little to say about the Philebus. We encounter no moment of Socratic aporeia and no moment of abrupt ending. It is a dialogue without a beginning and without a conclusion. It occurs entirely en media res. The dialogue simply continues without end or conclusion, alluding to the unending nature of the philosophic quest.


For this reading I used Seth Bernardete’s translation of Plato’s Philebus.

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