Opening a Platonic dialogue shines new light on ancient wisdom, a sorely necessary art in our modern age of decadence and decay. In looking back, in order to understand the mind of the ancients, we must proceed cautiously and respectfully. We do not seek the vainglory of pain-loving antiquarianism, nor do we venture back as Robespierran revolutionaries by condemning to death those with whom we disagree. Rather we must work to understand the ancients as they understood themselves.
Plato reveals himself to us only by his nickname, “the broad”. Nowhere in his writings, except perhaps in the “Seventh Letter” do we encounter Plato, the man. In the remainder of his writings that have come down to us as Platonic, Plato is silent, only appearing marginally as a pupil of Socrates. In the Phaedrus we are given a clue as to why this might be the case: Socrates explains to the young Phaedrus the inferiority of writing as an art, because writing shares the same information equally to all people, a defect of technology, and there is, presumably, some knowledge that is not meant for all people to possess. Nevertheless, the Platonic writings were created. The memory of Socrates was preserved not merely as a biography of the man, but as a mode of transcending custom and opinion in consideration of truth, for knowledge is reoriented by Socrates: virtue is knowledge. What kind of knowledge? Knowledge of self, as the Oracle at Delphi scrawled on the wall. This kind of historia, or “inquiry”, is a dangerous pursuit. Questioning the conventions of any city is a dangerous practice, as the city relies on its conventions for perpetuation. For this transgression, punishment must be actuated. Therefore, there is need for the writer, Plato, to conceal himself, his claims and convictions, from the city. He must pay deference to the pieties of the city, as Plato does to the poets and the gods of ancient Athens, as Descartes does to the papal authorities of Europe, and as the modern philosopher is compelled to pay deference to the authority of liberal democracy and science. Recall, Aristotle noted certain “unwritten teachings” of Plato when discussing Plato’s Timaeus in his founding doctrine of science, the Physics. At any rate, in order to get a better sense of where we are, we must gaze back over the long arc of the past, to understand what has come down to us and what came before us.
Consider, for a moment, the journey a Platonic dialogue must have traveled before the age of mass production. The early dialogues are popularly believed to have been written long after long after the death of Socrates, long after the frenzy of the Thirty Tyrants in Athens. What little we know of Plato is shrouded in myth, and delivered in fragments to us from the writings of his pupil, Aristotle, and the self-proclaimed biographer of the philosophers, Diogenes Laertius, who wrote his Lives and Opinions of Eminent Philosophers hundreds of years after the death of Plato. We imagine the early dialogues resting, protected, in Aristotle’s library at the Lycaeum, his famous school in Athens, modeled after Plato’s Hekedemia, his school outside the walls of Athens named for a classical hero and which evolved into the Akedemia, or better known as “The Academy”. When the fiery son of Macedon, Alexander, took what he learned from Aristotle and conquered the known world as a young emperor, he created the so-called “Hellenistic World”, and with it came a great opening. Homer was read in the Indus Valley. Aristophanes was brought to Babylon. And Plato was preserved by the Egyptians. Alexander founded his city, Alexandria, and within its walls the world’s greatest library was built: The Library of Alexandria, greater still than the ancient Library of Ashur-Banipal, and was possibly one of the seven wonders of the ancient world, as told by Herodotus and others. We recall Euclid, the great Platonic geometer, studying at Alexandria. At the library, inquiry flourished. We are told this is, in part, due to the favorable climate for preserving writing, the preferred economy of papyrus (named for the plant in Egypt from which we derive the word “paper”), and the location of Alexandria as a water-bound city in Egypt. At the library, all writing, whether Barbarian or Greek, was preserved, carefully copied, documented, cataloged. An account of the obsessive timelines and cataloging of the Egyptians is given by Critias in Plato’s Timaeus dialogue. Nevertheless, time gave way and the library disappeared leaving no memory, save for the historians who recount for us the lush gardens, many classrooms, and hundreds of thousands of scrolls translated into Greek from across the world.
Perhaps it was the fire caused by Julius Caesar burning his boats in surrender, or the decay of the scrolls, or the decline of political will. Whatever the catalyst, the library has vanished from the earth, but still the Platonic dialogues were salvaged. They were brought to Rome, where the rigid bureaucracy of the Latins, kept alive the Hellenistic world under the protection of an embattled empire. The “Rage for Order” of the Romans took the cataloging of the Egyptians and reinvigorated its longing for preserving the greatness of the past. From here, the early Gnostics and Christian followers of “the way” sought to harmonize the Gospels, Greek testimonies about Aramaic events, with Greek philosophy, in particular Plato. In the collapse of the great empire of Rome, from without and from within, and the preservation impulse came to the Byzantines and the so-called scholars of the Middle Ages: St. Augustine attempts to find Plato in his theology, and Thomas Aquinas searches in vain for Aristotle in his theology. Plato was kept alive and studied convincingly by the noted Arabic and Islamic scholars: Alfarabi, Averroes, and Avicenna. During the latter-named European “Renaissance”, a ‘rebirth’ of the classical world was sought by romantic artists to recapture the heights of Greek civilization, though perhaps a re-popularization of the Hellenes is what was actually longed for.
Let us pause for a moment and acknowledge the modern reader’s skepticism of the authenticity of Plato. Is it not possible that the ancient scribes made errors? Didn’t the ancient patrons influence and encourage revisions? At the root of this concern is an anxiety about the true authorship of a work. That is the autoritas, or authority, of the book is under scrutiny, and we hope the perfection of the writer’s vision has not been sullied by the work of many hands. Like Homeric scholarship, the modern skeptic believes in the concept of ‘Platonic works’ or ‘Platonic concepts’ or ‘Plato’s theory of ideas/forms’, they simply do not believe in Plato. As if the unmasking of the author, an impossible task, is of primal concern. Consider the contemporary problem of the whole of an author: What of an author’s work can be attributed to earlier works teachers -‘standing on the shoulders of giants’ as Newton put it? What about neuroses or irregular impulses or passions of the brain? How much of a work is organic to an author? How can be assume the burden of proof for such a task?
It is, after all, a relatively recent phenomena to question the Platonic corpus with such scrutiny. Today, dialogues like the Hipparchus, Eponimis, Cleitophon are regarded as spurious, and therefore unworthy of review, though the ancients regarded these as proper gateways to the Platonic teaching. That is not to say there was uniformity of acceptance, for example Diogenes Laertius tells us of Aristonexus and Flavorinus doubting portions of the Republic as being written by Protagoras, rather than Plato. There were early canonical arrangements of the Platonic dialogues, such as the famous organization of Aristophanes of Byzantium, chief librarian of the Library of Alexandria circa 200 B.C.) Diogenes Laertius also tells us of Thrasyllus, the court astrologer of Emperor Tiberius, who organized the dialogues into nine tetralogies, mirroring the tragedian’s arrangements of their plays. Thrasyllus organized them as follows:
Euthyphro, Socrates’ Apology, Crito, Phaedo
Cratylus, Theatetus, The Sophist, The Statesman
Parmenides, Philebus, Symposium, Phaedrus
Alcibiades, Alcibiades II, Hipparchus, Rival lovers
Theages, Charmides, Laches, Lysis
Euthydemus, Protagoras, Gorgias, Meno
Hippias a, Hippias b, Ion, Menexenus
Clitophon, Republic, Timaeus, Critias
Minos, Laws, Epinomis, Letters
Divisions of the Platonic corpus have been varied. Some have attempted to chronologically order the dialogues according to the life of Socrates, while the more prevailing modern project is to order the dialogues according to when Plato might have written them: for example the Apology of Socrates is thought to have been written in the early period, the Republic in the middle period, and the Laws much later. Though the desire to discover the whole is a noble endeavor, we will close this essay with a quotation from Thomas L. Pangle taken from his introduction to the Roots of Political Philosophy:
“Suffice it to say that the doubts about much of the Platonic canon went hand in hand with similar suspicions about Homer, the Bible, and the classical historians; that these doubts came to be linked with a new and unprecedented concern with questions about historical and biographical development; and that this kind of approach waxed in the shadow of a belief in the historical progress of civilization in general and of philosophy in particular. In other words, scholars came to be convinced that they had a new and superior understanding of what Plato could and could not have written at the same time that they succumbed to the delusion that they were in possession of a deeper understanding of the issues of philosophy than that held by Plato and the great medieval Platonists” (5).
You believe the seventh letter is “spurious”? My understanding is that most historians believe it is the most genuine of all the letters. What’s your thinking as to why it is spurious if I may respectfully ask?
Hi there – thanks for reading along. You are correct. As I understand it the authorship and authenticity of the 7th Letter is debated but it is not necessarily fair to label it “spurious.” Personally, I am skeptical but nevertheless the letter comes down to us as Platonic from antiquity and is therefore worthy of consideration. I will revise this post and remove my mis-identification of the 7th Letter as wholly spurious. If interested, for further reading here are my reflections on reading the 7th Letter last year: