Introduction to Plato
Copyright © 2013 Bruce W. Hauptli
1. Plato’s Life and the “Golden Age of Greece:”
Plato lived from 428 to 347 B.C.E. His was one of the wealthy and politically powerful Athenian families, and he was a student of Socrates (~470-399 B.C.E.). While Plato uses Socrates as the “protagonist” of many of his dialogues, we can not just assume that Plato’s Socrates (the “character” in the dialogues we will read) “takes” the “positions” and makes the “claims” which were taken and made by the historical Socrates. At the least, there is certainly a large degree of convergence for the earliest of Plato’s dialogues—scholars generally divide up the corpus of his writings into three periods (the early, middle, and late). Three of the four Platonic works we will be studying (the Euthyphro, Apology, and Crito) belong to the early period, while the other (the Republic) belongs to the middle period. It is generally agreed that by the Republic, we are being exposed to views that the historical Socrates did not hold.
Before we read the various dialogues, however, we should carefully consider their character at the time they were written. In his “Plato,” Gilbert Ryle maintains that:
no contemporary testimony tells us how Plato and
the many other writers of dialogues published their compositions.
Nor have scholars given much consideration to the matter.
What follows is a hypothesis, based on a lot of little individually
tenuous clues. There was, of
course, no printing in ancient
The normal mode of publishing a composition, whether in verse or prose, was oral delivery to an audience. Conjecturally, the compositions of dialogue writers, including Plato, Antisthenes, Xenophon and Aristotle, were no exception. The public got to know a new dialogue by hearing the author recite it. Normally, Plato orally delivered the words of his dramatic Socrates. The dialogues were dramatic in form because they were composed for semi-dramatic recitation to lay and drama-loving audiences, consisting largely of young men. A dialogue had therefore to be short enough not to tax the endurance of its audience. The only two mammoth dialogues...must have been intended for special audiences that would reassemble time after time to hear the successive installments.
Clearly, we need to stand back from these works and consider the time in which they were written as we study them! I believe that Plato wrote his dialogues for a pedagogic purpose. In his Orators and Philosophers: A History of the Idea of Liberal Education, Bruce Kimball maintains that:
many generations prior to the “pedagogical century,” the Hellenic concept of education had been founded upon the pursuit of aretē (excellence or virtue) defined according to the code of valor of the Attic-Ionian aristocracy. Central to this program was the recitation of Homeric epic poetry, both to provide technical instruction in language and, more importantly, to inculcate the knightly mores and noble ethic of the culture. Upon the disintegration of this tradition with the rise of democracy in the fifth century B.C.E., three principal groups responded with programs of education to prepare the free citizens for their new role in governing society.
...Gorgias, Protagoras, Prodicus, and Hippias, taught the skills of composing, delivering, and analyzing a speech....These individuals acquired the name “wise man” or “teacher” (sophistēs), for they claimed to teach a kind of wisdom (sophia) or aretē that was political: the ideal methods for making one’s point and winning arguments, that is, for participating in the democratic city-state....
A different response to the cultural disintegration came from those associated with Plato...who, looking back to Socrates’ never-ending quest for truth, regarded intellectual culture and philosophy as the ideal for the education of the citizen....Relying upon the Socratic belief that knowledge leads directly to virtue, he translated Homeric aretē into the pursuit of highest knowledge through dialectic....
Teaching next to Plato and sharing his concern over the deterioration of Athenian mores was Isocrates (436-338), who offered a third response both in his school and in his writings—chiefly Against the Sophists and Antidosis. Though often identified with the sophists, he is more properly distinguished from that group, as Plato acknowledged. This is because Isocrates criticized the sophists for their emphasis on rhetorical display and technique at the expense of character ideals while he adopted, with very little analysis, the noble values of the past—the traditional standards of virtue recognized in epical heroes—as the aretē of his educational ideal. Isocrates thus extolled the orator who would live out the noble virtues and persuade the free citizen of the democratic city-state to adhere to them.
The Homeric conception of arête emphasizes the virtues of wealth, courage, honor, civic concern, friendship, prosperity, and “the law of the claw." Think of it as the core cultural conception from the time of Homer [~800-700 B.C.E.] to the time of Plato, but recognize there will be changes of emphasis and so forth through such a period. As the citation from Kimball above noted, during Plato’s time we might conceive of there being three dominant educational philosophies or alternatives available to those who were to receive an education:
the sort of education championed by Isocrates [436-338 B.C.E.]—he taught the “traditional Greek virtues—the above conception of arête;
the sort of education championed by the Rhetoricians—they taught the techniques of rhetoric and argumentation needed by the Greek citizens if they were to be successful in persuading their fellow citizens to their cause—a new conception of arête specifically crafted to serve the interests of the Athenian citizens who wanted to work within the democratic structures of their time; and
the sort of education championed by Socrates and Plato—they taught a radically new conception of arête—one which seemed to involve a rejection of the traditional conception as well as the new one propounded by the rhetoricians.
Of course, like his teacher Socrates, Plato wanted to
transform his society, but they both
wanted to do this through an educational activity.
Many of their contemporaries did not understand this activity however.
Evidence of the views of the historical Socrates comes from other writers
than Plato, and we have good reason to believe that the picture presented in the
early dialogues which we will examine is a largely faithful portrait of the
views of the historical Socrates—though of course (given the student-teacher
relationship, and the fact that they share views which many would consider
controversial, perverse, or wrong), not everyone would share Plato’s veneration
of Socrates. The Greek playwright
Aristophanes provides a humorous characterization of Socrates in his play
Especially at the City Dionysian [the festival of Athens for the deity
Dionysus] the role of the city loomed large—no public business was transacted,
the ten generals would enter formally and pour the opening libation, the
phoros (“tribute”) from the [other
Greek] cities would be paraded formally through the theatre, benefactors of the
city would be honored, and those whose fathers had died in battle would receive
a suit of armor from the city when they came of age.
Theatres in ancient
The play revolves around a wealthy farmer, Strepsiades, whose has been placed deeply in debt by his son, Pheidippides. Strepsiades formulates the plan of going to Socrates who is portrayed as a Sophist (Aristophanes places the play in a school he calls the Socratic “Pondertorium”) to learn the techniques of “The Inferior Argument” so that he can argue his way out of his debts. In the play Strepsiades meets a Chorus of “new deities” who preside over “new learning,” and while he has trouble remembering anything (as he is an old man), his study of the “Inferior Argument” allows him to avoid his debts. The play shows that the consequences of the “new learning” are terrible, at the end the Chorus (the Clouds) reveals itself to be champions of the traditional deities, and Strepsiades burns down the Pondertorium. In his introduction to the play, Storey contends that Strepsiades:
...is the ideal sort to “take the piss” out of sophistic pretensions. The teaching scene...shows Aristophanes at his comic best where the less-than-bright Strepsiades foils every attempt by Socrates to teach him anything. Yet the scene depends on stretching the spectator’s reactions in two opposite directions: he wants to be a sophos like Socrates...and at the same times wants to see the sophos taken down a rung or two. We admire Strepsiades’ low cunning and desire not to pay his debts, but at the same time we wince at his essential dishonesty and insistence at learning the Inferior Argument.
While scholars disagree about Aristophanes’ “purpose” in the play, I side with Storey’s view that his comic use of Socrates is meant to contain “more than a hint of appreciation for Socrates” and for the “new learning,” while portraying the Sophists in a rather bad light. Storey refers to a passage in Plutarch which “...records Socrates’ alleged reaction to Clouds, “I feel that I am being made fun of by friends at a great party”....This may be how the joke was intended to be taken.”
The Athens of Plato’s day was one of the most cultured and also one of
the most politically and economically powerful of the City States which were the
dominant form of political entity at the time in the West.
In 408, however,
B.C.E., after the reinstitution of the democracy, Socrates was brought to trial
(we will learn more of this in the
Apology, which is no apology) and condemned to die.
After his death, Plato and some of his friends left Athens and traveled
to Italy and Egypt (note that you can’t think of the current political entities
here any more than you can when you speak of “Ancient Greece”) to continue their
studies and learn more about other philosophers.
Plato then returned to
Plato left his Academy to his sister’s son, Speusippus, upon his death, and The Academy continued to exist as a center of study and philosophic teaching and learning until 529 C.E., when the Christian Emperor Justinian had it closed because it was a pagan institution. Founded in 387 B.C.E., the Academy lasted for 916 years!
While many refer to the Athens of Plato’s day as being in its “Golden Age,” Plato disagrees:
he thinks that civilization is falling apart—in the best of times there is no impetus to ask “What is right?” or “How should things be?” Plato has a passion for excellence, and he is a great fan of permanence and hierarchy. His “world-view” is characterized by an aristocrat’s disdain for “the many.”
2. Plato’s faith in reason: man is a rational animal:
Many Greek thinkers of Plato’s era “began” the “development” of the now-common view of a cosmos (that is, the view that there is a rational, ordered character to reality—a logos—that what happens can be conceived of as happening according to a rational plan [laws of nature]). This view is opposed to the then common world-view (which held that any putative plan would be inadequate, since there are unpredictable [or chance] acts [of the various deities] which do not [or at least, do not necessarily] follow any detailed or specific overall plan). The reception which Socrates receives in court, and some of the ancient portrayals of the thinkers of the period clearly show that their views were by no means the common view of the world at the time.
In his “Pre-Socratic Philosophy,” W.K.C. Guthrie provides an excellent summary of this important aspect of these ancient Greek philosophic thinkers:
pre-Socratic philosophy differs
from all other philosophy in that it had no predecessors....Before them no
European had set out to satisfy his curiosity about the world in the faith that
its apparent chaos concealed a permanent and intelligible order, and that this
natural order could be accounted for by universal causes operating within nature
itself and discoverable by human reason.
They had predecessors of a sort, of course.
It was not accidental that the first pre-Socratics were citizens of
Miletus, a prosperous trading center of Ionian Greeks on the Asiatic coast,
where Greek and Oriental cultures met and mingled.
The Milesian heritage included the myths and religious beliefs of their
own peoples and their Eastern neighbors, and also the store of Egyptian and
Babylonian knowledge—astronomical, mathematical, technological.
Yet the Milesians consciously rejected the mythical and religious
tradition of their ancestors, in particular its belief in the agency of
anthropomorphic gods, and their debt to the knowledge of the East was not a
philosophical one. That knowledge
was limited because its aim was practical.
Astronomy served religion; mathematics settled questions of land
measurement and taxation. For these
purposes the careful recording of data and the making of certain limited
generalizations sufficed, and the realm of ultimate causes was left to
dogmatism. For the Greeks knowledge
became an end in itself, and in the uninhibited atmosphere of
Consciously, the revolt of the Milesian philosophers against both the content and the method of mythology was complete. No longer were natural process to be at the mercy of gods with human passions and unpredictable intentions. In their place was to come a reign of universal and discoverable law. Yet a whole conceptual framework is not so easily changed. Poetic and religious cosmogonies had preceded the schemes of the Milesians, and the basic assumptions of these can be detected beneath the hypotheses of their philosophic successors. Nevertheless, the achievement of abandoning divine agencies for physical causes working from within the world itself can hardly be overestimated.
The Milesian (often called the “Ionian”) thinkers generally sought to understand the origins and mechanisms of the things in the world, and for this reason they are often called the physologoi and seen as the first true physical scientists. For example, according to Charles Kahn, Anaximander (~610-~546 B.C.E.) was the author of the first geometrical model of the universe, a model characterized not by vagueness and mystery but by visual clarity and rational proportion, and hence radically different in kind from all known “cosmologies” of earlier literature and myth. The highly rational character of the scheme...is best indicated by Anaximander’s explanation of the earth’s stable position in the center: it remains at rest because of its equal distance from all points of the celestial circumference, having no reason to move in one direction rather than in another. This argument from symmetry contrasts not only with all mythic views but also with the doctrine ascribed to Thales [his teacher]: that the earth floats on water.”
Whereas many of the Milesian (or Ionian) physologoi were interested in cosmology and metaphysics, Socrates was primarily concerned with moral philosophy—instead of seeking knowledge of the nature of the world, he sought knowledge to ensure virtuous action. Indeed, in Plato’s Meno Socrates is portrayed as believing that “no one can knowingly do wrong”—thus, if individuals can be made knowledgeable, they would become virtuous. Like the other thinkers, however, Socrates contended that there were overarching, objective, rational and knowable laws, and he believed that we needed to understand them, and guide our conduct by them if we are to be able to live “the good life.” Whereas the physologoi were largely concerned with knowledge as an end-in-itself, Socrates was concerned with achieving it because of its connection with virtue, justice, and human happiness.
I highly recommend Colin Well’s “How Did God Get Started” for a discussion of the development of the Ionian perspective and for a discussion of the development of the monotheistic idea of a deity—it provides an excellent characterization of the polytheistic perspective and of the development of both the “rational” and “monotheistic” perspectives in the ancient period, as well as a compelling account of how the two perspectives (of faith and reason) developed together.
3. Plato’s view of the philosopher’s methodology:
Plato offered a three-part method for uncovering knowledge of the rational order of the universe:
aporia (perplexity), and
He holds that it is our reason, and not our sensory experiences, which uncovers (and justifies our claims to) knowledge.
4. Plato and the Forms:
If dialectic is the process of achieving knowledge, what does its object (the object of knowledge) look like?
Consider various different chairs and their common characteristics: the chairs in this room, a Louis XIV, a rocking chair, a bean-bag.
Necessary and sufficient conditions—e.g., for triangles. Where are triangles? Mathematical objects are non-experiential and we learn about them via reason. Sensory experience and copies of “Forms.”
The Forms are unchanging, objective, basic, unchanging, absolute, and transcendent—they provide the underlying constant basis (the criteria for) the changing things we are familiar with, they are the objects of knowledge, and they are epistemically and ontologically prior to the particular things.
5. Plato’s view of man:
Plato’s view of the nature of man—psyche [soul]—make it clear this is not (at least not primarily) a religious conception—hearken to the Euthyphro.
Reason, high spirit (emotions, or passions), and appetites.
Martha Nussbaum maintains that “‘emotions’ is the more common modern generic term, while “passions” is both etymologically closer to the most common Greek and Latin terms and more firmly entrenched in the Western philosophical tradition....what I mean to designate by these terms is a genus of which experiences such as fear, love, grief, anger, envy, jealousy, and other relatives—but not bodily appetites such as hunger and thirst—are the species....This family of experience, which we call emotions as opposed to appetites, is grouped together by many Greek thinkers, beginning at least with Plato, and his account of the soul’s middle part.”
Note that Plato’s concern is with society—man is a social animal (here we should note the economic, psychological, biological, and dialectical roots of this social facet of man).
‘Man’ and “men and women:” we must be careful in attributing either a feminist or a sexist character to Plato’s views. In his Republic, Plato argues that men and women should have similar roles in the ideal state (that women as well as men would be rulers, soldiers, and workers) (cf., 451c-456c). Nonetheless, in many passages he speaks in an extremely disparaging manner about women. As one reads Plato’s works, one must critically examine what he says and consider whether or not he truly believes that they have the same nature (or natures), and whether or not he wishes to treat men and women “equally.”
It may be helpful for us to know something about the role women played in ancient Greek society if we are to be able to properly interpret what Plato has to say about their role. In this regard, John Gould’s “Law, Custom and Myth: Aspects of the Social Position of Women in Classical Athens,” is very helpful. Gould provides a clear-cut picture of the legal status of women at the time:
a woman, whatever her status as daughter, sister, wife or mother, and whatever her age or social class, is in law a perpetual minor: that is, like a male minor, but throughout her life she was [always] in the legal control of a male kyrios who represented her in law. If unmarried she was in the kyrieia of her father, her brother(s) by the same father, or her paternal grandfather. Upon marriage a kind of divided kyrieia arose: the evidence seems to suggest that a father could dissolve his daughter’s marriage, even against her wishes, whereas in other respects the husband acted as kyrios. On her husband’s death she either passes to the kyrieia of her son(s) (if any) or reverts to that of her father if still alive: if her sons are minors she falls under the kyrieia of their kyrios. If she is pregnant on her husband’s death she may (and perhaps must) remain in the kyrieia of whatever male affine will become her future child’s guardian.
Gould offers a summary of an ancient description of the good husband which was meant to be a straightforward and uncontroversial description of the normal relations between husband and wife:
he describes the lay-out of his house, with its separate quarters for men and women, and how his wife, who was feeding their baby, frequently slept in the women’s quarters so that she could feed and wash it in the night. The picture that emerges is...[of] a wife who leads a private, sheltered life, who goes out little...whose shopping is done by a slave woman; who, once her child is born, is no longer under her husband’s surveillance, but who is not expected to be present when [he] brings home a male friend for an evening meal....evidence of eating and drinking together with males who are not kinsmen is frequently presented in Athenian law courts as establishing that a woman is...not a [proper] wife.
Nussbaum “qualifies” this view in one important respect:
...in the world of fourth-century
[B.C.E.] Athens, hetairai
[courtesans, or mistresses] would be more likely than other women to be
literate, and to have the freedom to move around at their own discretion....a
recent papyrus discovery has confirmed Diogenes’ report—long dismissed—that
Plato taught two courtesans in his school....[such women could have enrolled]
also in any of the three major Hellenistic schools [Epicurean, Stoic, and
Skeptic]. The career of Pericles’
mistress Aspasia illustrates the degree of sophistication and intellectual
influence a women of the hetaira
class could achieve, even in a culture as restrictive of women as
Clearly, women in ancient
 Gilbert Ryle, “Plato,” in The Encyclopedia of Philosophy v.5, ed. Paul Edwards (N.Y.: Macmillan, 1967), pp. 314-333, p. 315.
 In its “reference” section Dictionary.Com characterizes arête as follows:
…in its basic sense…[it] means “goodness” “excellence", “virtue” or of any kind. In its earliest appearance in Greek, this notion of excellence was bound up with the notion of the fulfillment of purpose or function; the act of living up to one’s full potential.
The Ancient Greeks applied the term to anything: for example, the excellence of a chimney, the excellence of a bull to be bred and the excellence of a man. The meaning of the word changes depending on what it describes, since everything has its own peculiar excellence; the arête of a man is different from the arête of a horse….
By the fourth and fifth centuries BC, arête as applied to men had developed to include quieter virtues, such as… (justice)… and (self-restraint)….
In Homer’s Iliad and Odyssey, “arête” is used mainly to describe heroes and nobles and their mobile dexterity, with special reference to strength and courage, but it is not limited to this….The excellence of the gods generally included their power, but, in the Odyssey (13.42), the gods can grant excellence to a life, which is contextually understood to mean prosperity.
See http://www.reference.com/browse/arete (accessed on 05/07/09).
 Bruce Kimball, Orators and Philosophers: A History of the Idea of Liberal Education (expanded edition) (N.Y.: College Entrance Examination Board, 1995), pp. 16-18.
 Ian Storey, “General Introduction,” in Aristophanes 1: Clouds, Wasps, and Birds, trans. Peter Meineck (Indianapolis: Hackett, 1998), pp. vii-xxxv, pp. xx-xxi. Cf., pp. xviii-xxxvi for Storey’s full account of such productions.
 Ian Storey, “Clouds: Introduction,” in Aristophanes 1: Clouds, Wasps, Birds, op. cit., pp. 2-7, p. 3.
 Ibid., p. 5.
 Ibid., p. 6.
 If we
were to conceive of it as a "university"--one
might claim it is, then, the oldest Western one
so far. This statement would be true until 2036 when the
 The question of who is covered by such a statement is a serious one. It is often said that ‘man’ in such contexts is meant to include all human beings—that it is used “generically” to cover both men and women. This question will be addressed more carefully as we proceed.
 I refer here to a broad period from Thales, who is widely regarded as the founder of the Ionian school of natural philosophy in the 580’s B.C.E. up to Socrates and Plato in the 400s-350s B.C.E.
 As the above remarks about Aristophanes suggest.
 W.K.C. Guthrie, “Pre-Socratic Philosophy,” in The Encyclopedia of Philosophy v. 6, ed. Paul Edwards (N.Y.: Macmillan, 1967), pp. 441-446, pp. 441-442.
 Charles Kahn, “Anaximander,” in The Encyclopedia of Philosophy v. 1, ed. Paul Edwards (N.Y.: Macmillan, 1967), pp. 117-118, p.117.
Meno, trans. W.K.C. Guthrie, in
Collected Dialogues of Plato, ed. Edith
Hamilton and Huntington Cairns (Princeton:
Princeton U.P., 1961), 77b-78b.
The marginal page references in the text
refer to a collection of Plato’s works (Platonis
 Colin Wells, “How Did God Get Started?”, Arion v. 18 (Fall 2010). Available online at:
 The central characteristic of this third “step” in the philosophers’ overall procedure which marks it off is the fact that as individual philosophers advance their theories or beliefs here, they do so tentatively, critically, and publicly.
 The distinction between necessary and sufficient conditions may be made in a number of ways. Necessary conditions may be described as “those which must be there for an event to occur” (thus paying your parking fines is necessary for graduation), while sufficient conditions are conditions such that the event must occur (thus a direct double shotgun blast to the head is sufficient for death). Note that conditions may be sufficient without being necessary (as in the example), and that necessary conditions need not be sufficient (as in the example). An alternate way of drawing the distinction is to say that “p is a necessary condition for q” means “if q is true, then p is true” (symbolically q->p), while “p is a sufficient condition for q” means “if p is true, then q is true” (symbolically: p->q).
 Martha Nussbaum, The Therapy of Desire: Theory and Practice in Hellenistic Ethics (Princeton: Princeton U.P., 1994), p. 319.
 Cf., Lynda Lange, “The Function of Equal Education in Plato’s Republic, in The Sexism of Social and Political Theory: Women and Reproduction from Plato to Nietzsche, eds. Lorenne Clark and Lynda Lange (Toronto: Univ. of Toronto, 1979), pp. 3-15) for a critique of Plato’s sexist treatment of the nature of women. Cf., C.D.C. Reeve, “The Naked Old Women in the Palaesatra: A Dialogue Between Plato and Lashenia of Mantinea,” in the 1992 Catalogue of Hackett Publishing Company for a defense of Plato’s treatment of the nature of women.
 John Gould, “Law, Custom and Myth: Aspects of the Social Position of Women in Classical Athens,” in The Journal of Hellenic Studies v. 100 (1980), pp. 38-59, p. 43; emphasis added.
 Ibid., pp. 47-48, emphasis added.