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It would be impossible to exaggerate the magnitude of Plato’s influence on the trajectory of Western thought. Plato’s ideas that reality is knowable and that truths about nature and morality are accessible primarily to rational thought, although controversial, provide even today the foundation for scientific and philosophical inquiry. His portrayal of a life devoted to intellectual inquiry and moral virtue has inspired and guided people for more than two millennia, and his depiction of education through dialogue established what is now called the “Socratic method,” a set of pedagogical practices used in classrooms around the world. And Plato’s exploration of the connection between liberty and the ability to think for oneself lies at the heart of modern views of citizenship, ethics, education, and the nature of individuality. Even 2,500 years after his death, his ideas are still being debated by scholars in the fields of ethics, theology, aesthetics, educational theory, political science, and the philosophy of science. The dialogues Meno, Parmenides, and Theaetetus, collected together in this volume, represent both Plato’s early and later thinking, and show the progression of his ideas about education, reality, and the nature of the knowledge that discloses that reality to us. In addition to the importance of these dialogues for understanding the development of Plato’s philosophical views, the Meno and Theaetetus are examples of his finest literary artistry, and the Parmenides is a paradigmatic example of purely conceptual metaphysical investigation.
Plato’s real name was Aristocles. “Plato” was a nickname, meaning “broad,” and may have referred to his stocky build. He was born in 427 BCE, either in Athens or Aegina. His family was aristocratic, and as a young man Plato had political ambitions. In 411, however, upon Athens’ military defeat to Sparta and its allies in Sicily, an oligarchy composed in part by Plato’s friends and relatives overthrew the democracy, and, as he observed their increasingly tyrannical conduct, Plato grew disillusioned with politics. When Plato was twenty-seven or twenty-eight, Socrates was executed, and along with other disciples of Socrates, Plato left Athens for nearby Megara, and soon traveled to southern Italy, Sicily, and perhaps Egypt. After his return to Athens, Plato founded the Academy in 387. Thought by some scholars to be the first university, the Academy soon became a major center of scholarship in philosophy, mathematics, political thought, astronomy, and natural history. Aristotle was a student there until Plato’s death in 348 or 347, and the Academy endured until the first century BCE, when it closed over ideological controversy.
Plato’s philosophical thinking was influenced by many of his predecessors, especially Parmenides and the Pythagoreans, but Socrates was his biggest inspiration and Plato saw him as the model for the philosophical life. Socrates was born around 470 BCE, and, as was Plato, in some ways was an Enlightenment figure, attacking religious obscurantism with a commitment to the rational pursuit of truth and justice. It is thought that Socrates was illiterate, and he left no books of his own. Most of what is known about him comes from Plato and Xenophon, both of whom wrote dialogues in which Socrates typically, though not always, is the central figure. Socrates was known as the gadfly of Athens, perpetually annoying other citizens with his attempts to get them to rationally demonstrate their opinions in conversation. Socrates claimed that his dialogues arose out of his attempt to test the oracle at Delphi’s pronouncement that he was the wisest man alive. Thinking that she must have been mistaken, he engaged his fellow citizens in dialogue in the attempt to find someone who understood matters better than he, and what he famously discovered is the basis of what has come to be known as Socratic ignorance. Discussion with others reveals that whereas they hold many opinions, they are unable to justify them. Thus the reason Socrates was wiser than everyone else is that he was the only one aware of his own ignorance: the only thing he knew was that he knew nothing. Socrates personified a life devoted to intellectual inquiry pursued through a conversation that dismantles naïvely held certainties and resists dogmatic appeals to faith, authority, and superstition by constantly demanding rational justification of beliefs. The twentieth-century philosopher Karl Jaspers argued that Socrates, along with Confucius, Jesus, and the Buddha, was one of the four most influential individuals in history. Jaspers remarked that the joint pursuit of truth through dialogue was the fundamental fact of Socrates’ life, and said that Socrates “conversed with artisans, statesmen, artists, Sophists, harlots . . . [for dialogue] is necessary for the truth itself, which by its very nature opens up to an individual only in dialogue with another individual. . . . [Socrates thereby enabled his fellow citizens] to discover the difficulties in the seemingly self-evident; he confused them, forced them to think, to search, to inquire over and over again. . . .”[i] Yet Socrates’ relentless skepticism about received views and established authorities was seen as threatening. In 399, he was tried and executed on charges of impiety and corrupting the youth, solidifying his position in history as a martyr for virtue and the rational pursuit of truthwherever it leads.
The majority of Plato’s texts are written as dialogues. The dialogue form offers pleasures and presents challenges unique to the genre. One of the advantages of the dialogue over literary forms such as the essay is that the dialogue enables Plato not merely to tell his readers what he takes the philosophical life to be, but to show us through literary portraits of philosophers such as Socrates and dramatic representations of actual philosophical activity. The dramatic elements of the dialogues enable Plato to contextualize the discussions, and he employs foreshadowing, dramatic irony, and other literary techniques to enrich the reader’s encounter with the ideas at play in the texts. Thus, for instance, the conversation in the Meno occurs shortly before Socrates’ trial, and Anytus’ warning to Socrates at line 94e that he should tread carefully when venturing to criticize the knowledge of virtue possessed by prominent Athenians should be seen against this background; indeed, Anytus would be one of Socrates’ accusers at trial. Plato in this way raises the discussion’s stakes, indicating that the dialogue’s question about whether virtue can be taught is not just an abstract matter divorced from everyday life, but bears upon the most serious matters of life and death: Socrates’ failure to teach virtue (or perhaps the Athenians’ failure to learn from that teaching) resulted in his own death. What appears at first to be a relatively lighthearted discussion between Socrates and Meno, then, emerges against the background of a dramatic context of tragedy and dread. To take another example, the fact that in the Parmenides Plato presents a young Socrates engaging in philosophical discussion withand being corrected bythe older and venerable philosopher Parmenides, suggests that Plato is using the dialogue to criticize a theory as yet immature or insufficiently worked out. The view young Socrates defends is very much like the position Plato has the character of (mature) Socrates advocate in earlier dialogues such as the Meno; the Parmenides therefore consists of Plato’s own critique of his earlier theories. What is more, choosing to present his analyses of philosophical ideas as dialogues among richly drawn literary characters enables Plato to reveal the rootedness of certain ideas in specific personality types, thereby permitting him to expose the dangers posed by philosophical positions that are motivated by self-righteousness and ambition for power.
The dialogue form also presents the reader with a distinctive kind of challenge, namely, that of figuring out exactly what Plato’s own views are. Although he had been present for many of the historical Socrates’ conversations, Plato never incorporated himself as a character into his dialogues. Thus there are no philosophical claims or arguments presented in Plato’s own voice. Just because Socrates (or some other character) says something does not mean that Plato himself endorses itespecially as Socrates often seems to be speaking ironically, articulating the consequences of his interlocutors’ mistaken views. One of the great strengths of the dialogue form is that its indeterminacy invites the reader to imagine himself or herself as part of the conversation. There are actually two concurrent dialogues, one between Socrates and his interlocutors, and one between the text and the reader. In fact, many dialogues, including the Meno and Theaetetus, end with no final solutions presented to answer the questions under consideration, thereby leaving the reader with the task of thinking through further the problems under consideration.
Particularly noteworthy about Plato’s dialogues is their literary artistry. Indeed, the Meno and Theaetetus contain some of Plato’s most vivid images: the image of memory as an aviary, that of Socrates as a torpedo fish or electric ray that paralyzes its victims, and that of Socrates as a midwife, himself barren or ignorant but possessing the ability to help others give birth to their own ideas. More generally, over the course of what often prove to be very complex philosophical investigations, Plato in his dialogues brings his characters alive with wit, sympathy, and sometimes ridicule. Indeed, he portrays Socrates so vividly that many readers feel as if they know him and as if they are party to his conversations. Plato’s Socrates is so familiar to us, and the ideas at play in the dialogues are so interwoven with our understandings of ourselves and the world, that the great American philosopher Ralph Waldo Emerson was able to write:
Plato is philosophy, and philosophy, Platoat once the glory and the shame of mankind, since neither Saxon nor Roman have availed to add to any of his categories. No wife, no children had he, and the thinkers of all civilized nations are his posterity and are tinged with his mind. . . . Christianity is in it. Mahometanism draws all its philosophy from him. Mysticism finds in Plato all its texts. . . . An Englishman reads and says, “how English!” a German“how Teutonic!” an Italian“how Roman and how Greek!” As they say that Helen of Argos had that universal beauty that everybody felt related to her, so Plato seems to a reader in New England an American genius. His broad humanity transcends all sectional lines.[ii]
Bringing the Meno, Parmenides, and Theaetetus together in a single volume enables the reader to chart what is probably the most important development in Plato’s thinking: the shift in his views of the relationship between the ideal forms and the physical world, and the resulting development in his attitude toward nature. Plato’s theory of forms may at first seem mystifying to modern readers, yet because of the enduring influence of Plato’s idea that reality is accessible primarily not to sensation but to reason and its abstract concepts, it stands as the cornerstone of Western thought. (In fact, the theory of the forms still orients the investigations of the natural sciences, insofar as science attempts to penetrate beneath the flux of sense experience to isolate unchanging laws and constants in terms of which change must be understood.) The theory of forms originates in Plato’s abiding conviction that eternal and unchanging realities exist unaltered by the constant flux or unceasing dynamism of the sensible world. The forms, or ideas, as the Greek (eidos) sometimes is translated, are the eternal essences or archetypes after which all objects of sense are patterned. As perfect and eternal, however, the forms cannot exist in space or time, for everything in the world of space and time is subject to change and decay. Thus all entities we encounter in our ordinary lives are imperfect and transient copies of transcendent ideals. Plato therefore held that the essences of things exist independently of those things, and these ideals are accessible not to sensation but to reason (and perhaps also to mystical intuition). He thought, too, that the forms are more fully real than their less perfect copies (much as we might say that a plastic apple is not a “real” apple because it fails to measure up to the ideal), and, as more fully real, are more properly objects of knowledge than are sensed things. Yet the forms do not include only the archetypes of physical objects. Plato is much more interested in the essences of beauty, justice, and goodness. One of his most important contributions to Western thought is the idea that, since all beings are oriented toward the form of the good, human beings can aspire to know and live according to objective and unchanging moral standards that are woven into the very structure of reality itself.
At the time of Meno, according to prevailing views of the development of his work, Plato seems to have thought that since the transcendent forms were the appropriate objects of knowledge and aspiration, the natural world and our earthly lives are comparatively worthless. In his Republic, for instance, Socrates claims that since philosophers are “in love with that learning which discloses to them something of the being that is always,” they would “forsake those pleasures that come through the body.” He asks, “To an understanding endowed with magnificence and the contemplation of all time and being, do you think it possible that human life seem anything great?”[iii] In the dialogue Phaedrus, Socrates remarks that nature has nothing to teach him. As the forms are transcendent, the source of all value, meaning, and truth is found only external to nature. Critics of Western culture such as Friedrich Nietzsche have seen this apparent devaluation of nature as symptomatic of an exceedingly dangerous form of decadence. Nietzsche argued that Christianity inherited this Platonic devaluation of the world (as seen, for instance, in its frequent condemnation of sensuality and “worldliness” in favor of supposedly eternal and purely spiritual rewards, and in its placing the divine in a transcendent heaven), and because of its baleful influence Western culture has incorporated and been corrupted by what he calls life-denying values. Nietzsche says that the metaphysical “concepts ‘beyond’ and ‘true world’ were invented in order to depreciate the only world that exists,” and that, because of its orientation toward the transcendent and the allegedly “spiritual,” in Christianity “anti-nature itself received the highest honors as morality and as law. . . .”[iv] Christianity rendered Platonic thinking accessible to the masses, and its influence culminates in a decadent denigration of the body and a resignation from life and earthly goals. For Nietzsche, the struggle against Christianity is at its core a struggle against Plato.
Plato’s Parmenides consists to a large extent in a painstaking and highly abstract critique of the “two worlds” conception of the relationship between the forms and the world, that is, the view elaborated in the earlier dialogues of the forms as transcendent, existing above a subordinate and less valuable earthly existence. (In fact, the intensity of its focus on this conceptual analysis leads Plato to drop the usual dramatic elements.) Because of its conceptual abstraction, it may be the dialogue that has been subject to the widest variety of interpretations. Some scholars have claimed, for instance, that it consists in a series of objections that prove fatal to Plato’s earlier doctrine of forms and that he then abandons that theory; others have claimed that the dialogue demonstrates that Plato came to think his earlier theory was in need of revision. What is clear, however, is that the Parmenides constitutes a crucial transition in Plato’s thought. Not only does the dialogue refute the idea that the forms must be wholly separate from the spatio-temporal worlda view frequently expressed in the dialogues written before the Parmenides, and here defended by a youthful Socrates in his conversation with the older Parmenidesbut it makes clear that Plato anticipated critiques of the theory of forms along the lines of Nietzsche’s. Thus, for instance, the character of young Socrates errs by supposing that physical and allegedly valueless things such as mud, hair, and dirt are unworthy of being patterned after forms. Plato recognizes that the view that the ideal is separate from the physical world results in an unacceptable denigration of nature, and the character of Parmenides uses young Socrates’ error as a springboard from which to launch into a refutation of the conception of the absolute transcendence of the forms. In fact, as Mitchell Miller shows in his particularly lucid discussion of the Parmenides, Plato in this dialogue demonstrates that the forms must be both transcendent and immanent simultaneously; the forms must be both external to and integrated within the natural world. Nature accordingly must be regarded as containing the ideal within it.[v]
The Parmenides therefore marks a pivotal reorientation of the stance toward the natural world expressed in the earlier dialogues. Whereas earlier Plato seems uninterested in trying to understand the natural world, after the Parmenides Plato even turns his attention to cosmology and physiology. The Theaetetus, which most likely was written immediately after the Parmenides, is structurally similar to early dialogues such as the Meno, and consists in an exploration of the nature of knowledge, as does the Meno, but its approach recognizes the renewed interest in things of nature prepared for by the analysis of the Parmenides. Unlike the Republic, for instance, in which Socrates denies that knowledge of the natural world is even possible, the Theaetetus includes a thorough consideration of the relationship between knowledge and sensory perception, and prepares the way for an understanding of the conditions for knowledge even of natural phenomena. Considered artistically, the Theaetetus may be Plato’s most masterfully composed dialogue, and it remains one of the most skillful philosophical analyses of the nature of knowledge in the history of ideas. What becomes clear over the course of the dialogue is that knowledge is not just the “neutral” apprehension of facts, but that understanding the nature of knowledge requires first understanding the limits and capacities of human intellect, and that genuine knowledge is tied inseparably to the resolve and moral character of the inquirer.
Plato’s works are fascinating for the light they cast into antiquity, illuminating a remote world and culture that in many ways contained the seeds of our own. Yet more than this, at a time when the idea of objective moral standards is under attack and education increasingly is regarded as the mere transmission of information, Plato deserves to be read with renewed urgency. The three dialogues here include some of Plato’s most characteristic portrayals of educational practice, and provide the reader with an overview of the evolution of his thinking about those ideas at the core of his philosophy: the nature of reality and knowledge.
Marc Lucht holds a Ph.D. in philosophy from Emory University. He has taught at Kenyon College, the University of Maine, and Rocky Mountain College and is now Assistant Professor of Philosophy at Alvernia
College. He writes frequently on the history of modern philosophy, continental philosophy, aesthetics, and environmental ethics.
[i] Jaspers, Karl. Socrates, Buddha, Confucius, Jesus: The Paradigmatic Individuals. Trans. Ralph Mannheim. New York: Harcourt Brace Jovanovich, Publishers, 1962, p. 6.
[ii] Emerson, Ralph Waldo. “Plato; Or, The Philosopher.” The Complete Essays and Other Writings of Ralph Waldo Emerson. New York: The Modern Library, 1950, pp. 4712.
[iii] Plato, The Republic of Plato. Trans. Allan Bloom. New York: Basic Books, Inc., Publishers, 1968, 485a486a.
[iv] Nietzsche, Friedrich. Ecce Homo. Trans. Anthony M. Ludovici. New York: Barnes and Noble, Inc., 2006, p. 96 and p. 94.
[v] See especially chapter 4 of Mitchell Miller’s Plato’s “Parmenides”: The Conversion of the Soul. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 1986.