Plato for Everyone

Plato for Everyone

by Aviezer Tucker

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Plato's dialogues, featuring his famous mentor Socrates, often prove difficult to understand for many contemporary readers. Students today miss the ancient cultural and historical references, and they have trouble following Plato's arguments as presented in dialogue format.

This book remedies these problems by recasting five of Plato's dialogues into accessible and entertaining short stories in modern settings. The Euthyphro becomes a tale about a televangelist bent on disowning his son at a denominational boarding school in rural Virginia; the Crito - retitled "What do you have to do for your country?" - is focused on the question of whether a US citizen who considers a current war to be unjust should avoid a military draft by moving to Canada. In all of the stories (the Meno, the Statesman, and Phaedo are also included), the central character is Socrates, just as in the original dialogues, but here the maverick philosopher appears in twenty-first-century guise. The author, who has taught philosophy for many years, captures the tone, wit, and philosophical essence of Plato's dialogues in a modern English interpretation that is often amusing and fun to read.

For instructors looking for an engaging way to interest undergraduates in Plato and for students who find the original works a bit daunting, this book offers an enlightening and enjoyable read.

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9781616146559
Publisher: Prometheus Books
Publication date: 02/19/2013
Sold by: Barnes & Noble
Format: NOOK Book
Pages: 275
Sales rank: 947,672
File size: 637 KB

About the Author

Aviezer Tucker (Austin, TX) is the author of Our Knowledge of the Past: A Philosophy of Historiography; The Philosophy and Politics of Czech Dissidence: From Patocka to Havel; and numerous scholarly articles. He is also the editor of A Companion to the Philosophy of History and Historiography. He has taught philosophy at universities throughout the world and currently works at the University of Texas-Austin.

Read an Excerpt

Plato for everyone

By Aviezer Tucker

Prometheus Books

Copyright © 2013 Aviezer Tucker
All right reserved.

ISBN: 978-1-61614-655-9

Chapter One


(After the Crito)

The war just dragged on. It was a dumb war. It was also a particularly senseless war. Our democratically elected government chose to start this war. The war was not forced on us. We were not attacked first. Our leaders and their strategic advisers miscalculated, thinking that if they took sides in a local conflict, the side they backed would win. But the calculation of our leaders was wrong. The goals of both sides in that conflict were equally reprehensible; they just wanted to bully, intimidate, rob, and ultimately kill each other. It was a war we could not have won and should not have been involved in in the first place. Meanwhile, the war continued. Conscripted young men were forced to fight in that war whether or not they supported it. Those who refused went into exile or were jailed in military prisons.

By the time Socrates became eligible for conscription, the political question was how to end the war without losing face. The politicians did not want to admit they had been wrong to start the war. They were looking for some face-saving achievement they could use to claim that the war's goals had been realized. They were also afraid that a quick withdrawal would cost our country prestige and its power of deterrence against other potential enemies. To get us out of the war they should not have started in the first place, they felt they had to get us even deeper in that political and military mire.

Socrates, along with the rest of us, opposed the war from its inception. We demonstrated against it. We authored and signed petitions for peace. We campaigned against the ruling parties and voted against them in the elections. But to no avail: they still won the elections. The roaring guns silenced the voice of reason. Some of our friends fled the country to avoid the draft. Others were drafted. Some of them died in battle or returned wounded or maimed. To be sure, the war was becoming increasingly unpopular. Eventually, some government would be forced to end the war one way or the other, to pretend it had achieved something. But until then, the killing would continue.

Young people who had not yet been drafted and who had not left the country were living on borrowed time, waiting to receive their draft notices. When they received their notices, they had to decide whether to obey, to attempt to game the system, to appear to comply but in fact avoid active duty, or to flee the country. When his time came, Socrates was sleeping. We were sitting in the kitchen drinking tea and talking politics. Chris, Socrates's roommate and childhood friend, brought in the morning mail. We all recognized the dreaded envelope from the draft board. Anxiously, we looked for the name on the envelope. It was Socrates's.

Chris entered Socrates's room and sat by the side of his bed. Socrates woke up, opened his eyes, and asked Chris why he was sitting there in the middle of the night. "It is almost noon," answered Chris, smiling tenderly. Socrates sat up in bed and asked Chris how long he had been sitting there. "For a while. I did not want to wake you up."

"Why have you not awakened me, if it is so late?" wondered Socrates.

"I wanted to let you sleep. You looked so peaceful and calm. I sleep so badly. I keep waking up through the night with anxiety and dread, and yet, despite the war and all, you sleep like a neutral Swedish baby who does not expect to ever wear uniforms and carry a gun. I have always admired your calmness in the face of danger and adversity. I wanted it to last for as long as possible, so I let you sleep."

Socrates nodded. "I find people in general are too anxious about things that are unimportant. I reserve my limited worrying capacities to things worth worrying about. Still, you have obviously been waiting here to tell me something. What happened?"

"I am sorry, Socrates. I have to bear sad and painful news. Not just to you but to all your friends. This is particularly sad for me."

"I suppose you picked up the mail as usual. But today is different. Today, I received a letter from the draft board ordering me to present myself to be conscripted into the military, yes? Unpleasant but hardly surprising."

Chris passed the envelope to Socrates in silence. Socrates opened it deliberately but without haste. "In three days," he announced without much emotion. "I dreamt about it last night. In my dream, Lady Liberty, looking like the Statue of Liberty, came to me and told me I will have three days with her. She looked kind of sexy."

Chris laughed and said, "Quite a dream, no doubt, Socrates. Prophetic." He then turned serious. "My dear friend, we talked about this before, but now it has become urgent. Please, I beg you, accept my advice and let me help you escape. You need not worry about me and my friends. We are not afraid of informers or of being prosecuted for helping you leave the country. We will gladly take such risks to save your life. We have helped other conscripts escape before. We have established routes and volunteers who will help you cross the border. This will not cost us much either. A few modest commissions for border guards and immigration lawyers suffice to get conscripts across the border and into safety. If you worry about my own personal expenses, do not. We have wealthy backers who share our cause. They will gladly pay all the expenses of your escape. Do not hesitate and do not worry. It will be easy. There are many places in the world where you will be welcomed and will be able to continue your studies. I have many friends in Toronto, Canada, for example. If you would like to go there, they will protect and help you. In Toronto, nobody will harass or bully you. Quite the opposite, they will value and cherish you. You will feel almost at home there.

"You should not risk and possibly sacrifice your life for nothing, for a stupid and immoral policy enforced by a government that cannot admit it was wrong. It would be total folly on your part to obey this draft order when you have a readily available alternative: to just get the hell out of this country. If you allow yourself to be drafted, you will do their bidding. You are exactly the kind of political dissident—critical of government policies—whom they would love to see dead. They could even use your death in war as an example for others to follow; make you into a martyr for the impossible goals of this war.

"You should also think about your family. What about your parents? Don't they have the right to be taken care of in their old age by their eldest son? Would you not be betraying your obligation to them if you leave them now, let alone if you are killed? What about your younger siblings? Your parents will soon be too old to care for them. Your father is a sick a man. He may not last for much longer. Your siblings look up to you. You have already taught them how to read and how to understand basic algebra and geometry. Don't you owe them the opportunity to complete their education? Don't you think they deserve your help growing up? Instead, you would be deserting them, leaving them to the tender mercies of life. If you started their education, you should finish it; they are attached to and even dependent on you. They have nobody else. If you desert them, they may grow up as orphans. Accepting this order to be drafted would be a most irresponsible course of action in light of these moral duties to your family. You always talk of wanting to find out what is good and then conduct your life toward that good. If you desert your family and your friends now, you will be undermining your own philosophy.

"We have to move, now! I must admit that we have been too passive for too long. We have known for a while that it would be only a question of time until you are drafted. We have just been sitting here waiting for I do not know what. It should never have gone this far. We should have helped you leave the country before you received the draft notice, when it would have been easier to get you out. We just did nothing. We could and should have convinced you to leave and helped you logistically and morally. Our passivity over the last few months is frankly ridiculous and shameful. It is time to take matters into our own hands and move on. You must pack up your things now and come with me. I will make a few phone calls and make all the arrangements. You will leave this house in the next few hours. We will move you to a safe house where the authorities will never find you. Then, in a few days, we'll get you safely across the border, and that will be it. You will not be able to return to this country in the near future. But maybe in a few years, the stupidity of this war will dawn on everybody, and then nobody will care that you broke the law by leaving the country to avoid the draft. You may then be able to return. Even if you are unable to return, exile in a pleasant, welcoming country where you could continue to philosophize is far superior to death in a stupid war.

"Time is very short now. We must act immediately, or it will be too late. Socrates, as your friend, as your fellow resister to this war, and as your philosophical student, I appeal to you, I beg you, let's go now! I will never forgive myself if you go to this stupid war and get killed. If you die, I will lose my best friend. I know that if I lose you, I shall never have another friend like you.

"Many people know that you are my best friend and that we both object to the war. If you go to this war and become a victim of the immoral incompetence of this government, they will accuse me of sparing money and efforts to save you, or say that I did not care enough for you. I would suffer the greatest shame if people believed that I valued money over the life of my best friend. Nobody will believe that you did not want to escape to save your life and refused my offers of help, though I have been asking you for weeks to let me arrange your escape out of the country."

Socrates shrugged. "Come on, Chris, since when do we care about public opinions? Indeed, why should we? We only care what good people think of us, and they will inquire about what actually happened before forming judgments about our actions today."

Chris disagreed. "We live in a democracy. The opinions of the majority of the citizens matter. We are at war now because most people think they support it. We hope there will come a day when most people realize it was a mistake. If most people come to the wrong opinion about an issue or a person, they can inflict much harm. In a democracy, we cannot ignore public opinion."

"I disagree with you, Chris," said Socrates. "I do not think that the majority of people can do real harm or real good. To harm somebody seriously, they have to make that person foolish. To really do good, they have to make somebody wise. How many majorities do you know that have made anybody more or less wise than they were originally? In the few cases when somebody becomes more or less wise following interactions with the majority of people, it happens by chance, unintentionally. Usually, we become wise by talking with a smart person, and they are always in the minority in any population. If you are a philosopher, a lover of wisdom, you care mostly for wisdom. Since popular majorities and public opinion cannot make you wise, they just don't matter very much."

Socrates stood up and put on a white dressing gown. He walked to the kitchen and made us all Greek coffee. We sat around the kitchen table on that chilly day. We were all ready to assist Chris in his plan to smuggle Socrates out of the country, away from war and into freedom. It would have been easy. We would have helped Socrates pack his belongings—a few items of clothing and a couple suitcases of books—while Chris called his friends to put Socrates on an underground railroad out of the country. In a couple of hours, a car would have come for Socrates, and the next time we saw him would have been in Toronto or some other similarly neutral city. Still, though Socrates was ordered to report to duty within three days and had only a few hours to preempt it, he did not seem to share our sense of urgency.

He sat there in the kitchen calmly and contemplatively and told us, "My dear friends, I want you to know just how much I appreciate your desire to help me, your courage, dedication, and enthusiasm. You feel strongly that you want to do what you believe is the right thing to do and help me. But such strong feelings, such desires, can mislead, take us in the wrong direction. We all agree that we should do the right thing. But first we need to discover what the right thing is, dispassionately, calmly, and without excessive haste. Otherwise, your strong emotions may lead you astray if you do not think the matter through. The stronger the emotions are, the graver could be our mistakes. We do not want to be like the politicians who support this war by manipulating the emotions of their supporters: appealing to their patriotism, their love of fellow citizens and country, and their hatred and fear of tyranny. These strong emotions lead many people to believe they are doing the right thing, whereas as we know this is not true. We must also be careful not to adopt moral stances by imitation, by doing what our friends think is the right thing to do; even friends can lead us astray. We must be careful not to change our views about justice and correct behavior because our immediate interests are adversely affected by doing the right thing. We should not rationalize our passions to make them appear moral, nor should we invent excuses for changing our moral convictions just because suddenly our moral principles require us to make personal sacrifices. We do not want to be like the people who argue that the bus is half empty when they stand outside at the bus stop and then claim that the bus is full the moment they get on. A good method for preventing such biasing of our moral principles by our desires and interests is to keep them stable, to not change our ideas and principles of justice and right action as our personal circumstances change. We cannot allow the natural tendency of people to reformulate what they want in terms of what they hold to be just and right.

"I intend to keep holding to and obeying the same moral principles that I have always defended before I received this draft notice. I have developed my moral ideas on the basis of

reasoned arguments. These arguments and the conclusions I have drawn from them have not changed. I am still bound by my commitment to follow them. If I am to revise the conclusions I drew from these principles, we must bring new arguments to this breakfast table. Fear is an emotion, not an argument. Fear of death and hardship can only sway the opinions of children or cowards. To convince me, you need to bring arguments against accepting the legal draft notice I have just received and against enlisting in the military. We agree that this war is unnecessary, useless, and bound to fail, but is that a reason to break the law?"


Socrates continued. "Let us be reasonable and not emotional. How can we rationally decide whether I should obey the draft notice? Let us consider critically your arguments. Your first argument was that I should not join the military out of concern for the opinions of other people who may accuse you, my friends, of failing to help me to escape death or injury or severe hardship, though you are able to help me escape without putting yourself in any serious danger or having to spend prohibitive sums of money on getting me out of this country."

"That's right," affirmed Chris.

Socrates went on. "As you know well, I have always argued that people should not consider what other people think of them but should be selective, caring for what some people think of them while dismissing the opinions of others. It would surely be unreasonable of me to hold this opinion up to an hour ago, before I received the letter ordering me to report for the draft, and then suddenly for no other reason to change my mind and start caring for public opinion. Do I have any reason, other than cowardly fear of death, to drop my selective interest in the opinions of other people?

I believe that people who expressed opinions on this matter have always held similar views to my own. We should give serious due consideration to the opinions of some people on some matters and ignore the rest.

"Do you disagree, Chris? You have no reason to be afraid. Your back and spine problems released you from military service. You will never be drafted. Your reasoned opinion is not likely to be tainted by fear for yourself, only by fear for me. So tell me, do you disagree that we should consider only the opinions of some people on some topics, and not the opinions of everybody about everything?"

Chris nodded in reluctant agreement. He clearly felt this was no time for entering a philosophical, contemplative discussion; it was a time for action, to get Socrates out of the country. Still, there was no way of moving Socrates without convincing him first.


Excerpted from Plato for everyone by Aviezer Tucker Copyright © 2013 by Aviezer Tucker. Excerpted by permission of Prometheus Books. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.

Table of Contents


1. Is It Good to Die for One's Country? (After the Crito)....................15
2. The Essence of Cool (After the Meno)....................45
3. Good, Evil, and God (After the Euthyphro)....................97
4. Your Children Will Condemn You: Socrates's Defense Speech (After the Apology)....................125
5. Death and Liberation (After the Phaedo)....................159
Suggestions for Further Reading....................255

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