How to Interpret Plato
Interpreting Plato is difficult work. It is made even more difficult with the strategy championed by Gregory Vlastos and commonly employed by Analytic philosophers. This strategy has three main commitments: (1) Plato’s views are distinguished from those of Socrates, (2) both views are constructed on the basis of the arguments presented in Plato’s dialogues, and (3) those arguments are interpreted with an eye to constructing a cohesive view for both philosophers. All three of these strategic commitments are problematic and hold us back from rightly understanding Plato’s corpus.[i] And all three commitments are derived from the same basic oversight: Plato wrote dialogues to be read.[ii]
Plato begot the tradition of Socratic dialogues as a medium for public debate. Artistic works such as tragedy and comedy were an important element of Athenian democracy. Poets were divinely inspired: the moral dilemmas presented in their works were given by the gods, and their lessons were taken seriously by the demos as a result. But by the end of the fifth century, Athens was declining. Devastating civil wars ravaged the city amid the Spartan victory in the Peloponnesian War and the subsequent dissolution of the Delian League, which provided Athens its wealth and its power. The demos was hungry for change, and Plato, among others, was willing to bring it. He positioned philosophy as an alternative to tragedy and comedy. This is well known. But he also positioned it as continuous with these more dominant genres. It is this continuity that often goes ignored and is really at issue when we consider (1), (2), and (3). Let us turn to these commitments themselves, beginning with (1).
Plato is often denigrated as something of a scribe, someone who merely recorded the conversations of Socrates for posterity. This is what other Socratic dialogue writers purport to do. Xenophon, for instance, explicitly claims to present the conversations of Socrates as they really took place, according to what he and his sources could remember. But Xenophon criticises Plato for putting words in Socrates’ mouth that he did not say.[iii] This should be historically unsurprising since there was at least a decade between Socrates’ death and the publication of Plato’s first dialogue. Surely Plato would have forgotten the precise wording of Socrates’ conversations. But so too would have Xenophon. What seems more likely is that Xenophon’s critique is not merely pedantic but principled. He knows that Socrates didn’t say what Plato wrote because Socrates couldn’t have said those things. Socrates’ opinion differed from what Plato presented in a way that would have been well known to Socrates’ followers. So what, then, is going on? The answer is pretty simple given the history of Athenian poetry more generally. Socrates was a caricature in Plato’s dialogues just as he was in Aristophanes’ Clouds. Everyone knew who he was and some general features of his personality and his life. But more importantly, Socrates was well known to have been sentenced to death in 399, and by the time of Plato’s writing, this was a matter of severe public guilt. Plato was no doubt inspired by his teacher, but he also capitalised on the facts surrounding his life and his death for his own ends. And hence the picture that Plato gives of Socrates may not be a faithful one. It need only be close enough for his audience to recognise the character as Socrates the wandering questioner. So how then can we on the basis of Plato’s dialogues distinguish between Plato’s view and Socrates’? Quite obviously, we cannot.
The method that Vlastos and others appeal to to make that distinction is to evaluate the arguments presented in the dialogue and all of their various entailments. This method generates two significant questions, one of which we shall leave until we discuss (3). Nowhere does Plato come out and say “I, Plato, will argue for such and such in the following way.” It is left up to the audience to interpret what Plato means by presenting any given dialogue in the way that he has, and in many cases, it is precisely what is not said and not argued that is important for understanding a given dialogue. Perhaps the best example of this is the Meno. The dialogue begins with Meno asking Socrates “Can you tell me, Socrates, can virtue be taught? Or is it not teachable but the result of practice, or is it neither of these, but men possess it by nature or in some other way?” Here we have four possible sources of virtue: teaching, practice, nature, or something else. In the succeeding discussion, Socrates and Meno consider three possibilities: teaching, nature, and the gods. They end up with a hesitant commitment to the gods as the source of virtue. Yet throughout there are allusions to tasks commonly learned by practice, and its absence among consideration is conspicuous, especially given the orthodoxy of the period. This of course does not mean that Plato believed that practice is the source of virtue. It means only that Plato is clear on the inadequacy of the discussion and is pointing it out to his audience. Focusing only on the arguments of the Meno, however, would miss this possibility entirely. It would lead one to believe that Plato truly did believe that knowledge is recollection and that virtue is given by the gods. That may be the case, but it is far from certain, and Vlastos’s method doesn’t clear up the matter.
One way that Vlastos tries to clear up various ambiguities in Plato’s arguments is by committing himself to demonstrating that a given argument is consistent with other arguments elsewhere. He constructs Socrates’ and Plato’s positions as coherent wholes that manifest themselves in the arguments of Plato’s dialogues. Each dialogue then gives a piece of the overall whole that Plato’s audience must then hold together to understand what Plato seeks to show them. The difficulty of doing so should be sufficient to demonstrate the ridiculousness of this commitment. Holding all of Plato’s works in one’s head is difficult enough for specialists, let alone for Plato’s Athenian audience reading a dialogue before all of them had even been written. There of course may be some relationship between some dialogues. There was some speculation by Hellenistic commentators, for instance, that Plato presented his dialogues as tetrologies like the tragedians did.[iv] But aside from that, no one of Plato’s audience would be expected to understand how the dialogue he is reading fits into Plato’s broader view. This might be expected of Plato’s students, but the dialogues were published beyond the academy, and purposely so. As Steven Robinson points out, if Plato was simply writing for his students, he would have no reason to do so. These students are philosophers themselves, and they know better that philosophy is no threat to the polis. What matters, on the other hand, is the opinion of the demos, and it is that which Plato seeks to change. And he can’t do that if the demos must first read and comment on everything that Plato has written and will write. (3) completely misses the point of Plato’s writing. Maybe we can find something common amongst Plato’s corpus as a whole, but this would be no help at all in understanding the point of any single dialogue. The really important interpretative work demands that we understand the individual dialogues, not Plato personally. And to this end, there is no reason why there can’t be ten Platos or ten Socrateses in ten different dialogues.
So how do we interpret Plato? Ultimately, I don’t know. But I do know that we can’t do it like we tend to do now. We have to treat Plato’s dialogues as dialogues. They are not essays in analytic philosophy: we cannot mine them for their arguments and be sated by that alone. We have to consider the traditions that influenced Plato. We have to understand his audience. We have to weigh what has been said against what has not. We have to admit the possibility of irony and satire and other dramatic tropes. All this is what makes Plato so difficult, but also so engaging and persistently rewarding.
[i] This is important for more than merely historical interest. I shall save a full demonstration of this for another time. Briefly, however, when we ask about how to rightly do philosophy, what philosophical methods are appropriate or otherwise, we must defer to what philosophy itself is for. This kind of functional demand can only be decided by looking to the foundations of philosophy and to the problems that it was established to solve. Plato happens to be the centrepiece of those foundations.
[ii] There is some dispute about whether Plato’s dialogues were performed. There is good reason to believe that they were, at least in some respect, but they need not have been in order to support the general appeal to the public upon which my account relies.
[iii] This criticism is specifically about the Lysis, an early dialogue of peripheral import.
[iv] Diogenes Laertius considers this rather plausible but attributes the hypothesis to earlier commentators.
Steven Robinson, “Plato in the Crito” in Jonathon Lavery, Louis Groarke, and William Sweet [eds.], Ideas Under Fire: Historical Studies of Philosophy and Science in Adversity, Fairleigh Dickinson University Press (Madison, WI), 2013: 37-65