Socrates Plato chooses Socrates as the main
character in most of his works, a clear reflection of Plato’s reverence for the man he regarded as his true master. In the ‘‘Seventh Letter,’’ Plato deemed Socrates ‘‘the most just man alive’’ during the reign of the Thirty Tyrants in Athens. Diogenes reports that the interest was mutual: he tells the story of Socrates’ dream of a swan sitting on his knees, which all at once sprouted feathers and flew away after crying out a loud, sweet call. The next day, Plato was introduced to Socrates as a pupil, and Socrates believed the young man was the swan in his dream.
It is the relationship that Plato had with Socrates, in fact, that has been memorialized in Plato’s dialogues, his largest contribution to
literature. In form, these dialogues are merely representations of conversations held between two or more people. In content, they demonstrate and record the philosophies Socrates taught his pupils. Indeed, Plato’s dialogues have been staples of education ever since their rediscovery in the late medieval period. However, the objectivity of Plato’s representation of Socrates’ character and philosophy has come into question through the years.
Diogenes reports in his Lives that there was a rivalry or animosity between Plato and several fellow philosophers and literary figures, especially other ‘‘Socratics,’’ including Xenophon, Antisthenes, Aristip-pus, and Aeschines. It is certain that each of these men also wrote ‘‘Socratic dialogues,’’ though only those of Xenophon and Plato exist in complete form. It is important to note that the Socratic dialogues written by others deviate significantly from Plato’s in their philosophies and their portraits of Socrates.
Legacy The Academy continued for centuries after Plato’s death, though its members deviated from Platonic teachings in several striking ways. Within a century (c. 276 BCE) the school had become a center for the philosophy of the Skeptics under Archesilaus. Revivals of some versions of Platonism were undertaken both at the Academy itself under Antiochus of Ascalon (c. 87 BCE) and elsewhere; for example, ‘‘Middle Platonism’’ developed at the same time in Athens and Alexandria (which included Plutarch). So-called Neoplatonism began with Plotinus in Rome and continued until Justinian closed the pagan schools in 529 CE. In many ways, Neoplatonism continued to provide a significant source of ideas for later medieval thinkers.
Plato’s influence, though transformed and reshaped by the Middle Platonists and Neoplatonists, can be found later in the conceptions of temporal order and eternity in Augustine and Boethius, and in other ideas among the medieval rationalists, especially Anselm. The Platonic conception of knowledge as derived from and secured by innate and infallible cognitive capacities—which make contact with a truth or reality that is independent of the human senses—continued after the Enlightenment in the philosophies of what have come to be known as the Continental Rationalists, most notably Rene´ Descartes, Benedict (Baruch) de Spinoza, and Gottfried Wilhelm Leibniz. It echoes even later in the transcendentalism of Immanuel Kant, the British idealist Francis Herbert Bradley, and, later still, in the American transcendentalists, most notably Ralph Waldo Emerson.
Works in Critical Context
In considering the work of Plato, it is first important to note that Socrates, his illustrious teacher, wrote no text in which he outlined his teachings. Consequently, what scholars know about Socrates can be gleaned only from those who wrote about his work. This fact, along with Plato’s repeated use of Socrates as his main character, has led to several seemingly irresolvable scholarly disputes.
Does the character Socrates actually speak for Plato himself, who articulates his own thoughts through Socrates? Or does Plato seek only to represent the philosophy of Socrates by recounting the conversations of Socrates? Plato’s student Aristotle often wrote as if he believed that the Socrates whom Plato employs is expressing Plato’s own philosophy. Never a speaking character in his own dialogues, Plato speaks for himself only in the ‘‘Letters’’, and the authenticity of these is disputed. It has been argued, in fact, that readers should never assume that Plato is presenting dogmatic pronouncements; instead, he is using the dialogue form simply to offer arguments for consideration. This issue is an important one for scholars because Socrates is largely considered the father of philosophy as we know it.
What Is Plato, What Is Socrates? Although a decisive resolution of the many debates about Plato’s relationship with Socrates is not likely to be achieved, certain points of view seem well enough supported to be agreed upon by scholars in general. Perhaps the most important point concerns the dating of the dialogues. Partly because of the strategies used for dating the pieces, some separation of the Platonic and Socratic philosophies has been made on the supposition that Plato became more the master of his own philosophical thinking and less influenced by Socrates as he matured.
Several approaches to ordering the dialogues chronologically have been attempted. In antiquity, the orderings were thematic at best and included many works whose authenticity is now disputed or unanimously rejected. Historical evidence for ordering the works chronologically is relatively slight. Aristotle, Diogenes, and Olympiodorus of Alexandria all report that the Laws was written after the Republic. Beyond this, scholars must speculate about the chronology of the dialogues based on the slight evidence contained within each of Plato’s works.
Despite the lack of direct evidence, modern scholars have found sufficient differences in the philosophies articulated in the dialogues to group them into different periods: early—those works written prior to Plato’s first trip to Sicily in 387; middle—the dialogues from about 387 BCE to 380 BCE, considered to be early transitional; and late—transitional dialogues beginning about 360 BCE to 355 BCE. In his influential study Socrates: Ironist and Moral Philosopher, Gregory Vlastos finds ten significant differences between the Socrates in the dialogues of the early period and the Socrates in the dialogues of the middle period. Arguments of this sort have generally found favor among scholars who are inclined to find the differences in Plato’s characterizations significant in terms of his movement away from the philosophical methods and preoccupations of the historical Socrates, which these scholars assume to have been represented more or less accurately in Plato’s earlier works. Still, each of these differences between the Socrates of the early and middle dialogues will no doubt continue to be hotly debated. Interestingly, the division of the dialogues into groups on the basis of their contents has more recently received support from what is known as stylometry—the careful measure of certain stylistic features of the writings themselves.
While the early, middle, and late groupings are accepted by many scholars, serious debate continues about the exact placement of each dialogue within these groups and even about the merits of the different methods employed to group them at all. Furthermore, a great many other dialogues and some thirteen letters have also been attributed to Plato over the years, but none of these other writings has been regarded by a consensus as authentic. Many were presumed to be so in antiquity and have only relatively recently been removed from the canon. These disputed works are known as the dubia. Still other dialogues, called the spuria, were attributed to Plato but suspected to be fraudulent even in antiquity.
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