Thursday, August 13, 2009

Plato for Pagans: An overview

I am re-starting one of my perennial writing projects: Plato for Pagans. Let's see how far I get this time!!

The immodest goal of this endeavor is to provide a basic introduction to the writings of Plato for modern readers with little or no background in ancient philosophy. There is no shortage of books on Plato and ancient philosophy, but there is a near total absence of such books written from a perspective that treats Plato as a Pagan philosopher, which is what he was.

The format will be a series of commentaries on 17 of Plato's dialogues:

Volume I:
Socratic Philosophy as a Way of Life and Death

The Life of Socrates
The Death of Socrates
The Teachings of Socrates

Volume II:
The Ascent of the Soul


What follows is the beginnings of an explanation for what I have in mind for the first section of the first volume on The Life of Socrates.

The Charmides, Laches and Lysis are generally considered to be "early", "Socratic" dialogues. As such they are accepted by modern scholars as closely reflecting the teachings of Socrates. They are also shorter and more accessible than many of the dialogues that will come later in the series.

Plato's dialogues often raise a very specific question of the form "what is X?", and the three dialogues I have chosen to begin with are no exception:
The Charmides asks, what is temperance (sophrosyne)?
The Laches asks, what is courage (andreia)?
The Lysis asks, what is friendship (philia)?

In addition to having, at least on the surface, easily identifiable subjects, the first two dialogs also have a very straightforward relationship to important events in Socrates' life (and in the history of Athens). The Charmides occurs just after the Battle of Potidaea in 432. The city-state of Potidaea had attempted to revolt against Athenian rule, but they were soundly defeated by the Athenians. Socrates, then aged 37, fought heroically in this battle and his exploits are even recorded in the famous account of the battle by Thucydides. The Laches occurs just after the Battle of Delium, in the year 324, when Socrates was now 45. Once again Socrates fought with distinction and bravery, but the battle itself was a significant defeat for Athens. This is also very close to the time of the birth of Plato.

Like many of Plato's dialogues, the "dramatic date" of the Lysis is much less certain than that of the Charmides and Laches. The Lysis highlights the intense love and devotion that Socrates enjoyed among many of Athens' youths. This is also one of Plato's more maddeningly (some have even said perversely) aporetic dialogues: one concept of friendship after another is taken up, analyzed, and then rejected, so that at the end Socrates himself declares that even though they are all good friends (Socrates, Lysis and the other youths) "as yet we have not been able to discover what a friend is!"

This final declaration of the Lysis highlights one of the central themes of Platonic philosophy: surrounded by friendship we are yet unable to understand what friendship is. The same is true for temperance, courage and all of the others X's that Plato presents in the form of "what is X?": beauty (Phaedrus), love (Symposium), justice (Republic), piety (Euthyphro), death (Phaedo), knowledge (Theaetetus), pleasure (Philebus), and so forth. Sometimes the question is a bit more subtle, such as "can virture be taught?", the question of both the Meno and the Protagoras. In general, though, the method is the same, especially for the earlier dialogues: one by one various answers to the question at hand are at first presented with some optimism, but then inevitably found wanting until at last a state of aporia is achieved.

Aporia means far more than mere "puzzlement". Socrates' intention is always to show us that we do not truly know what we think we know. With his disarmingly intimate style of philosophizing, he draws out of his interlocutors their theories and assumptions about everything from love to death, and in the end shows that whatever knowledge we might have thought we possessed was false. This, in Socratic philosophy, is the beginning of genuine wisdom.

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