Monday, May 19, 2014

Some Thoughts Toward Reading Plato's Dialogues

I've been thinking about various ways to approach reading Plato's dialogues. There are many ways in which they have been grouped. The most common way in which they have been sorted for quite some time is according to early, middle, and late dialogues:

Early Dialogues:
Apology, Charmides, Crito, Euthyphro, Alcibiades, Hippias Major, Hippias Minor, Ion, Laches, Lysis

Middle Dialogues:
Cratylus, Euthydemus, Gorgias, Menexenus, Meno, Phaedo, Protagoras, Symposium,

Middle or Late Dialogues:
Republic, Phaedrus, Parmenides, Theaetetus

Late Dialogues:
Clitophon, Timaeus, Critias, Sophist, Statesman, Philebus, Laws

This is slowly falling out of favor, and I think this is a good thing. We know from Aristotle that the Laws was definitely written after the Republic. Internal evidence makes it highly probable that Parmenides, Phaedrus, the Republic, and Theaetetus were written in the same phase and that Critias, Timaeus, the Laws, Philebus, the Sophist, and the Statesman are all from the same phase of writing, because these two groups have very close links even on minor points of style. And that's getting about to the limit of what we can actually be said to know about whether the dialogues are really 'early' or 'late'. No Plato scholar I've ever met takes this ordering very seriously as even a roughly chronological ordering, although many seem to have their own pet scheme that they play around with. The major reason that I think this way of ordering the dialogues has survived, and probably will for quite some time, is that it makes a sort of sense even independently of any chronological questions. All the 'early' dialogues are very, very Socrates-oriented. All the 'late' dialogues are much more independent of Socrates. The 'middle' dialogues are appropriately in-between. Thus it made a sort of tempting sense as a progression from Plato mostly defending Socrates (early) to Plato doing his own thing (late). But outside the two groupings noted above, that's more of an attractive imaginative picture than anything else.

The traditional scheme for the dialogues is rather different, and goes back to Thrasyllus of Mendes, the first collector of the collected works of Plato. We know of Thrasyllus's scheme from Diogenes of Laertius. It was common for Greek dramatic works to come in tetralogies -- for instance, three tragedies and a satyr play. So Thrasyllus ordered the dialogues in tetralogical sets:

First Tetralogy
Euthyphro, Apology, Crito, Phaedo

Second Tetralogy
Cratylus, Theaetetus, Sophist, Statesman

Third Tetralogy
Parmenides, Philebus, Symposium, Phaedrus

Fourth Tetralogy
Alcibiades, Second Alcibiades, Hipparchus, Rival Lovers

Fifth Tetralogy
Theages, Charmides, Laches, Lysis

Sixth Tetralogy
Euthydemus, Protagoras, Gorgias, Meno

Seventh Tetralogy
Hippias Major, Hippias Minor, Ion, Menexenus

Eighth Tetralogy
Clitophon, Republic, Timaeus, Critias

Ninth Tetralogy
Minos, Laws, Epinomis, Epistles

There are a number of nice features about these groupings, although there seems to be no general principle governing them. The First Tetralogy constitute a sort of Last Days of Socrates: in Euthyphro, Socrates is heading to his trial, in Apology he is at his trial, in Crito he is awaiting his death, and in Phaedo he is on the verge of it. A number of other links are noticeable, but a number of possible links don't show up. The Theatetus has very little obviously to do with the First Tetralogy, for instance, but the dialogue is clear enough that, in internal chronology at least, the Euthyphro occurs only a little later than the Theatetus, and it is made so clear that Plato seems to have thought it important somehow. We get no sense from the way these are grouped of how Gorgias serves as a near-perfect thematic bridge between the death dialogues of the First Tetralogy and the Republic (one of many, many reasons why I think Gorgias is the single most essential Platonic dialogue to have read).

The classical Neoplatonists developed their own canons of Plato. One, usually attributed to Iamblichus, selected out twelve dialogues of special importance. Like practically everything in Neoplatonism, it was structured as an ascent. We start with Alcibiades, on the subject of knowing oneself, and sort of expand from there into the entire cosmic order:

Alcibiades
Gorgias
Phaedo
Cratylus
Theaetetus
Sophist
Statesman
Phaedrus
Symposium
Philebus
Timaeus
Parmenides

There are other possible ways to group the dialogues. One interesting one that I've seen is that of Bernard Suzanne, a Plato enthusiast:


Overview

of tetralogies
a i t i a

(cause)
epithumiai (desires)

 

phusis (nature)
thumos (will)

krisis (judgment)

èthos (behavior)
logos (reason)

kosmos (order)


 
Tetralogy 1 :

The start of the quest

what is man ?
ALCIBIADES

man

 
LYSIS

friendship

(philo-)
LACHES

manhood

(andreia)
CHARMIDES

wisdom

(-sophos)
Tetralogy 2 :

The sophists

eikasia (conjecture)
 
PROTAGORAS  

relativism

 
 
HIPPIAS Major  

illusion of

beauty
 
HIPPIAS Minor  


illusion of

the "hero"
GORGIAS

illusion of

logos
Tetralogy 3 :

Socrates' trial

 

pistis (true belief)
MENO

pragmatism

 

 
EUTHYPHRO



letter of the

law
THE APOLOGY


OF SOCRATES

law

in action
CRITO



spirit of the

law
Tetralogy 4 :

The soul

 

psuchè
 THE SYMPOSIUM 

the driving

force :

eros
PHÆDRUS


nature of

the soul :

erôs<=>logos
 THE
REPUBLIC 

behaviour of

the soul :

justice
PHÆDO


destiny of

the soul :

being
Tetralogy 5 :

Speech (logos)

dianoia
(knowledge)
CRATYLUS

the words of

speech
ION

logos of the

poet
 
EUTHYDEMUS  

logos of the

sophist
MENEXENUS

logos of the

politician
Tetralogy 6 :

Dialectic

epistèmè (science)
PARMENIDES


the traps of

reason
THEÆTETUS


the limits of

reason
THE SOPHIST


the laws of

reason
 
THE STATESMAN 

the goals of

reason
Tetralogy 7 :

Man in the world

kosmos (order)
PHILEBUS


the good of

man
TIMÆUS


contemplating

(theôria)
CRITIAS


deciding

(krisis)
THE LAWS


acting

(erga)
(Table last updated June 6, 2009)

This is a very nonstandard organization, but this kind of Neo-Neoplatonist approach to reading the dialogues (that is, in the sense of seeing them as a unified philosophical curriculum) has much to recommend it; as Suzanne argues, taking the dialogues in this way lets one see them all together as forming a sort of super-dialogue on the subject of what it is to live a philosophical life.

In my reading of the dialogues I won't be able, for scheduling reasons, to follow any rigorous order. But I like the idea, found in the Neoplatonists and Suzanne, of starting with Alcibiades. Currently my thought is that I might get some of the obvious spurious dialogues out of the way in the next week or so, and then come June start with Alcibiades, the Rival Lovers, and Charmides. (Charmides' authenticity is undisputed; Alcibiades is usually regarded as authentic, although after Schleiermacher argued that it was spurious in the nineteenth century it went through a disputed period, and its authenticity is still occasionally disputed; Rival Lovers is usually regarded as spurious, although Julia Annas has argued that the case against it is very weak.) But that might change a bit.

4 comments:

  1. Enbrethiliel9:29 AM

    +JMJ+


    What a fantastic chart! Thanks for sharing the lesson plan, Professor! ;-)

    ReplyDelete
  2. There are also the (Socratic) biographical order, which often clusters just around the last-days theme, but is sometimes spread all the way through Socrates' life, starting with the very young Socrates (e.g. Parmenides) and running, of course, through the Phaedo. Laurence Lampert is one exemplar of this way of ordering; I think Seth Benardette also uses something like it. One obvious difficulty is that is does not tell you where to put the Laws, but since the Laws is sui generis it can be thought of separately.

    ReplyDelete
  3. branemrys12:36 PM

    Good point. I'll have to look at Lampert on this.


    Annas's main points, if I remember correctly, were that the evidential case against Rival Lovers is very weak (weak enough that similar concerns are not taken as conclusive against some of the authentic dialogues), and that the idea that usually dominates in treating it as inauthentic (that it is too trivial for Plato) overlooks the fact that with the Alcibiades it makes a good prologue to the Charmides. I think she's actually agnostic about it, but I'd have to go back and look.

    ReplyDelete
  4. branemrys12:37 PM

    There's something very striking about the chart, that's for sure!

    ReplyDelete

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