© 1996 Bernard SUZANNE Last updated November 21, 1998
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E-mail Archives :
Platonism, a fresh look (part 1)

February 26, 1995

This page is part of the "e-mail archives" section of a site, Plato and his dialogues, dedicated to developing a new interpretation of Plato's dialogues. The "e-mail archives" section includes HTML edited versions of posts that I submitted on various e-mail discussion lists about Plato and ancient philosophy.

To: plato <plato@freelance.com>
      sophia <sophia@liverpool.ac.uk>,
Date : February 26, 1995, 17:55:10
Subject : Platonism: a fresh look (part 1)

As a contribution to an ongoing discussion on "Platonism" initiated by Chuck Sullivan on the "plato" list, and a follow-up on an earlier posting on the "sophia" list, I'd like to go back to the hypothesis I introduced in this posting and put some "meat" around it in showing how it can help answer some of the questions raised by Chuck in putting them into perspective. But let me state first some preliminary assumptions to clear the way:

1) I take the VIIth letter to be from Plato (maybe it's the only letter that is, but this is another question), and to be probably the most reliable source of information we have on Plato's life and states of mind at various times of it;

2) in this light, I think that Socrates was the most important person in Plato's life, and the most influencial one on his thinking, and that the death of Socrates was one of the most important events in his life; yet, I think it's almost impossible to know the "true" Socrates, most of what we "know" about him being known through Plato's dialogues, which were not intended (none of them, including the Apology) to be journalistic reports on his "master", but to be true to his spirit at the expense of "history" (and most of what does not come directly from the dialogues is posterior and might have been tainted by them); but I also think that this is unimportant with regard to Plato's goal in writing his dialogues, and only matters to historians, and to those who want to interpret Plato's dialogues in an "evolutionist" light, which I think is wrong;

3) I take Plato to be one of the most profound thinkers of all times, and also one of the best writers, one who most artfully fitted form with content to suit his purpose, who best combined art with thought;

4).I also think that, unlike Aristotle for instance, he was a master at understanding the doctrines of others from inside, and at criticizing them on their own premises, not on his; thus his mastery at rendering them in his dialogues, and at imitating the style of other to the point of fooling some of the best critics;

5) accordingly, I give him credit for not writing for the sake of it, or to attempt to defend the memory of Socrates by simply restating what Socrates had said to the judges and which didn't work, or to dump unsolved problems upon the head of bewildered Athenians, or to show off in proving he was better at the game of rhetorics than most politicians and speech writers of his time, or god knows what for, but because he had something to say and knew where he was going, even if he would not say it right away;

6) I think in effect that Plato did not write his dialogues to state "doctrines", but to raise questions and show a way that would make his readers think by themselves, and hopefully become "philosophoi" in the end; in doing so he definitely had deep beliefs of him, that are always in the background of the dialogues, and he knew from the start where he wanted to lead us (I didn't say "from the start of his life", but from the start of his activity as a writer, which does not preclude an "evolution" on his part--and that's precisely what he describes to us in the VIIth letter--, but which means that this evolution was prior to his dialogues, and may at best have served as a model to the path he is leading us into);

7) I take into account that we know absolutely nothing as regards the dates of composition of his dialogues, and that we do not have the slightest proof that any of them were published outide the Academy during his lifetime; actually, I would not be surprised that none was;

8) I also admit that what I suggest is but another hypothesis; but I will not try to "prove" it, the best proof being, in my mind, its power of explanation, and of consistent explanation; its ability to account for most "facts" about the dialogues, and give a coherent meaning to Plato's work with as few assumptions as possible (remember Ockham's razor), which, to me, is the test of any "scientific" approach, whatever the field. This being said, my assumption about the dialogues, restated on a synthetic way, is that the 28 ones which are listed below form a single work arranged in 8 tetralogies, probably written late in the life of Plato (I will not elaborate here on "how late" nor go into the question whether other dialogs attributed to Plato are his, may be as leftovers from early drafts; nor will I try to justify my acceptance of some controversial dialogs like the Alcibiades, or the Hippias minor, because I think that the main justification for it is that they fit in the structure, once you accept it, and you must first look at the scheme as a whole before tearing it apart based on a controversail detail in one corner). So here is the scheme I propose, and that I will try to explain in more details:

  aitia epithumiai
In search of students


The Sophists

illusion of
illusion of
illusion of
true bilief

letter of the
in action
spirit of the
The soul

the driving
principle of
the soul:
behavior of
the soul:
destiny of
the soul:
the words of
logos of the
logos of the
logos of the
the traps of
the limits of
the laws of
the goals of
Man in the
the good of
sorting out

Each tetralogy is made up of an "introductory" dialog (the one in the "aitia" column), and a trilogy (that might explain why both types of grouping are found in the later tradition). The backbone of the scheme is the central tetralogy, "on the soul", whose center is the Republic. And the two main "models" of the Republic, the tripartite scheme for the soul (the "model" of man) and the analogy of the line (the "model" of the whole "world", or "kosmos", both visible and intelligible) serve as principles of organisation for the work: the tripartition of the soul guides the arrangment of dialogs in trilogies, whereas the analogy of the line helps explain the arrangment of the tetralogies on each side of the central one (on the soul), between a prolog (in search of students, or statement of the question) and an epilog (hinting at the answers in "man in the world").

But there are other ways of arranging the tetralogies, that find their counterpart in other dialogs. For instance, the only trilogy that is explicitely presented as such by Plato, the Theaetetus/Sophist/Statesman, can be viewed as a summary of the whole work: the Theaetetus parallels the first five tetralogies, the Sophist is the heart of the sixth one, which it summarizes while the Statesman anticipates the last one, which develops its principles. To see the parallel between the Theaetetus and the first five tetralogies, one has to look at the following plan of the dialog:

I.- Prolog
    (the prolog is itself a summary of the summary:
    a) Prolog of the prolog, with Euclid and Terpsion
    b) The "opinion" of Theodoros about Theaetetus
    c) The "experiment" on Theaetetus
    d) Socrates as a "midwife" of souls
    e) The "logos" that Theaetetus bears is the rest of the dialog)


II.- Science as perception (1/2, with Theaetetus)
      this part is centered on Protagoras' relativism
     Transition: speech on behalf of Protagoras 165e-168c /3
III.- Science as perception (2/2, with Theodoros)
      the "heart" of this part is the so-called "digression" on rhetor and       philosopher (172b-177b) which is also the center of the dialog


      Transition: the soul, location of "doxazein" 184b-187a /3
IV.- Science as true belief
       this section proposes some images of the soul
V.- Science as true belief with "logos"
      the various meanings of "logos"

The prolog is a replay of the first tetralogy, the search for students, played with a physical look-alike of Socrates (Theaetetus, cf. 144d) in front of a namesake of his (young Socrates, cf. 147c), in an athmosphere reminiscent of the supposed motto in front of the Academy: "nobody enters here unless he is a geometer". The discussion with Theaetetus on science as perception gets us back to the Protagoras, which is the introductory dialog to the tetralogy of the sophists. The second part of the discussion of this first definition of science, which takes place with Theodoros, comes after the speech made by Socrates on behalf of Protagoras, which serves as a transition, and has introduced the test of facts, stating that "some perceptions are better than others" (167b). Its center (and the center of the dialog) is a so-called "digression" opposing the portrait of a philosopher and that of a rhetor. But this portrait is not that of the philosopher according to Socrates, but that of the philosopher according to Theodoros ("the one you call philosopher" 175d-e), and according to Socrates' fellow citizens, like Anytus in the Meno, which explains Socrates' condemnation (the trial of Socrates is in the background of this dialog, and explicitely mentionned at the end, 210d). And thus, this part is an apt counterpoint to the third tetralogy, centered itself on Socrates' trial. The second definition, discussed in part IV, brings in the foreground the soul, place of the "doxazein", of wich we search several "images"; the soul, which is at the center of the fourth tetralogy. And the last definition introduces the "logos", and its various meanings, in much the same way the fifth tetralogy is looking at the various forms of "logos". This leads us, for the trilogy as a whole, as well as for the seven tetralogies, to a 5+1+1 scheme that can be summarized as follows:

1. In search of the truth:
    - getting started
    - false answers
    - test of facts
    - role of the soul
    - the "logos"
Perception (1/2)
Perception (2/2)
True belief
True belief+logos

1st tetralogy:
2nd tetralogy:
3rd tetralogy:
4th tetralogy:
5th tetralogy:

the soul
the logos
2. Dialectic: Sophist 6th tetralogy: dialectic
3. Back to the world: Statesman 7th tetralogy: kosmos

But this scheme can also be found in the middle dialogue of the summarizing trilogy, the Sophist, in that it provides, if only in "negative", a scheme for the seven definitions that are given of the sophist:

1. The sophist as "acquirer":
    - hunter of rich young men (looking for "paying" students)
    - travelling merchant (of supposed "food" for the soul; cf. Prot., 313c)
    - retail dealer (whose worth is tested by the number of its customers)
    - manufacturer and salesman (soul producing food for another soul)
    - antilogic eristic ("playing" with "logos")
2. The sophist as "sorter" (critic: here we come closest to the philosopher)
3. The sophist as producer (of "phantasms")

And again, we find an analogous structure in another dialogue, closer to the center of the work, the Symposium, and its seven speeches:

1. Five tentatives speeches on eros
    - Phaedrus: presenting love as the teacher of men (180b)
    - Pausanias: with his sophistic apology of love against nature
    - Eryximachus: the pragmatic physician who can only heal the body, and is seen at work on Aristophanes' hickup
    - Aristophanes: "the one who brings the best to light", according to his name, the "anti-Socrates" (cf. Clouds, and Apology) whose love does not raise the soul, but brings bodies back to "the original phusin" (193d)
    - Agathon: the virtuoso of words for words, with his empty rhetoric
2. The dialectical view on eros in Diotime's speech recounted by Socrates
3. The return to the world, via Alcibiades' speech on Socrates' life.

(to be continued)

Plato and his dialogues : Home - Biography - Works and links to them - History of interpretation - New hypotheses - Map of dialogues : table version or non tabular version. Tools : Index of persons and locations - Detailed and synoptic chronologies - Maps of Ancient Greek World. Site information : About the author.

First published December 8, 1996 ; Last updated November 21, 1998
© 1996 Bernard SUZANNE (click on name to send your comments via e-mail)
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