Reflections on Plato’s Dialogues

Before jumping into my reflections, I suppose I should lay out their purpose. As I study philosophy in pursuit of a greater understanding of my existence, I cannot expect myself to retain every piece of information from every single work that I read (or at least, not at this basic level of study). So I write these reflections in the hope that I may at least retain some part of each philosophical treatise or doctrine which I come into contact with along my journey. Not only that, but I also wish to take this time to engage with some of the more striking features of the text, as well as see how my engagement develops over the course of my study.

A far less confounding start to my reading than The Myth of Sisyphus, the dialogues of Plato lay the groundwork of philosophical inquiry, delving into not just the material objects which surround humankind, but the abstract principles which our interpretations find their basis in. The works included in this short response are an incomplete selection of Plato’s work, perhaps most noticeably lacking his Republic, but I felt I had more than enough to engage with before delving into those other pieces at a later date.

Before diving in, I read Matthew Bianco’s article on how to digest the dialogues, a brilliantly crafted piece which summarizes his view in this way: “approach the work as an example of how to think rather than as a communiqué of what to think.” I have seen nothing pertaining to them which is more true than this. Though the degree to which Socrates and Plato differ is open to much controversy, the chief claim which is made of the former is that he brought unyielding inquiry and skepticism to the Greek world. When the Oracle of Delphi proclaims him the wisest person alive, as Socrates recounts during his trial in the ironically named Apology, it does not do so on the basis of his unparalleled knowledge, but rather because he, unlike the many imposters of his time, knows that he knows nothing. It is this self-awareness, this humbleness (which, I would argue, he uses as a means of undercutting himself) that is at the center of the philosophy of Socrates. What is justice? What is beauty? What is love? These are only a minute piece of the vast set of inquiries he brings into question. And in every instance of doing so, he demonstrates the foolishness of people in their own proud surety in the possessions and principles which drive them. In that sense, one could call him the first real teacher of philosophy. While it is true that long before Socrates the Sophists made a reputation (and a profit) by spreading their “wisdom,” it was he who, through constant inquiry (elenchus, as his method is known in Greek), set humankind on the path to truth, dispelling the unreasoned assumptions which colored the human perspective during his time.

Ultimately, this proves to be Socrates’ undoing (though he wouldn’t see it that way), leading to his trial, imprisonment, and sentence to death. Yet, despite being given a slew of opportunities to renounce his questioning ways and cease pestering the proud political class by uncovering the contradictions within their reasoning, he refuses to do so. He seems to believe that the exercise of elenchus is his purpose for living, that he is a servant of the gods and they have commanded him to say and do as he does. It is by this same demand which he stands before the court of Athens arguing not for mercy, but for a reward for the services he has commended upon his society. Nor, when he is sentenced to death, does Socrates seek to escape Athens or reduce his penalty, holding that the law, which one must abide by if they choose to live in the city, must be followed without exception. Despite his own acknowledgment that his condition is unjust, he takes a proto-Kantian view that abandoning his contract with Athens would be no less unethical and follows through with his sentence on principle regardless of its consequence.

But now we are getting into the more explicitly present theories which, to my knowledge, has generally been attributed to Plato himself rather than Socrates. Plato holds to moral objectivism and absolutism (though moral relativist theory as we know it didn’t exist during this period as a contrast), arguing that some greater, abstract form of certain principles allows us to perceive their worldly embodiments (a subject we will return to in a moment). Where Socrates’ (and/or Plato’s) moral objectivism differs from that of his contemporaries, however, is that he actually questions the nature of these principles and whether those who claim to act in accordance with them are truly doing so. This is what makes him such a radical figure: by seeking to define the values which Athenian society bases itself around, Socrates exposes its weak foundations. The political class floats terms like “justice” and “freedom” without having a concrete conception of them. Hegel makes an interesting point that in this regard, Socrates is indeed guilty of “corrupting the youth of Athens” in a sense, as his upheaval of shaky traditional perspectives perpetuated by the courts of Athens drives these developing minds to intellectually revolt against the ambiguous values of their fathers and forefathers (though certainly not unjustifiably).

An aspect of the Dialogues which is almost certainly an invention of Plato’s is his Theory of Forms (or Ideas). This perspective posits that there is some inaccessible realm of existence where perfect abstract forms of every concept exist, a world of ideas. This immaterial world encompasses all phenomena and every aspect of human existence. We as humans perceive certain forms of these ideas with our senses, yet we can’t access the full abstract idea which makes a thing what it is. For example, I may draw a square. What I’m perceiving in front of me is an attempt to display the abstract idea of a square, a quadrilateral shape with sides of equal length and interior angles of exactly 90 degrees. Yet what I see in front of me is only an imperfect form of that abstract square. My angles aren’t exactly 90°. They may be 89.99999999999°, but no matter how meticulously I measure it, I can’t make it perfectly 90°. Yet I can still conceptualize that abstract idea which my square is a form of. I can effectively see inferior forms of ideas, but not the actual ideas themselves.

We could take an absolute virtue as another example. Euthyphro gives an excellent account of a son trying his own father for murdering a servant under the justification that he is enacting justice. Yet Socrates (as Socrates always does) dismantles his definition of what justice is, showing that the action which he is undertaking is only an imperfect attempt to embody the abstract concept of “justice” which the human mind is incapable of actually grasping.

The philosopher’s goal, in Plato’s view, is the pursuit of knowledge, and knowledge is recollection. The human senses are flawed, restricting people (the soul) from perceiving the true forms of things, only their worldly inferiors. Yet the soul does have a concept of these ideas, it does inherently know what they are. Its memory is simply clouded by the incompleteness of the senses. Knowledge, to Plato, is not something new that is developed, but rather a recollection of some long lost memory from the world of forms, drawing the mind ever closer to absolute truth independent of the senses.

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