BOOK REVIEW: Meno by Plato

MenoMeno by Plato
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

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Online: MIT Classics

The central question of this dialogue is the teachability of virtue. The dialogue called Protagoras also delved into this question. Lest one think there’s no benefit to be had from reading a second take on the subject, the ultimate answer in this dialogue is the opposite of that seen in “Protagoras.” Socrates agreed with Protagoras that virtue was teachable. However, here Socrates concludes that it isn’t, citing the fact that there are no viable teachers of virtue (ever the anti-Sophist,) and yet there are people who consistently behave virtuously.

[If one wonders how two of Plato’s Socratic dialogues could feature completely different answers on the same question, the mid- and late dialogues are often thought to reflect Plato’s personal views more than his teacher’s. “Protagoras” is an early dialogue, while “Meno” is a middle dialogue. (It’s also possible they weren’t written by the same author as a number of dialogues attributed to Plato are in doubt.)]

I don’t find Socrates’s arguments on the subject at hand compelling. Socrates proposes that there are certain concepts that come pre-loaded into humans. He questions one of Meno’s slaves on geometry to show that the slave seems to have a grasp of geometry without having ever been taught. Ultimately, Socrates concludes that a grasp of virtue is divinely installed in many people.

Still, there’s lots of beneficial food-for-thought, particularly when Socrates differentiates knowledge and true beliefs / right opinions.

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BOOK REVIEW: Gorgias by Plato

GorgiasGorgias by Plato
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

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This Socratic dialogue explores what rhetoric is, and whether rhetorician is a real job, like plumber or secretary, or whether it’s more like “bottled water sommelier” or “social media influencer” – i.e. an undertaking by which one can make loads of money without contributing society one iota. It starts out (as usual) with Socrates questioning someone, in this case the rhetorician Gorgias. This exchange can be summed up by the ideas that: 1.) rhetoric is persuasion; 2.) the ignorant are more persuasive to the ignorant than are those with knowledge. [Gorgias boasts that he has been able to convince patients to take actions that their physicians couldn’t. Because Gorgias had to admit he didn’t know as much about facilitating health as a physician, he was forced to agree to the sad absurdity that people will often comply with slick talkers who know nothing (a plight which may prove to be the downfall of our species.)] There’s a fine epistemological discussion of the difference between belief and knowledge that is used by Socrates to show that rhetoricians aren’t concerned with knowledge so much as beliefs.

Then Polus and Callicles (young rhetoricians) take up the questioning role, turning the tables and asking Socrates what is the art of rhetoric. [And we know they’re not going to like the answer.] Socrates denies rhetoric is an art, and calls it the counterfeit part of politics. Socrates compares rhetoric to cookery, where cooks pretend to be experts in what food should be eaten but, while people often love the cook’s meals, it’s the physician who actually knows what food is best. Socrates doesn’t consider rhetoric an art because it isn’t rooted in knowledge or virtue, but rather in momentary preferences. Much of the argument hinges on the fact that the young men believe it is worse to suffer injustice than to do injustice and that being able to exert control (be it for good or ill) equates to power and happiness. Socrates accepts neither premise, and systematically refutes both. Callicles’ tack is along lines of natural justice — the strongest do as they please and pursuit of pleasure is noble. [The truth is that while Socrates may have the more sound and supportable position, the rhetoricians describe the way the world operates more accurately.]

This is a sharp and insightful dialogue, and given its surprising relevance to the present day, I’d highly recommend reading it.

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BOOK REVIEW: Alcibiades I & II by Plato

Alcibiades I and IIAlcibiades I and II by Plato
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

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While these two dialogues feature Socrates questioning Alcibiades (a youth – apropos of nothing – for whom the philosopher has the hots,) they’re different. While it’s not certain that either was written by Plato, it’s much more widely accepted that the first dialogue was so authored. I found the first part to be the more engaging read.

In Part I, Socrates urges Alcibiades to put off going into politics (as the young man is about to do) until he’s more enlightened on the subject at hand – i.e. justice, expediency, and virtue as it pertains to matters of war and peace. In the second part, Socrates convinces Alcibiades that the subject of prayers should not be taken lightly, leading the young man to delay his sacrifice and prayer to a time he can be wiser about it.

The first part is more piquant. In it, Alcibiades on occasion seems to be holding his own (rather than being a talking head.) A great example of this can be seen after Socrates makes clear that Alcibiades’ education in language, the lyre, and wrestling hardly qualify him to advise Athens on matters of war and peace. Alcibiades turns the tables and asks whether it isn’t possible that he could attain the requisite knowledge of justice other than through formal education. Socrates admits that he could by discovery, but just when Alcibiades thinks he has the point, Socrates argues that the only way Alcibiades could make a discovery was if there was a time that the youth didn’t think he already knew. Socrates goes on to show that – even as a child – Alcibiades labored under the impression that he knew what was just.

The most interesting topic of the second dialogue is the question of whether lack of wisdom and madness are the same thing. In Phaedrus, Socrates explores several varieties of divine madness, and I wondered how closely this dialogue might echo that one. (It doesn’t because it’s more about madness that’s not so divine, but Socrates does refute Alcibiades’ equation of the two concepts.)

Definitely read First Alcibiades, and if you have time, the second one makes some intriguing points as well.

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BOOK REVIEW: Hipparchus by Plato

HipparchusHipparchus by Plato
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

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In this Socratic dialogue about “lovers of gain,” Socrates and an unnamed friend debate whether pursuing gains can be wicked. Usually, the title of a dialogue is the name of Socrates’ philosophical sparring partner, but, herein, Hipparchus is a historical figure who Socrates cites as the reason he wouldn’t hornswoggle his friend, quoting “Walk with just intent” and “Deceive not a friend” as credos that he, Socrates, lives by.

The friend tries a number of approaches to argue the loathsomeness of lovers of gain. Recognizing the starting premise will be that a gain is a good, the friend argues that such people (presumably greedy / materialistic types) purse valueless gains. Socrates attacks that as an oxymoron. Next, the friend argues that lovers of gain seek gains that no honorable man would pursue. Again, Socrates argues that a gain is a good and all humans seek good. Since the friend doesn’t want to call the lovers of gain fools (i.e. unable to recognize a gain when they see it,) the friend is stuck. The third approach is to argue that a wicked gain could be considered a loss. This is also swiftly rebutted. The last tack is to argue that some gains are good, while some are evil, which runs afoul of the same argument.

This isn’t one of the best dialogues – in fact, many question whether it was written by Plato. That said, it brings up a few ideas that are worthy of consideration. It felt very much like a conversation I once heard in which a young woman argued, “No one should have that much more than they need.” Which drew the response, “You realize that 90% of the world would say you have tons more than you need?” Which resulted in the instigator walking off in a huff. If you want to engage in debates about the virtue (or vice) of wealth acquisition, this might be a good place to begin your reflection.

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BOOK REVIEW: Lovers by Plato

LoversLovers by Plato
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

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Alternately titled “Rival Lovers,” “The Lovers,” or, simply, “Lovers,” this is one of the Socratic dialogues whose authorship by Plato is in doubt. While it follows the general approach of Plato’s dialogues, it does present a few anomalies, and so some experts include it while others do not.

In the dialogue, Socrates questions two youths, one athlete and one scholar, on the nature of philosophy, whether it is honorable, good, useful, and of what its study should optimally consist. The dialogue opens with Socrates questioning the athlete about what two other young men are discussing, when the athlete suggests that it’s just navel-gazing, Socrates asks the athlete whether he believes philosophizing to be a shameful endeavor. He does, and Socrates ends up spending most of his time questioning the scholar, who has a more flattering view of philosophy.

The scholar proposes that philosophy is learning, and that the philosopher should learn about all subjects – being the intellectual equivalent of the all-around athlete from athletics. Socrates challenges this by suggesting that the philosopher cannot be both useful and a generalist as the scholar claims because then the philosopher will always be of secondary value to the expert. Socrates seems to be setting up that there must be some expertise of philosophy about which the philosopher would be the first-tier expert. In other words, if philosophy is a worthwhile endeavor, there must be some reason that people would seek out a philosopher, rather than someone else. The dialogue ends abruptly, and does not engage in this question. (The ending is one of the reasons why authorship is in question, but it’s not the only Socratic dialogue to set out food-for-thought and leave it on the plate.)

Despite the unclear authorship, I found this dialogue to be worth a read.

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BOOK REVIEW: Charmides by Plato

CharmidesCharmides by Plato
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

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Temperance is the subject of this Socratic dialogue, debated with Charmides and Critias. The opening may feel a bit icky as it’s essentially a few old men obsessing over beautiful youths (of which Charmides is one) in a way that may not explicitly be lecherous, but kind of feels that way. However, they soon get into systematic reflections of the nature of temperance. Charmides is said to have this quality in droves, but, of course, that begs the question of just what it is.

It’s worth noting, they aren’t using “temperance” in the way the English word is typically defined, i.e. the quality of knowing to what degree one should participate in varied activities, if at all. At least, they don’t get to that definition within the dialogue, but – in point of fact – they don’t arrive at any definition. However, they seem to equate “temperance” with “wisdom.” They do try out a series of alternate definitions, which Socrates systematically disassembles, including: temperance as quietness, as modesty, as “doing one’s own business,” as a science of itself and of the absence of science, and as the science of recognizing good and evil. The first couple of these are summarily dismissed, the latter ones take more effort and elaboration to tease out, but ultimately don’t produce a definition that’s both agreeable and useful.

In the process there is a discussion of epistemology as it pertains to what one can know, and whether one can have any clear understanding of one’s “known unknowns” and how they compare to the “unknown unknowns.” The relevance is rooted in a discussion of whether temperance is the ability to know what one knows and what one doesn’t.

This isn’t one of the best Socratic dialogues, but it does provide food for thought.

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BOOK REVIEW: Euthydemus by Plato

EuthydemusEuthydemus by Plato
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

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In this Socratic dialogue, Socrates is pitted against two brothers, Euthydemus and Dionysodorus, who are Pankrationists turned Sophist. [Pankration is an ancient Greek martial art, but Socrates is verbally sparring with the men in their role as roving philosophy teachers and not as wrestlers.] We don’t hear the interaction firsthand, but rather as Socrates describes events to his friend Crito after the fact.

Socrates seeks to get the two sophists to answer his favorite question, whether virtue is a form of knowledge and can be taught. The brothers take a tag-team approach against a youth named Cleinias to “teach.” Soon, Socrates attempts to reign in the conversation, which has devolved into nonsense because the brothers use a go-to approach that involves logical fallacies that turn on false dichotomies, semantic manipulation, and the imposition of all-or-none conditions on propositions that aren’t all-or-none.

This moves to the brothers proposing that the crowd wants Cleinias to perish because they seek to make him become something he isn’t (i.e. wise.) This brings Ctessippus angrily into the debate (he is fond of Cleinias and sharp-witted, but more emotionally ruled than Socrates.) While a Buddhist would destroy the brothers’ fallacious reasoning with ease, it takes a second for Socrates to undermine the argument by pointing out that if that version of Cleinias perished only to be seamlessly replaced by a new and improved version, it would – indeed – be a great thing.

The rest of the dialogue is the brothers using faulty logic to “prove” such things as that a person knows nothing or everything, and side-stepping questions about why individuals who already know everything would benefit from paying a Sophist. I’d call this a better than average dialogue, well worth reading.

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BOOK REVIEW: Protagoras by Plato

Protagoras AnnotatedProtagoras Annotated by Aristocles Plato
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

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Hippocrates woke Socrates to announce that the famous sophist, Protagoras, is in town. Hippocrates hopes Socrates will make introductions and recommend him as a student to the sophist. The two head off to meet with Protagoras who is at the home of a wealthy Athenian, along with an assembly of wisdom-seekers. Along the way, Socrates questions Hippocrates as to whether the young man actually knows what a sophist is and what such a person teaches. (i.e. A painter would teach one to paint, but what does one get for one’s money paid to a Sophist?)

This is one of the more popular early Socratic dialogues of Plato, perhaps because it’s not so one-sided as many others — Protagoras holds his own more than most. In fact, when the discussion begins with the question of whether virtue is teachable, Socrates comes away convinced by Protagoras’ arguments that it is. (Though it’s also possible Socrates is just agreeable to fast-forward to the question that he’s interested in – i.e. the nature of virtue.) Protagoras offers a mythology-based explanation for the teachability of virtue and then preempts counterarguments such as good parents raising despicable children (and vice versa) via reasoning.

However, then Socrates takes the debate to his wheelhouse – the questions of what virtue is, is it one thing or many, and – if many – can one be both virtuous and non-virtuous through a mix of different traits? Protagoras says that there are distinct parts to virtue (e.g. courage, temperance, wisdom, etc.) Socrates then inquires about the nature of these parts. Are they parts like the various parts of the face (i.e. distinct of both form and function?) Or are they like a series of gold pieces (different in size and shape, but materially identical?) Protagoras claims they are more like the former (i.e. parts of the face / substantially different.) Socrates uses this to work Protagoras into a corner, seemingly advocating that each of the aspects of virtue is substantially distinct, but also that they can be so intermingled as to be indistinct.

For some reason, Protagoras doesn’t challenge the false dichotomization on which Socrates’ arguments are based. (Consider the distinction between the nose and the mouth. If the question is about getting food into the body, these are completely different. If the question is getting air in and out, they are veritable twins.) It’s possible that Protagoras doesn’t challenge these false dichotomies because he has an interest in maintaining them for his own purposes, but by that point it’s also possible that he is just seeing red. Protagoras gets miffed, and even more so when Socrates tries to insist that the sophist give up the mode of argument with which Protagoras is most persuasive (i.e. stories and extended / elaborate explanations.) Socrates wants to keep his sparring in the kind of fast-paced Q&A slug-fest at which Socrates excels. The dialogue ends with Protagoras questioning Socrates, an endeavor for which Socrates seems to score a point (though the abrupt cut leaves some ambiguity – like the spinning top at the end of “Inception”)

This is definitely a must-read among early Socratic dialogues.

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BOOK REVIEW: Introducing Plato: A Graphic Guide by Dave Robinson

Introducing Plato: A Graphic Guide (Introducing...)Introducing Plato: A Graphic Guide by Dave Robinson
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

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This is a concise guide to the philosophy of Plato. Its numerous short (page-length) sections are logically arranged: beginning with background context – e.g. life in ancient Athens and the ways of Plato’s teacher, Socrates — and ending with discussion of the post-Platonic world of Aristotle and later philosophers influenced by Plato’s work. Through the heart of this book, it explores the various dimensions of Plato’s philosophy: his epistemology, his take on virtue ethics, his political philosophy, his form-based conception of metaphysics, his thoughts on rhetoric, and his surprising rejection of art and poetry. Along the way, the book discusses about ten of the Socratic dialogues, specifically (others are mentioned in passing as they relate to topics under consideration,) as well as many of the well-known ideas that came from these works (e.g. Plato’s Cave from “Republic.”)

The book uses graphics to help convey ideas, mostly drawings that emphasize key points. There is also a “Further Reading” that lists some works that elaborate on Plato’s philosophy and life from various perspectives, as well as listing a number of the Socratic dialogues and whether they fall into the early, middle, or late phases of Plato’s career. (Note: There isn’t complete agreement on how many Socratic Dialogues were written by Plato – 35 is a disputed number, but one often cited. The importance of the period is that Plato appears to increasingly present his own ideas, rather than those of Socrates, who continues to serve as the central character in Plato’s writings.)

This book is highly readable, but skims the surface. Whether it will serve one’s purpose depends upon what one knows about Plato and his canon to begin with. I would recommend it for a neophyte who doesn’t want to get bogged down in a lot of obscure ideas or complex explanations.

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BOOK REVIEW: Menexenus by Plato

MenexenusMenexenus by Plato
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

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“Menexenus” is unique among the Socratic dialogues in that there is very little dialogue and a great deal of speech. (“Phaedrus” has a couple of short speeches in it, but they inform the philosophical discussion.) “Menexenus” does begin and end with a dialogue between Menexenus and Socrates. In the opening niceties, Menexenus reveals that there has been a disruption in finding someone to make a funeral speech. Socrates replies that it shouldn’t be hard, anyone – even he – could deliver such a speech. While Socrates usually takes care to display humility, one must remember that he tends to be unimpressed with rhetoricians who use pretty words to be convincing without having philosophical understanding to withstand close scrutiny or questioning.

Socrates says that he has been taught by Aspasia, and learned a speech from her that would easily do the job. Menexenus insists upon hearing it. Socrates is reluctant because he has not been granted permission from Aspasia to deliver her speech, but – ultimately – he agrees to deliver the speech – just between the two of them. The speech proposes that the virtue of those who passed in service of the state is only as great as the state that they served, and thus jingoistic praise of Athens’ fine qualities is unleased. There is also discussion of the importance of moderation and composure.

The end dialogue involves Menexenus praising the speech, and [with more than a little misogyny] especially in light of its composition by a woman. I didn’t find this as beneficial a read as most of the Socratic dialogues. It doesn’t provide the same kind of food for thought, but is more a lesson in how to build a rousing funeral oration. That said, there is something to be learned about rhetoric.

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