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: 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: 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: 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: 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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BOOK REVIEW: Hippias Major [a.k.a. Greater Hippias] by Plato

Hippias MajorHippias Major by Plato
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

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Socrates questions the arrogant sophist, Hippias, about the nature of beauty. The dialogue begins, as do most, with a meeting and pleasantries. This involves Socrates’ seemingly sarcastic praise of Hippias (we’re given no indication that Hippias sees the sarcasm, but – given the degree to which the sophist is in love with himself – that’s no surprise.) It’s possible Socrates is being sincere, but given the views attributed to him elsewhere, it seems uncharacteristic that Socrates should truly think Hippias wise because the sophist rakes in cash for making eloquent speeches.

The dialogue plays out with Hippias offering a range of unacceptable “definitions” of beauty. Hippias first presents a set of examples of things which are beautiful. This, of course, is unacceptable because if there is some common property of these varied entities, Socrates believes that property should be definable such that a person could see how the trait applies to other things. There are a series of other false starts involving goldenness, goodness, usefulness, popular agreement about what is beautiful, and a combination or two of the aforementioned.

Finally, Socrates suggests a definition of that which is pleasing to the eyes or to the ears. The discussion peters out after this definition is shown to be incomplete because pleasantness to eyes and to ears still begs the need of a common characteristic, as well as the fact that there are many concepts that are called beautiful that aren’t sensory experiences at all (e.g. a beautiful idea.)

This dialogue is more satisfying than Lesser Hippias, but is by no means one of the best. However, it does encourage thought about beauty, as well as about how both members of a set can have a characteristic that each does not have individually. If you’re interested in aesthetics, check it out.

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BOOK REVIEW: Laches by Plato

LachesLaches by Plato
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

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Project Gutenberg

This early Socratic dialogue asks, “what is courage?” Two older gentlemen, Lysimachus and Melesias, regret that they never had their mettle tested. The seniors ask two younger men who’ve served in battle, Nicias and Laches, whether the elder men should have their sons learn the art of fighting in armor to build courage in the young men. Nicias and Laches suggest that Socrates, who showed great valor in battle, should be asked the question.

Lysimachus believes this to be a good idea because then they have a tie-breaker if the two disagree. However, Socrates leads Lysimachus to understand the folly of this approach. What if the dissenter is the only one who truly knows what courage is and how it can be pursued? Socrates admits he has no great expertise in the matter, but is willing to help determine whether Nicias or Laches is more qualified to answer the question.

Laches goes first and defines courageousness as standing one’s ground in battle. However, under Socrates’ interrogation, Laches has to admit that a man who stays in place foolishly can’t be thought more courageous than one who fights in strategic retreat.

Nicias presents a definition that is more nuanced. Nicias says that courage is knowledge of what is fearful and what is hopeful. One might expect this to please Socrates because the philosopher famously believed that ethical behavior sprang from knowing – i.e. if a man knew what was right, he would act virtuously. However, as Socrates questions Nicias a couple issues become apparent. First, Nicias admits that the courageous person must know what is fearful and hopeful in the future as well as present (and who knows that?) Second, Nicias can’t really differentiate courage from virtue as a whole.

This brief dialogue is short, focused, and well worth reading.

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BOOK REVIEW: Ion by Plato

IonIon by Plato
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

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In this early Socratic dialogue, Socrates converses with a Homeric rhapsodist (i.e. performer of Homer’s stories) who shares the dialogue’s name, i.e. Ion. Socrates leads Ion to the conclusion that the rhapsodist is really a conduit of divine inspiration – as opposed to being an artist. To a large extent Socrates achieves this by showing (somewhat brutally) that there are experts infinitely more competent to comment on Homer’s epic poems that is Ion. For the most part, Ion accepts that expert artists would be more qualified to comment on the correctness of Homer’s words than is he – e.g. an expert on horsemanship would be more qualified to comment on the parts which reference horses. [The only point at which Ion offers a challenge is with respect to military general, where he believes himself equally competent to discuss military campaigns as would be a commander. (Though Socrates tries to disabuse him of this notion.)]

And despite this, no one would argue that Ion offers a special value that those various artists and experts cannot, a unique connection to Homer’s works. For Socrates that value lies in inspiration. The poet, too, Socrates argues isn’t so much a crafter of verse as one capable of receiving inspiration. The rhapsodist allows the intense emotional experience to transfer from the muse / poet intersect onward to the audience member. In less mystic terms, Socrates is trying to make sense of the artistic process and its largely unconscious process and its focus on the experience of emotional resonance, rather than on rational thought. One can see a bit of overlap with a later dialogue, Phaedrus, which discusses divine madness and its virtues.

This short and to-the-point Socratic dialogue is worth reading, even if does come down in needlessly otherworldly territory.

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BOOK REVIEW: Euthyphro by Plato

EuthyphroEuthyphro by Plato
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

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This is one of the early Socratic dialogues of Plato. I mention that because the early dialogues are believed to more truly reflect the ideas of Socrates (whereas the mid to late dialogues include many more of Plato’s ideas – just using Socrates as a mouthpiece / pedagogic medium.) It’s notable as one of the dialogues that happens around the trial of Socrates, and, while not as famous as “The Republic” or “Symposium,” it’s among the more well-known and accepted of Plato’s 35 Socratic dialogues.

Socrates meets Euthyphro on the courthouse grounds. Socrates is waiting to be tried; Euthyphro is bringing suit against his own father. Thus begins a conversation on piety and impiety. Euthyphro counts himself an expert in the subject and is utterly confident in his charge of murder — despite confounding issues: (i.e. it’s more death by negligence than outright murder and there is the question of dishonoring one’s own father.) Being on trial (in part) for impiety, Socrates is eager to learn what he can from Euthyphro.

Using his eponymous method, Socrates boxes Euthyphro into a corner from which the self-declared master can no longer defend his iron-clad confidence in his own piety. [The Socratic method employs questions to uncover ignorance and logical inconsistencies.] After answering that something is holy because it’s loved by the gods, Euthyphro is queried about whether the gods are a unitary actor (i.e. do they all love the same things?) The dialogue ends with Euthyphro high-tailing it, unable to work his way out of the philosophical trap into which he has fallen.

All of the Socratic dialogues around the trial of Socrates are worth reading. The translations are readable, and offer great insight into – at least what Plato interpreted as – Socrates’ process.

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