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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Project Gutenberg

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: 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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