© 1996 Bernard SUZANNE Last updated October 21st, 2017
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.

E-mail Archives :
How to read Plato

April 4, 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.
Note: I have corrected this mail on October 21st, 2017, seing that it was still frequently accessed, to reflect a change I made on June 6, 2009 to the order of the dialogues in the second tetralogy : at the time I wrote this mail, I thought the order was Protagoras +Hippias major/Gorgias/Hippias minor, but later, I came to the conclusion that the last two dialogues had to be permuted, to arrive to the order Protagoras +Hippias major/Hippias minor/Gorgias

To: Dimitri <Dimit94844@aol.com>
Date : February 8, 1995, 22:15:19
Subject : Re: Plato

...[Personal introductory comments deleted]...

Now to your question. my advice if you want to come to appreciate Plato and understand him would be: forget about the scholars, forget all you were told by your teachers, all you read in your manuals and read Plato himself. You will have ample time then to go back to the litterature on the dialogues!...

My take is that Plato is probably THE greatest philosopher of all times, and the best teacher there is on philosophy, and that the dialogues are intended to be a manual to form, not university teachers of philosophy, but philosophers in the real world, that is, philosopher-kings.

Read the dialogues, all the dialogues, in the order I assume they were intended to be read, that is:

(these are my tetralogies, and I have the weakness to beleive they were Plato's, but that is another story...)

In reading the dialogues, remember the following points:

1) Make the assumption that Plato was a smart guy (A. N. Whitehead once wrote that all western philosophy is but a set of footnotes on Plato's dialogues...) and, if you find some place where there is a dumb way of reading the text and a smart one, assume Plato had the smart one in mind, even if Aristotle tried to make us believe he had the dumb one, especially if that's the case (I think Aristotle could not understand most of what Plato taught him, but thought he had, and that most of what is good in Aristotle is Plato's, often ill digested; but if you haven't heard of Aristotle yet, you are lucky and enjoy your luck as it last, and forget about Aristotle; only be aware that even if you don't know it, Aristotle had a great influence on our way of understanding the world, and contributed to instilling in our mind the wrong notions about Plato, this picture of Plato as an idealist dreaming in a world of "ideas" or "forms" unconnected with the real world).

2) To further elaborate on the previous point: darwinism may be true in science, but it is not in philosophy, at least to a certain point : just because Aristotle was later than Plato does not mean that he was smarter! In philosophy, man has been struggling with the same problems for centuries, without making much progress toward the ultimate answers to ultimate questions... And I think that Plato was closer to the answers than most philosophers of our time, let alone those of earlier times.

3) Read the dialogues with the idea that they are all related to one another as parts of a coherent whole, and that the earlier ones pave the way for the later ones. Just because Plato doesn't give an answer does not mean he does not have one. Plato knew all too well that it is useless to give somebody an answer to a problem that is not that person's problem. No answer is an answer if it does not come from within yourself. So the problem is not to give all the answers (as would do Aristotle later on), but to lead the student toward the right questions, and then, but only then, toward the right answers. But even at that point, the answers must be yours, and Plato will not give them to you himself. How can you search for something if you think you know? All of Socrates work was to move people from the position of someone who does not know but think he knows to that of someone who knows that he doesn't know.

4) The so-called "aporetic", or "Socratic" dialogues of the first tetralogies, are not just questions for the sake of questions (what is courage? what is piety? what is philia? etc...) but they are "constructive" in some sense, because knowing what a thing is not, what the wrong answers are, is the first step toward knowing what it may be (for centuries, the Roman Catholic church didn't do otherwise to "define" its dogmas: it only pronounced "anathemæ" in councils, that is condemnation of errors, in other words what you could not hold true and stay a catholic; some people think it was a mistake, but if you think about it, you will come to realize that, with ultimate truths, that are beyond our rational grasping, it may be the only way to proceed). A good example of this is the first part of the Parmenides: Socrates and Parmenides discuss several ways of understanding the famous platonic "forms", and reject them one after another. And yet, in the end, they both agree that not believing in "forms" is even worst than rejecting them just because we can't figure out in a "materialistic" way what they are!

5) Remember that there are things which are beyond words and can't be expressed satisfactorily with them, but can only be approached by "images", analogies, and that Plato was perfectly aware of this. Getting rid of the false beliefs, and building the picture one touch at a time with both logos and muthos was his way of working. So, in reading the dialogues, you must go beyond the litterality of words and let the "ideas" behind them work within you. Be patient, this takes time...

6) Never forget that Plato is not philosophysing for the sake of it, but to prepare men and women to use their logos, their reason, to bring more law and order in the world, more kosmos (this is the Greek word for "order"), through "political" action, to work towards making more people happier in their lives in the true sense of happiness, which is not obvious to all, and assumes we know what we are on earth for, that is, what it is to be a man. And, in order to do that, man must answer all these questions and other: what is logos and what are its limits, what is speech, what is eros, what is pleasure, is man only a limited material creature or does he have a "soul"? And if so, what is this soul? And so on... But these are only steps toward the goal of becoming what we are meant to be.

... But enough for today! I tell you to forget about what has been said about the dialogues and to read them, and I write pages on the dialogues!... So, may be you should also forget about all you just read. Even the order of reading I suggest to you is but the translation of my interpretation of the dialogues...

So read, read and read again the dialogues, take your time, and see what happens...

...[Final personal comments deleted]...

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 October 21st, 2017
© 1996 Bernard SUZANNE (click on name to send your comments via e-mail)
Quotations from theses pages are authorized provided they mention the author's name and source of quotation (including date of last update). Copies of these pages must not alter the text and must leave this copyright mention visible in full.