© 1996 Bernard SUZANNE Last updated November 21, 1998
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How to read Plato ?

February 9, 1997

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.

This post was sent at the beginning of a "slow reading" of the Republic as part of a discussion on the role of history and the reconstruction of "motives" of fictional characters (fictional in the sense that, even if they are historical characters, they are put by Plato in fictional situations) in the reading of the dialogues, in this case, the Republic.

To: plato-republic <plato-republic@freelance.com>
Date : February 09, 1997, 11:21:21
Subject: What are we looking for?

If we want our reading of the Republic to be fruitful, I think we should first figure out what Plato intended in writing this book. I don't mean what was his specific intent, such as defining justice or the ideal city or the like, but what kind of book was he writing.

There are many reason why one might write, and all writings shouldn't be read the same way.

One can write to entertain, and then the story is foremost, though, in many cases, not all details are important, and some writers have been known to "fill in" pages to stuff their works (for instance when they were paid by the page, as was the case of Balzac at some point in time in his life). Sure, if the story is a whodunit mystery, you may want to be careful to details if you plan to try and solve the mystery before the author gives you the final answer! But I don't think Plato was writing to entertain, at least not only, and not primarily, for that purpose, even if he wanted some of his dialogues to be also entertaining. And he was no Conan Doyle, and Socrates no Sherlock Holmes, even though a case may be made that he was looking for a man (as was Diogenes, but in a different way), and Plato was, among other things, looking for the culprit(s) in Socrates' death!

One can write "history", in which he tries to report as best he can what actually happened to real persons in the past and/or how actual events took place, in order to let future generations know the past. In such case, accuracy is foremost, and the reader may be interested in making sure he gets the sequence of events right in order to understand what happened and why. I don't think that was Plato's intent in writing his dialogues was to write history, at least in this sense, that is, to compete with Herodotus or Thucydides or Xenophon, even as regards Socrates actual life, though it is obvious that he cared for history and used it as background to his works, so that we can learn about history in his dialogues, as well as better understand them by putting them in the context of what whe have learned elsewhere about history of his time (this is not to say, as Kent Palmer would put it, that his dialogues are "anhistorical", but only that they are "transhistorical" or "metahistorical", put it as you'd like, that is, that they transcend history, using it as a "springboard" to reach to a deeper meaning that is valid in other times and other places).

One can write to tell the world about discoveries he has made, theories or systems he has developped, in "dogmatic" treatises. In such cases, the writer would not "waste" his time and the reader's in byways, settings and staging, but should try to be as precise and as understandable as possible, leading the reader as rigorously as he can through the logical steps of his reasoning and avoiding everything that might distract him from the path he is following. Obviously, this is not what Plato set to do, even if he had strong feelings about the meaning of life that he wanted to share with us. But all the dialogues are witnesses to the fact that he didn't want to talk in his own name, and didn't want to give us his answers, and not even Socrates' as he understood them, in dogmatic treatises of the kind Aristotle would write.

Does that mean that he didn't have a purpose in writing? Obviously not! We all know he was a teacher, and the founder of one of the most successful school ever. So, we should safely assume that he was writing as a teacher, fully aware of the limitations of writing (see all the end of the Phaedrus and what he says in the VIIth letter), but trying as best he could to overcome them. All we can see and read from him shows, in my opinion, that he wanted his writings to be as close as possible to real life dialogues, in which several people search together answers to vital questions, by throwing their own selves, their own beliefs, their deepest concerns, in the discussion, ready to correct them if they were proven wrong.

So, the most important part of each dialogue is not the dialogue between the characters in the text, but the dialogue between the reader and the text, and, in the kind of exercice we are trying to do on this list, between the various readers through the text. And, if we don't bring in this discussion our deepest feelings, if, yes, we don't bring in our own interpretation and understanding of what we read, we are missing the point! If we think some truth might come by itself out of the written words if we are careful enough in reading them, we believe in magic and don't realize yet what Plato tell us in the Phaedrus, that written words are dead!...

Does that mean that we can drag the written words as please us to make them say whatever pleases us? Obviously not! It is my conviction that Plato was most careful in composing his dialogues down to the minutest details, in order to lead us in a direction he thought was the right one. To lead us, not to carry us! In order to follow him, we have to walk along, to think along with him, to be active and involved, not passive like a bottle being filled. And to walk without falling or hitting a tree, you have to look ahead, not behind or at your feet, you have to try and figure out where you are heading, not to look at the ground beneath your feet with a microscope!...

We should not fool ourselves: some of us, if not most of us, have already read the whole of the Republic, maybe even several times. Sure, before making assumptions, we should read the words at least once. But if we think this list is the right way of doing such a "first reading", I think we are mistaken. This first reading of the whole work to get a flavor of what's going on is the homework we should do by ourselves before we start what I take the slow reading we are talking about should be. In other words, the first reading should not be a slow reading, but a kind of skimming through the text before we get back to the beginning to start a slow second reading in which we can all start throwing in the discussion our own understanding of what we read.

The text of the introduction itself will never tell us, no matter how hard we try, whether Socrates was "coerced" by Polemarchus or not. If I am right in saying that Plato wanted us to work on his text, he must have been careful in selecting his words and setting so that they are open to multiple interpretations. It is the essence of irony that it depends on the listener or reader to see irony or not! So, we will never prove that this or that section is ironic, and we must be careful not to use irony as the ultimate trick to explain away what bothers us! It is only by making assumptions about the purpose of the whole dialogue and the consistency between setting and purpose that we may eventually decide if it makes better sense to assume that Socrates was coerced to Cephalus' home or went there freely, whether Polemarchus was serious in menacing to use force or was only joking, not the other way around. Let it be said for the time being that the text is open to both interpretations (and maybe more), and proceed to see what comes next.

Rather than putting blinders in front of our eyes in the name of some illusory "objectivity", let us all on the contrary start to get personnaly involved in the text, not in trying to paraphrase it and supply what we think is missing to make a nice novel, but in putting in the balance our own understanding of what the text challenges in our own lives and beliefs. Let us dialogue on the dialogue with our own hearts and thoughts. Let us risk being ridiculed or contradicted, or forced ("coerced"?!..) to change our way of thinking, hopefully for the better. This is what Plato wrote for, as I understand it... We are not there to find the truth of a text, but to build a (wo)man in each one of us. The text is only there to help, and, if we don't see that, it's no use reading it anyway...

(The end of this post was a comment on the discussion between Socrates and Cephalus in book I of the Republic. It is part of another page on the discussion with Cephalus).

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 February 24, 1997 ; Last updated November 21, 1998
© 1996 Bernard SUZANNE (click on name to send your comments via e-mail)
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