Thursday, 28 January 2016

Some Guidelines for Reading the Divine Plato

The author is often asked how one should approach the works of Plato. Where to begin? The following notes were prepared for that purpose: some guidelines for reading the Divine Plato.

Platonic philosophy is a different undertaking to other forms of philosophy. The works of Plato offer a “jnana yoga”, an intellectual path of attainment. Philosophy (philo + sophia), in Plato, is a higher wisdom and should not be confused with “philosophy” in the modern profane sense. Platonic philosophy is a sacred activity. Plato should be read in this spirit. If not, the study will be fruitless. 

The works of Plato are so masterful they could only have been written by a man of supreme intellectual and spiritual attainment. This is the demonstrable fact that qualifies Plato for the ancient title ‘Divine’ or ‘God-like’ – ho theios Platon – and for the belief that his works are divinely inspired. The works of Plato should be approached with this in view. Their author was a master, a saint, a prophet. They are inspired works.

The object of the Platonic path is the ‘Vision of the One and the Good’. The proper purpose for reading Plato is the pursuit of this end. It is attained through reflection on the very nature of thought itself.

The deity presiding over the works of Plato, and over philosophy (properly understood as a Wisdom Tradition) is Athena, the patron goddess of Athens (‘Neith’ of the Egyptians). Plato is a representative of her city and of her tradition. His teachings and his writings expound sacred traditions, both inner and outer, of this goddess. Note that most of the dialogues are set in Athens – her city – and that Socrates is very reluctant to ever leave Athens. Plato’s Academy was located in an olive grove sacred to Athena. Athena looms in the background of the entire Platonic enterprise. When reading Plato, make Athena your guiding spirit.

For the most part the works of Plato take the form of philosophical dialogues, usually with Socrates conversing with various interlocutors. Modern readers are not accustomed to reading dialogues. Reading dialogues requires a certain skill – just as reading a play is different to reading an essay. You must become accustomed to the dialogue form, hearing the several voices in conversation and giving each speaker, and each viewpoint, its proper turn.

The historical Socrates, it is believed, wrote nothing. In the dialogues Socrates (Plato’s Socrates) voices a deep suspicion of the written word. The dialogue form accommodates this; it is a form of writing that approximates living speech. In the dialogues we encounter the paradox: Plato doesn’t like writing yet is himself a master of it. The dialogues should be read with this in mind. They are not fixed texts. They are designed to undermine their own authority as written text. The text is fluid. Never let the text ossify into a Bible-like ‘scripture’. That is not their nature.

The dialogues are full of play. Plato writes in a form of high playfulness, a divine playfulness. Readers need to enter into this spirit of play – it is the single-most important key to reading the dialogues aright.

At the centre of the dialogues is the tragedy of the death of Socrates, but the dialogues are comedies as well as tragedies. There are jokes on nearly every page. Be sensitive to the play of these jokes and to the tension between tragedy and comedy.

The dialogues are literary creations. As well as being works of philosophy, they are works of literature. They ought to be approached primarily as philosophical dramas and thus as works of art.

The dialogues are works of fiction, not reportage. All the same, there is a profound tension between fact and fiction at their heart. There are no fictional characters in the dialogues and every situation and encounter depicted might have happened even if, as is most likely, it didn’t. This tension between fact and fiction, history and myth, is itself a central concern of the dialogues and the dialogues themselves are a lesson in exactly that tension. The dialogues, that is, demonstrate this Platonic theme.

In the dialogues the city-state of Athens is an archetypal, eternal city and its citizens are archetypes more than they are historical figures. Readers should resist all attempts to overly historicize the dialogues and to reduce the characters of the dialogues to historical figures. Like Plato’s Socrates himself, though based on historical figures, they are idealized forms.

Plato was a dramatic and lyric poet and superb writer of unsurpassed literary skill. His Greek is the best Greek (outside of Homer.) If you are reading the dialogues in translation, be aware that they are works of great tonal beauty, often with hymnic, liturgical and dramatic qualities that are lost in translation. It helps to gain some acquaintance with Plato’s (Attic) Greek or at least to hear portions read in the original.

Do not assume that Socrates, or anyone else, speaks for Plato himself in the dialogues. Plato never appears or speaks in the dialogues. His absence and carefully crafted anonymity is itself part of his sanctity. The ‘Divine Plato’ is removed from the dialogues themselves. The question of how much Socrates speaks for Plato is known as the ‘Socratic Problem’ – it is a deliberate feature of the dialogues. Do not be too concerned with it since it is a problem without a resolution and was intended to be such.

We are not sure how the dialogues were used by Plato or by his students, or even why they were written. What was their purpose? We do not know. Do not assume that they were in any way “textbooks’ or ‘handbooks’ for Plato’s students. More likely they were puzzles, challenges, and designed to stimulate and guide more than to instruct.

Every dialogue is open-ended. Usually nothing is resolved. In general, the dialogues are more exercises on how to think rather than expositions on what to think.

The dialogues are internally inconsistent and contradictory. A point of view offered in one dialogue may be undermined and countered or refuted or modified in another. Do not expect consistency. The dialogues are not treatises that relate a single viewpoint and Plato was not a systemizer.

The dialogues are supremely artful. There is nothing in them that is accidental. Give particular attention to everything in them that strikes you as peculiar and unusual. Every word, every device, every turn of narrative, has its reason. It is intellectually (and often spiritually) constructive to contemplate those aspects of the dialogues that seem difficult to explain. 

Socrates is the master. You are supposed to fall in love with him. Love his love of argument. Love his love of Truth. Love his intellectual fearlessness. Love, in particular, the paradox: Socrates was the ugliest of men but had the most beautiful soul.

When reading the dialogues it helps to hear the voice of Socrates: nasal, high-pitched, whining and irritating. He may speak sweet words but he does not have a sweet voice.

Socrates speaks in an ironic tone. Throughout the dialogues there is a pervading undercurrent of ‘Socratic irony’. When is Socrates being serious and when is he being ironic? When is he testing your credulity? When is he pulling your leg? Be sensitive to Socratic irony.

Throughout the dialogues Socrates is always warning us about the deceptive nature of arguments that persuade yet are not true. Be sensitive to this trap, including – or especially – when considering the words of Socrates himself. Socrates may be “wisest and most just” but he is also supremely cunning, a trickster.

It is best to follow the ancient and accepted canon of Plato’s works and ignore the squabbles of modern critics as to what was and was not actually written by Plato. In the ancient canon there were thirty-five dialogues, plus the Letters, thus thirty-six works in all.

As a coherent reading programme, read the dialogues in their traditional Tetralogies (sets of four), of which there are nine (9 x 4 = 36). Each Tetralogy (set) is regarded as being like a set of Athenian plays, which consisted of three dramas plus a comedy. It is constructive to consider the dialogues in this manner and after this model, at least as a starting point.

The usual place to start reading the dialogues is with those that relate the trial and death of Socrates, i.e. the Apology and the Phaedo. Note this fact well. We begin at the end. The dialogue in which Socrates is youngest, the Parmenides, is usually the last or one of the last dialogues to be read in the sequence. Ask: why this reverse chronology? Why has Plato done this? Why are we reading backwards in time?

Do not become distracted by modern speculation about the order in which the dialogues were written. In particular, the fond idea that the so-called ‘Socratic’ dialogues are “early” and those in which Socrates plays a lesser role or does not appear at all are “late” is not an especially helpful framework. Resist this sort of modern chronological reading.

Do not read the dialogues through the lens of the life of Plato. Extant biographies of Plato were written centuries after he died. In fact, we know very little for sure about him. He has deliberately made himself absent from the dialogues, so do not try to insert him on the basis of late and unreliable biographies.

Be aware that the dialogues do not stand alone. They are interconnected, either according to the traditional Tetralogy groupings, or according to other internal connections and allusions, according to theme, speakers or other factors. Noting and following these interconnections and cross-allusions is an important part of reading the dialogues in depth. 

Ancient readers nominated two works, the Parmenides and the Timaeus, as the central dialogues. The Parmenides, they thought, offers Plato’s metaphysics and the Timeaus offers his cosmology. This is a useful systemization. These two works are no doubt very important in the totality of the Platonic dialogues and should be given due attention as such.

It is commonly agreed by both ancient and modern readers that the masterwork among the dialogues is the Republic. It deserves appropriate study. Make the Republic the centerpiece of your reading. 

As well as constituting a “jnana yoga” in themselves, several Platonic dialogues – such as the Phaedrus and the Symposium - set out a spiritual path of love. It is in these dialogues that Platonism meets many later (Semitic) spiritual traditions such as Christianity and Sufism. These dialogues, which set out the doctrines of so-called ‘Platonic Love’, are highly esteemed for this reason and deserve particular attention. Socrates is a lover. In Plato – as in the person of Socrates – the path of the intellect and the path of love, nous and eros, converge. 

Give particular attention to the setting and location of a dialogue, if it is given. If it is, it is very important. On what festival in the Athenian calendar does it take place? That is a key. At which time of the year? Where and when? It is important, for instance, if a dialogue takes place within Athens or outside of Athens. 

The central doctrine of the dialogues – the so-called Theory of Forms – is nowhere stated outright. Rather, it forms a general trend in Socrates’ thought. But note well that the entire ‘theory’ is apparently demolished in the dialogue called the Parmenides, demonstrating that – although it is not at all obvious in other dialogues – Plato was fully cognizant of the shortcomings in and objections to the ‘theory’. And note that, although counted as a late dialogue, the Parmenides is the earliest in Socrates’ biographical chronology. We are to understand, then, that Parmenides demolished Socrates’ theory when Socrates was a young man and so the later dialogues, it follows, show him struggling with the theory in the shadow of that early rebuttal. The dialogue called the Parmenides – the most difficult of all the dialogues – is very important for this reason. It recontextualizes all the other dialogues. 

In many, if not all, dialogues there may be a hidden or ‘esoteric’ dimension or at least several layers of meaning to be discovered by diligent students. There are surface-level readings and deeper ‘initiated’ readings. The dialogues reward rereading and deep reflection even on matters that may seem straightforward.

In many dialogues Socrates, or other characters, often speak of myths as having a lesser status than rational thought, yet the dialogues are full of myths which often seem central to their meaning. The tension between muthos and logos is a central concern of the dialogues and the dialogues themselves illustrate this tension. Give particular attention to the Platonic myths and consider them in relation to the rational arguments that appear alongside them. The myths concern an ‘esoteric’ dimension of the dialogues. 

Plato includes various puzzles and riddles in the dialogues, usually of a mathematical nature. These are very important. They concern an ‘esoteric’ dimension of the dialogues.

Resist reading the ‘Introductions’ that accompany modern translations of Plato. Let Plato’s works speak for themselves.

Never read Plato through Aristotle. Aristotle is said to have been a student of Plato, but he is one of the worst and most unreliable commentators on Plato. Ignore Aristotle.


Harper McAlpine Black


  1. This is great advice, sir! Very helpful! I want to ask...What are the best translations of Plato, in your opinion? What about "Plato: Complete Works" edited by John M. Cooper? What about Loeb? I only have two volumes...The Republic trans by Robin Waterfield (Oxford,1994) with notes (what about reading the notes?) and Timaeus trans by Donald J. Zeyl.

    I have a strong connection to Athena. I used to live in Nashville, Tennessee where there is a replica of the Parthenon. I once got to spend the day in Athens, waiting for my flight to Israel. I did not see any of the sights though.

  2. I forgot to ask...You said to forget Aristotle. But what about other commentators such as Proclus and Damascius? What about Islamic commentators?

    1. The Cooper edition is entirely adequate, Arthur. Or the Huntington Cairns. The Loeb are, of course, standard, and for good reason. The commentaries of Proclus and others are useful but they constitute a different enterprise than reading Plato directly. In general, the Neoplatonics are defined by their harmonising Plato with Aristotle. I think it is best to keep Aristotle out of it entirely, at least in the first instance. There's nothing like reading Plato himself without an Aristotelean filter. The connection with Athena is important. I try to place Plato back into his Athenian context. All the best.