Interpreting Plato

∼ Philosophy as Inquiry ∼

Unlike most philosophers, Plato chose not to write a straight forward account of his philosophy. He did not leave us a work in which he expounds his theories or his practices. He left us with dialogues. In these dialogues he is intentionally absent.

In these dialogues, other men speak. But even these men do not just come out expressing a coherent philosophical system. These men, in a labyrinth of conversational threads, explore philosophical themes, and quite often leave the discussion only half completed. Again, all this is quite intentional on Plato's part.

It seems, that by writing dialogues and not textbooks, Plato was hinting that philosophy is not the system of doctrines one professes. Rather, for Plato, a large part of philosophy, if not the most important part, is travelling the path of inquiry in our desire to understand, in our need to awaken ourselves, our souls as Plato would say, from our half-awake existence and thoughtless acceptance of inherited beliefs.

The significance of the word "Platonism"

The term Platonism is used a number of ways. It may refer to the philosophy of Plato. It may refer to the philosophy of those who consider themselves Plato's followers. It may refer to a number of themes which people associate with Plato, regardless of whether the attribution is correct or not.

Platonism has evolved as a term and as a philosophical discipline. The earliest followers of Plato known as the Academics, after the name of the location Plato founded his school, the Park of Akadeimos, outside Athens. It wasn’t later until the first century BCE, when the various schools of ancient philosophy became interested in returning to the basics laid down by their founders, that Platonism became a term designating a school of thought. Since that time, Platonism became associated with a set of doctrines based upon significant passages of Plato's dialogues, with insights about his philosophy gained from his students.

∼ Interpreting Plato ∼

Issues of Interpretation

Scholars throughout the ages have wrestled with these dialogues, trying to figure out what Plato is attempting to tell us. How are we to interpret his writings? Who in the dialogues represents Plato's position? Socrates? Does anyone represent Plato?

Another issue that confronts scholars is that some of the dialogues seems to state contradictory positions. One dialogues seems to indicated that pleasure is essential to a happy life; another dialogue suggests that a life with a mixture of restraint and pleasure is preferred; and another dialogue rejects that pleasure should even be considered. One dialogue indicates that knowledge is sufficient for virtue, another dialogue suggests that virtue is knowledge; while another dialogue indicates that one with knowledge could easily be vicious.

Scholars look at these contrary positions and try to make sense of them. Some believe that Plato changed his mind during his career (the Developmentalist position). Some believe that if we look to what his students have related about his teachings, the dialogues will make sense (the Esoterist position). Some believe that if we look to how the dialogues are written, paying attention to the drama and the individuals who are speaking, we will better determine what Plato's really saying (the Dramatic position). Others say that Plato has no philosophical system, and that the dialogues are more like intellectual fiction (the Literary position). Some say that Plato was showing us that no philosophical system can exist without contradictions (the Skeptical position).

Elements of the Socratic Problem

Which ever interpretive method one chooses, one must address a number of issues:

∼ The Methods of Interpretation ∼

The Schools of Interpretation

Below we will consider a number of interpretive methods and see how the address some of the issues above, how each has a strength they give to the reader of the dialogues. Further, it will be shown they can brought together to give a richer understanding of Plato.

(The only position that is not considered here is that position which believes the dialogues to be mere intellectual fiction, without aiming as some kind of philosophical understanding, even a skeptical one. Any time spent with the dialogues shows that such an anti-philosophical position is not sustainable, and that those who express it are more interested in the history and development of literary arts than with the history and development of ideas.)

Traditional Schools

The first is the Traditional Interpretation, that is, the interpretation of those of the ancient world who followed the teachings of Plato as a way of life, that is, held to the tradition that developed in the ancient world. The Traditional Interpretation falls under three types:

  1. that of the Old Academy, which looks at Plato's works in light of the ideas of Plato's students [one may see that the modern Esoteric method is an attempt at reconstructing this school of interpretation];
  2. that of the Middle Platonists, who took what they discovered in the dialogues in light of the philosophical schools of the Hellenistic world, especially the Pythagorean, Stoic and Aristotelian; and
  3. the various Neoplatonic traditions, who tried to find the most sublime foundations of the preceding tradition.

Modern Schools

The second collection of interpretations are the Modern Interpretations which tries to improve upon the older traditional methods by addressing modern philological and philosophical approaches. These included:

  1. the Developmentalist school which understands the different and contradictory philosophical positions recorded in the dialogues to indicate changes in Plato's thinking;
  2. the Unitarian school which sees all the dialogues as expounding a single philosophical vision, and contradictory positions found are more often variations on a more comprehensive position; and
  3. the Dramatic interpretive school which sees that the narrative and dramatic aspects of Plato's writings have profound implications for understanding his philosophy which the other methods often overlook.

Eclectic Methods

The descriptions above of various types of interpretation were described paradigmatically. Truly, no interpreter of Plato falls perfectly under one heading, and many interpreters will combine approaches as they try to understand Plato as a whole.

Each of these approaches, the traditional and the modern, has merit and adds to the ongoing understanding of our Plato. Even when we study the ancient methods, we discover that much of their methodology is more "modern" than is often taken for granted. Each of the methods of interpretation brings new insights to Plato's work.

The Dramatic interpreters show use his use of language makes rigid ideas much more nuanced than doctrinal approaches leave them.

Those modern interpretations that look at single dialogues discover levels of depth that are missed when trying to make them fit with other dialogues. While those who look at the whole of Plato's works, independently of unwritten dogmata, discover much that the unwritten does not address.

Those esotericists that look to the unwritten dogmata help to make sense of some aspects, particularly in metaphysics, that other methods are less consistent with, and further, the esoteric interpretation has a great deal in common with the ancient Middle Platonic and Neoplatonic philosophies, so as to allow comparisons between Plato's thought and those of his followers.

Whatever mode of interpretation one favours, it must account for a number of factors:

  1. The dialogues are dramatic dialogues, not analytical treatises.
  2. Aristotle does mentions unwritten positions.
  3. Plato hints that his philosophy is not reducible to propositional statements.