Category: Works of Plato

Plato’s works – developmentalist theories

Plato’s entire corpus has come down to us in excellent condition – approximately thirty dialogues are considered to be genuine. The developmentalist approach of Plato’s philosophy has prevailed in the field of interpreting Plato and this approach suggests that the dialogues are divided in three distinct periods. This division, however, is arbitrary to a great extent.

The “Socratic dialogues”

Plato’s philosophical initiation took place within Socrates’ circle. He was a Socratic who not only changed his way of life because of his teacher’s striking personality, but who also attempted to make use of and apply his philosophical teachings. It is possible that Plato is the first to come up with the idea that the aptest option to present Socrates to an audience in the most lively and realistic manner is the dialogue form – it is certain that he is astoundingly good at it. During the same period, other pupils of Socrates resort to the same solution, thus establishing a new literary genre, the philosophical dialogue.

Vindicating the memory of Socrates must have been the main motive behind the first Platonic dialogues.Consequently, it is very probable that Plato begins writing immediately after Socrates’ death; in this light, the Apology of Socrates could be Plato’s first work in chronological order, followed by some dialogues whose content is particularly apologetic, such as the Crito and the Euthyphro. Another group of dialogues comes next, in which Socrates’ essential difference from the Sophists is presented, as well as his beneficial influence on the youth of the Athenian aristocracy -- the Charmides, the two Hippias, the Protagoras and the Gorgias belong in this group. These dialogues are clearly more technical and their content is philosophically more profound. The explicit or implicit assumption for such an approach is that Plato as an author is at first largely dependent on Socrates. Therefore, the early Platonic dialogues present the views of the historical Socrates rather than Plato’s. Plato’s thinking gradually becomes autonomous and it is only in his “middle” writing period (starting with the Meno) that he comes to express his own philosophical theories.

The developmentalist approach

We have outlined a reading of Plato’s philosophy dominating the community of Platonic scholars. It is based on the reasonable psychological assumption that the thinking of a creative philosopher, whose work spans approximately half a century (from 399 to 347 BCE, the year of his death), cannot but develop. Such a picture is also supported indirectly by Aristotle, who tries to distinguish the historical Socrates from the Platonic figure of Socrates.

Plato wrote approximately thirty dialogues, all of which have survived in excellent condition -- a unique occurrence in the history of ancient philosophy. In contrast to Plato’s commentators in antiquity, who were content with grouping the dialogues in tetralogies according to the relevance of their content, from the late nineteenth century onward, the division of the Platonic corpus in three periods according to the development of his philosophy has become prevalent.

The first period includes the so-called Socratic dialogues, dealing with moral issues, exhibiting a striking dialogical character and often ending in aporia. Plato’s original philosophy must be sought in his second period of writing, his mature period, in which four of his most famous dialogues are found: the Phaedo, the Symposium, the Republic and the Phaedrus. Herein one comes across purely Platonic philosophical positions, such as the soul’s immortality, knowledge as recollection, the conception of the ideal republic, the tripartite division of the soul and the republic, the crucial role of eros, and, mainly, the theory of Forms and its grounding in the Good. Moreover, scholars have located the break in 387 BCE, when Plato returned from Sicily and founded the Academy. Lastly, the later period, whose ground is prepared by such dialogues as the Theaetetus and the Parmenides, includes the Sophist, the Statesman, the Timaeus, the Philebus and the Laws. The following table can thus be drawn, which includes all Platonic dialogues regarded as genuine today.

THE PLATONIC DIALOGUES

The grouping of Plato’s dialogues in three periods

1. Early (in alphabetical order)

ALCIBIADES or On the nature of man

APOLOGY OF SOCRATES

CHARMIDES or On temperance

CRITO or On duty in action

EUTHYPHRO or On holiness

GORGIAS or On rhetoric

HIPPIAS MAJOR or On the beautiful

HIPPIAS MINOR or On falsehood

ION or On the Iliad

LACHES or On courage

LYSIS or On friendship

MENEXENOS or funeral oration

PROTAGORAS or The sophists

Transitional

EUTHYDEMUS or The disputatious man

CRATYLUS or On rectitude in naming

MENO or On virtue

2. Middle(in chronological order)

PHAEDO or On the soul

SYMPOSIUM or On love

REPUBLIC or On justice

PHAEDRUS or On the beautiful

Μεταβατικοί

THEAETETUS or On knowledge

PARMENIDES or On forms

3. Later(in chronological order)

SOPHIST or On being

STATESMAN or On the art of governing

TIMAEUS or On nature

CRITIAS or The Atlantid

PHILEBUS or On pleasure

LAWS or On legislation

SEVENTH LETTER

Problems of the developmentalist approach

In spite of its reasonable justification, the developmentalist reconstruction of the Platonic corpus is largely arbitrary. The Platonic dialogues are written as autonomous texts, so much so that even indirect references to other dialogues are rare. Thus, based on the text themselves we deduce that the Statesman is the continuation of the Sophist, which seems to presuppose the Theaetetus, while the Timaeus is continued in the Critias and probably refers to the Republic. But even other ancient authors supply us with very little information: Diogenes Laertius mentions that the Laws was Plato’s last work and that it was, to some extent, incomplete (Lives 3.37), whereas Aristotle claims that the Republic was written before the Laws (Politics 1264b26). If we are to also consider that we are completely in the dark regarding the way Plato composed or “published” his works (e.g. we do not know whether he reworked his works at a later time or whether key members of the Academy contributed in writing them), then we realise that the developmentalist approach simply serves our own need to order a complex and multifaceted corpus.

During the twentieth century, many hoped that the results of the so-called “stylometric” analysis of the Platonic dialogues might settle this issue. The working hypothesis of this approach is that it is natural for the language Plato used during his fifty years of writing to change. Hence, some linguistic elements of minor importance were isolated (particles, adverbs, avoidance of hiatus, etc.) and their frequency in the Platonic texts was studied. Given that the Laws is Plato’s last work, the dialogues containing linguistic elements identical to the Laws were considered to belong to the later period, whereas the dialogues greatly differing from the Laws were assigned to the early period. The use of computers allowed scholars to investigate numerous such elements, yet the conclusions of such linguistic studies have not met with universal acceptance by scholars of Plato. One could claim that they rather confirm that the five dialogues considered as later dialogues belong to a common group; but such conclusions are inadequate for placing a dialogue in the early of middle period or to order chronologically dialogues belonging to the same period.

It is interesting to note that, although the division of the dialogues in three periods is still a part of our interpretive paradigm, the latest edition of Plato’s works in English (Cooper [1997]) reverts to the division based on the ancient tetralogies.

  • Brandwood, L. The Chronology of Plato's Dialogues. Καίμπριτζ, 1990.
  • Cooper, J. ed. Plato: Complete Works. Indianapolis, 1997.
  • Kahn, C, Plato and the Socratic Dialogue, The philosophical Use of a Literary Form. Cambridge, 1996.
  • Kraut, R. ed. The Cambridge Companion to Plato. Cambridge, 1992.
  • Ledger, G.R. Re-counting Plato: A Computer Analysis of Plato's Style. Οξφόρδη, 1989.
  • Thesleff, H. Studies in Platonic Chronology. Ελσίνκι, 1982.
  • Vlastos, G. Socrates. Ironist and Moral Philosopher. Cambridge, 1991.
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