A question for the more philosophy-familiar pomocon readers. If you were charged with introducing some folks to Socrates, which dialogues would you choose? Ground rules: you get to choose up to ten Platonic (or sure, Xenophonic) dialogues featuring Socrates, and, let’s say, around 400 pages of accompanying material, the idea being that the students of whatever age will know what the usual college kid does about ancient history and philosophy, i.e., next to nothing. Memorabilia will count as two choices, and The Republic will count as three choices. Remember, only dialogues with Socrates are allowed. One goal I set for my list was one that would work for the self-directed student—that way it stands to be useful for the adults reading this who never had a chance to explore Socratic philosophy when younger.
about 30% of A Pre-Socratics Reader
Aristophanes, The Clouds
Plutarch, “Aristides,” “Themistocles,” “Pericles,” “Alcibiades”
4) Alcibiades 1
C.S. Lewis, The Four Loves
Aristotle, Nicomachean Ethics, about 70%, including all of books VIII and IX
Leo Strauss, “On Classical Political Philosophy” from What Is Political Philosophy?
8) Republic, Book one only
Nalin Ranasinghe, Socrates in the Underworld
Gorgias twice! The logic of my list first of all agrees with the argument made by Ranasinghe, in the excellent commentary linked above, that the Gorgias is the best overall introduction to Socrates and his situation (I once heard David Bolotin, a great teacher at the great and totally unique St. John’s College, say something similar), and that more generally, it is the more relevant dialogue than the Republic for 21st century persons. Here’s Ranasinghe on that last point:
In crudest terms, in an era where nihilism replaces totalitarianism as the main challenge facing humans, it is the Gorgias, rather than the Republic, that will help us to gain strength from the origins of the Western Tradition. This is because while we no longer believe in artificial utopias, centuries of striving in this direction have cause grave environmental damage and insidious moral degeneration. Becoming “faithful to the earth”—as Nietzsche famously put it—is not sufficient; as suggested earlier, our disenchanted and hero-less age has to get reacquainted with both the human soul itself and the original erotic striving towards excellence and virtue that got the Western Tradition under way.
On a more practical pedagogical level, the thing I’d say about the Republic is that collective study of it is too precious an experience to waste on students who either a) lack poetic instincts, and thus don’t know literature, or b) lack utopian desires, and thus aren’t capable of being stirred by the construction of the City in Speech. A lot of classes today come loaded with kids who lack those. And my really bottom-line practical problem is that I am more and more inclined to think that it is mistake to study this dialogue without having already studied both of Homer’s epics and several Greek dramas. Ideally also the key parts of Aristotle’s Nicomachean Ethics and Politics, and some classical Greek history.
My thought experiment posits a situation with an individual, book-group, or class that meets for longer than one semester. A condensed version of my list could work for a single college class, but any class with the Republic in it is going to take at least a third of its time for that, and the more rightly captivated the teacher is by its magic, the likelier she is to have the class take much longer with it, perhaps taking up almost the whole class. Since our typical contemporary student is so unlikely to come to the Republic with the prerequisites I have in mind, things are often going to degenerate into most students contenting themselves with neat little diagrams of the Cave, the Divided Line, etc. All of that means that students in such a class are less likely to get the core “Socratic experience” if teachers try to go through the whole Republic instead of taking them through a handful of shorter dialogues.
My wait-on-the-Republic rule can certainly be put aside for anyone who has adequate enthusiasm for philosophy, political theory, or the classics, but I would advise even such students to save it for when they’re a bit more ready for it, and when they know they have the time to do it justice.
Enough on the Republic. As for my ordering of the dialogues, it serves several purposes. First, the Socrates and Alcibiades story-arc is highlighted, which allows further reflections on politics, and further Lewis/Aristotle-aided ones on the key connections between love, friendship, virtue, and philosophy. Second, certain key shifts of consideration in the dialogues that can seem to be outright contradictions (innate knowledge in Meno v. Socratic ignorance in Apology, Pericles the bad leader in Gorgias v. Pericles the good rhetor in Phaedrus) get highlighted, and that prods deeper thinking about what Plato is up to with the dialogic form.
Third, and most importantly, the order shows how a) rhetoric/”Sophist-ication” and b) philosophy cannot but become closely associated in the political community’s eyes. Philosophy’s coming to be in the republican city-state inevitably initiates a race against time to contain the abuse of its methods, initial hypotheses, and heterodoxy concerning religion—abuse that can corrupt and destroy the community. This is why the inclusion of the Clouds is so important, why the last part of the Phaedrus which traces the real connections between the rhetor and the dialectician is vital, why I put that particular Strauss essay in there, and why it is good to sandwich the course between an initial, and then a more experienced, examination of the Gorgias.
I will also make a small plug for the inclusion of the slight Cleitophon: it raises the question of whether it is good to go so far into the rigorous exploration of the classic Socratic what is justice, what is virtue sorts of questions, when every individual has immediate need to practice what he does know about these in his life, and the community has an even more pressing need for just and virtuous leaders. That question, posed against the problem of how little we do know about these things, is one every student of Socratic political philosophy has to wrestle with, and at every stage of his engagement with it.
Some of you undoubtedly have different and better orders of introductory study—I do not claim to be a thorough student of Plato, or of Xenophon, and there remain a handful of their works I haven’t read–so do share your ideas.
For very serious students who can commit to a study of several years, one obvious alternative would be a course through all of Plato’s dialogues, and not simply the ones featuring Socrates, arranged in order of “dramatic date.” This is what Catherine Zuckert recommends and elucidates in her magisterial Plato’s Philosophers. Of course, you would have to have caught the “Socratic bug” in the first place before you engaged in something that ambitious. So that is not a correct order for introductory purposes.
An order that Strauss-influenced scholars like Zuckert and yours truly utterly reject, by the way, is one dictated by a supposed order of composition which reflects a supposed path of development, whereby Plato began as more Socratic, then got into the forms, and then revised some of his ideas in such-and-such ways. So for example, according to this way of thinking, the late-period Laws corrects and amends the mid-period Republic. Similar correction and development happens with every topic in Plato, so the key is to know what stage of the development of his ideas you are at in any particular dialogue. Strauss-influenced scholars instead believe the differences between the dialogues on key topics are primarily due to different approaches taken or “tried out” with different interlocutors.
A final note, on translations. Yes, they matter. It might seem you’d be very Socrates-like by contenting yourself with the cheap-as-dirt editions of Plato available in any used bookstore, but don’t do it. Plato chose every word carefully, and so the more literal translations into English, most of which have only been done in the last fifty years, are what you need to seek out. A general rule of thumb is that anything from the Focus Philosophical Library or the Cornell Agora Editions series is top-notch.
(My specific recommendations: James Nichols for Gorgias and Phaedrus, Allan Bloom for The Republic, Robert Bartlett for the Meno, West and West for both The Apology and The Clouds, and the translations found in The Roots of Political Philosophy: Ten Forgotten Socratic Dialogues for Alcibiades 1, Laches, and Cleitophon. For the Aristotle, either Joe Sachs, or Collins and Bartlett. All of these translations come with helpful commentary material.)