Is it worth reading Plato’s dialogues?

Anne asked:

What is the best order to read Plato’s Dialogues in? Does it matter regarding understanding them and is it worth reading them all?

Answer by Geoffrey Klempner

The very first philosophy book I picked up was one of the five volumes of Benjamin Jowett’s translation of Plato’s Dialogues. That would have been around late 1971 in Swiss Cottage Library, London. I remember that it was a heavy tome, but have no recollection at all of which volume it was.

What captured my imagination was the polite and respectful way in which the participants in the dialogues spoke to one another. In Jowett’s translation, they sound a bit like Oxford dons debating in the Senior Common Room. Yet I was charmed.

Occasionally the participants get flustered or even angry. Socrates had that effect on people. But reading these conversations, some of which record actual discussions that took place two and a half millennia ago, I got a powerful sense of how important reason is, man’s highest faculty — and woman’s too.

There are no women in Plato’s dialogues, although Plato on occasion makes positive use of female imagery — for example, Socrates as midwife, or when various Greek goddesses make an appearance.

Anne, I don’t want to tell you which dialogues to read, but can only echo what Giddy said in his advice to Richard:

I could tell you that the Phaedo, recounting the last day of Socrates’ life and exploring arguments for the immortality of the soul, is a dramatic masterpiece, sufficient to move a reader to tears — and all that talk about the ‘soul’ might leave you cold.

Or I could say that the Republic is an epic journey into Plato’s ethics and metaphysics, every bit as gripping as Lord of the Rings, and you’d just get bored by the interminable length of it.

The Theaetetus is a startlingly modern exploration of the nature of knowledge and problems around relativism of truth and perception, and yet the arguments might just leave you flummoxed. Similarly the Parmenides, where Plato manages the extraordinary feat of admitting seemingly fatal objections to his prized Theory of Forms.

These days, the complete Jowett translations are available in a single volume. I’m guessing you have that, as like Shakespeare’s Complete Plays it is so widely available. Why not just start at page one? Keep a notebook of your progress. It might very well be the case that the ‘lesser’ dialogues, the ones the scholars don’t discuss so often, succeed in getting you hooked just because of their relatively modest, down-to-earth ambitions.

As a default strategy, reading a book all the way through isn’t that bad. And you have the pleasure of seeing, day by day, or week by week, how far you’ve come. Read it like a novel. As you progress, you will learn more and more about the character of Socrates, a man of charisma and passion, so very different from ‘philosophers’ (so-called) today.

As for the order, the only thing you need to know is that, although there is some debate around this, Plato’s dialogues are roughly divided in to his early, middle and late periods. The early dialogues are more like actual records of discussions that Socrates had. In the later dialogues, although still featuring the figure of Socrates, Plato is speaking directly to us.

Is it worth reading Plato’s dialogues? How can you say that? On this forum?! — Only joking. All I can say is, Try it, you might like it.

— And if you don’t, try something else.

One thought on “Is it worth reading Plato’s dialogues?

  1. Thank you for your reply, Geoffrey. I do indeed have a ebook of the Jowett translations and will work through the 2000+ pages from the beginning. I’m hoping it’s not destined to be the same as Proust where I only reached 4% on the complete works. I also have A Companion to Plato which I’ll dip into as I go. Working alone it’s hard to know what has value but I do remember reading Apology many years ago and being gripped by it, so I’m sure I’ll be fine. Here’s to Alcibiades…

    I wasn’t so much asking was it worth reading Plato – heaven (if it exists) forfend – I was asking was it worth reading ALL of Plato but now I’m looking forward to seeing the change as he moves through his growth (and hopefully mine!)

    Thanks again

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