How To: Read and Understand Plato
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How To: Read and Understand Plato

Plato and Aristotle are not dead, they live on as the basic dichotomy of philosophical positions.  Most philosophers today would agree that first and foremost any given person is either a Platonist or an Aristotelean.  For this reason it is most important to understand both philosophers.

Plato writes in dialogue form.  His publications were meant for the general public or citizens of Classical Greek Athens.  The most difficult part of reading dialogues is taking things slow enough to grasp the hidden meanings.  I say this because one could almost read Plato as a writer of fiction telling short stories.  The reading is not dry, but it is deeply laden with metaphors, myth and allusion.

Plato speaks through the lips of Socrates, who we know to have historically existed, though none of his philosophy remains.

The Platonic corpus has been broken up into three periods of Plato’s life.  Early, middle and late period.  The early period refers to the definition dialogues.  The middle period dialogues refer to the mature Platonic view or those dialogues concerning the ‘Forms’.  The late period dialogues are less easily separated, but there is a further noticeable change in Plato’s thinking.

The early period dialogues are considered Socratic in nature.  That is Plato must have written down Socratic thought in order to preserve part of his teacher who was killed by the Athenian polis in 399b.c.e.  These dialogues follow Socrates around as he asks questions of his interlockedor in an attempt to define some term that person claims knowledge of.  Socrates is a master at his art, and none escape his questioning.  In the end this questioning of his became the ‘reason’ he was put to death.  Socrates never finds a suitable definition in all of the early dialogues.  Socrates in fact asserts very few things in all the early period works, this is why we believe these to be the Socratic philosophy.

When Plato begins to assert things through the lips of Socrates we begin the middle period Plato.  These are his most famous works.  In this portion of Plato we find Socrates making many assertions in an attempt to discuss and define the Forms.  There is no hesitation in the assertions, there is no Socratic skepticism.


The late period is less easily separable.  Plato’s writings start to understand the flaws to the theory of the forms.  Perhaps it was Aristotle or perhaps Plato himself saw the flaws.  But, in this portion Plato concerns himself with flaws such as the ‘Third man argument’.

I think the most important things to remember in understanding Plato are:

  • Socrates and Plato are both the same and different voices.
  • Socrates is likely Socrates in the definition dialogues.
  • Socrates is likely Plato after the definition dialogues.
  • Plato is a very dynamic philosopher.
  • His writing is published, it is polished and he was extremely skilled.  You are reading what Plato himself WANTS you to read.  Interpret it.

When Plato or Aristotle say soul they do not mean ‘soul’ like a Abrahamic ‘soul’ usually the classical Greeks mean ‘that which animates the body’.

Oh and Plato > Aristotle

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