Reading Plato

Having been an avid student of Plato’s dialogues in college, I have admittedly perused very few of his works since then. The last volume I read was his short dialogue Euthyphro. Plato’s most famous volume is, of course, the Republic, which discusses the idea of the just state and the just man.

It is the very length of the Republic, as well as its essentially esoteric or “utopian” themes, that I think make it one of those much discussed titles that most people never actually read, or only read about in second-hand critiques and interpretations. I confess to being one of them, having only gotten through perhaps two or three of the ten books that comprise the dialogue. But in need of some philosophical material at the end of the day, I have picked it up once again.

The edition I borrowed from the local library is an older one featuring the redoubtable Benjamin Jowett translation. For decades this version by the famous Victorian Oxford don was one of the best known, perhaps by virtue of the fact that, having long ago passed into the public domain, it was readily picked up by popular publishers. That said, the text still holds up well and ably conveys the artistry of Plato — who was as much an original prose stylist as he was an innovative thinker. (The chief drawback with many such older reprints is that they lack helpful annotation.) The opening lines are well worth quoting, for their literary and almost novelistic quality:

I went down yesterday to the Piraeus with Glaucon the son of Ariston, that I might offer up my prayers to the goddess; and also because I wanted to see in what manner they would celebrate the festival, which was a new thing.

A little further on we read that Socrates and his friends have gathered at the house of Cephalus. As the fictional narrator of the dialogue, Socrates says

I had not seen [Cephalus] for a long time, and I thought him very much aged. He was seated on a cushioned chair, and had a garland on his head, for he had been sacrificing in the court…. He saluted me eagerly, and then he said: — You don’t come to see me, Socrates, as often as you ought: If I were still able to go and see you I would not ask you to come to me. But at my age I can hardly get to the city, and therefore you should come oftener to the Piraeus. For let me tell you, that the more the pleasures of the body fade away, the greater to me is the pleasure and charm of conversation.

It’s a delightful touch in what is otherwise a serious discussion on some of the weightiest topics in Western thought. As for the chief themes (and much disputed ideas) of the Republic, I will delve a little deeper into the work before tackling those points!

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