The Historical Figure and the Character

Socrates, 470-399 BCE. Plato, 429 -347 BCE.

Plato's dialogues belong to a genera Aristotle calls "accounts of Socrates" (Σωκρᾰτικοί λόγοι) (Poetics 1447b).
Socrates falls between the Presocratic Period and the Period of Schools.

The Presocratic Period ends when Socrates gets a reputation for wisdom. This must have been before the caricature of Socrates in Aristophanes's Clouds in 423 BCE.

The Period of schools begins when Plato founds the Academy in about 387 BCE.

Socrates left no written accounts of what he thought.

What we know about what Socrates thought, we know primarily on the basis of what the character Socrates says in some of Plato's dialogues.

Plato was Socrates' younger contemporary and in the circle around him.

Plato is the Primary Witness

We have all of Plato's dialogues. They were transmitted from antiquity in their entirety. This is true of the work of no other philosopher in the Period of Schools.

Plato uses his name in the dialogues only three times.

"Adimantus, son of Aristo, whose brother is Plato (Πλάτων) here" (Apology 34a). "Plato here, men of Athens, and Crito and Critobulus, and Aristobulus tell me to propose a fine of thirty minas, saying that they are sureties for it" (Apology 38b). "Plato, I think, was ill" (Phaedo 59b).

Plato dialogues traditionally divide into early, middle, and late dialogues. This chronology is based largely on references in the dialogues and on the particular issues discussed in the dialogues. There is controversy over the details, but I accept this general interpretation in these lectures notes.

The Apology, Euthyphro, Laches, Hippias Major, Protagoras, Gorgias are traditionally early Platonic dialogues.

The Thesaurus Linguae Graecae word counts:

Apology                8,854
Euthyphro            5,464
Laches                  8,021
Hippias Major      8,911
Protagoras           18,077
Gorgias               27,824
Meno                  10,396
Phaedo                22,633
Republic              89,359
Timaeus              24,104

The Gorgias seems to be a late early dialogue.

The Meno has features of both the early and middle dialogues, but traditionally it is a middle dialogue.

The Phaedo and Republic are traditionally middle dialogues.

The Timaeus is a traditionally late dialogue.
Plato, in this way, is the primary witness for Socrates and what he thought.

To move from what the character Socrates says to what the historical figure thought, we need an assumption about the connection between the character Socrates and the historical figure.

The Historical Model

The historical model provides one way Plato might have understood this connection.

Plato's dialogues purport to be conversations that took place in Athens at various points in Socrates' life. The dramatic dates make it impossible that Plato is always preserving a record of conversations he witnessed, but it might be that in dialogues that contain conversations he did not witness, he is taking things he has heard Socrates say and placing them in a fictional context. On this model, Plato's dialogues are primarily historical.

The Philosophical Model

The philosophical model provides another way Plato might have understood the connection.

On this model, Plato's intent is primarily philosophical. He uses the character to help him understand the philosophical points he takes the historical Socrates to be trying to make. Plato makes the character say the sorts of things he heard the historical Socrates say, but he makes him say them in a way that highlights what Plato himself thinks is right and wrong about them. This means the connection between the character and the man is not primarily historical. The character sometimes says things the historical Socrates did not.

The Model in these Lectures

I assume in these lectures notes that the philosophical model is the right way to think about the character Socrates in Plato's dialogues. I think we can know that the historical Socrates was perplexing and that Plato mixes fact and fiction to bring out what he understands as the significance of what the historical Socrates said and how he lived.

The philosophical model is compatible with skepticism about what Socrates thought.

We might think that now we are in no position to know where in the dialogues Plato is stating what the historical Socrates believed and where he is giving his interpretation.

I myself reject this skepticism. I think we can know that the historical Socrates believed that

• Living the good life requires a certain competency
• this competency is the ability to control oneself so that one lives the good life
• someone controls himself in this way just in case his soul has virtue
• the soul has virtue just in case it has wisdom
• no one is born with wisdom and hence with virtue
• the "love of wisdom" (φιλοσοφία) is the way to acquire wisdom

I think that in the Apology and in other dialogues, Plato makes the character Socrates say the things the historical Socrates said to express these beliefs and that Plato does this to think about and understand these beliefs in enough detail to know whether they are true.

The Sources for the Platonic Dialogues

Sheets of papyrus were made from the pith of the papyrus plant. (The English 'papyrus' transliterates the Greek πάπυρος.) Books first took the form of papyrus sheets glued together in a scroll or roll of papyrus. In the late Roman Empire, in the 2nd to the 4th century CE, books were produced in the form of a codex. A codex consists of squires of sheets of papyrus or parchment put together to form a group of leaves or pages. (Parchment is writing material made from the skin of animals.)
The oldest sources for Plato's dialogues are the papyri from the 2nd and 3rd century CE, but they contain only fragments of the text. The Platonic dialogues as they exist today are based on Byzantine manuscripts from the 9th and 10th century CE that were produced in Greek-speaking areas ruled from Constantinople.

In 324 CE, the Roman Emperor Constantine made the city of Byzantium the capital of the Empire. Later it become known as Constantinople, the "City of Constantine."

In the 9th and 10th century CE, manuscripts in majuscule were rewritten (μεταχαρακτηρισμός, "change of the mark impressed") in the new minuscule. Because the older manuscripts in majuscule were mostly discarded once they were rewritten, the Byzantine manuscripts are the primary link to the dialogues Plato wrote twelve centuries earlier.

In Greek palaeography, "majuscules" are large letters and "minuscules" are small letters. Capitals are majuscules made with strokes meeting at angles. They are common on stone or metal because curves are not easily cut into hard surfaces. Uncials are a modification of capitals to include curves. They are common on soft material such as papyrus in which letters are drawn with a pen. (Here is the fifth letter in the Greek alphabet, epsilon, as a capital, Ε, and as a unical, ∈.)
Knowledge of Plato spread from the Byzantine Empire to Florence in Italy and to the rest of western Europe in the 14th and 15th centuries.

The language of Plato's dialogues is Attic Greek. It is one of the four dialects in the surviving Greek texts: Ionic, Aeolic, Arcadian, and Doric. Attic Greek (a subdivision of Ionic) was spoken in Athens in the 5th century BCE, the home of Socrates and Plato.

The Attic dialect became the basis for a form of the language, called koine (κοινή, from κοινός "common"), which came to be spoken in much the Mediterranean world.

Koine Greek is the language of the Christian New Testament, and through its use in Constantinople it formed the basis of the language of Byzantine literature. Over time Koine was replaced by other languages, primarily Latin in the west and Arabic in the east.

Today the Greek spoken in Athens is the sole surviving form of the ancient language.

Translations of the Dialogues into English

Platonis opera quae extant omnia, III. Timaeus 32-33.
<em>Platonis opera quae extant omnia</em>, Henricus Stephanus, Genevae, 1578. <em>Timaeus</em> 32-33

Platonis opera quae extant omnia I (owned and signed by John Adams, 6th president of the United States), II, III.
It is conventional in modern translations of Plato to include in the margins what are called Stephanus numbers. These numbers derive from an edition (in three volumes) published in 1578 by Henri Estienne, who also was known as Henricus Stephanus. Each page of Plato's text in this edition is split into two columns. The inner one is the Greek text. The outer one is a Latin translation. The letters between the columns divide the text into sections.

The image in the sidenotes (on the right) makes this arrangement a little clearer. It shows pages 32 and 33 of Plato's Timaeus, which is one of his most historically influential dialogues. If you click on the image to enlarge it, it is possible to see the page numbers and the letters. Stephanus numbers are the traditional way to indicate the correspondence between the words in a translation and the words in the Greek text that reconstructs what Plato wrote.

The modern edition of the Platonic corpus is Platonis Opera, which is part of the Oxford Classical Texts. John Burnet was the editor of the first editions (1900-1907).

These texts are in the Perseus Digital Library.

The modern collection of English translations is Plato, Complete Works edited by John M. Cooper and D. S. Hutchinson (Hackett Publishing Company, 1997), but it should not be thought automatically that these translations are the best available. Translation is not easy, especially for philosophical texts. Translators almost inevitably write some of their interpretation into their translations. For this reason, it is often helpful to look at more than one translation and also to look at older translations. The older translations sometimes sound dated, but they can be revealing because the translators have a different perspective.

The first editor of the LSJ, Henry George Liddell (1811-1898), was Dean of Christ Church (a college of the University of Oxford), and the father of Alice Liddell, the eponymous Alice of the writings of Lewis Carroll.
In the lecture notes, I link to the (freely available) English translations in the Perseus Digital Library. These translations are old enough to be out of copyright. They have some problems, but they are more than good enough for our purposes. They also have several nice features that (as far as I know) are not available elsewhere. The translations are linked to the Greek texts, and the words in these Greek texts are linked to the LSJ Greek-English Lexicon. This allows us to check the translations against the words that Plato himself is thought to have written.

Thinking about Socrates

It is not feasible to read all of Plato's dialogues in their entirety in a semester course, but it is good to at least look at some of them. They are important in the history of philosophy, and many of the dialogues also are wonderful pieces of literature in their own right. They are smart and exhibit a sophisticated and sometimes razor sharp sense of humor.

In the next several lectures, we concentrate on the following traditionally early dialogues:

This dialogue is set in 399 BCE. It consists in Socrates' defense speech to the jury in what purports to be a record of his trial (at which he was found guilty and sentenced to death).

The title Apology indicates that the dialogue is a "defense speech" (an ἀπολογία). Socrates defends himself against the charge of impiety and corrupting the youth. In the course of doing this, he explains and defends his life in the practice he calls φιλοσοφία.

This dialogue is set not long before the trial in 399 BCE.

The Euthyphro, Apology, Crito, and Phaedo constitute the first tetralogy in the ancient arrangement of Plato's dialogues into nine tetralogies.

Diogenes Laertius says that the grammarian Thrasyllus of Mendes (in the reign of the Roman Emperor Tiberius (14 CE to 37 CE)) gives the dialogues this arrangement.

In the Euthyphro, Socrates discusses piety with Euthyphro.

The Peloponnesian War was declared formally during the Battle of Potidaea (432-429 BCE).

The Charmides shows Socrates' return with the army from the Battle of Potidaea (153a). He was in his late-thirties when he took part in the campaign. The Athenians prevailed in the Battle, but this would be the beginning of the end of Athenian dominance in the ancient Greek world.

In 424 BCE, Socrates left Athens again with the army to Delium. Laches and Alcibiades praise Socrates' heroism (Laches 181b, Symposium 221a).

The Athenians were routed at Battle of Delium.
In the Laches, Socrates discusses courage with the Athenian generals Nicias and Laches. The dialogue is set in about 420 BCE in a lull in the Peloponnesian War (431-404 BCE).

In the Protagoras, Socrates spends the night discussing virtue with Protagoras.

Protagoras is the greatest of the 5th century BCE Sophists.

The dialogue is set in about 430 BCE, on the eve of the Peloponnesian War.

Plato, in the Protagoras, is portraying the intellectual climate of the second half of the 5th century BCE from his point of view in hindsight in the first half of the 4th century BCE. His aim, in part, seems to be to show how the Sophists, not Socrates, contributed to the Athenian downfall that culminated in Athen's defeat in the Peloponnesian War.

In the Gorgias, Socrates discusses the power of rhetoric with Gorgias, Polus, and Callicles.

Gorgias (483–375 BCE) was the most famous rhetor and teacher of rhetoric in his day. Socrates shows him that he does not understand what the power rhetoric is. Polus and Callicles jump in to take their turn with Socrates. They try to defend the claim that rhetoric is the power to live the good life (the life it benefits us most to live). Socrates refutes them in turn.

The dramatic date of the dialogue is uncertain. Gorgias seems to have first come to Athens in 427 BCE as part of an embassy to seek protection for Leontini (the city of his birth in what is now Sicily in Italy) from Syracuse (a city allied with Sparta in the Peloponnesian War). In the Gorgias, Plato seems to show Gorgias on a subsequent visit to the city.

The Gorgias appears to be late among the early dialogues. It is long, Socrates faces a series of interlocutors, and he sometimes takes the role of respondent in the dialectic.

Sets of Selected Texts

The following sets of selected texts are grouped by topics. This makes the reading more manageable, but the absence of context can make the import of the texts difficult to appreciate. To overcome this problem, it helps to read the lectures notes first.

The Love of Wisdom
Socrates faces a death sentence rather than abandon the "love of wisdom" (φιλοσοφία).

The Search for Definitions
Socrates says that because he will not abandon the love of wisdom, he will not stop questioning. This questioning is about the virtues of character and related matters.

Belief and Desire in the Soul
Socrates says that his questioning is good for the "soul" (ψυχή). To understand why, it is necessary to know how he conceives of the soul and its relation to action.

The Sophistic Movement
The Sophists take their name from the Greek noun σοφιστής. It transliterates as sophistēs and means "one who is wise." Plato contrasts Socrates with the Sophists and what they teach.

Perseus Digital Library

Plato's Apology, Euthyphro, Laches, Protagoras, Gorgias

Henry George Liddell, Robert Scott, A Greek-English Lexicon

ἀνδρεία, andreia, noun, "manliness"

"Worthy of love is this pair, worthy of reverence from all. At festivals, and wherever the citizenry is assembled, let these two be honored by all men for their manly courage (ἀνδρείας)" (Sophocles, Electra 982).

ἀπολογία, apologia, noun, "speech in defense"
πάπυρος, papyros, noun, "papyrus"
μεταχαρακτηρισμός. metacharaktērismos, noun, "change of form"
φιλοσοφία, philosophia, noun, "love of wisdom"
σοφιστής, sophistēs, noun, "one who is wise"
ψυχή, psychē, noun, "soul"

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