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The Best 18 Books by Plato [PDF]

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Born around 428 BC, the ancient Greek philosopher Plato was a student of Socrates and teacher of Aristotle. His writings explore justice, beauty and equality, and also contain discussions of aesthetics, political philosophy, theology, cosmology, epistemology and philosophy of language. Plato founded the Academy of Athens, one of the first institutions of higher learning in the Western world.

Due to the lack of primary sources of the time, much of Plato’s life has been constructed by scholars through his writings and those of his contemporaries and classical historians.

Both his parents came from the Greek aristocracy. Plato’s father, Ariston, was descended from the kings of Athens and Messenia. His mother, Perictione, was related to the 6th century BC Greek lawmaker Solon.

Some scholars believe that Plato was named after his grandfather, Aristocles, following the tradition of naming the eldest son after the grandfather. But there is no conclusive evidence for this, nor that Plato was the eldest son in his family. Other historians claim that «Plato» was a nickname, in reference to his broad physical build. This is also possible, although there is evidence that the name Plato was given to children before Aristocles was born.

Like many young men of his social class, Plato was probably taught by some of the best educators in Athens. In his curriculum, the doctrines of Cratylus and Pythagoras were studied, as well as those of Parmenides. This probably helped develop the basis for Plato’s study of metaphysics (the study of nature) and epistemology (the study of knowledge).

Plato’s father died when he was young, and his mother remarried her uncle, Pyrilampes, a Greek politician and ambassador to Persia. Plato is believed to have had two brothers, a sister, and a half-brother, although it is not known for certain in what order of birth he was born. Members of Plato’s family often appear in his dialogues. Historians believe this is an indication of Plato’s pride in his family lineage.

As a young man, Plato experienced two important events that marked his life. One was meeting the great Greek philosopher Socrates. Socrates’ methods of dialogue and debate so impressed Plato that he soon became a close collaborator and devoted his life to the question of virtue and the formation of a noble character. The other significant event was the Peloponnesian War between Athens and Sparta, in which Plato participated for a brief period between 409 and 404 BC.

Athens’ defeat put an end to its democracy, which the Spartans replaced with an oligarchy. Two of Plato’s relatives, Charmides and Critias, were prominent figures in the new government, forming part of the famous Thirty Tyrants, whose brief rule severely restricted the rights of Athenian citizens. After the overthrow of the oligarchy and the reestablishment of democracy, Plato briefly considered a political career, but the execution of Socrates in 399 BC caused him to give up this idea and he devoted himself to study and philosophizing.

After Socrates’ death, Plato traveled for 12 years in the Mediterranean region, studying mathematics with the Pythagoreans in Italy, and geometry, geology, astronomy and religion in Egypt. During this time, or shortly thereafter, he began to write extensively.

Scholars debate the order of these writings, but most believe they fall into three distinct periods. Early, middle and late periods.

The first, or early, period occurs during Plato’s travels (399-387 B.C.). The Apology of Socrates appears to have been written shortly after Socrates’ death. Other texts of this period are Protagoras, Euthyphro, Hippias Major and Minor, and Ion. In these dialogues, Plato attempts to convey the philosophy and teachings of Socrates.

In the second, or middle period, Plato writes in his own voice about the central ideals of justice, courage, wisdom and moderation of the individual and society. The Republic was written during this time with his exploration of a just government ruled by philosopher-kings.

In the third, or late period, Socrates is relegated to a minor role and Plato deepens his own early metaphysical ideas. He explores the role of art, including dance, music, theater, and architecture, as well as ethics and morality. In his writings on the theory of forms, Plato suggests that the world of ideas is the only constant and that the world perceived through our senses is deceptive and changeable.

Plato’s last years were spent in the Academy and with his writings. The circumstances surrounding his death are unclear, although it is fairly certain that he died in Athens around 348 BC, when he was about 80 years old. Some scholars suggest that he died while attending a wedding, while others believe he died peacefully in his sleep.

1) Laches

Laches author Plato

Laches is a Socratic dialogue written by Plato. The participants in the discourse present opposing definitions of the concept of courage.

Lysimachus, son of Aristides, and Melesias, son of Thucydides (not the historian Thucydides), ask Laches and Nicias for advice on whether or not to have their sons train to fight in armor. After each gives his opinion, Nicias in favor and Laches against, they ask Socrates for advice.

Socrates wonders what the initial purpose of the training they want to instill in their sons is. Once they determine that the purpose is to instill virtue, and more specifically courage, Socrates discusses with Laches and Nicias what exactly courage is. The bulk of the dialogue consists of the three men (Laches, Nicias, and Socrates) debating various definitions of courage.

2) Critias

Critias author Plato

Critias, one of Plato’s last dialogues, tells the story of the powerful kingdom of the island Atlantis and its attempt to conquer Athens, which failed due to the orderly society of the Athenians.

Critias is the second of a projected trilogy of dialogues, preceded by Timaeus and followed by Hermocrates. The latter was possibly never written and Critias was left incomplete. Because of their resemblance (e.g., in terms of the persons who appear), modern classicists occasionally combine both Timaeus and Critias as Timaeus-Critias.

3) Cratylus

Cratylus author Plato

Cratylus is the name of a dialogue by Plato. Most modern scholars agree that it was written mainly during Plato’s so-called middle period. In the dialogue, two men, Cratylus and Hermogenes, ask Socrates to tell them whether names are «conventional» or «natural», that is, whether language is a system of arbitrary signs or whether words have an intrinsic relation to the things they signify.

The individual Cratylus was the first intellectual influence on Plato. Aristotle claims that Cratylus influenced Plato by introducing him to the teachings of Heraclitus.

4) Philebus

Philebus author Plato

It is a Socratic dialogue written in the 4th century B.C. that appears to be one of Plato’s last writings and is believed to have been written at the same time as the Timaeus. In this dialogue, Plato again uses Socrates as the main character and speaker and, in addition to him, the other interlocutors are Philebus and Protarchus.

Philebus contains some of Plato’s most sophisticated discussions of moral psychology. The central question of the dialogue concerns the relative value of pleasure and knowledge.

For most of it Philebus refuses to argue and remains silent, leaving it to Protagoras to defend hedonism against the attacks of the intellectualism advocated by Socrates. The final conclusion is that the good of life is the proportion with which these components are mixed.

5) Timaeus

Timaeus author Plato

Timaeus is one of Plato’s dialogues, mainly in the form of a long monologue delivered by the title character, Timaeus of Locri, written in 360 BC. The work raises speculations on the nature of the physical world and the human being and is followed by the dialogue Critias.

Socrates, Timaeus, Hermocrates and Critias participate in the dialogue. Some scholars believe that it is not the Critias of the Thirty Tyrants who appears in this dialogue, but his grandfather, who is also called Critias. It has been suggested from some traditions (Diogenes Laertius VIII BC) from Hermippus (3rd century BC) and Timon (320-230 BC) that Timaeus was influenced by a book on Pythagoras, written by Philolaus, although this claim is generally considered false.

6) Sophist

Sophist author Plato

This is a Platonic dialogue from Plato’s late period, probably written in 360 B.C. Its main theme is to identify what a sophist is and how he differs from a philosopher and a statesman.

The participants of the Sophist are Socrates, who plays a supporting role, the elderly mathematician Theodorus, the young mathematician Theaetetus, and a visitor from Elea, often referred to in English translations as the Eleatic Stranger who is also described as a pupil of Parmenides and Zeno.

The dialogue begins when Socrates arrives and asks the Eleatic Stranger whether in his homeland the sophist, the statesman, and the philosopher are considered one class or three. The Eleatic Stranger replies that there are three and sets out to initiate a dialectical exchange.

7) Phaedrus

Phaedrus author Plato

The Phaedrus, written by Plato, is a dialogue between Plato’s protagonist, Socrates, and Phaedrus, an interlocutor in several dialogues.

The Phaedrus was presumably composed around 370 B.C., about the same time as Plato’s Republic and Symposium. Although ostensibly about love, the discussion in the dialogue revolves around the art of rhetoric and how it should be practiced, and focuses on such diverse topics as metempsychosis (the Greek tradition of reincarnation) and erotic love.

8) Crito

Crito author Plato

The Crito is a 4th century B.C. dialogue traditionally attributed to Plato, although the authenticity of the work is disputed. It is the shortest dialogue in Plato’s traditional corpus. It centers on a discussion between Crito and Socrates, with Socrates mostly silent.

Until recently, most studies have focused on the authenticity, rather than the actual meaning and content of the Clitophon.

The dialogue shows Crito complaining to Socrates that Socrates’ speeches are merely hortatory; they create a desire for justice and virtue, but do not instruct how one becomes righteous or what righteousness is.

9) Meno

Meno author Plato

This is a Socratic dialogue in which the two main interlocutors, Socrates and Meno, discuss what virtue is, Meno asks Socrates whether virtue can be taught or not, is acquired by practice or comes by nature. To which Socrates replies that he does not know what virtue is and the two of them search together for an adequate definition of virtue.

In response to this Meno suggests that it is impossible to seek what is not known, because it will not be possible to determine whether it has been found. To which Socrates counters by making use of the theory of knowledge as recollection.

Such a theory proposes that souls are immortal and know all things in a disembodied state, i.e., that learning is actually a process of remembering what the soul knew before it entered a body.

10) Republic

Republic author Plato

Republic is a Socratic dialogue, written by Plato around 375 B.C., on justice, order and the character of the just city-state and the just man. It is Plato’s best known work and has proven to be one of the world’s most influential works of philosophy and political theory, both intellectually and historically.

In the dialogue, Socrates talks with several Athenians and foreigners about the meaning of justice and whether the just man is happier than the unjust. They consider the nature of existing regimes and then propose a series of different, hypothetical cities in comparison, culminating in Kallipolis, a city-state ruled by a philosopher-king. They also discuss the theory of forms, the immortality of the soul, and the role of the philosopher and poetry in society.

11) Lesser Hippias

Lesser Hippias author Plato

Lesser Hippias, also known as Hippias Minor or On Lying, is considered one of Plato’s earliest works. In it, Socrates confronts the literary critic Hippias.

Hipias believes that Achilles can be believed when he says that he hates liars, to which Socrates argues that Achilles is a cunning liar who misleads people with his own deceptions. The dialogue ends with the conclusion that it is better to lie voluntarily than involuntarily, which contradicts many of Plato’s later dialogues.

There are those who consider this dialogue to be below the level of Plato’s other works, and there are others who have even attributed it to Socrates, but there are neither sufficient nor definitive reasons to doubt the authenticity of the work.

12) Laws

Laws author Plato

It is Plato’s last and longest dialogue. It stands out for being the only undisputed dialogue of the Athenian philosopher in which Socrates does not appear, but the conversation is led by an Athenian stranger and two other elders, the Spartan Megillos and the Cretan politician and legislator Clinias of Knossos.

The dialogue is about law, but starting from the question “Who it is that receives credit for creating a civilization’s laws?” and not “What is law?” as many might suppose.

Among the questions it raises are: The role of intelligence in the creation of laws and the relations of philosophy, religion and politics. The reflections on the ethics of government and law reflected in Laws have made it a classic of political philosophy.

13) Euthydemus

Euthydemus author Plato

Euthydemus is a dialogue by Plato that satirizes what Plato presents as the logical fallacies of the sophists. In it, Socrates describes to his friend Crito a visit he and several youths paid to two brothers, Euthydemus and Dionysodorus, both prominent sophists of Chios and Thurii.

Euthydemus contrasts Socratic argumentation and education with the methods of sophism, to the detriment of the latter. Throughout the dialogue, Euthydemus and Dionysodorus continually attempt to trap Socrates with what are presented as deceptive and meaningless arguments, mainly to demonstrate their supposed philosophical superiority.

As in many of the Socratic dialogues, the two sophists against whom Socrates argues were real people. Euthydemus was somewhat famous at the time the dialogue was written, and both Plato and Aristotle mention him several times. Likewise, Dionysodorus is mentioned by Xenophon.

14) Gorgias

Gorgias author Plato

Gorgias is a Socratic dialogue written by Plato around 380 BC. The dialogue describes a conversation between Socrates and a small group of sophists (and other guests) at a dinner gathering. Socrates debates with the sophists in search of the true definition of rhetoric, attempting to identify the essence of rhetoric and to uncover the flaws of sophistic oratory popular in Athens at the time.

The art of persuasion was considered necessary for political and legal advantage in classical Athens, and rhetoricians promoted themselves as masters of this fundamental skill. Some, like Gorgias, were foreigners attracted to Athens by its reputation for intellectual and cultural sophistication. Socrates suggests that he is one of the few Athenians to practice true politics.

15) Euthyphro dilemma

Euthyphro dilemma author Plato

Euthyphro dilemma is a Socratic dialogue whose events take place in the weeks leading up to the trial of Socrates (399 BC), between Socrates and Euthyphro. The dialogue deals with topics such as the meaning of piety and justice.

Euthyphro’s dialogue occurs near the court of the archon basileus (magistrate king), where Socrates and Euthyphro meet; each is present in court for preliminary hearings for the possible trials.

Euthyphro has come to accuse his own father of murder, who, after arresting one of his workers for killing a slave on the family property on the Naxos Island, tied him up and threw him into a ditch where he died exposed to the elements while Euthyphro’s father waited for the exegetes to tell him how to proceed.

16) Apology

Apology author Plato

The Apology of Socrates is a Socratic dialogue of the speech of legal self-defence which Socrates delivered at his trial for impiety and corruption in 399 BC.

Specifically, the Apology of Socrates is a defense against accusations of «corrupting the youth» and of «not believing in the gods in which the city believes, but in other daimonia which are novel» to Athens.

Among the main sources on the trial and death of the philosopher Socrates (469-399 BC), the «Apology of Socrates» is the dialogue that depicts the trial, and is one of the four Socratic dialogues, along with the Euthyphro, Phaedo and Crito, with which Plato details the last days of the philosopher Socrates.

17) The Dialogues of Plato Protagoras

The Dialogues of Plato Protagoras author Plato

In Protagoras the main discussion is between Socrates and the elder Protagoras, who was a sophist and philosopher. This dialogue deals with the nature of sophists and the teachability of virtue.

In it Socrates warns that sophists are dangerous since their words go straight to the soul and can corrupt a person immediately. Protagoras, on the other hand, claims that being a sophist is an ancient and honorable art, the same one practiced by Homer.

After arguing at length only to mutually exchange their positions Socrates seems to have won the argument, although he points out the fact that if all virtue is knowledge, it can indeed be taught (although he had originally claimed that virtue cannot be taught). Protagoras recognizes that Socrates is a notable opponent in the dispute being much younger than he is and predicts that he could become one of the wisest men alive.

18) Parmenides

Parmenides author Plato

Parmenides is chronologically the earliest of all Plato’s dialogues, since here Socrates is only nineteen years old, so he adopts the position of a student while Parmenides acts as a lecturer.

The dialogue takes place during a supposed meeting between Parmenides and Zeno of Elea in Athens, which is probably fictitious, since Parmenides and Zeno of Elea were living in southern Italy, which was in the process of being colonized by the Greeks at the time.

The first part of the dialogue consists of the Discussion with Socrates, in which Parmenides draws Socrates out on certain aspects of the Theory of Forms and, in passing, provides him with five arguments against the theory. The second part of the dialogue is the Discussion with Aristotle considered as a relentless series of difficult and sometimes bizarre arguments, with the usual drama and colorfulness of the previous dialogues disappearing.