The Greek book of the week – Five Dialogues by Plato
The civilization of Ancient Greece continue to fascinate the modern mind. It’s remote in time, and yet still close to us. This is partly because we owe to the classical world so many of the values and ideas which shape our society, literature and art, partly because many of the important moral and political issues which continue to exercise twenty-first century man were first addressed in the ancient world.
Five Dialogues by Plato: Euthyphro, Apology, Crito, Meno, Phaedo (380 – 360 BC).
Socrates, Plato, and Aristotle were the most influential of the ancient Greek philosophers. Plato was Socrates’ student, and Aristotle was a student of Plato. Although both Plato and Aristotle wrote extensively, Socrates didn’t write anything himself. All we know about Socrates comes from two sources: Plato’s writing and Xenophon’s memoirs of Socrates (Xenophon was another of Socrates’ students).
Plato was born in Athens in 428 or 427 B.C. to an aristocratic family. Most of his writings survived. His works are in the form of dialogues, where several characters argue about a topic by asking questions of each other. Socrates appears as a character in many of the dialogues. It is widely accepted that Plato wrote 26 dialogues, and most scholars classify them as early, middle or late.
Plato’s dialogues have been used to teach a range of subjects, including philosophy, logic, ethics, rhetoric, religion and mathematics. Here are five of his most famous dialogues:
• Euthrypto: This dialogue takes place during the weeks leading to Socrates’ trial. The dialogue features Socrates and Euthyphro, a religious expert. They discuss the meaning of piety, or the virtue of living in a manner that fulfills one’s duty to the gods and to mankind. This is of particular interest since Socrates has been charged with impiety.
• Apology: This is an account of the speech Socrates makes at the trial in which he is charged with not recognizing the gods recognized by the state, inventing new deities, and corrupting the youth of Athens. Socrates is not apologizing, but defending himself.
• Crito: This dialogue takes place in Socrates’ cell, where he awaits execution.
• Meno: The dialogue begins when Meno asking Socrates whether virtue can be taught, and this question occupies the two men for the entirety of the text.
• Phaedo: The dialogue is told from the perspective of one of Socrates’ students, Phaedo of Elis, who was present at Socrates’ deathbed. Socrates explores various arguments for the soul’s immortality.
In exploring the ancients we learn something about ourselves as well because the emotions generated and the dilemmas of judgment forced upon the characters are timeless and integral parts of the human condition.