Plato is the first canonical philosopher in the West with an extensive corpus that is widely studied. Almost every philosophy student will read Plato at least once in their life. Understanding Plato, however, is sometimes difficult.
For a so-called philosopher, the argument goes, he was very abstract and stands in contrast to the more concrete thinking and analysis of Aristotle. After all, Plato tells a lot of stories in his dialogues whereas Aristotle is far more technical in his surviving works. This, however, is to be expected. Plato first dreamt of becoming a dramatist before he turned to philosophy. If he wanted, he could have written in prose form which was already prominent as a writing form in Plato’s time. Instead, he chose to write in dialogue form because Plato was, first and foremost, an artist (I will have more on this in the essay on the Timaeus).
This may initially sound odd given Plato’s animosity toward the poets in The Republic. Superficially, the first glance reading of Plato as an enemy of art and poetry seems correct. However, a deeper reading and understanding of Plato reveals that he is attacking the insufficiency of the mythologists and other poet-dramatists who obscure truth and reality in their works. Plato understood the importance and power of poetry, art, and the other artistic endeavors; thus it was imperative for him to get art right. When he banishes the poets in The Republic he is not banning art—he is merely banning the false communicators of wisdom who use art as their primary vehicle for promoting wisdom.
It is true that many readers of Plato latch on to his metaphysics and epistemology, commonly known to us as the Theory of the Forms. This, however, is problematic. First, the metaphysician and epistemologist known as Plato cannot be divorced from the fact that he was a political philosopher first and foremost. Insofar that metaphysics and epistemology are a concern for Plato, they must be understood as subordinate to his overriding concern for politics. Second, the Christianized and Neoplatonized reception of Plato is what birthed Plato the metaphysician and epistemologist at the exclusion of Plato the political philosopher. Yet all of Plato’s dialogues are eminently political writings. They concern themselves with questions of law, justice, government and governance, tyranny, liberty, and our relations with others. Reclaiming Plato as a political philosopher first and foremost is the expressed purpose of this short work.
This book is an introduction to the politics of Plato meant to be accessible to the everyday reader. I have written on Plato somewhat extensively, having published several academic articles on Plato and having written public essays expositing on the importance of Plato as well. Some of those writings reappear here in this volume. The other writings included are self-published introductory readings and essays on some of the more explicitly political dialogues that nonetheless get obscured by debates over the soul and chariots.
Since this book is meant to be an accessible introduction I have decided to limit the readings of Plato to specific dialogues to suffice as a concise introduction. This volume includes brief expository essays on the politics of the Euthyphro, Phaedo, and Phaedrus. This volume also includes some of my professionally published essays on articles on the Symposium, Crito, and Republic, as well as a feature exposition of the Timaeus. As we approach The Republic, which serves as the finale of this book, I include short introductory interpretations of several of the major myths in The Republic to prepare the reader for the concluding article “Savagery, Irony, and Satire in Plato’s Republic” which was published by the online academic website and journal VoegelinView which I now serve as an associate editor for. As such, I offer introductory remarks on “The Noble Lie,” “The Cave,” and the “Myth of Er” before proceeding into an extensive and academic interpretation of The Republic.
Reading Plato is one of life’s great joys. I recall being enthused when I read Plato as an undergraduate philosophy student. Plato, evidently, made an impact on me. I have never abandoned Plato and frequently return to him in my thought, writing, and general outlook on life. I hope the reader of this short work on Plato will find it insightful, witty, and, perhaps, profound. May you then take your place on the chariot and seize the reins and ascend ever higher to the sun…
You can read my book on Plato, containing multiple previously published essays and academic articles, as well as short introductions to Plato’s many dialogues, here: The Politics of Plato: A Beginner’s Guide.