By absent-minded on
Tuesday, October 30, 2001
Friday, June 29, 2001
(In reply to apprentice)
Apology belongs to the early dialogues, and although important it is not difficult. The title means Socrates' account of his life before the court of Athens. Athenians had accused him for atheism.
In older times, people organised Plato's writings in a way that would let readers use the dialogues as a guide to some kind of an initiation. I have translated for you two small excerpts from two neoplatonic works that do this thing, in case you will find something useful to you, now that you try to see how you should start:
I. Anonymous, Prolegomena to Plato's philosophy (excerpt)
He (Iamblichus) divided Plato's dialogues to 12 parts and some of them he considered as physiological (about nature) and the other as theological. And again the 12 he contracted to 2, to Timaeus and Parmenides, of which two, he placed Timaeus at the top of all the physiological dialogues, and Parmenides at the top of all the theological.
Of those dialogues it would be worth for us to find the order, since anyone wants to read them.
Therefore, one should first read Alcibiades, because in this dialogue we learn ourselves, and it is worthy to know oneself before we know the outer things. Because how can we know these, if we ignore ourselves?
Last of the dialogues we should read Philebus, since in this dialogue Plato talks about goodness, which is beyond everything. Therefore this also the dialogue should be beyond all the others and last.
And here is how we should order the intermediate dialogues.
Since all the virtues are divided in five species - physical, ethical, political, ascetical, theoretical - we should first read Gorgias as a political one, second the Phaedo as ascetical, since ascetical follows the political life.
Hence we come to the knowledge of beings, which is gained by the ethical virtue. And beings are known by concepts or by the things. Therefore, after the aforesaid dialogues we should read forth the Cratylus as it teaches about naming, then Theaetetus as about things.
Then, after them, we come to the [here the text is damaged] about physics and hence to Phaedrus and Symposium as theoretical and about theological issues.
And this way we come to the perfect, namely Timaeus and Parmenides.
II. Albinus, Introduction to Plato's dialogues (excerpt)
Some begin from the Epistles, some from Theages. There are also those who divide the dialogues to tetralogies and they place as first tetralogy that which includes Eythypro, Apology, Crito and Phaedo - Euthyphro because the trial is announced to Socrates, Apology because it is necessary for him to apologise, and to them they add Crito because of the staying of Socrates to the prison, and then Phaedo, because in that dialogue Socrates' life comes to its end. This belief is supported by Derkyllides and Thrasyllos, but it seems to me they want to place an order by the life and personal affairs, which might be useful to some other purpose, but not to our purpose, because we want to find the principle and the order of Plato's teaching according to wisdom.
We say therefore, that Plato's word has not a single and specific principle, but since it is perfect it is like the perfect form of a circle. And just as a circle does not have a single and specific start, so happens with the word.
But we should not, because of this, meet Plato's word in an accidental way, however it might happen. Because, even when we need to draw a circle, we must start from a specific point and follow an order.
Therefore each of us will meet the dialogues according to his relationship with the word at the time that he starts reading. One of such relations is according to nature, like [one being] intelligent or [some other] less intelligent; another is according to age, like maturity in philosophy, or youth; another according to one's will, like when the purpose is philosophy, or history; another according to experience, like educated, or ignorant; another according to subject, like occupied with philosophy, or forced by circumstances.
The one that has a good nature and an age mature for philosophy and a will to approach the word in order to be exercised in virtue and has an experience in the elementary lessons and independence from political circumstances, will start from Alcibiades to change and return and know what he needs to take care of.
Afterwards, just like to an exemplar that is fit to reveal to us, what a philosopher is and what he does and for what purpose he speaks, he will need to meet Phaedo. Because in that dialogue Plato says what is to be a philosopher and what is the kind of the profession and he talks about him in order to prove that the soul is immortal.
After that, you need to read the Republic. Because there Plato starts from the first generation and describes the whole knowledge, which, if one uses, may arrive to the possession of virtue.
And since we need also to be conscious of the divine things in order to use virtue to be like the Gods as much as we can, we shall meet Timaeus. Because when we learn about nature and theology and the good order of everything we will see instead clearly the divine things.
I would suggest these links:
Plato Home Page (complete works, anthology, concepts, search, studies)
Exploring Plato's Dialogues (it contains some interesting studies and the translations of the dialogues there featured, are linked with the Greek prototype. -Don't tell me you don't know Greek!)
Guthrie, W. K. C. "The Reaction Towards Humanism (The Sophists and Socrates)" (masterful philological approach. Cf. by Guthrie, On the Life of Plato and his philosophical influences.
See also Elpenor's anthology of Greek texts and resources