On Reading Plato

About 35 years ago, Plato stopped being a stuffy old philosopher full of “teachings,” and became a friend. For the previous five years, I had been centering each semester’s introductory course around The Republic. After ten preparations, I had gotten pretty good at showing the chain of Plato’s reasoning from beginning to end. I thought the book was brilliant, although it contained many ideas that did not seem to make a lot of sense to me or to my students. Still, the ideas that did make sense were numerous enough to justify the book’s 2000 year stellar reputation. (Who, after all, will be reading this blog in 4014?)

One evening, as I was preparing to guide my eleventh journey through Plato’s world, I was brought up short at the very beginning by a passage I had read many times. After a brief exchange with the owner of the villa in which the dialogue takes place, Socrates asks those present “What is justice?” The owner’s son, Polemarchus, jumps in like a good A student with the “right” answer: the poet Simonides says that justice is to render to each his due. “What is due to someone?” asks Socrates, and the two men are off on a logical merry-go-round that is easy to follow and fun to teach. They go from the answer “render good to friends and harm to enemies,” to “how can you tell which is which?” to “maybe in war?” to “is justice only useful in war?”–and on and on until finally Socrates has Polemarchus close to saying that the just person is actually the most skillful thief. Polemarchus says, in effect, “OMG, I don’t mean that, but now I forget what I did mean!” You can almost see his lower lip quivering. Socrates then kindly helps Polemarchus to reassemble his shattered ego by leading him to agree that it is never right to harm anyone, friend or enemy. (an aside: Polemarchus actually says, “By Zeus…” but when my Japanese students asked me what that meant, OMG seemed the perfect translation!)

What stopped me that particular evening was a shock of realization that the logical thrust and parry, although enjoyable, was not truly the point of this passage. It suddenly dawned on me that with all the logical verbiage, Socrates was leading Polemarchus–and me–to that moment of “I don’t know what I did mean,” or better: “I don’t understand the words I was using.”

The purpose of all catechetical answers is to close a question. As the lawyers say, “question asked and answered.” Socrates, however, cracks the question and our minds open with the simple rejoinder “Well, what is due to someone?” Maybe Polemarchus could have saved himself a lot of grief if he had just answered “Golly, I have never thought about that. I really don’t know.” Instead he tried to brazen his way through a labyrinth of argument that finally led him to acknowledge his own foolishness in thinking he knew the answer. As is well known, in that acknowledgement lie the seeds of wisdom.

It further struck me that this lesson was not placed at the beginning of the Republic by accident. Plato was exemplifying his most fundamental reason for writing, and he was talking to me as clearly as Socrates had been addressing Polemarchus: “Watch it, John. Don’t be lulled into complacency by that head full of answers. Might it be that you don’t understand any of those answers beyond the formulaic words you have memorized?” Socrates is famous for saying that the unexamined life is not worth living, but I think Plato’s fundamental purpose goes deeper: “the unexamined mind is not worth having.”

From that moment to this, I have never thought of Plato (or other philosophers for that matter) as simply crafting arguments to be analyzed, and then either accepted or rejected. They have become fellow travelers, confounded and astounded by life’s mysteries as much I am. I see their writings as provocations, urging me to think ever more deeply. I find Plato marvelously provocative, from his explicit refusal to answer some questions, such as What is Wisdom, to seemingly outrageous suggestions, such as having women and children in common, mating by lottery, and having Philosopher Kings. Going behind these “answers,” however, to thinking about the questions with which he is wrestling, often led me and my students to newer and broader perspectives. I seek to understand, rather than to analyze, and this is my ultimate value in any conversation, whether verbal or written.

One of my favorite examples of this philosophical spirit is Walt Whitman’s poem from Leaves of Grass. When a child asks him what is the grass, his immediate response is “I don’t know.” But then he begins to think. Maybe, he says, it is the flag of his disposition; maybe it is the handkerchief of the Lord; maybe it is itself a child; maybe it is a uniform hieroglyphic; and maybe it is the beautiful uncut hair of graves. This leads Whitman to a touching reflection on death: “to die is different from what any one supposed, and luckier.” In like manner, the great questions of The Republic–what is the ideal society, what is justice, what is happiness, what is virtue, what is wisdom, and so many more–are meant initially to prompt the personal and heartfelt answer “I don’t know.” Then an “exposition,” such as the famous allegory of the Cave, becomes an opening gambit in an exciting dialogue that yields myriad perspectives, much like the blind men examining the elephant. It is important to remember, however, that there is an elephant, and that one’s imaginative explorations should form a seamless web that is anchored to the ground of the original idea.

Whenever we came across an “answer,” therefore, I would ask my students to ask themselves two questions. First, “Why is this question being raised?” and second, “So what?”–that is, what difference will this question make in the way we live our lives. For if it is true that the unexamined life is not worth living, it is equally true that the unlived life is not worth examining.

One thought on “On Reading Plato

  1. Tyler

    One of the most memorable moments from my entire time as a student was in Japan when you said, paraphrasing: The Republic is wonderful, but you could drive a truck through all its holes.
    I’ve always taken that to heart as I delved into new (to me) philosophy or religion, ever cognizant of the fact that the authors were like me, trying to make sense of these difficult questions.

    Thank you for creating and updating this website, Professor



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