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About the Works of Plato

The following explanation of the works of Plato was written by Thomas Taylor in 1804.

“The dialogues of Plato are of various kinds; not only with regard to those different matters, which are the subjects of them; but in respect of the manner also, in which they are composed or framed, and of the form under which they make their appearance to the reader. It will therefore, as I imagine, be not improper, in pursuance of the admonition given us by Plato himself in his dialogue named Phaedrus, and in imitation of the example set us by the antient Platonists, to distinguish the several kinds; by dividing them, first, into the most general; and then, subdividing into the subordinate; till we come to those lower species, that particularly and precisely denote the nature of the several dialogues, and from which they ought to take their respective denominations.

Skeptical & Dogmatical Dialogues

The most general division of the writings of Plato, is into those of the Sceptical kind, and those of the Dogmatical. In the Sceptical, nothing is expressly either proved or asserted: some philosophical question only is considered and examined; and the reader is left to himself to draw such conclusions, and discover such truths, as the philosopher means to insinuate. This, is done, either in the way of inquiry, or in the way of controversy and dispute. In the way of controversy are carried on all such dialogues, as tend to eradicate false opinions; and that, either indirectly, by involving them in difficulties, and embarrassing the maintainers of them; or directly, by confuting them. In the way of inquiry proceed those, whose tendency is to raise in the mind right opinions; and that, either by exciting to the pursuit of some part of wisdom, and showing in what manner to investigate it; or by leading the way, and helping the mind forward in the search. And this is effected by a process through opposing arguments.

The dialogues of the other kind, the Dogmatical or Didactic, teach explicitly some point of doctrine: and this they do, either by laying it down in the authoritative way, or by proving it in the way of reason and argument. In the authoritative way the doctrine is delivered sometimes by the speaker himself magisterially, at other times as derived to him by tradition from wise men. The argumentative or demonstrative method of teaching, used by Plato, proceeds in all the dialectic ways, dividing, defining, demonstrating, and analyzing; and the object of it consists in exploring truth alone.

According to this division is framed the following scheme, or table :

The Wisdom of Socrates

The philosopher, in thus varying his manner, and diversifying his writings into these several kinds, means not merely to entertain with their variety; nor to teach, on different occasions, with more or less plainness and perspicuity; nor yet to insinuate different degrees of certainty in the doctrines themselves; but he takes this method, as a consummate master of the art of composition in the dialogue-way of writing, from the different characters of the speakers, as from different elements in the frame of these dramatic dialogues, or different ingredients in their mixture, producing some peculiar genius, and turn of temper, as it were, in each.
Socrates indeed is in almost all of them the principal speaker; but when he falls into the company of some arrogant sophist; when the modest wisdom, and clear science of the one, are contrasted with the confident ignorance, and blind opinionativeness of the other; dispute and controversy must of course arise; where the false pretender cannot fail of being either puzzled or confuted. To puzzle him only is sufficient, if there be no other persons present; because such a man can never be confuted in his own opinion : but when there is an audience round them, in danger of being misled by sophistry into error, then is the true philosopher to exert his utmost, and the vain sophist to be convicted and exposed.

In some dialogues Plato represents his great master mixing conversation with young men of the best families in the commonwealth. When these happen to have docile dispositions and fair minds, then is occasion given to the philosopher to call forth the latent seeds of wisdom, and to cultivate the noble plants with true doctrine, in the affable and familiar way of joint inquiry. To this is owing the inquisitive genius of such dialogues: where, by a seeming equality in the conversation, the curiosity or zeal of the mere stranger is excited; that of the disciple is encouraged; and by proper questions, the mind is aided and forwarded in the search of truth.

At other times, the philosophic hero of these dialogues is introduced in a higher character, engaged in discourse with men of more improved understandings and enlightened minds. At such seasons he has an opportunity of teaching in a more explicit manner, and of discovering the reasons of things: for to such an audience truth is due, and all a demonstration possible in the teaching it. Hence, in the dialogues composed of these persons, naturally arises the justly argumentative or demonstrative genius; and this, as we have before observed, according to all the dialectic methods.

But when the doctrine to be taught admits not of demonstration; of which kind is the doctrine of antiquities, being only traditional, and a matter of belief ; and the doctrine of laws, being injunctional, and the matter of obedience; the air of authority is then assumed: in the former cases, the doctrine is traditionally handed down to others from the authority of antient sages; in the latter, is magisterially pronounced with the authority of a legislator.

Thus much for the manner, in which the dialogues of Plato are severally composed, and the cast of genius given them in their composition. The form under which they appear, or the external character that marks them, is of three sorts; either purely dramatic, like the dialogue of tragedy or comedy; or purely narrative, where a former conversation is supposed to be committed to writing, and communicated to some absent friend; or of the mixed kind, like a narration in dramatic poems, where is recited, to some person present, the story of things past.

Subject of the Dialogues

Having thus divided the dialogues of Plato, in respect of that inward form or composition, which creates their genius; and again, with reference to that outward form, which marks them, like flowers and other vegetables, with a certain character ; we are further to make a division of them, with regard to their subject and their design; beginning with their design, or end, because for the sake of this are all the subjects chosen. The end of all the writings of Plato is that which is the end of all true philosophy or wisdom, the perfection and the happiness of man. Man therefore is the general subject; and the first business of philosophy must be to inquire, what is that being called man, who is to be made happy; and what is his nature, in the perfcction of which is placed his happiness. As however, in the preceding- part of this Introduction, we have endeavoured to give the outlines of Plato’s doctrine concerning man, it is unnecessary in this place to say any thing further on that subject.

The dialogues of Plato, therefore, with respect to their subjects, may be divided into the speculative, the practical, and such as are of a mixed nature. The subjects of these last are either general, comprehending both the others; or differential, distinguishing them. The general subjects are either fundamental, or final: those of the fundamental kind are philosophy, human nature, the soul of man; of the final kind are love, beauty, good. The differential regard knowledge, as it stands related to practice; in which are considered two questions: one of which is, whether virtue is to be taught; the other is, whether error in the will depends on error in the judgment. The subjects of the speculative dialogues relate either to words, or to things. Of the former sort are etymology, sophistry, rhetoric, poetry: of the latter sort are science, true being, the principles of mind, outward nature. The practical subjects relate either to private conduct, and the government of the mind over the whole man; or to his duty towards others in his several relations; or to the government of a civil state, and the public conduct of a whole people. Under these three heads rank in order the particular subjects practical;, virtue in general, sanctity, temperance, fortitude; justice, friendship, patriotism, piety; the ruling mind in a civil government, the frame and order of a state, law in general, and lastly, those rules of government and of public conduct, the civil laws.

Thus, for the sake of giving the reader a scientific, that is, a comprehensive, and at the same time a distinct, view of Plato’s writings, we have attempted to exhibit to him their just and natural distinctions; whether he chooses to consider them with regard to their inward form or essence, their outward form or appearance, their matter, or their end: that is, in those more familiar terms, we have used in this Synopsis, their genius, their character, their subject, and their design.

And here it is requisite to observe, that as it is the characteristic of the highest good to be universally beneficial, though some things are benefitted by it more and others less, in consequence of their greater or less aptitude to receive it; in like manner the dialogues of Plato are so largely stamped with the characters of sovereign good, that they are calculated to benefit in a certain degree even those who are incapable of penetrating their profundity. They can tame a savage sophist, like Thrasymachus in the Republic; humble the arrogance even of those who are ignorant of their ignorance; make those to become proficients in political, who will never arrive at theoretic virtue; and, in short, like the illuminations of deity, wherever there is any portion of aptitude in their recipients, they purify, irradiate, and exalt.

Preambles of Plato’s Dialogues

After this general view of the dialogues of Plato, let us in the next place consider their preambles, the digressions with which they abound, and the character of the style in which they are written. With respect to the first of these, the preambles, however superfluous they may at’ first sight appear, they will be found on a closer inspection necessary to the design of the dialogues which they accompany. Thus the prefatory part of the Timaeus unfolds, in images agreeably to the Pythagoric custom, the theory of the world; and the first part of the Parmenides, or the discussion of ideas, is in fact merely a preamble to the second part, or the speculation of the one ; to which however it is essentially preparatory. Hence, as Plutarch says, when he speaks of Plato’s dialogue on the Atlantic island: These preambles are superb gates and magnificent courts with which he purposely embellishes his great edifices, that nothing may be wanting to their beauty, and that all may be equally splendid. He acts, as Dacier well observes, like a great prince, who. when he builds a sumptuous palace, adorns (in the language of Pindar) the vestibule with golden pillars. For it is fit that what is first seen should be splendid and magnificent, and should as it were perspicuously announce all that grandeur which afterwards presents itself to the view.

Digressions in Plato’s Dialogues

With respect to the frequent digressions in his dialogues, these also, when accurately examined, will be found to be no less subservient to the leading design of the dialogues in which they are introduced; at the same time that they afford a pleasing relaxation to the mind from the labour of severe investigation. Hence Plato, by the most happy and enchanting art, contrives to lead the reader to the temple of Truth, through the delightful groves and valleys of the Graces. In short, this circuitous course, when attentively considered, will be found to be the shortest road by which he could conduct the reader to the desired end: for in accomplishing this it is necessary to regard not that road which is most straight in the nature of things, or abstractedly considered, but that which is most direct in the progressions of human understanding.

Style of Plato’s Dialogues

With respect to the style of Plato, though it forms in reality the most inconsiderable part of the merit of his writings, style in all philosophical works being the last thing that should be attended to, yet even, in this Plato may contend for the palm of excellence with the most renowned masters of diction. Hence we find that his style was the admiration of the finest writers of antiquity. According to Ammianus, Jupiter himself would not speak otherwise, if he were to converse in the Attic tongue. Aristotle considered his style as a medium between poetry and prose. Cicero no less praises him for the excellence of bis diction than the profundity of his conceptions ; and Longinus calls him, with respect to his language, the rival of Homer. Hence he is considered by this prince of critics, as deriving into himself abundant streams from the Homeric fountain, and is compared by him, in his rivalship of Homer, to anew antagonist, who enters the lists against one that is already the object of universal admiration.

Notwithstanding this praise, however, Plato has been accused, as Longinus informs us, of being frequently hurried away as by a certain Bacchic fury of words to immoderate and unpleasant metaphors, and an allegoric magnificence of diction. Longinus excuses this by saying, that whatever naturally excels in magnitude possesses very little of purity. For that, says he, which is in every respect accurate is in danger of littleness. He adds, “and may not this also be necessary, that those of an abject and moderate genius, because they never encounter danger, nor aspire after the summit of excellence, are for the most part without error and remain in security; but that great things become insecure through their magnitude?” Indeed it appears to me, that whenever this exuberance, this Bacchic fury, occurs in the diction of Plato, it is owing to the magnitude of the inspiring influence of deity with which he is then replete. For that he sometimes wrote from divine inspiration is evident from his own confession in the Phaedrus, a great part of which is not so much like an orderly discourse as a dithyrambic poem. Such a style therefore, as it is the progeny of divine mania, which, as Plato justly observes, is better than all human prudence, spontaneously adapts itself to its producing cause, imitates a supernatural power as far as this can be effected bv words, and thus necessarily becomes magnificent, vehement, and exuberant; for such arc the characteristics of its source. All judges of composition however, both antient and modern, are agreed that his style is in general graceful and pure; and that it is sublime without being impetuous and rapid. It is indeed no less harmonious than elevated, no less accurate1 than magnificent. It combines the force of the greatest orators with the graces of the first of poets; and, in short, is a river to which those justly- celebrated lines of Denham may be most pertinently applied:

Tho’ deep, yet clear; tho’ gentle, yet not dull;
Strong without rage, without o’erflowing full.

Arrangement of Plato’s Dialogues

Having thus considered the philosophy of Plato, given a general view of his writings, and made some observations on his style, it only now remains to speak of the following arrangement of his dialogues and translation of his works, and then, with a few appropriate observations, to close this Introduction.

As no accurate and scientific arrangement then of these dialogues has been transmitted to us from the antients, I was under the necessity of adopting an arrangement of my own, which I trust is not unscientific, however inferior it may be to that which was doubtless made, though unfortunately lost, by the latter interpreters of Plato. In my arrangement, therefore, I have imitated the order of the universe, in which, as I have already observed, wholes precede parts, and universals particulars. Hence I have placed those dialogues first which rank as wholes, or have the relation of a system, and afterwards those in which these systems are branched out into particulars. Thus, after the First Alcibiades, which may be called, and appears to have been generally considered by the antients, an introduction to the whole of Plato’s philosophy, I have placed the Republic and the Laws, which may be said to comprehend systematically the morals and politics of Plato. After these I have ranked the Timaeus, which contains the whole of his physiology, and together with it the Critias, because of its connection with the Timaeus. The next in order is the Parmenides, which contains a system of his theology. Thus far this arrangement is conformable to the natural progress of the human mind in the acquisition of the sublimes! knowledge: the subsequent arrangement principally regards the order of things. After the Parmenides then, the Sophista, Phaedrus, Greater Hippias, and Banquet, follow, which may be considered as so many lesser wholes subordinate to and comprehended in the Parmenides, which, like the universe itself, is a whole of wholes. For in the Sophista being itself is investigated, in the Banquet love itself and in the Phredrus beauty itself; all which are intelligible forms, and are consequently contained in the Parmenides, in which the whole extent of the intelligible is unfolded. The Greater Hippias is classed with the Phredrus, because in the latter the whole series of the beautiful is discussed, and in the former that which subsists in soul. After these follows the Theaetetus, in which science considered as subsisting in soul is investigated; science itself, according to its first subsistence, having been previously celebrated by Socrates in one part of the Phaedrus. The Politicus and Minos, which follow next, may be considered as ramifications from the Laws: and, in short, all the following dialogues either consider more particularly the dogmas which are systematically comprehended in those already enumerated, or naturally flow from them as their original source. As it did not however appear possible to arrange these dialogues which rank as parts in the same accurate order as those which we considered as wholes, it was thought better to class them either according to their agreement in one particular circumstance, as the Phaedo, Apology, and Crito, all which relate to the death of Socrates, and as the Meno and Protagoras, which relate to the question whether virtue can be taught; or according to their agreement in character, as the Lesser Hippias and Euthydemus, which are anatreptic, and the Theages, Laches, and Lysis, which are maieutic dialogues. The Cratylus is ranked in the last place, not so much because the subject of it is etymology, as because a great part of it is deeply theological: for bv this arrangement, after having ascended to all the divine orders and their ineffable principle in the Parmenides, and thence descended in a regular series to the human soul in the subsequent dialogues, the reader is again led back to deity in this dialogue, and thus imitates the order which all beings observe, that of incessantly returning to the principles whence they flow.

After the dialogues I follow the Epistles of Plato, which are in every respect worthy that prince of all true philosophers. They are not only written with great elegance, and occasionally with magnificence of diction, but with all the becoming dignity of a mind conscious of its superior endowments, and all the authority of a master in philosophy. They are likewise replete with many admirable political observations, and contain some of his most abstruse dogmas, which though delivered enigmatically, yet the manner in which they are delivered, elucidates at the same time that it is elucidated by what is said of these dogmas in his more theological dialogues.

Translations of Plato’s Dialogues

With respect to the following translation, it is necessary to observe, in the first place, that the number of the legitimate dialogues of Plato is fifty-five; for though the Republic forms but one treatise, and the Laws another, yet the former consists of ten and the latter of twelve books, and each of these books is a dialogue. Hence, as there are thirty-three dialogues, besides the Laws and the Republic, fifty-five will, as we have said, be the amount of the whole. Of these fifty-five, the nine following have been translated by Mr. Sydenham; viz. the First and Second Alcibiades, the Greater and Lesser Hippias, the Banquet (except the speech of Alcibiades), the Philebus, the Meno, the Io, and the Rivals. I have already observed, and with deep regret, that this excellent though unfortunate scholar died before he had made that proficiency in the philosophy of Plato which might have been reasonably expected from so fair a beginning. I personally knew him only in the decline of life, when his mental powers were not only considerably impaired by age, but greatly injured by calamity. His life had been very stormy : his circumstances, for many years preceding his death, were indigent; his patrons were by no means liberal; and his real friends were neither numerous nor affluent. He began the study of Plato, as he himself informed me, when he had considerably passed the meridian of life, and with most unfortunate prejudices against his best disciples, which I attempted to remove during my acquaintance with him, and partly succeeded in the attempt; but infirmity and death prevented its completion. Under such circumstances it was not to be expected that he would fathom the profundity of Plato’s conceptions, and arrive at the summit of philosophic attainments. I saw, however, that his talents and his natural disposition were such as might have ranked him among the best of Plato’s interpreters, if he had not yielded to the pressure of calamity, if he had not nourished such baneful prejudices, and if he had not neglected philosophy in the early part of life. Had this happened, my labours would have been considerably lessened, or perhaps rendered entirely unnecessary, and his name would have been transmitted to posterity with undecaying renown. As this unfortunately did not happen, I have been under the necessity of diligently examining and comparing with the original all those parts of the dialogues which he translated, that are more deeply philosophical, or that contain any thing of the theology of Plato. In these, as might be expected, I found him greatly deficient; I found him sometimes mistaking the meaning through ignorance of Plato’s more sublime tenets, and at other times perverting it, in order to favour some opinions of his own. His translation however of other parts which are not so abstruse is excellent. In these he not only presents the reader faithfully with the matter, but likewise with the genuine manner of Plato. The notes too which accompany the translation of these parts generally exhibit just criticism and extensive learning, an elegant taste, and a genius naturally philosophic. Of these notes I have preserved as much as was consistent with the limits and design of the following work.
Of the translation of the Republic by Dr. Spens, it is necessary to observe, that a considerable part of it is very faithfully executed ; but that in the more abstruse parts it is inaccurate; and that it every where abounds with Scotticisms which offend an English ear, and vulgarisms which are no less disgraceful to the translator than disgusting to the reader. Suffice it therefore to say of this version, that I have adopted it wherever I found it could with propriety be adopted, and given my own translation where it was otherwise.

Of the ten dialogues, translated by Dacier, 1 can say nothing with accuracy, because I have no knowledge whatever of the French language; but if any judgment may be formed of this work, from a translation of it into English, I will be bold to say that it is by no means literal, and that he very frequently mistakes the sense of the original. From this translation therefore I could derive but little assistance; some however I have derived, and that little I willingly acknowledge. In translating the rest of Plato’s works and this, as the reader may easily see, forms by far the greatest part of them, I have had no assistance from any translation except that of Ficinus, the general excellency of which is well known to every student of Plato, arising not only from his possessing a knowledge of Platonism superior to that of any translators that have followed him, but likewise from his having made this translation from a very valuable manuscript in the Medicean library, which is now no longer to be found. I have, however, availed myself of the learned labours of the editors of various dialogues of Plato; such as the edition of the Rivals, Euthyphro, Apology, Crito, and Phaedo, by Forster; of the First and Second Alcibiades and Hipparchus, by Etwall; of the Meno, First Alcibiades, Phaedo and Phaedrus, printed at Vienna 1784; of the Cratylus and Theaetetus, by Fischer; of the Republic, by Massey; and of the Euthydemus and Gorgias, by Dr. Routh, president of Magdalen College, Oxford. This last editor has enriched his edition of these two dialogues with very valuable and copious philological and critical notes, in which he has displayed no less learning than judgment, no less acuteness than taste. He appears indeed to me to be one of the best and most modest of philologists ; and it is to be hoped that he will be imitated in what he has done by succeeding editors of Plato’s text.

If my translation had been made with an eye to the judgment of the man}r, it would have been necessary to apologize for its literal exactness. Had I been anxious to gratify false taste with respect to composition, I should doubtless have attended less to the precise meaning of the original, have omitted almost all connective particles, have divided long periods into a number of short ones, and branched out the strong and deep river of Plato’s language into smooth-gliding, shallow, and feeble streams; but as the present work was composed with the hope indeed of benefiting all, but with an eye to the criticism solely of men of elevated souls, I have endeavoured not to lose a word of the original; and yet at the same time have attempted to give the translation as much elegance as such verbal accuracy can be supposed capable of admitting. I have also endeavoured to preserve the manner as well as the matter of my author, being fully persuaded that no translation deserves applause, in which both these are not as much as possible preserved.

Conclusion

My principal object in this arduous undertaking has been to unfold all the abstruse and sublime dogmas of Plato, as they are found dispersed in his works. Minutely to unravel the art which he employs in the composition of all his dialogues, and to do full justice to his meaning in every particular, must be the task of some one who has more leisure, and who is able to give the works of Plato to the public on a more extensive plan. In accomplishing this great object, I have presented the reader in my notes with nearly the substance in English of all the following manuscript Greek Commentaries and Scholia on Plato; viz. of the Commentaries of Proclus on the Parmenides and First Alcibiades, and of his Scholia on the Cratylus; of the Scholia of Olympiodorus on the Phaedo, Gorgias, and Philebus; and of Hermeas on the Phaedrus. To these are added very copious extracts from the manuscript of Damascius, PERI ARCHON, and from the published works of Proclus on the Timaeus, Republic, and Theology of Plato. Of the four first of these manuscripts, three of which are folio volumes, I have complete copies taken with my own hand; and of the copious extracts from the others, those from Olympiodorus on the Gorgias were taken by me from the copy preserved in the British Museum: those from the same philosopher on the Philebus, and those from Hermeas on the Phaedrus, and Damascius PERI ARCHON, from the copies in the Bodleian library.”

Source: Taylor, Thomas. The Works of Plato: His Fifty-Five Dialogues and Twelve Epistles. (London: 1804), Vol. I, pp. xciii-cx.

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