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The best books on Plato

recommended by Melissa Lane

He came from a politically active family, but renounced politics to become a philosopher. Or did he? Melissa Lane chooses the best books to help us understand Plato.

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Melissa Lane

Melissa Lane is Class of 1943 Professor of Politics at Princeton University. She is an associated faculty member in the Department of Classics and the Department of Philosophy and serves as co-director of the Princeton Climate Futures, based at the Princeton Environmental Institute. Her most recent book is Greek and Roman Political Ideas. 

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Melissa Lane

Melissa Lane is Class of 1943 Professor of Politics at Princeton University. She is an associated faculty member in the Department of Classics and the Department of Philosophy and serves as co-director of the Princeton Climate Futures, based at the Princeton Environmental Institute. Her most recent book is Greek and Roman Political Ideas. 

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Who was Plato?

Plato was an Athenian who lived in the late fifth and into the fourth century BCE. He was of aristocratic descent, especially on his mother’s side. As a young man he was attracted to the possibility of a life in politics: many of his relatives were part of an oligarchic coup against the Athenian democracy that was very bloody and destructive (there were actually two such coups, both relatively short-lived, during his boyhood). Then he met Socrates, a great Athenian philosopher, and renounced his traditional political ambitions. One of the interesting questions is — as he eventually turned to writing philosophical dialogues — was he still practising politics but in another form?

Plato’s dialogues are often presented as highly philosophical. Are you saying there’s a political message underlying them?

They’re both philosophical and political. Part of what he’s doing is thinking about what it is to philosophise about politics, which is actually itself rather new. Most philosophers before him in Greece hadn’t thought directly about politics. One of the things explored in some of the books that I’ve chosen is the act of writing. As one of the authors I’ve chosen, Danielle Allen, has argued in particular, it is the very act of writing that provides new symbols, new metaphors, new images for how to think about ideas like anger, desire, and the nature of the soul.  And she suggests that perhaps too the very act of writing is, for Plato, a way of changing the political culture, both of his own city and of the cities of his readers.

Let’s take the first book you’ve chosen: Josiah Ober’s Political Dissent in Democratic Athens. Why did you choose this book?

This book is very instructive. It helps us understand Plato in the political and intellectual context he was writing in. What Ober posits is that we can see a whole generation of people who are critical of the prevailing norms and practices of the Athenian democracy and are exploring new ways to write and speak which challenge those norms. It’s in that context that we can understand Plato. Ober’s book really helps us because it makes Plato not this singular one-off comet, but rather someone who is part of a broader political and intellectual movement.

And was he dissenting against democracy?

Yes, he was dissenting against democracy. It’s very hard for us to recapture how radical this was. Athens was the first democracy at this time — there are others, but it’s the most powerful. It has these moments of inner turmoil, the oligarchic coups I mentioned earlier, arising from tensions of internal politics exacerbated by fighting a war against Sparta and her allies that Athens eventually lost. This is the first regime in which the majority of common people — people who are poor and may not own any property, who are maybe artisans or tenant farmers — actually have political power. To win success in politics you have to speak in terms that they are going to approve of, as members of the assembly and popular juries. That leads to a certain idea of what knowledge is, or what power is, what one should aim at. That’s what Plato, and others like him, were criticising.

Was Plato essentially an elitist about where power should lie?

Crudely, yes. Of course it’s more subtle than that. Some scholars have argued that you can see reflections of democratic practices in the way he conceives the free speech of philosophy: free speech being a value that democracy also had. So I don’t think one can say it quite so simply. But there certainly are moments in Plato — for example when he argues against the idea that majority rule is the standard of legitimacy or even truth — where he really wants to dramatically challenge and say, “We have an independent philosophical standard of truth rooted in the nature of reality, and what the majority thinks can’t change that.”

It seems to me that several of the themes you’ve mentioned are central to another of the books you’ve chosen, which is by Plato himself, and is generally regarded as one of his greatest works, the Republic.

In Greek it’s Politeia, which we translate as ‘constitution.’ ‘Republic’ is actually the English translation from the Latin title, Res Publica, which means ‘the people’s thing/concern/affair.’ In English, ‘republic’ has come to mean a certain kind of constitution – a republic as opposed, say, to a tyranny.  But in Greek, the constitution that is outlined in the Republic is presented by Plato as the only one that really has a claim to count as a constitution at all; any other kind of constitution is only a kind of factious device that will lead to division and alienation. Only the ideal constitution that the Republic describes is a constitution worthy of the name.

And that reflection on ideals is very much in keeping with Plato’s general metaphysical approach.

Yes. The Republic is really exploring what it would be to have good political rule. There are two desiderata: you want to have people who have the right moral character, who aren’t wanting to get power in order to feather their own nests or to execute their enemies. That’s very fundamental. You want people who are reluctant to rule. You also want people who understand the good, who understand the goals of rule, because if you’re ruling, you’re ruling for some purpose. If people are ignorant — again as Plato posited the democratic decision makers were — they wouldn’t be able to know the right aims of rule, or to implement them. So these two desiderata actually come together in the people whom he calls philosophers. They’re described as people who love learning so they don’t love greed, they’re not greedy for other things, they don’t love bodily appetites. That makes them of good moral character, at least potentially, and in loving learning they’re capable of actually coming to understand the true nature of reality as a synthetic whole. Only if such people could rule could there be an end to evils for cities. That’s the idea.

As an empirical hypothesis it hasn’t proved very accurate has it?

You could say it’s never really been tried. You’ve had lots of people who are tyrants, but they don’t necessarily know the nature of reality. In a way, it is a very radical empirical claim because it’s saying there never has been a good society. None of the societies we see around us are. Some are better than others, but on the whole, no society has ever really been oriented to the good as Plato understood it. One simplistic idea would be he’s just writing this to give us a blueprint, that what we should do is go out and find these people and set up this society. The problem is we can’t force these people into existence. If they don’t really exist, then anything you do to try to make the society happen just wouldn’t work. A more sophisticated way to look at it is that in writing this dialogue, just by getting people to believe this would be the best regime, that itself could potentially change the nature of existing politics. You don’t necessarily have to have the ideal philosophers for the book, the Republic, to have an effect in changing political culture.

That’s a really interesting way of looking at it, as a way of undermining unquestioned faith in democratic principles in fifth century Athens — rather than a way of moving people towards a totalitarian regime with leaders who can’t be questioned at the top.

Exactly. Then there’s a spectrum of possibilities: you might think, “Well, even in the democracy, if people had more self-control, if people were more able to govern themselves with justice and moderation — which are some of the virtues that the philosophers would ideally have — that would still make democracy better.” Even in democracy it would be better if more people read the Republic. There’s a question about how far he wants to go with that, how radical he is.

Some of these ideas I’ve just been talking about are advanced in another of the books that I’ve chosen, which is called Why Plato Wrote by Danielle Allen. Her argument is that Plato wrote, as she puts it, to change “the symbol garden of Athenian culture.” Now we should say he wasn’t only writing for Athens. He had students in his academy from all over the Greek world. Many of his students, and their students, would go on and take his ideas beyond its walls to other societies. So I think it’s too narrow to say only Athens. Maybe both Ober and Allen direct us mainly to his impact on Athens and we should also look beyond. But I think what they say about Athens is very illuminating.

This is actually a really interesting way of reading a text that has been read by millions of people since it was written. Is this very much a 21st century way of reading Plato?

That’s an interesting question. George Grote, in 19th century England, was one of the first people to really try to appreciate Plato in his historical context. Before that, people had tended to sever him from Athens, and say “Look, Athens just got him completely wrong, he just despised it, there’s no real connection between them.” There was a sort of dichotomy — either you could admire Athens, or you could admire Plato, but you couldn’t understand them both in any kind of productive relation. Of course Plato is someone about whom, almost from the beginning, there’s been dissent about how to read him. There were people who read him as a full-blown idealist. Then there were people who read him as a sceptic, because some of the dialogues end in aporia, in unresolved puzzles. The sceptical Plato and the political Plato also have roots in Nietzsche. This idea that Plato was writing to have an impact in politics through his writing is something that Nietzsche was very interested in. I’m slightly randomly picking forbears, but I don’t think it’s only the 21st century. It’s true that you need a historical approach. Before the 19th century, approaches were more straightforwardly philosophical, so they didn’t have this historical dimension.

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It’s interesting to read Plato as somebody who is quite self-consciously trying to make people think for themselves, rather than giving them simple truths which they then rehearse and enact.

Yes, that’s important. Within the Republic itself there are different frames that are very interesting. Most of the Republic is a dialogue between Socrates and two of Plato’s brothers. The three of them constitute themselves as legislators for a city in speech. The ideal constitution is what they’re legislating, but they know that it’s only a city in speech. Then the question is, “What are we, as readers, reading about legislation for a city in speech, knowing that that’s not the same thing as a city in deeds and actuality?” There’s a great standard contrast between words and deeds that really opens up the question of we as readers. We have to have some relationship to it and to take a role in relation to it.

Isn’t there a further level as well? Isn’t the idea of a republic only introduced as a metaphor for the human mind?

Not just the mind, but the soul. This is a big debate. In Book I of the Republic, one of the initial questions is, “Can there ever be a just city or are all cities inherently ones in which justice is only serving the interests of their rulers? It’s a facade if people think that it benefits them, it only really benefits the elite.” This raises the question, “Is it always in an individual’s interest to obey justice?” It sounds like it isn’t. Then that becomes the key question. How can we show whether the happiest life is going to be the just life or the unjust life? If we’re going to try to answer that about the individual mind or soul, let’s look at the city in big letters, like a model for the soul. The arc of the dialogue then is, what does thinking about these cities tell us about the soul? But we’ve already had the political question on the table. We don’t have to say it’s not telling us something important about politics just because we acknowledge that the ultimate goal is whether it is in the individual’s interest to be just, or not.

The next book you’ve chosen is Eric Havelock’s Preface to Plato. The title seems to imply that it’s what you read before you read Plato?

What Eric Havelock is interested in is the state of culture in Greece before Plato. It’s not so much an introductory guidebook to Plato or a classic work of Platonic scholarship. Yet it made a huge impression on me when I read it because what he argues is that you have to appreciate the depths of the role of oral culture in Mediterranean societies, and in Greek and Athenian society. It’s really only in the century or so before Plato that writing starts to become a widespread technology, and, in his own century, that you start to have widespread writing down of laws, widespread collection of tax. Up until that time, if you think about Homer and Hesiod, they’re passed on through an oral tradition — very much like the oral traditions of poetry that you still have in parts of the Balkans. People, rhapsodes, memorised them, and they passed it down orally. What we find in Plato, explicitly, is tremendous anxiety and concern about the nature of writing. Of course the great paradox is that he’s writing, he’s reflecting on the limits of writing, the challenges of writing, of this new technology, very much the way we now reflect on the Internet and social media, how is this going to change our culture? Those are the questions that Plato was asking in his own time about writing.

That makes sense of how he deals with Socrates’s scepticism about the value of writing. Socrates thought that philosophers shouldn’t write anything down apart from a few odd notes didn’t he?

Socrates himself just didn’t write down his philosophy. It’s not clear that he said you shouldn’t, but he didn’t. It’s hard to know how to read Plato’s depiction of Socrates, but certainly we find Plato reflecting on why would you/wouldn’t you write. One of the two places he reflects on that most is in the Statesman, which is one of the other works that I’ve chosen. There’s another book which I didn’t choose but is an interesting parallel. It’s by Richard Seaford and it’s called Money and the Ancient Greek Mind. This book argues that money is this very new technology at that moment. If you think about writing and money — both so central to the way civilisation is organised — the idea that these are both new when Plato is thinking about them…You know he’s really grappling with something that is as new as the Internet is for us, or maybe not quite as new as that, but maybe as new as the telephone is, or the personal computer, in terms of its widespread penetration into his society.

Plato’s Statesman, this is a book I know very little about. Why did you choose it?

This was the subject of my PhD thesis and my first book. It’s a very neglected dialogue of Plato’s, and wrongly so, I think. Often people say Plato has three great political dialogues, the Republic, the Statesman and the Laws. One problem with saying that is that you might say all his dialogues have a political dimension. So even if you say, OK, these are the three dialogues that explicitly treat the nature of politics and constitutions, the Republic and the Laws look much more similar. They’re giving legislation for cities in speech, the Republic for an ideal city, the Laws for what’s explicitly called a second-best city, a not as ideal city but still a good city. They both make laws, they both describe the nature of these cities, they’re both very long. The Statesman looks very different from that. What the Statesman is doing is asking, Is there such a thing as political expertise or political knowledge? What is it exactly that a true statesman would have to know? The reason that’s an interesting question is that in the Republic it kind of looked like all you have to do is be a philosopher. If you just know the good and the nature of reality, what Plato called the forms or ideas, that’s enough. Then you have some practical experience, but it’s never really explained how the practical experience and the philosophy connect together to provide knowledge of politics.  What would it therefore be, to be someone who knows about politics, as opposed to just knowing philosophy? That’s what the Statesman really explores.

If somebody were to approach this for the first time, should they read it from cover to cover, or are there key passages that you should focus in on?

You do need to read it from cover to cover, but there’s one bit we might talk about more because it is this critique of writing and written law which relates to what we were saying before. You have this statesman who is ultimately defined as having knowledge of the kairos, the opportune moment for action, which Aristotle would later define as ‘the good in time’. At the end of the dialogue, that knowledge-cum-skill is illustrated by trying to moderate between hawks and doves. There are people who are too bellicose and hawkish on war and people who are too dove-ish and want peace, sometimes at the wrong moment. The statesman will be able to set up shared opinions (beliefs and values) and even marriages between these two groups that will moderate their views and enable them to better perceive the right moment for political action.

It’s almost like a set of vectors that you have to manipulate to get the right power force moving in the right direction.

Yes. What I think is so interesting about it is that at the end of the dialogue, he says there are three other arts which are closest to the statesman’s arts. These are being a general, being a judge and being an orator. Those were the offices that were thought of as the political offices in Greek cities at the time. What he’s arguing is that you’re going to have people doing these standard political roles, but a good politics would also have this superordinate, co-ordinating role that’s above all the standard offices — but still needs to be integrated into the society as a whole lest it won’t be able to achieve the good.

A kind of non-executive director?

Something like that. It’s actually very puzzling to work out exactly. I don’t think he thought this would be an office. He plays with this question. The image in the passage about the laws is, What if you had a statesman, and then they went away. What would they use writing for? If they were there they wouldn’t need to use writing because they would be able to just tell everyone what to do at the right moment. But if they go away, then they have to leave little written notes and reminders, like your doctor gives you a set of written prescriptions. That’s the role of written laws, in rough summary. He’s very aware that writing will always only be imperfect and generalising, because it can’t take account of every situation. Like your prescription: it might say ‘Take one every night before bed,’ but it doesn’t realise you might be running a high fever in which case you shouldn’t take one. It’s not going to be able to take account of all situations. So written laws are always going to be imperfect, but they will be necessary, particularly if you don’t have someone who has the full knowledge and is able to exercise it.

So what’s wrong with writing?

We get this developed further in another dialogue by Plato called the Phaedrus where, again, though interestingly it’s often neglected, he brings his critique to bear on written laws. People often just treat it as a critique of writing. He says that the problem with writing is that writing runs away with itself, it starts to say things to everyone and anyone, it’s not attuned to the needs of, and the understanding of, a hearer. So it can be taken out of context, it can be misunderstood, it becomes stale. Again, it’s only useful if it can be a tool for someone who has knowledge but just needs to be reminded. If you give writing to someone who hasn’t really genuinely gained knowledge, it won’t really inform them. That’s a very deep and interesting concern.

We’ve been talking about Plato principally as a political thinker. There is much more in Plato than that, obviously, but as a political thinker, is he just a fascinating figure from the past?

No. I think his understanding that there’s something distinctive to political knowledge is a very important idea, as is his awareness of the factors like money and power that tend to inhibit its operation. I just spent a week at an intensive seminar reading Book VIII of the Republic. This is where he describes how the ideal constitution might decay into a regime focused on honour — like Sparta was at the time — or into an oligarchy, or a democracy, or a tyranny. What’s fascinating is his awareness of the very complex dynamic between love of money and love of honour. If people love money do they want acquisition or do they want consumption? One of the things he says in that book which is kind of amazing is how you could have a law that would stem the excesses of oligarchy, where people are too prone to lend money and impoverish the citizens. He says if you have a law that all lending is at the owner’s or creditor’s risk, that would inhibit the flaws of oligarchy. That would actually not be such a bad idea as a law.

Interview by Nigel Warburton

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