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Five Dialogues Paperback – Oct 2002
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John M. Cooper is Stuart Professor of Philosophy, Princeton University.
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In the Euthyphro dialogue, Socrates is on his way to court to answer the charges of Meletus that he creates his own gods and does not believe in the gods of society. On his way, he meets Euthyphro, a lawyer-priest of some sort who tells Socrates that he is prosecuting his own father for the murder of a slave (a slave who had himself committed murder). Socrates compels the learned Euthyphro to explain to him the truth about what is pious and what impious; if he can tell the court what he has learned from the knowledgeable Euthyphro, he will have no trouble countering Meletus' charges. Euthyphro tries to define what is pious as that which is pleasing to the gods, but Socrates shows him that his definition is really just an effect of piety, and Euthyphro bows out of the circular conversation without ever giving Socrates a satisfactory definition of true piety.
In The Apology, Socrates defends himself from both the recent charges of Meletus for impiety as well as the host of charges long leveled at him as being a corrupter of the youth. He cites a pronouncement of the Delphic oracle that he is the wisest of all men and explains how he has spent his life trying to vindicate the god's pronouncement by seeking out the wisest men in society and testing them. The wisest men, he says, turn out to be not wise at all. He himself knows he is not wise, while the supposedly wise think they are wise when they are not, and he has concluded that the gods believe that the wisest man is the man who knows how much he does not know. The fact that he shows men that they are not in fact wise has admittedly made Socrates unpopular and turned the minds of many citizens against him. He bravely says he will continue philosophizing if he is acquitted because the god himself compels him to do so. In fact, he says society benefits from what he is doing (namely, trying to make men more virtuous), and he defends himself by saying that society itself will be harmed by his execution. Of course, claiming that he is actually a gift of the god for Athens is a hard way to win over a jury already biased against him. Upon his conviction, he willingly accepts the death sentence imposed upon him, but he, somewhat oddly, warns his fellow citizens that there are younger men ready to come out and question individuals in the same manner as he has done.
In the Crito, Socrates convinces his friend Crito that it is just and right for him to accede to the punishment of death returned by the Athenian jury. He feels that he has been wronged by men but not the laws or society, and to escape from prison and run away would make of him the very type of man the jury wrongly concluded him to be. It is an exceedingly elegant and brave discourse.
Meno is one of Plato's early and, to my mind, least successful, Socratic dialogues. The conversation centers, naturally enough, on virtue and whether or not it is teachable. Meno's definitions of virtue are woefully inadequate, by and large, and deserving of Socrates' typical arrogance. At one point, Meno says that one cannot learn about what one does not know. To counter this argument, Socrates, arguing that the soul is eternal and that learning is in fact recollection, sets about showing how a slave "remembers" the answers to geometrical questions Socrates puts to him. Later, when Meno agrees with the notion that virtue is knowledge and can be taught, Socrates counters the point by saying he has yet to find anyone who truly practices virtue and is thus qualified to teach it. In the end, Socrates concludes that virtue cannot be taught and is in fact a gift of the gods.
The Phaedo is a third-person account of the philosophical discussion between Socrates and his friends on the day of his death. Socrates accepts his fate most amicably, arguing that death is the means by which to achieve the aims of true philosophy, for only by escaping the evil of the body can the soul truly acquire wisdom. Socrates renews his argument that learning is in fact recollection, supposedly proving that the soul exists before birth. He also argues that everything comes from its opposite; if death comes from life, then life must come from death. The proofs he offers for his belief that the soul is eternal do not strike me as very convincing. In many ways, the Phaedo is a precursor to much of the philosophy of The Republic, in which the concepts of the eternal soul and the invisible Forms mentioned here are threshed out much more satisfactorily.
I suggest this collection to anyone who is interested in exploring many fundamental questions of philosophy.
Plato lays out each dialogue with great artistic prowess (and the translators, for their part, keep everything smooth and pleasant). Society has fully internalized this art and anyone unfamiliar with it is at a disadvantage when considering anything subsequent found in the Western tradition. In this they are culturally invaluable.
One finds also in these dialogues the very basics of Platonic thought--most notably the theory of Forms. There are, of course, many other concepts introduced, from politics to metaphysics. In this the dialogues are philosophically invaluable.
If I haven't yet convinced you to pick up a copy of Five Dialogues I don't know what will, but perhaps you would be interested to know that the book contains good (but short) introductions to each dialogue, informative (although rare) footnotes, and an extensive (if outdated) suggested reading list? I hope that did the trick, because this set of dialogues is, well, invaluable.
Luckily, I've not been content to stay that way. It occurred to me after graduation that my education was deficient in many 'classics' - novels, poetry, history, philosophy, and so on - and that it would be to my advantage to learn them, so I sat down and made a list of things to read. Plato happened to be near the top for his influence on western philosophy. When his turn came, a friend recommended I start with the dialogues associated with Socrates' trial since they provide a solid foundation for understanding the Republic and other later Platonic dialogues.
A quick search of readily available translations yielded three candidates: Grube (Hackett), Rowe (Penguin Classics), and Jowett (too many to count). I evaluated each of them on my standard book criteria:
1) I like to think of my books as lasting investments, so I'm very keen on acid-free paper and hardcover editions.
2) I expect notes of some sort.
3) Any translations must strike a good balance between faithfulness to the text and readability, erring more to the former. No anachronisms!
The Jowett translation was by far the most abundant, likely because it's out of copyright and thus free to use. There wasn't much difference between the various editions - they were mostly paperbacks printed on cheap acidic paper without any notes. A leather-bound Easton Press edition featured superior binding and fanciful illustrations but still no notes. A Barnes and Noble Classics collection of Plato's writings had a VERY few notes, but not enough to make a difference.
The translation itself is actually very readable, which is impressive considering that it's over 100 years old, but its universal poor binding (excepting the ultra-expensive Easton Press version) and lack of notes were simply unacceptable so I decided to pass. I learned later after browsing through some forums that certain people feel Jowett is inaccurate on certain key points.
I have a love-hate relationship with Penguin Classics. I've bought quite a few paperbacks of theirs which went yellow practically overnight, which makes me angry, but at the same time I truly appreciate how they go out of their way to make things accessible to everyday readers. When I cracked open the Rowe translation, I jumped to the back of the book and was very impressed with its comprehensive endnotes. The text, too, was impressive, but in the wrong way - I literally recoiled in horror at how bone-jarringly colloquial it was. I half expected Socrates to bust out some hood lingo and give a shout out to his homies.
I'm all for making complicated material more accessible to a general audience, but I would have been so distracted at Rowe's attempts to modernize the language that I simply decided not to bother. At best, it might make a good companion to either Jowett or Grube for its notes.
I had high hopes for the Grube translation after Jowett and Rowe were such let-downs, and thankfully I wasn't disappointed. I saw from browsing through my local used book store that certain paperback copies of this are printed with acid-free paper and others aren't. I can't explain the discrepancy, so if you decide to buy the paperback version, I urge you to check with your seller of choice to make sure you're getting an acid-free copy.
Personally, I ended up picking up a used hardcover copy from a certain auction site. It doesn't say it's acid-free paper in the copyright area, but it was printed some eight years ago it's still white as snow so I'm guessing it's a good quality stock. It doesn't come with a dust jacket; it's a tough as nails "school and library" binding which has a sewn, rather than glued, binding.
Grube takes the middle ground when compared to Jowett and Rowe - the language is modern and readable without Rowe's absurd anachronisms and he provides footnotes which, while not as comprehensive as Rowe's endnotes, are entirely adequate and more convenient for their being right on the page in question. As a bonus, you get Meno, a dialogue which, while not directly relating to the trial of Socrates, is excellent for understanding the Socratic Method and thus getting a feel for why people want him dead.
I later learned from browsing through forums that Grube's translations are considered standard fare in academia. It isn't difficult for me to see why; he makes Plato accessible, modern, and dare I say it, maybe even fun. I certainly don't agree with some of Plato's conclusions, but the material in these dialogues is absolutely fascinating. I've already started using the Socratic Method to tackle questions of my own, like "what is art?"
For as little as this costs and as much as you can get out of it, you owe it to yourself to pick up a copy and expand your mind. Highly recommended.