Plato (427–347 BC)

DOI: 10.4324/9780415249126-A088-1
Version: v1,  Published online: 1998
Retrieved June 19, 2024, from

16. Later dialogues

The theory of Forms also figures prominently in Timaeus. Timaeus is Plato’s one venture into physical theory, and appropriately has in the Italian Greek Timaeus someone other than Socrates as main speaker. It is presented as an introduction to the story of Atlantis, allegedly an island power defeated by the prehistoric Athenians, and mentioned only by Plato among classical Greek authors. The conflict between Atlantis and Athens was to be the subject of Critias, conceived as a dialogue that would demonstrate the political philosophy of Republic in practice. But Critias was never completed, so Timaeus stands as an independent work.

The argument of Timaeus is based on the premise that the universe is not eternal but created – although debate has raged from antiquity onwards whether this means created in time, or timelessly dependent on a first cause. From the order and beauty of the universe Plato infers a good creator or craftsman (dēmiourgos), working on pre-existing materials (with their own random but necessary motions) from an eternal blueprint encoding life and intelligence: namely, the Form of Animal. The greater part of Timaeus consists in an account of how first the universe (conceived of as a living creature), then humans are designed from the blueprint for the best. Much use is made of mathematical models, for example for the movements of the heavenly bodies and the atomistic construction of the four elements. The account is presented as inevitably only a ’likely story’, incapable of the irrefutable truths of metaphysics.

There is no more austere or profound work of metaphysics in Plato’s œuvre than Sophist. Like many of the post-Republic dialogues it is ’professional’ philosophy, probably written primarily for Plato’s students and associates in the Academy. The style of Sophist and the remaining works to be discussed is syntactically tortuous and overloaded with abstraction and periphrasis; they are altogether lacking in literary graces or dramatic properties which might commend them to a wider readership. Sophist’s main speaker is a stranger from Elea, symbolizing the Parmenidean provenance of the problem at the heart of the long central section of the dialogue: how is it possible to speak of what is not (see Parmenides §2)? This puzzle is applied for example both to the unreality of images and to falsehood, understood as what is not the case. The solution Plato offers required some revolutionary moves in philosophical logic, such as the explicit differentiation of identity from predication, and the idea that subject and predicate play different roles in the syntax of the sentence. These innovations and their bearing on analysis of the verb ’to be’ have made Sophist the subject of some of the most challenging writing on Plato in the twentieth century.

The companion dialogue Politicus or Statesman addresses more squarely than Republic did the practical as distinct from the theoretical knowledge of the ideal statesman. Its contribution to this topic consists of three major claims. First is the rejection of the sovereignty of law. Plato has nothing against law as a convenient but imprecise rule of thumb in the hands of an expert statesman, provided it does not prevent him using his expertise. Making law sovereign, on the other hand, would be like preferring strict adherence to a handbook of navigation or a medical textbook to the judgment of the expert seafarer or doctor. If you have no such expert available, a constitution based on adherence to law is better than lawlessness, but that is not saying much. What law cannot do that expert rulers can and must is judge the kairos: discern the right and the wrong ’moment’ to undertake a great enterprise of state. This proposition follows from the second of Plato’s key claims, which is represented as one true of all practical arts: real expertise consists not of measuring larger and smaller, but in determining the norm between excess and defect – a notion which we ordinarily think more Aristotelian than Platonic (see Aristotle §22), although it recurs in a different guise in Philebus. Finally, Plato thinks we shall only get our thinking straight on this as on any matter if we find the right – usually homely – model. Statesman makes the statesman a sort of weaver. There are two strands to the analogy. First, like weaving statesmanship calls upon many subordinate skills. Its job is not to be doing things itself, but to control all the subordinate functions of government, and by its concern for the laws and every other aspect of the city weave all together. Second, the opposing temperaments of the citizens are what most need weaving together if civil strife is to be avoided, and (as in Republic) expert rulers will use education and eugenics to that end.

Statesman shares themes with both Philebus and Laws. Philebus is the one late dialogue in which Socrates is principal speaker, as befits its ethical topic: the question whether pleasure or understanding is the good, or at least the more important ingredient in the good life. After so much insistence in middle-period dialogues on the Form as a unity distinct from the plurality of the phenomena, it comes as a shock to find Socrates stressing at the outset that there is no merit in reiterating that pleasure or understanding is a unity. The skill resides in being able to determine what and how many forms of understanding and pleasure there are. What Philebus goes on to offer next is a model for thinking about how any complex structure is produced, whether a piece of music or the universe itself. It requires an intelligent cause creating a mixture by imposing limit and proportion on something indeterminate. This requirement already indicates the main lines of the answer to our problem, at any rate, if it is accepted that pleasure is intrinsically indeterminate. Clearly intelligence and understanding will be shaping forces in the good life, but pleasures are only admissible if suitably controlled. At the adjudication at the end of the dialogue, this is just the result we get. The majority of the many forms of pleasure defined and examined in the course of the dialogue are rejected. They do not satisfy the criteria of measure and proportion which are the marks of the good.

Citing this article:
Schofield, Malcolm. Later dialogues. Plato (427–347 BC), 1998, doi:10.4324/9780415249126-A088-1. Routledge Encyclopedia of Philosophy, Taylor and Francis,
Copyright © 1998-2024 Routledge.

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