Plato (427–347 BC)

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

2. Writings

Thrasyllus, astrologer to the emperor Tiberius, is the unlikely source of the arrangement of Platonic writings adopted in the manuscript tradition which preserves them. For his edition of Plato he grouped them into tetralogies, reminiscent of the trilogies produced in Athenian tragic theatre. These were organized according to an architectonic scheme constructed on principles that are now only partially apparent, but certainly had nothing to do with chronology of composition. His arrangement began with a quartet ‘designed to show what the life of the philosopher is like’ (Diogenes Laertius, III 57): Euthyphro, or ’On Piety’, classified as a ’peirastic’ or elenctic dialogue (see Socrates §§3–4), which is a species of one of his two main genres, the dialogue of inquiry; Apology, Crito and Phaedo are all regarded as specimens of exposition, his other main genre, or more specifically as specimens of ethics. These four works are all concerned in one way or another with the trial and death of Socrates.

There followed a group consisting of Cratylus, or ’On the Correctness of Names’, Theaetetus, or ’On Knowledge’, Sophist and Politicus (often Anglicized as Statesman). Plato himself indicates that the last three of this set are to be read together. They contain some of his most mature and challenging work in epistemology, metaphysics and philosophical methodology. In this they resemble Parmenides, with its famous critique of the theory of Forms, the first of the next tetralogy, which was completed by three major dialogues all reckoned ’ethical’ by Thrasyllus: Philebus, an examination of pleasure, Symposium and Phaedrus, both brilliant literary divertissements which explore the nature of love.

A much slighter quartet came next: two dialogues entitled Alcibiades, plus Hipparchus and Rivals. None of these, with the disputed exception of the first Alcibiades, is thought by modern scholarship to be authentic Plato. They were followed by Theages, a short piece now generally reckoned spurious, Charmides, Laches, Lysis. These three works are generally regarded by modern scholars as Socratic dialogues: that is, designed to exhibit the distinctive method and ethical preoccupations of the historical Socrates, at least as Plato understood him, not to develop Plato’s own philosophy. Thrasyllus would agree with the latter point, since he made them dialogues of inquiry: Laches and Lysis ’maieutic’, in which the character ’Socrates’ attempts as intellectual midwife to assist his interlocutors to articulate and work out their own ideas on courage and friendship respectively; Charmides elenctic, with the interlocutors Charmides and Critias and their attempts to say what moderation is put to the test of cross-examination, something Thrasyllus interestingly distinguished from philosophical midwifery.

The next group consisted of Euthydemus, Protagoras, Gorgias, Meno, important works in which modern scholarship finds analysis and further elaboration by Plato of the Socratic conception of virtue. The first three present a Socrates in argumentative conflict with sophists of different sorts (see Sophists), so it is understandable that under the general heading ’competitive’ Thrasyllus characterized Euthydemus and Gorgias as dialogues of refutation, and Protagoras as a dialogue of display – presumably because Protagoras and Socrates are each portrayed as intent on showing off their debating skills. Meno, on the other hand, is labelled an elenctic work. It was followed by the seventh tetralogy: Hippias Major and Hippias Minor, two very different dialogues (of refutation, according to Thrasyllus), both featuring the sophist of that name; Ion, a curious piece on poetic performance; and Menexenus, a still more curious parody of a funeral oration, put in the mouth of Pericles’ mistress Aspasia.

For the last two tetralogies Thrasyllus reserved some of Plato’s major writings. The eighth contained the very brief (and conceivably spurious) Clitophon, in which a minor character from the Republic plays variations on themes in the Republic, the second dialogue in the group, and generally regarded nowadays as Plato’s greatest work. This quartet was completed by Timaeus and its unfinished sequel Critias, no doubt because these dialogues represent themselves as pursuing further the discussions of the Republic. The pre-Copernican mathematical cosmology of Timaeus no longer attracts readers as it did throughout antiquity, and particularly in the Middle Ages, when the dialogue was for a period the only part of Plato’s œuvre known to the Latin West. Finally, the ninth tetralogy began with the short Minos, a spurious dialogue taking up issues in the massive Laws, Plato’s longest and probably latest work, which was put next in the group. Then followed Epinomis, an appendix to Laws already attributed to one of Plato’s pupils in antiquity (Philip of Opous, according to a report in Diogenes Laertius, III 37). Last were placed the Letters, briefly discussed above.

Citing this article:
Schofield, Malcolm. Writings. 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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