Plato (427–347 BC)

DOI: 10.4324/9780415249126-A088-2
Version: v2,  Published online: 2002
Retrieved February 20, 2019, from

10. The introduction of Platonism

Needless to say, no explicit Platonic directive survives encouraging us to read Meno, Symposium and Phaedo together. But there are compelling reasons for believing that Plato conceived them as a group in which Meno and Symposium prepare the way for Phaedo. In brief, in Meno Plato introduces his readers to the non-Socratic theory of the immortality of the soul and a new hypothetical method of inquiry, while Symposium presents for the first time the non-Socratic idea of a Platonic Form, in the context of a notion of philosophy as desire for wisdom. It is only in Phaedo that all these new ideas are welded together into a single complex theory incorporating epistemology, psychology, metaphysics and methodology, and constituting the distinctive philosophical position known to the world as Platonism.

Meno and Symposium share two features which indicate Plato’s intention that they should be seen as a pair, performing the same kind of introductory functions, despite enormous differences for example in dialogue form, scale and literary complexity. First, both are heavily and specifically foreshadowed in Protagoras, which should accordingly be reckoned one of the latest of Plato’s early writings. At the end of Protagoras (361c) Socrates is made to say that he would like to follow up the inconclusive conversation of the dialogue with another attempt to define what virtue is, and to consider again whether or not it can be taught. This is exactly the task undertaken in Meno. Similarly, not only are all the dramatis personae of Symposium except Aristophanes already assembled in Protagoras, but at one point Socrates is represented as offering the company some marginally relevant advice on how to conduct a drinking party – which corresponds exactly to what happens at the party in Symposium (347c–348a).

Second, both Meno and Symposium are exceedingly careful not to make Socrates himself a committed proponent either of the immortality of the soul or of the theory of Forms. These doctrines are ascribed respectively to ’priests and priestesses’ (Meno) and to one priestess, Diotima, in particular (Symposium); in Meno Socrates says he will not vouch for the truth of the doctrine of immortality, in Symposium he records Diotima’s doubts as to whether he is capable of initiation into the mysteries (a metaphor also used of mathematics in Meno) which culminate in a vision of the Form of the Beautiful. In Symposium these warning signs are reinforced by the extraordinary form of the dialogue: the sequence of conversations and speeches it purports to record are nested inside a Chinese box of framing conversations, represented as occurring some years later and with participants who confess to inexact memory of what they heard.

Phaedo for its part presupposes Meno and Symposium. At 72e–73b Meno’s argument for the immortality of the soul is explicitly recalled, while the Form of Beauty is regularly mentioned at the head of the lists of the ’much talked about’ Forms which Phaedo introduces from time to time (for example, 75c, 77a, 100b). It is as though Plato relies upon our memory of the much fuller characterization of what it is to be a Form supplied in Symposium. Unlike Meno and Symposium, Phaedo represents Socrates himself as committed to Platonist positions, but takes advantage of the dramatic context – a discussion with friends as he waits for the hemlock to take effect – and makes him claim prophetic knowledge for himself like a dying swan (84e–85b). The suggestion is presumably that Platonism is a natural development of Socrates’ philosophy even if it goes far beyond ideas about knowledge and virtue and the imperatives of the philosophical life to which he is restricted in the early dialogues.

Citing this article:
Schofield, Malcolm. The introduction of Platonism. Plato (427–347 BC), 2002, doi:10.4324/9780415249126-A088-2. Routledge Encyclopedia of Philosophy, Taylor and Francis,
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