Guus Bosman

software engineering director


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Complete Works

1

Plato's Complete Works! What a beautiful challenge. I would have never thought I would actually read all these works by Plato. This became one of my ever favorite books, both in its contents and the awesomeness of reading dialogues and good discussions from more than 2,500 years ago.

I started reading this in February 2020, as part of my journey to read the Gutenberg Great Books. Little did I know that a few weeks later the Covid-19 pandemic would hit us. That slowed down my reading time significantly (work was very busy, and we started homeschooling the kids). But throughout the weeks and months I often found some time to read a bit.

Throughout reading this, I often consulted Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy and sometimes Wikipedia for high-level outlines, to make sure I understood what the arguments were all about. That additional background was very helpful and made reading more enjoyable and made sure I understood the more esoteric dialogues.

It was interesting to try to distinguish between Plato and Socrates. Plato wrote the dialogues, Socrates was often one of the major participants. But whose opinions and ideas are we reading? It's difficult to tell at times. Similarly, we often hear about those "bad" sophists -- but very hostile and very one-sided. I actually rather like Protagoras, he seemed like a smart guy.

Socrates is quite a character but he has a very sharp mind and, under the guise of his dialogues, strong convictions. The more I read, the easier it became to interpret things. Sometimes the stories are actually funny. Socrates, it is clear, brought some people to despair! In Gorgias Callicles, one of his "victims" asks: "Tell me, Chaerophon, is Socrates in earnest about this or is he joking? Chaerophon: i think he's in dead earnest about this, Callicles.". Later Callicles says, exasperated: "Philosophy is no doubt a delightful thing, Socrates, as long as one is exposed to it in moderation at the appropriate time of life. But if one spends more time with it than he should it's a man's undoing".

Similarly, Meno, in the book named after him, said: "Indeed, if a joke is in order, you seem, in appearance and in every other way, to be like the broad torpedo fish, for it too makes anyone who comes close and touches it feel numb, and you now seem to have had that kind of effect on me, for both my mind and my tongue are numb, and I have no answer to give you. Yet I have made many speeches about virtue before large audiences on a thousand occasions, very good speeches as I though, but now I cannot even say what it is."

This searching for what virtue is, and whether it's teachable, and whether the commercial sophists are the best people to teach virtue, is a recurring theme in the work. It is really remarkable to see how much value these people placed on intellectual dialogue; on wisdom gathering. In several books it is said how famous these sophists were (even though Plato and Socrates clearly are no fans of those "charlatans"). This is one of the big things I truly learned from the 1,600+ pages here: the Greek society at that time, or at least the sliver of it that was see, really had its eye on intellectual progress and learning. It makes you wonder if that was truly unique to the Greek (probably not) but the preservation of these dialogues gives beautiful testimony to this quest for virtue. In Protagoras there is a telling passage, where the men "were all overjoyed at the prospect of listening to wise men" [317d].

The topic of religion comes up often though the gods are discussed somewhat causally. There is a nice piece of dialogue where the soeakers evaluate an argument and see that it would lead to the gods not knowing everything. They mutually agree that this implies theiir hypothesis is absurd. In Philebus the worldview is made explicit: "the only account that can do justice to the wonderful spectacle presented by the cosmic order [...] Is that reason arranges it all" (28e)0

I know this is gratuitous, a few thousand year later, but the logic is quite often flawed. They use ambiguous definitions, and let language trick up the logic, for example when talking about "opposite" when they say black is the opposite of white. Under a certain definition, sure, but it is a fairly arbitrary one. Love how there is empahsiz on the dialogue form. In Philebis Socrates asks his counter part: now you ask my questions and they continue their diaoogoue that way. But the rules where clear: short, unabiguois ansers. When Socrates bends those rules in Protagoras, he gets told to not put caveats in his answers..

Euthyphro

The second Socrates dialogue I read, and a much shorter one than the Republic. I really like this one, much more humane and with none of the crazy stuff that shines through in the Republic.

Apology, Crito

Continuing the story-line in Euthyphro, these two dialogues were very readable. It was interesting to read the background of Socrates death from other sources too -- the fact that Socrates might not have been politically popular, having been somewhat aligned with the reign of terror.

Love the famous quote, "but Crito, why do you care so much about what the majority thinks?"

Phaedo

I liked this one, a pleasure to read. Again, faulty logic all over the place (71c) and the reasoning around immortality of the soul is particularly flawed, but the folks involved are having deep conversations and the book raises interesting questions. There is something magical about reading these ancient discussions.

Sometimes it took effort to understand everything, and I had to laugh when Echecrates told Phaedo: "I think he made these things wonderfully clear to anyone of even small intelligence." (102a)

The story-line in Phaedo was obviously sad -- this dialogue had more of a story-line than any of the others I've read so far.

Symposium

A collection of speeches by a bunch of guys at a party, about Love. At times moving and good, but the constant references to pederasty are grating.

Phaedrus

I've noticed that Socrates/Plato are big into dividing things into their elementary components.
In Phaedrus 277c. Things like emergent behavior or complex behavior weren't known to them.

So funny to read that they are worried about the effect of writing on memory.

Theages

This was the first on the non-Plato dialogues I read. I honestly couldn't tell the difference, though there were some religious overtones that might be a bit out of place.

Lysis

On friendship.

Charmides

I like Socrates sarcasm here, he is gently but surely breaking down the arguments by Charmides and Critias. Self-assured, haha.

2/29: Laches

I liked this story a lot. It's clear why Socrates is so sought after as a teacher.

2/29: Axiochus

A short dialogue, not written by Plato, Nice quote on: "The electorate, my dear Socrates, is an ungrateful, fickle, cruel, malicious, and boorish thing: a club, so to speak, of violent fools, drawn from the rablle in the street. And he who associates himself with it is even more contemptible by far", haha [369b]

This is a consolidation of the death, written between 100 BC and 50 AD. It's very beautiful at times: "And so, Axiochus, you pass away, not into death, but into immortality, nor will you have good things taken from you, but a purer enjoyment of them, nor pleasures mixed with the mortal body, but entirely undiluted by pains."

Gorgias

Love how Socrates takes down a demagogue. This is one of my favorite ones. Lots of connections with Republic.

Meno

More on virtue.

Laws

Laws was a daunting undertaking but I decided to read it before some of the other dialogues, essentially to get it out of the way and to make sure that if I was truly to complete Plato's entire work, it would be hanging over my head the whole time.

Laws I made the case for seeing how people behave when drunk. I laws ii there's a reference to 18 being a good underlimit for age for drinking.

Plato comes off as a crabby old conservative guy when he talks about music or the arts in general.

In Laws VI, some more misogynistic comments: "a woman's natural potential for virtue is inferior to a man's, so she's proportionately a greater danger, perhaps even twice as great".

ViI: basically, young people should listen to their elders. Not only their laws but also their "warm recommendations"

ViII: more on government control of arts: "no one should dare to sing any unauthorized song"

Laws X was not a great read. Incoherent and lazy "proof of God's existence".

Laws XI talks about commerce. It's clear that Plato is not a free market kind of guy haha. And clearly folks in that time had bad experiences with hotels and inns. And at the end of XI, 937e and further, Plato goes back to his dislike of sophists and proposes stern measures against them.

Theaetetus

When I checked out the first Plato books from the library, before I bought Complete Works, I first read The Republic and checked-out a book called Plato's Theory of Knowledge. The first was quite readable, the latter scared me a great deal. Later I learned how much the quality of a translation matters, and the Theaetetus translation in Complete Works is pretty readable, but it's still one of the hardest books so far. I bet the Sophist won't be much easier either.

Ion

In Gutenberg.org this is one of the most frequently downloaded works by Plato and I wondered why -- turns out it's his shortest work. Funny little dialogue with a public speaker.

Menexenus

A funeral oration, that also described the "heroic" history of Athens. It brought me back to Herodotus, which is a nice memory.

Cratylus

A dialogue about the names of things. There was a philosophical part but also many pages of discussing why things have a certain name. Some of those explanations Socrates gave seem far-fetched, others quite reasonable. The translator kept the original Greek names in the text where necessary, that was nice. Cool to see so many familiar words.

I don't really get Cratylus' argument in the book, it seems pretty obviously wrong.

Critias

In this work Plato mentions how human beings will happily provide feedback on a painting of a human being -- "when a painter attempts to create a likeness of our bodies, we are quick to spot any defect, and, because of our familiarity and live-long knowledge, we prove harsh critics of the painter who does not fully reproduce every detail.". However, when it comes to bigger things like "the earth and mountains and rivers and forest and all of heaven and the bodies that exist and move within it", we "are content to accept an asrt of suggestion and illusion for such things, as vegae and deceptive as this art is".

This is so similar to the parable of the "shed versus the cathedral" where people in the software world will have plenty of feedback on the small, familiar features -- but very little on the big questions.

Timaeus

I read Critias and Timeaus in the wrong order, because I wanted to read a shorter dialogue first. Timaeus is a cool one -- it was the only dialogue available in Latin and it's the one where Atlantis was introduced. I had no idea that the idea of Atlantis came from Plato.

The creation myth in the rest of the book was a bit tiresome. Not a lot of dialogue, just a good orating about how the world came to be, not very interesting. Also, when it comes to the four elements, fire, water, air and earth -- why those four? There are so many more, even in those days, How about wood? Leather? Meat? Smoke? Leaves?

Still, it was interesting to see what the level of understanding was of various natural phenomena and of course, the concept of "atoms" was conceptually fairly accurate.

Sophist

After reading Theaetetus, I knew what was coming but Sophist was a drag to read, especially the metaphysical part in the 2nd half, about being and not-being. I might not be smart enough, or not have the patience for these type of navel-gazing exercises, which seem to be about creating definitions, and then breaking down those definitions and saying that we've learned something. Also, Plato very clearly has a beef with sophists, and the conclusion of the book is completely unsurprising. Using straw-man argument it becomes "clear' that sophists are fully inferior to true philosophers, haha.

Statesman

Like Sophist, this was a hard book to read. It was difficult and I didn't get much out of it. Very esoteric,.looking for what a good statesman, a good politician, would be. Didn't care for this one.

Protagoras

This might be one of my favorite books. Good dialogues, even some character development when protagorss is losing the arggument and doesn't want to admit defeat. Nice work by Socrates to show that courage takes wisdom, not ignorance. Protagorss is a sympetetic figure and in this book he comes across better than Socrates.

Parmenides

Pretty esoteric again, about oneness and many. Oh well. It was nice to see the human side of a young Socrates, being nervous about what Zeno and Parmenides thought of his arguments. When Parmenides started having his dialogue with Aristotle I gave up -- absolutely unreadable and uninteresting to me. Is the one many and the many one? Who cares? Haha. This is the first book that I didn't finish. Afterwards learned that I'm not the only one who finds this book inaccessible.

Nevertheless the dialogue was considered an important one even in the very early days, as shown by the fact that Antiphon and Pythodoras learned it by heart.

Full list of books

There are 26 works that are definitely assigned to Plato.

Read so far (22):

Euthyphro
Apology
Crito
Phaedo
Cratylus
Theaetetus
Sophist
Statesman
Symposium
Pheadrus
Charmides
Laches
Lysis
Gorgias
Meno
Lesser Hippias
Ion
Menexenus
Timaeus
Republic
Critias
Laws

Still to read (4)

Parmenides
Philebus
Euthydemus
Protagoras

Extra read:

Theages
Minos
Greater Hippias

language: 
English
Author: 
Plato
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