Plato: An Introduction and Collection of Resources

This page contains an organized collection of links to beginner friendly videos, podcasts and articles on Plato. To get started, simply choose a topic from the list below.

Overview

“Plato, a native Athenian, was born in 427 B.C. and died at the age of eighty-one in 347. He belonged, on both his mother’s and father’s side, to old and distinguished aristocratic families. At some point in his late teens or early twenties (we do not know when or under what circumstances), he began to frequent the circle around Socrates, the Athenian philosopher who appears as the central character in so many of his dialogues and whose trial and death he was to present so eloquently in his Apology and his Phaedo. In the dozen years or so following Socrates’ death in 399, Plato, then nearly thirty years old, may have spent considerable time away from Athens, for example, in Greek-inhabited southern Italy, where he seems to have met philosophers and scientists belonging to the indigenous “Pythagorean” philosophical school, some of whose ideas were taken up in several of his own dialogues, most notably, perhaps, in the Phaedo. In about 388 he visited Syracuse, in Sicily—the first of three visits to the court of the “tyrants” Dionysius I and II during his thirty-odd-year-long engagement in Syracusan politics. This involvement is reported on at length in the Platonic Letters, included in this edition. At some point, presumably in the ’eighties, Plato opened a school of higher education in the sacred grove of Academus, in the Attic countryside near Athens, apparently offering formal instruction in mathematical, philosophical, and political studies. He seems to have spent the rest of his life (except for the visits to Syracuse) teaching, researching, and writing there. Under his leadership, the Academy became a major center of research and intellectual exchange, gathering to itself philosophers and mathematicians from all over the Greek world. Among its members was Aristotle, who came as a student in about 367 at the age of eighteen and remained there as teacher, researcher, and writer himself, right up to the time of Plato’s death twenty years later.” – Excerpt from Plato: Complete Works edited by John M. Cooper.

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Topics

Ethics

“Justice is one of the most ubiquitous topics in Plato’s dialogues, second in importance only to reason. It is discussed to some degree in almost every major dialogue including even the Parmenides and the Timaeus, but it is only in the Republic that the concept is defined and the definition argued for. Consequently, any account of Plato’s theory of justice must concentrate on that dialogue.

The search for a definition of “justice” is part of the larger project of the Republic to respond to the challenge of Glaucon and Adeimantus. Speaking as devil’s advocate, Glaucon classes justice among the goods chosen, not for their own sake, but for the things that come from them. People, he claims, want no shackle on their natural desire for more and more of everything, and only agree to act justly towards others in order to avoid being treated unjustly themselves. That no one is just willingly is shown, he says, by the story of Gyges’ ring, a ring that bestows invisibility upon its possessor; no one who possessed such a ring could resist the temptation to become “like a god among men” by using it to satisfy his natural desires unrestrained by justice. Socrates sets out to show that, contrary to this impressive challenge, justice is good both in itself and for what comes from it and that injustice, even if it goes undetected, is injurious to the unjust person. The first step in meeting the challenge, a large one, is to understand what justice is. Only when we understand this, Socrates reasonably claims, will we be able to determine whether justice is good in itself or good only because of what comes from it.” – Excerpt from A Companion to Plato edited by Hugh H. Benson.

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Political Philosophy

“Plato’s opposition to democracy exploits another apparent tension within democratic theory. Just as ‘monarchy’ means ‘rule by the monarch’, ‘democracy’ means ‘rule by the demos’. But what is the demos? In classical Greek it can be understood both as ‘the people’, and as ‘the mob’. On the latter understanding, then, democracy is mob rule: the rule of the rabble, the vulgar, the unwashed, the unfit.

But this insult to democracy is a mere preliminary to Plato’s main anti-democratic arguments. His basic weapon is the so-called ‘craft analogy’. The point is very simple. If you were ill, and wanted advice on your health, you would go to an expert – the doctor. In other words, you would want to consult someone who had been specially trained to do the job. The last thing you would do is assemble a crowd, and ask them to vote on the correct remedy.

The health of the state is a matter of no less importance than the health of any given individual. Making political decisions – decisions in the interests of the state – requires judgement and skill. It should, Plato urges, be left to the experts. Allowing the people to decide is like navigating at sea by consulting the passengers, ignoring or shunning those who are truly skilled in the art of navigation. Just as a ship so navigated will lose its way and founder, so too, Plato argues, will the ship of state.” – Excerpt from An Introduction to Political Philosophy by Jonathan Wolff.

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Plato’s ‘Allegory of the Cave’

“One of the ideas that most people believe is Plato’s rather than Socrates’ is that the world is not at all as it seems. There is a significant difference between appearance and reality. Most of us mistake appearances for reality. We think we understand, but we don’t. Plato believed that only philosophers understand what the world is truly like. They discover the nature of reality by thinking rather than relying on their senses.

To make this point, Plato described a cave. In that imaginary cave there are people chained facing a wall. In front of them they can see flickering shadows that they believe are real things. They aren’t. What they see are shadows made by objects held up in front of a fire behind them. These people spend their whole lives thinking that the shadows projected on the wall are the real world. Then one of them breaks free from his chains and turns towards the fire. His eyes are blurry at first, but then he starts to see where he is. He stumbles out of the cave and eventually is able to look at the sun. When he comes back to the cave, no one believes what he has to tell them about the world outside. The man who breaks free is like a philosopher. He sees beyond appearances. Ordinary people have little idea about reality because they are content with looking at what’s in front of them rather than thinking deeply about it. But the appearances are deceptive. What they see are shadows, not reality.” – Excerpt from A Little History of Philosophy by Nigel Warburton.

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Plato’s ‘theory of forms’

“This story of the cave is connected with what’s come to be known as Plato’s Theory of Forms. The easiest way to understand this is through an example. Think of all the circles that you have seen in your life. Was any one of them a perfect circle? No. Not one of them was absolutely perfect. In a perfect circle every point on its circumference is exactly the same distance from the centre point. Real circles never quite achieve this. But you understood what I meant when I used the words ‘perfect circle’. So what is that perfect circle? Plato would say that the idea of a perfect circle is the Form of a circle. If you want to understand what a circle is, you should focus on the Form of the circle, not actual circles that you can draw and experience through your visual sense, all of which are imperfect in some way. Similarly, Plato thought, if you want to understand what goodness is, then you need to concentrate on the Form of goodness, not on particular examples of it that you witness. Philosophers are the people who are best suited to thinking about the Forms in this abstract way; ordinary people get led astray by the world as they grasp it through their senses.” – Excerpt from A Little History of Philosophy by Nigel Warburton.

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Why is Plato worth studying?

“Not only ancient philosophy, but philosophy’s whole history, is dominated by Plato and Aristotle. No later philosopher, ancient, medieval or modern, has surpassed the genius of these two colossi.

It is not too much to say that Plato invented the subject of philosophy. To be sure, he was preceded by hardy speculators such as Pythagoras, impressive gurus like Heraclitus, and eccentric geniuses like Parmenides. But what these men presented were philosophical problems rather than philosophical insights. It was Plato who formulated the methods for their solution. He had to invent, from whole cloth, the basic technical concepts that have been the tools of philosophy ever since. Of course, he acknowledged an enormous debt to his teacher Socrates, in whose mouth he places many of his own original ideas. But, as Socrates himself left no writings, the man who has ever since been revered as the patron saint of philosophy is the Socrates of Plato.” – Excerpt from A New History of Western Philosophy by Anthony Kenny.

Works

Apology

“No other trial, except that of Jesus, has left so vivid an impression on the imagination of Western man as that of Socrates. The two trials have much in common. There is no independent contemporary account of either, not even a fragmentary allusion. We have no transcripts, no court records. We do not hear the prosecution. We know the story only as told later by loving disciples. […]

It was Plato who created the Socrates of our imagination, and to this day no one can be sure how much of his portrait is the real Socrates and how much is the embellishing genius of Plato. […]

The debt of Socrates to Plato is, however, no greater than the debt of Plato to Socrates. It is to Plato’s literary genius that Socrates owes his preeminent position as a secular saint of Western Civilization. And it is Socrates who keeps Plato on the best-seller lists. Plato is the only philosopher who turned metaphysics in drama. Without the enigmatic and engaging Socrates as the principal character of his dialogues, Plato would not be the only philosopher who continues to charm a wide audience in every generation. No one reads Aristotle or Aquinas or Kant as literature.” – Excerpt from The Trial of Socrates by I.F. Stone.

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Crito

“Socrates is in prison, having been condemned to death for corrupting the young and introducing new gods. As he awaits the day of his execution, he is visited by his friend Crito, who urges him to flee. Socrates agrees to consider the proposal, and he reminds Crito of a basic point they have accepted many times in the past: injustice must never be done, not even in response to injustice. It is on the basis of this principle that Crito’s offer is to be evaluated. If escape is just, Socrates will flee; if unjust, he will remain and accept his punishment. At this point, the conversation is taken over by the personified Laws of Athens. Their speech, barely interrupted by questions, forms the philosophical heart of the dialogue […] The Laws put forward a theory of political loyalty, and from their general principles they infer that Socrates would be doing a great injustice were he to escape from jail. Socrates applauds their argument, the conversation ends, and several days later he dies.” – Excerpt from Socrates and the State by Richard Kraut.

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Phaedo

“The Phaedo is one of the most widely read dialogues written by the ancient Greek philosopher Plato.  It claims to recount the events and conversations that occurred on the day that Plato’s teacher, Socrates (469-399 B.C.E.), was put to death by the state of Athens.  It is the final episode in the series of dialogues recounting Socrates’ trial and death.  The earlier Euthyphro dialogue portrayed Socrates in discussion outside the court where he was to be prosecuted on charges of impiety and corrupting the youth; the Apology described his defense before the Athenian jury; and the Crito described a conversation during his subsequent imprisonment.  The Phaedo now brings things to a close by describing the moments in the prison cell leading up to Socrates’ death from poisoning by use of hemlock.” – Excerpt from the Internet Encyclopedia article: Plato: Phaedo by Tim Connolly.

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Meno

“Meno, a young aristocrat from Thessaly, asks how virtue is acquired. In reply, Socrates professes himself unable to answer: since he does not even know what virtue is, how can he know how it is acquired? Meno agrees to tackle the nature of virtue first and offers Socrates a definition, or rather a list of different kinds of virtue. After some argument, he accepts that this is inadequate, and offers another definition – virtue as the power to rule – which is also rejected. In order to help the inquiry along, Socrates gives a short lesson in definition, after which Meno offers his third and final definition of virtue: the desire for fine things and ability to acquire them. When this is refuted, he despairs of ever making any progress in their inquiry: how, he demands, can you look for something of whose nature you are entirely ignorant? Even if you stumble upon the answer, how will you know that this is the thing you did not know before?” – Excerpt from Plato’s Meno by Dominic Scott.

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The Republic

“The Republic is Plato’s best-known work, and there are ways in which it is too famous for its own good. It gives us systematic answers to a whole range of questions about morality, politics, knowledge, and metaphysics, and the book is written in a way designed to sweep the reader along and give a general grasp of the way Plato sees all these questions as hanging together. So our reaction to it, at least on first reading, is likely to be oversimplified; we may feel inclined to accept or reject it as a whole, rather than coming to grips with particular arguments.

But the Republic, though written with single-minded intensity, is a work of great complexity. And this is the best reason for studying it in detail. For when we do, we find, with pleasure and profit, that it is a work of great subtlety. Plato is writing a manifesto, but he is too good a philosopher not to raise important and difficult philosophical issues in the process, and sometimes to develop a point at the expense of his declared aims. The Republic is in fact a work in which a grandiose plan covers a number of struggles and tensions.

The richness of the book can be seen from the very different interpretations that it has produced. Plato has been seen as a revolutionary, a conservative; a fascist, a communist; a fiercely practical reformer and an ineffective dreamer. Some of these interpretations are more fanciful than others, but they all have some footing in the text. A book which gives rise to such extreme disagreements over what it is saying is not a simple and easily comprehended book, however much Plato’s own style of writing may try to persuade us that it is.” – Excerpt from An Introduction to Plato’s Republic by Julia Annas.

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General Overview
Book 1
Book 2
Book 3
Book 4
Book 5
Book 6
Book 7
Book 8
Book 9
Book 10

Further Reading

If you’re new to the philosophy of Plato, the following books are a good place to start:

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Miscellaneous Resources

Entertainment

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Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy

Internet Encyclopedia of Philosophy


If you are interested in the ideas of Plato, the following pages may also be of interest: