My wife and I will be working for Wheatstone Academy this summer, a summer program designed to help students discover the riches of the Christian mind. To help in that project, Wheatstone traditionally has students read a dialogue by Plato before they arrive, as having a text in common is crucial to having excellent discussions. As this is most students' first introduction to Plato, we provide them a brief apologia for reading it and a primer to help them wrestle with it before they arrive.
This year, rather than reading one dialogue, we are reading a compilation: , which includes the entirety of the Euthyphro, the Apology and the Crito, and a fragment of the Phaedo. In what follows below the fold, I offer my first draft for my apologia for wrestling with Plato and a few questions to think about when reading this excellent compilation.
“Whatever proposition we put forward goes around and refuses to stay put where we established it.” So Euthyphro, the participant in the first dialogue in The Trial and Death of Socrates, laments the sometimes dizzying effect of discussing with Socrates, an effect that is familiar to those encountering him for the first time. Euthyphro, as you will discover, dislikes Socrates’ insistent questioning so much that he essentially quits the conversation, refusing to answer more questions or offer his own opinions. Why not join him?
The question should be taken seriously. Reading the dialogues contained in the volume can be difficult and frustrating. Consider just one of the many difficulties standing in the way of understanding them: while they are chiefly about Socrates’ trial and the various ideas it raises, they are not Socrates’ account. They are Plato’s, who is widely regarded as Socrates’ best and most important pupil. Whose ideas, then, are we to come to understand through the dialogues—Plato’s or Socrates? The problem is compounded by the fact that as an author, Plato uses other voices—he records not only conversations at which he is present, but conversations that he has heard from others. As an author, he is decidedly absent from his texts, which makes finding out what he thinks far more difficult than it first appears.
Is reading Plato worth it, then? Absolutely. As one of the most influential thinkers in history—“Philosophy,” the atheist philosopher Bertrand Russell famously said, “is a series of footnotes to Plato”—it is impossible to understand the past (and by derivation, the present) without wrestling with this intellectual titan. Perhaps more importantly, in reading Plato’s dialogues, we are confronted by our own lack of virtue and forced to deepen our appreciation of Truth, Goodness and Beauty, lest we end up like Euthyphro and fail to gain understanding of the world around us. How? In writing in dialogue form, Plato is able to demonstrate both ideas and their effects on individuals at the same time. In reading the Apology, we hear not only Socrates’ philosophy, but see Socrates’ life. The Crito is as much about the relationship between Socrates and Crito as it is about whether we should always follow the law. This dynamic, however, invites the reader to not only consider ideas, but how ideas affect individual’s decisions and lives. As Plato writes in dialogue form, he leaves the answers hidden, almost as an invitation to the reader to join the conversation. In reading Plato, we are not called only to examine his dialogues and their characters, but ourselves. We may, after all, turn out to be Euthyphro.
In the rest of this essay, then, I hope to facilitate your reading of The Trial and Death of Socrates by offering a few questions for you to consider as you read. While additional background is clearly important to understanding Socrates, the nature of the Athenian legal system and many of the characters that Socrates interacts with, it is possible to read these dialogues fruitfully without a full understanding of their broader historical context, as they contain much of the history of Socrates and the reason he uses questions.
The Trial and Death of Socrates is composed of three full dialogues—Euthyphro, Apology and Crito—and the end of a fourth, Phaedo. While they are unified sequentially—Euthyphro begins in the days leading up to Socrates’ trial and the Phaedo ends in his death—they are superficially diverse in the themes and ideas they present. Euthyphro is (ostensibly) about piety, while Crito raises the question of whether we should always submit to the law. That said, to the questions. The Euthyphro begins near the Athenian court, where Euthyphro and Socrates are apparently on some official business having to do with their respective legal problems. The conversation quickly shifts, however, to the question, “What is piety?” What is the relationship between piety, the law, and the state? Is Socrates really interested in understanding piety in order to escape Miletus’ charge against him? What is it about Euthyphro that causes him to quit the discussion?
While the Euthyphro is primarily a discussion, the Apology is primarily Socrates’ speech before the Athenian jury. Is Plato interested here more in providing a historical account of Socrates’ trial, or in using the trial to display ideas (whether his or Socrates)? What should we make of Socrates’ attempt to engage Meletus in discussion in the middle of his speech? Why did Socrates abstain from politics? Is death evil or good? The Crito returns us to primarily dialogue form. Crito is not only prominent here, but also in the Phaedo, the next dialogue in the compilation. What is the basis for Crito’s objection to Socrates’ acceptance of his fate, and what do you make of Socrates’ argument against it? What kind of relationship do Crito and Socrates have, and how does that affect their conversation? Why does Socrates have a dialogue with “the laws” of the city at the end of the dialogue? Is Socrates position persuasive?
Finally, the compilation ends with a brief section from the Phaedo, which recounts a conversation Socrates had the hours leading up to his death. Compare Socrates’ death with Jesus’—what do you make of the differences and similarities? Is Socrates right to accept his fate as he does? A final word of encouragement: these questions, I should point out, are merely to help you notice various aspects of the text as you read. If other questions arise during your reading, follow those. There are immense and numerous rewards to reading Plato, not least of which is a better understanding of how to ask—and answer—more insightful and penetrating questions.
Matthew Lee Anderson is an Associate Professor of Ethics and Theology in Baylor University's Honors College. He has a D.Phil. in Christian Ethics from Oxford University, and is a Perpetual Member of Biola University's Torrey Honors College. In 2005, he founded Mere Orthodoxy.