Concise Companion Reader to Plato's Dialogues?
February 22, 2015 2:41 AM   Subscribe

I'm currently doing and MA on Modern Philosophy but feel I need to address a gap in my knowledge of ancient greek philosophy. So I was looking for a good companion to guide me through reading, potentially all of, Plato's dialogues. Basically a book with a chapter on each dialogue discussing key points and insights of the dialogue, controversies and relating it to modern issues. Does such a book exist?

I could get the The Cambridge Companion to Plato but I always find the Cambridge Companion's a bit odd. They seem so disjoint - being a bunch of essays on the subject rather than a systematic study.

Also any recommendations for Aristotle's works - which would be coming up after I get through Plato?

Oh and a third question: Frederick Charles Copleston's "History of Philosophy" series - how well are these regarded?
posted by mary8nne to Education (9 answers total) 3 users marked this as a favorite
Response by poster: "The Continuum Companion to Plato" (2012) looks like what I am after as it has chapters on each dialogue and more of a "reference" book format - but it is rather expensive £70+. I will have to keep an eye out for a secondhand copy. Any other suggestions?
posted by mary8nne at 3:10 AM on February 22, 2015 [1 favorite]

My first thought is that all of Plato's dialogues is a *lot* of dialogues. Like, around 1,700 pages worth. Hackett Press has good editions of from one to a handful at a time, with good to very extensive introductions, and footnotes. Perhaps try a few in those editions?

I'm personally very fond of the Phaedrus.
posted by bertran at 7:50 AM on February 22, 2015

Not exactly a companion reader, Debra Nail's "The People of Plato" is a very handy "who's who" of the folks mentioned in Plato. I used it on occasion at the library, it's pretty expensive to own. Check worldcat to see if it is in a library near you.

ageometretos medeis eisito
posted by CincyBlues at 9:28 AM on February 22, 2015

Are you doing an MA on Modern Phil in the sense of Hume et al? What's the leaning of your department or your supervisor? That may influence which resources on ancient they will prefer you to be influenced by... so I would certainly run this question by them, or by any faculty member in ancient in your department who will be evaluating you. (There are controversies in how to approach interpreting Plato - as with many figures - and life will be easier if you study up in line with your evaluators' leanings.)

If you know virtually nothing about Plato, you might find it useful to start with a very general overview. Julia Annas (well regarded scholar of ancient phil) has an Intro to Plato in the Very Short Introductions series, which might be one starting point. You could also try the SEP on Plato, which will jump in at a higher level.

I think reading all of them closely is not the best use of your time -- better to pick a few representative dialogues from the different periods, and/or concerning subjects that are of special interest to you, and really dig into those. A short overview document would help you to pick which dialogues to focus on.

There are three periods - early, middle, late - that are roughly chronological, and the dialogues from the three differ in style and in the philosophical views Plato is advocating [even this breakdown is debated, but I offer it here as a starting point]. In general, the early dialogues like the Euthyphro are shorter, easier to read, famously involve elenchus and aporia, and more likely to reflect the historical Socrates's views; the middle ones like the Republic start to develop Plato's famous views like the theory of Forms; and the late ones like the Laws are more difficult and harder to interpret and represent the fuller development of Plato's views. (Here's one map of Plato's Dialogues that breaks them down according to a more complex scheme. You can quickly get overwhelmed if you go from zero to trying to figure out this kind of scheme, which is why I suggest a quick overview before diving into the dialogues.)

There are also resources (eg, either the Annas, or links within SEP, or the Plato site linked above) that break down which dialogues are most important for which areas of philosophy - ethics/virtue, philosophy of mind, political philosophy, etc. That would be another approach - if you know what you're interested in, you can read the important dialogues for that area.

I'd suggest a similar approach to Aristotle - read a very short overview, decide what you want to know more about (what's most relevant to your thesis topic), and then focus on those works or even just those select passages. In general, with Aristotle, you'll be looking at shorter bits of text that are harder to unpack as compared to the dialogues.

For translations:
Plato - the Cooper and Hutchinson complete works
Aristotle - the Barnes complete works
posted by LobsterMitten at 9:30 AM on February 22, 2015

Response by poster: I have a copy of the Benjamin Jowett translations of the complete works that I picked up second hand last year for about £8 but have not yet delved into. Although I've just been reading online that Jowett may not be a good translation to read due to his censorship of the original texts.

I have read a bit of Plato here and there - The Republic, Euthypro, Meno, The Apology - that I remember. And recently read Bertrand Russell's History of Western Philosophy. This idea/interest was probably sparked by listening to the History of Philosophy Without Any Gaps podcast in which he spends a good 5-6 episodes on Plato. So I"m not entirely new to Plato. But I don't recall doing a specific subject on plat in undergrad.

My MA is actually in contemporary continental philosophy and critical theory. (Mostly Post-Kantian Philosophy) I"m not sure what my dissertation will be on. The MA is 60% coursework so not a research MA. I was thinking of this as a long-term project that would take 6 months or so on the side - just reading on dialogue a fortnight say not exactly related to the MA directly. But yes it might be better to focus on particular key dialogues.
posted by mary8nne at 9:52 AM on February 22, 2015

Response by poster: What would be a good reading list for where Plato and Aristotle influence the continental tradition? In my MA we are looking mostly at: Kant, Hegel, Nietzsche, Heidegger, Sartre, Adorno, Freud, Lacan, Derrida, Foucault, Butler.
posted by mary8nne at 9:58 AM on February 22, 2015

For a continental take on Plato, maybe Hans-Georg Gadamer's commentaries? (Theoretician of hermeneutics and sometime student of Heidegger.)

Also, Pierre Hadot is a French scholar of ancient philosophy whose approach is less argument-focused and more wisdom-focused in a way that can connect well to continental concerns. He has a book called Philosophy as a Way of Life: Spiritual Exercises from Socrates to Foucault.

Alexander Nehamas writes about Plato's Socrates from a similar vantage.
posted by bertran at 10:44 AM on February 22, 2015

You might like this one from John Holbo. Reason and Persuasion: Three Dialogues By Plato - Euthyphro, Meno, Republic Book I. Downloadable.
posted by Gotanda at 4:03 PM on February 22, 2015

Have a look at SEP. Also, the Cornford editions are cheap and have useful essays/intros in them.
posted by persona au gratin at 1:54 AM on February 23, 2015

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