As a rule, men with a correct education become good, and nowhere in the world should education be despised, for when combined with great virtue, it is an asset of incalculable value. If it ever becomes corrupt, but can be put right again, this is a lifelong task which everyone should undertake to the limit of his strength (Laws, 644a-644b).
How to Read Plato
Figures in the history of philosophy fascinate us in two different ways. On the one hand, they fascinate when their ideas are so unusual and inventive that they become curiosities. Here we might include Leibniz’ theory of the Monads or Schopenhauer’s theory of the Will. On the other hand, some figures fascinate when their ideas strike us as new and genuine answers to our own pressing questions. When students approach a thinker who is fascinating in the first sense, they are invited to treat the philosopher with a kind of playful amusement; when students approach a thinker who is fascinating in the second sense, they are invited to treat the philosopher as a serious conversation partner.
In my experience, Plato is typically considered fascinating in the first sense. His most memorable ideas—the Forms, the philosopher-kings, the Theory of Recollection, the sufficiency of knowledge for virtue, to name a few—are fascinating as curiosities but not taken seriously as plausible accounts of how the world does or should work. Indeed, I cannot count the number of times I have heard fellow philosophers end a debate with some version of the following: “Unless, of course, you believe in Plato’s Forms” or “Next you will be advocating for the rule of the philosopher-kings” or “That idea is a bit too Platonic, isn’t it?” Claims like these are always voiced in a spirit of reproach, as decisive refutations of silly theories.
It is my contention that treating Plato’s ideas in this way is unjustified. The above theories and countless others should not be regarded as mere historical curiosities, but as part of new and genuine answers to our own pressing questions. The problem is that in order to regard them as such, we need to approach them differently. Typically, we read or teach Plato one dialogue at a time and assess the plausibility of the ideas in each dialogue on their own merits; or if we do read or teach dialogues in context with other dialogues we usually do so with a particular interpretive lens already in play—namely, that Plato primarily intends to communicate philosophical doctrines in his dialogues and that those doctrines changed substantially over time. I argue that this is the wrong way to read and teach Plato’s dialogues. Following Charles Kahn, Diskin Clay, C.J. Rowe, and others, I contend that Plato’s ideas need to be understood as part of a philosophical-literary project that aims not merely to communicate doctrine but also to transform his readers.
This leads to the question of what Plato’s philosophical project is. In this book I argue that Plato is, first and foremost, an ethicist and moral educator who seeks to transform his contemporaries and future readers into virtuous people. While his dialogues are full of insights regarding aesthetics, metaphysics, epistemology and so on, all of these are subordinate to his ultimate goal of making his readers (and ultimately society) virtuous. Similarly, the doctrine of the Forms, the philosopher-kings, recollection, and the sufficiency of knowledge for virtue are part of this project and any attempt to understand them as stand-alone theories will necessarily lead to misunderstandings.
The goal of this book is to make Plato’s ethical project clear and in so doing make his ideas come alive again, not as mere historical curiosities, but as new and genuine responses to our own pressing ethical questions. Plato offers contemporary theorists insights into how to cultivate virtue in both children and adults, but unfortunately, those insights go relatively unappreciated because we assume that they are built on a foundation of a wildly implausible metaphysics, a totalitarian politics, a dubious intellectualist epistemology, and so on. If we properly contextualize his metaphysics, politics, epistemology a different picture of Plato’s ethical thought emerges, allowing us to see just how relevant he is to our own time.
Although I have benefitted greatly from countless interpreters, there are two works in particular that paved the way for the present study: Charles Kahn’s Plato and the Socratic Dialogue: The Philosophical Use of a Literary Form and Julia Annas’s Platonic Ethics, Old and New. In my opinion Kahn and Annas have done more than any other contemporary Anglophone scholar of ancient philosophy to help us see how relevant Plato is to our own time. One of the main reason they have achieved this is because they helped us understand Plato’s doctrines unitarian interpretations of Plato’s corpus respectable. Of the most influential Anglophone scholars of ancient philosophy of the twentieth century, Kahn and Annas are the only two who have offered a unitarian interpretation of Plato’s
The contemporary significance of Aristotle’s virtue ethics has been acknowledged over the last fifty years as ethical and educational theorists have made his ideas relevant to contemporary audiences. It is high time that Plato’s contemporary significance is similarly acknowledged. He not only affirms the importance of many of Aristotle’s most insightful ideas, but he offers additional insights of his own—insights that may improve our own attempts to cultivate virtues in ourselves and in others.
The Two Dimensions of Plato’s Program of Moral Education
In this book I offer an interpretation of Plato’s theory of moral education. It is my contention that while Plato’s dialogues are full of insights regarding aesthetics, metaphysics, and epistemology, Plato is first and foremost a moral educator who seeks to improve the moral character of his peers and future readers. My goal is to show what his theory is and why he thinks it is the most effective approach to cultivating the virtues in human beings who were not given a proper ethical education in their youth. He believes that the vast majority of his readers are people who did not have a proper upbringing in the virtues. He is also convinced that without intervention these individuals will likely become less virtuous as time goes on. He wants to arrest this process and believes that he can help his readers become virtuous. His dialogues are written with this goal in mind.
To achieve his goal, Plato uses two different strategies that correspond to two distinct dimensions of his theory of moral education: the descriptive and the transformative. The descriptive dimension is meant for individuals who already desire the virtues for themselves or who want to cultivate the virtues in others. Although he thinks that they are rare, Plato believes that certain individuals genuinely want to live virtuous lives and are willing to cultivate the virtues in themselves and in others. For these individuals, Plato offers three alternative methods for moral education: the Ideal, the Socratic, and the Platonic.