Why is Plato Relevant Today?

Philosophy Cafe explores The Phaedo

Cover of the Last Days of Socrates bookThe members of the Philosophy Cafe, a group of lovers of philosophy most of whom live in the Shaw neighborhood, are planning to discuss several Platonic Dialogues during the next few months in a series of meetings every third Monday at the Watha T. Daniel/Shaw Library.

Why were these ancient classics of Philosophy selected by the philosophy group is an important question to answer. One has to ask:

  • What is relevant about the Platonic dialogues today?
  • Why should we read him?

The Platonic dialogues have a special appeal as a very accessible type of philosophy. They use short speeches and clever repartee to explore philosophical topics and are refreshing to read if one struggles with longer philosophical essays. Plato’s dialogues are dramatic literature as well as philosophy. Their method of finding truth through debate and discussion, not assertion, suits our era of deconstruction and irony.

The focus in these dialogues is on the very process of intellectual exploration, not the end point of the inquiry. Here we find no flat assertions of a philosophical thesis but rather a tentative reaching after truth in a discussion among a set of friends. Instead of a smooth statement of theory that one instinctively wants to pick holes in, one finds debate, disagreement, and even humor. One of the most important features of the Platonic dialogue is that the contention of various points of view are never fully resolved.  The process is more important than the conclusions.

The Portable PlatoThis literary quality is also advanced by the fact that the presentations of contrasting points of view are embodied in the specific characters who are discussing the topic. We learn their histories and their intellectual perspectives in the course of the debate and see how they influence their philosophical positions. There is a natural heterodoxy in this kind of presentation. The contrasting points of view are sometimes partly reconciled in a larger synthesis that is suggested by Socrates but often the disagreements are left standing.

Socrates is the first to admit ignorance or being stumped by a difficult question. The point of the dialogues is often the realization of error. This phenomenon is called “elenchus” or “refutation,” a moment of awareness that occurs when one of the main characters of the debate acknowledges the inconsistency of his positions through the assistance of Socrates, who causes him to bring an idea to its logical conclusion. This recognition that one does not understand the meaning of foundational concepts such as courage or friendship is initially embarrassing but ultimately increases self-awareness. This is a key moment in these dialogues.

In some of the early dialogues this refutation is the climax of the entire dialogue. Socrates is seeking to make people question their assumptions and beliefs and so recognize the lack of clarity in their thinking. They have to join Socrates in admitting ignorance. His larger purpose is to help himself and others find wisdom for the conduct of the moral life. This shock of recognition is in many ways the first step in a gradual conversion toward the philosophical life.

The Last Days of SocratesOver the spring of 2013 in the Philosophy Café, we are focusing on some of what are called the “Middle Dialogues” of Plato that represent his mature thinking and tend to explore some of the deepest questions of philosophy. We have chosen to start with The Phaedo because it is a dialogue that examines the issue of immortality in the dramatic context of Socrates’ execution by drinking hemlock. In this dialogue, we see Socrates’ philosophy embodied in how he lives, meeting his death with courage and wit.

Each of the partners in the dialogue are old friends and disciples such as Cebes and Simmias, who have their own motivations to argue in certain ways and thus engage in a vigorous discussion of the topics of life after death and immortality. We hope the philosophical issues will be brought into stronger light by the dramatic circumstances under which Socrates philosophizes at the end of his life, at least according to the writer and philosopher Plato. 

After this discussion, we will move on to some other classic dialogues such as Phaedrus, a work that explores issues of the parts of the soul and our destiny after death through myth. We welcome strong opinions and seek to find truth in the very process of debate engaged in by Socrates, not in reaching firm conclusions. We will be reading from the Penguin translation of The Phaedo and some related dialogues that deal with the end of the life of Socrates put together by Hugh Tredennick under the English title The Last Days of Socrates.