A Platonic Reading Order
So, in the last couple of months, I have managed to work my way through the entire Platonic literary corpus, including apocrypha*. The only exceptions were the Euthyphro, the Apology, the Crito, and the Phaedo, which I read last year.
*By apocrypha, I mean the various bits and pieces that were attributed to Plato over the centuries, but which weren’t actually written by him. The sad thing about the apocryphal works is that once they’re turfed in the “fanfiction or forgery” bin, no-one really bothers with them any more, which means finding translations gets hard. Dear god, some of the stodgy mid-nineteenth century translations made my eyes bleed.
So yeah. That’s a lot of reading, with a lot of different dialogues. Along the way I decided to put together a proposed Platonic Reading Order – not in the sense of an “ideal” Reading Order that exists off in another dimension, or in the sense of a Reading Order you are just friends with, but in the sense of “which Platonic texts to read in which order.” Apparently it’s actually a serious question for some people, and there is good reason for that. The Platonic corpus is large, and let’s say that there are some monsters therein that are best tackled with preparation.
Note that you could read the corpus in chronological order – which wouldn’t be the worst idea. Hell, you could actually do worse than reading the thing in alphabetical order – at least until you hit L, and ran away screaming. But in putting this Reading Order together, I thought I’d tackle stuff like accessibility and theme – trying to be complete, while noting that some stuff is more critical than others. Also, in contrast to most other suggested Platonic Reading Orders, this one includes the apocryphal works.
Bold: This stuff is important. Depending on what you’re after, you still might want to skip it, but it’s at least worth realising what you’re missing.
(Parentheses): This stuff is definitely not written by Plato. Note that I have taken the broadest possible definition of Plato’s works here – if it’s only a dubious work, it’s treated as authentic. The spurious stuff may or may not be worth reading depending on what you’re after.
- Symposium: It’s famous, it’s fun, and it’s about one of the great human universals (romantic love), without getting dogmatic or overly complicated. Bonus points for imagining how many stuffy academics down the centuries have found the homoeroticism awkward. This is Ancient Greece, remember. Double bonus points for the fact that it’s much shorter (and much simpler) than the Republic, and as such is the ideal entry point into Plato.
- Rival Lovers: There is some debate about whether this one was actually written by Plato, but it has its authenticity defenders, so I’m generously treating it as such. This is a short, straight-forward piece (almost too straight-forward) on what a Philosopher does. Again, this is Ancient Greece, so the titular Lovers are, of course, both male.
- Ion: Plato looks at Poetry – what a Poet does, and where the creative impulse comes from. It’s another fun, easy piece that reminds you how different the world of Socrates and Plato really was to our own. It’s also the shortest dialogue that was definitely written by Plato.
- Charmides: What is Temperance? This one – and the two dialogues following – is a short and decent introduction to the Socratic Method. Socrates claims he knows nothing, then asks people a basic question, then picks holes in the answer until it’s clear that the people have no idea what they’re talking about. Why yes, Socrates (as portrayed by Plato) was a great historical troll.
- Lysis: What is Friendship? Socratic Method in action, deconstructing assumptions without coming to any actual conclusion.
- Laches: What is Courage? More Socratic Method. Et cetera.
- (Eryxias): Definitely spurious, this is a Platonic fanfiction on why Money Can’t Buy Happiness.
- Hipparchus: If Ayn Rand time-travelled to Ancient Greece in a desperate attempt to throw herself at Aristotle, only to get stuck fifty years too early, and then found herself writing Platonic dialogues to pass the time, the Hipparchus would be the result. It’s basically a dialogue where the premise is “any gain is good” – never mind that it contradicts the Laws, among other things. If I’d hazard a guess, this one was either fanfiction or Plato reporting Socrates being a troll. At least it’s short.
- Euthyphro: What is Piety? This is the Socratic Method again, but this time Plato throws up a genuinely significant philosophical issue – the Euthyphro Dilemma – which is worth remembering the next time you encounter the argument that morality necessitates God.
- Apology: Short and famous, this is Socrates’ defence speech at his trial. Spoiler: Socrates was tried for impiety and corrupting the youth, and I am sure you know the result. One gets the impression that Socrates really couldn’t help himself.
- Crito: An immediate follow-up to the Apology, this is a dialogue between Socrates and his followers about the merits of escaping, or whether to stay and face execution. The argument about following laws has led to… unfortunate popularity of this dialogue among certain historical regimes.
- Phaedo: Socrates drinks the hemlock, but first muses on the immortality of the soul. Given the way hemlock operates, one suspects that Plato was glossing over the nastiness of his teacher’s death.
- Menexenus: A weird one. The dialogue is really a framing device for a piece of oratory. In this case, the oratory is Socrates delivering a set-piece funeral oration (which, given the previous dialogue on this list, seems appropriate).
- (Axiochus): A blatantly spurious dialogue between a dying man and Socrates. The latter comforts the former by listing various philosophical reasons why Death is not to be feared.
- Clitophon: Moving away from the Death-themed dialogues, this dubious dialogue is the shortest one in the entire Platonic corpus. It’s a young man complaining that Socrates is very good at inspiring desire for virtue, but never actually gives answers. Which obviously leads on to…
- Republic: The one everyone has heard of. It’s Plato’s most important book – in the modern era anyway. It starts with the Socratic question of What is Justice, and ends up with a lengthy look at Plato’s ideal state. It’s also where you find the core Platonic concept of the Cave, together with other famous bits and pieces – the idea of Philosopher-Kings, the Ring of Gyges, and so on. Some people suggest that a beginner to Plato should start with the Republic, but given the length and complexity of the thing, I’ve pushed it down the order a bit.
- First Alcibiades: This one was actually considered the best place to start Plato by classical authors. It’s a short, simple dialogue on the importance of Knowing Thyself, and you might remember Alcibiades from the Symposium.
- (Second Alicibiades): An even shorter follow-up to the First Alcibiades, this spurious piece basically boils down to Be Careful What You Pray For.
- Theages: Nietzsche references this one, but it’s otherwise obscure. Socrates has a dialogue with a young man with rulership ambitions, while revealing that he has an Ancient Athenian version of the Pinkie Sense from My Little Pony.
- (Halcyon): This one’s been known as spurious for a while, so finding an online version was damned hard. It’s a shame, because it’s quite a pretty little piece, a short (and un-Platonic) musing on “there are more things in Heaven and Earth than are dreamt of in your philosophy, Horatio.”
- Meno: What is Virtue (and can it be taught)? You met Plato’s World of Forms in the Republic, but here they are again: the ideal world, of which our own is but a reflection. Via the famous slave-boy geometry scene, this is also where Plato suggests that all learning is simply recollection. It is as weird as it sounds.
- (Sisyphus): Not that Sisyphus, unfortunately. A spurious reformulation of Meno’s Paradox from the previous dialogue – the idea that learning is impossible, since either you know something (in which case you don’t need to learn it), or you don’t (in which case, you don’t know what to learn).
- (On Virtue): Not just spurious, but actual plagiarism. Yes, really. Some dude in Ancient Greece basically cut and pasted bits from the Meno, and pretended it was a separate dialogue.
- (On Justice): Another spurious non-event, that revisits the questions dealt with in better, more authentic, dialogues. Yet another reminder, however, of Plato’s notion that no-one ever does bad knowingly. Doing bad comes from a lack of understanding of what is Good.
- Lesser Hippias: Now we turn to the Sophist section. Plato really, really did not like the Sophists, figures who claimed to teach rhetoric and virtue in exchange for money (and, because Plato’s work survives, the poor old Sophists have really suffered). The Lesser Hippias is basically Socrates in full troll mode against one of these guys, arguing that being good at lying is Good. I’ll leave the logical fallacy as an exercise for the reader.
- Greater Hippias: What is Beauty? Plato has another go at Hippias, with some truly glorious snark.
- Euthydemus: The single funniest Platonic dialogue, Plato takes logical fallacies (which he is accusing the Sophists of being guilty of), and just runs with it into absolute absurdity.
- (Demodocus): A Sophist argument that somehow got lumped under Plato’s name (it’s definitely not Plato’s authorship). The Demodocus tries to argue that one can never trust any advice whatsoever, and in the translation I read, the thing is practically incomprehensible.
- Protagoras: The Sophists Strike Back. Protagoras was a famous moral relativist (“man is the measure of all things”), and he and Socrates square off in a debate as to whether virtue can be taught. Protagoras says it can, Socrates says it can’t. Protagoras makes a series of excellent arguments, Socrates concedes the point, and then changes tack in order to trip Protagoras up. It’s almost like Socrates was trying to win, Sophist-style…
- Gorgias: Thank you, Callicles, for finally calling up Socrates on his tactic of nonsensical equivocation. Quite apart from the Sophistry, the Gorgias also has an interesting discussion on ethics – about whether it is better to suffer or to inflict suffering. There is also a strange little section towards the end where Socrates debates with himself.
- Phaedrus: My personal favourite dialogue of the entire corpus. This one touches on several areas – romantic love (in some respects it is a follow-up to the Symposium), rhetoric, and writing. Plato introduces the notion that the soul is akin to a chariot being pulled by two winged horses. Socrates himself may hate writing, but what his student produced here is a beautiful piece of work.
- Cratylus: A dry follow-up to Meno that links Naming with the World of Forms. The dialogue immediately concludes that names are not simply creations of social convenience, but rather things that say something about that which they are naming. Actually quite Tolkienian in subject matter.
- Thaetetus: What is Knowledge? Not light reading, but the Big One as far as epistemology is concerned. Socrates considers several possible ideas, and rejects them all – making sure to take a pot-shot at Protagoras’ relativism along the way.
- Parmenides: Thus far, the World of Forms has been a given in Plato. As has Socrates’ general superiority in debate. Sure, Protagoras nearly gets him, and Callicles from the Gorgias gives him a run for his money, but generally Socrates beats the Muppet of the Week with ease. That all changes in the Parmenides. The first half represents elderly Parmenides and his colleague Zeno (yes, that one) ripping the youthful Socrates apart, and raising some killer arguments against the World of Forms (including Aristotle’s later Third Man Argument). The second half of this dialogue, where Zeno discusses an example with another young man, is incomprehensible. Seriously, people have been trying to figure it out for millennia, and there is still no agreement on what is going on. So take heart that you are not the first person to be confused by the Parmenides.
- Philebus: On the surface, this is just a straight-forward argument about which is better – pleasure or wisdom. Spoiler alert: wisdom’s better, but you really want a combination of the two. Groundbreaking, I know. The dialogue is actually more interesting for how it reaches the conclusions it does, with some further elaboration on the World of Forms and other Big Issues.
- Sophist: Socrates actually takes a back seat in this one, as the main character is the Eleaic Stranger. Ostensibly about how to properly classify a Sophist, the piece features heavy use of division categorisation, and makes some further elaboration on the World of Forms. Fun Platonic fact – ‘Not-Being’ also partakes in the form of Being.
- Statesman: A follow-up to the Sophist, this was actually the second part of an incomplete trilogy (the unwritten third dialogue was to be the Philosopher). The Statesman is about defining Statesmanship… and is a good deal more grounded in its political ideas than the Republic. Sure, Plato thinks the Philosopher King is the best… but a written law is second best. The dialogue also features some interesting myths, including a world where men age backwards.
- Timaeus: As a curiosity, this was actually considered the most important Platonic dialogue in the medieval era, primarily because the first half (translated into Latin) was the only Plato directly available in Medieval Europe. The Timaeus, part acid trip, part dry science textbook, is Plato engaging with natural philosophy, and it is profoundly odd. The stuff contained here is the basis of Neoplatonic mysticism, and along with the Critias, this dialogue is also the foundation of the Atlantis myth. Meanwhile, Plato believed in reincarnation, with good people ending up on appropriate stars. Bad people end up as women. It’s moments like this when you realise Plato’s famous gender equality thing from the Republic was just him being a Spartan fanboy.
- Critias: An unfinished follow-up to the Timaeus, the Critias is Atlantis world-building notes. Yes, really: there’s a fair amount of detail on how the Atlanteans organised their island. There was also apparently to be a third instalment in this trilogy, the Hermocrates, but Plato never wrote it.
- Minos: A dubious dialogue that traditionally functioned as a preamble to the Laws, the Minos is seen as an early attempt at exploring legal philosophy. It’s not a particularly deep one. Legal ideas have advanced a bit since, and I am sure that most people would be sceptical of the notion that the best legal framework is the one that has endured the longest.
- Laws: Ugh. The Laws. Plato’s last undisputed work, the Laws is the longest Platonic dialogue (it’s longer than the Republic) and does not feature Socrates. It’s also a depressing piece of work in every respect, to the point where you wish for Plato’s sake that it had been lost to history. Long gone is the utopian dream of the Republic, here replaced with the mundane minutiae of planning a Cretan colony. The Laws has to be considered an important Platonic work, but honestly, it’s only useful for specialists interested in specific parts. Taken as a whole? It’s eminently hate-worthy, and I don’t just mean the regulations on what to do with slaves. In terms of the wider corpus, think of a lonely old man, sitting on a graveyard bench in late autumn, as dry leaves scatter around him. The old man dwells on the failures of his life. That is the Laws.
- Epinomis: A short follow-up to the Laws (hence the name), the Epinomis isn’t really about law. It’s about the soul, and how the Greeks regarded astronomy. Actually worth reading if you are interested in the more mystical side of Platonism.
- (Definitions): Not a dialogue, but a list of 184… definitions. Definitely spurious, and of minimal philosophical value – though the definition of Man ties back to that old “featherless biped” story. Cue Diogenes and his plucked chicken.
- (Epigrams): Again, not a dialogue, and not Plato’s work, this is literally just eighteen poetic ruminations, each only about 2-3 sentences long.
- Epistles: Plato’s letters. Allegedly. There are thirteen of them, some of them more authentic than others (everyone agrees the First one is a fake, but the others are up for debate). The longest and most important one is the Seventh Letter, which I would recommend reading first, since it provides some useful biographical and contextual information for the others. Apart from the Seventh and the Eighth Letters (which, if authentic, ties back to the Laws), the other Epistles – real or otherwise – are just fluff from Plato’s time on Sicily.
So yeah. The Platonic corpus and apocrypha. I hope someone finds this useful 🙂
Addendum: as an Epilogue, here is a look at Xenophon’s Socratic works.