Study Guide

Plato Quotes

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"When I began to talk with him, I could not help thinking that he was not really wise, although he was thought wise by many, and wiser still by himself; and I went and tried to explain to him that he thought himself wise, but was not really wise; and the consequence was that he hated me, and his enmity was shared by several who were present and heard me. So I left him, saying to myself, as I went away: Well, although I do not suppose that either of us knows anything really beautiful and good, I am better off than he is - for he knows nothing, and thinks that he knows. I neither know nor think that I know. In this latter particular, then, I seem to have slightly the advantage of him." —From Plato's Apology

This quote is from my Apology, a very early dialogue that describes the trial of Socrates. That, of course, was an actual historical event, but I'll admit to have taken a few liberties in polishing up Socrates' words (the guy was a good speaker, yes, but I take him to the next level). Anyhow, despite the title, Socrates is anything but apologetic in his statement before the Athenian jury. (And what should he have been apologizing for, anyway—trying to help his fellow citizens become more virtuous?) In truth, a better, more literal translation of the Greek word apologia is "defense."

The background to this passage is that I'm having Socrates explain how he came to have such a bad reputation in certain circles. Hey, it wasn't like he did anything wrong. The oracle at Delphi—a famous soothsayer—said that Socrates was the absolute wisest person around. Well, he couldn't believe it, so he went around questioning people to find someone wiser and thereby prove the oracle wrong. What else was he supposed to do?

Anyway, in the above quote, he's describing how he found some upstanding Athenian citizen with a reputation for wisdom and asked him a few questions about the fundamental nature of this or that concept (virtue, courage, friendship—something like that). And what do you know? The guy couldn't answer his questions, despite being absolutely certain beforehand that he knew.

It's not that Socrates could answer those questions either. But unlike this arrogant citizen, at least he didn't think he knew. To use his famous phrase: he knows that he doesn't know. And it is just that—this knowledge of his own ignorance—that makes him the wisest man in Athens.

One thing, though, about that famous phrase: Socrates never actually said it! Yes, he expresses that idea, more or less, in this Apology passage, but he doesn't actually use those words, here or anywhere else. It's like Paul Revere shouting "The British are coming!" Or Al Gore saying he invented the Internet.

How is it that people so often get to be known for the one thing they didn't say?

"Socrates: For consider: is the pious loved by the gods because it is pious? Or is it pious because it is loved by the gods?

Euthyphro: I do not know what you mean, Socrates." —From Plato's Euthyphro

In this dialogue, I'm having Socrates inquire into the nature of piety (or holiness) with a priest by the name of Euthyphro. All right, I'll be honest: Socrates isn't exactly "inquiring with" Euthyphro; he is showing this pompous, full-of-himself jerk that he doesn't know what he so confidently believes he knows.

The two characters run into each other on the steps of the courthouse, where Socrates is on his way to be put on trial for—you got it—impiety (among other charges). So let's just say he's a little sensitive about the whole issue. And then Euthyphro tells him that he's about to bring an indictment against his father for the murder of a slave. His own father!

This is very unusual and so Socrates asks him why he's doing this. Well, Euthyphro puffs out his chest and tells him that this is in fact the pious thing to do. And he might just happen to know a few things about piety, being a priest and all. So naturally I have Socrates start cross-examining him on the topic. Great set-up, huh?

Some of Euthyphro's answers involve appeal to the gods, not surprisingly. He says, for example, that piety is what the gods love. But when I have Socrates point out that, in fact, the gods disagree (you know how they are always fighting with one another in the Greek myths), he amends his definition to the claim that piety is what all the gods love. That's when I hit him with my million-dollar question: Is the pious loved by the gods because it's pious or is it pious because it's loved?


I have Euthyphro say he doesn't understand Socrates' question. And in fact, nobody does the first time I hit 'em with it. I always end up going over it several times.

But it's actually not that complicated. What I'm really asking here is a question about the ultimate basis of the concept of piety, or even more simply, of right and wrong in general.

  • The first option—that the pious is loved because it's pious—is saying that there is some quality or feature in pious actions that the gods recognize, and this makes them call those actions pious or good.
  • The second option—that the pious is pious because it's loved by the gods—is claiming that the preference of the gods decides right and wrong. On this account, if all the gods happened to love adultery, for example, then adultery would be a pious act. All kinds of crazy things would follow. If the gods were fans of reality television (quite possible), it might well turn out that watching Survivor reruns was the most virtuous, holiest thing you could do!

Well I get Euthyphro to see that this second option makes right and wrong seem completely arbitrary, and he goes for option one. But that means that if there is something inherent to piety that makes pious actions have that quality, then the preference of the gods is irrelevant. We can just inquire ourselves into the nature of piety and leave the gods out of it entirely.

I had a great time making a priest admit that point, I'll confess.

Like so many of my ideas, this one has been very influential. It basically paved the way for a rational basis to morality. I'm not denying the existence of God or gods—just suggesting that we don't need to appeal to religion to prop up morality.

Quite modern of me, don't you think?

"Well then, she began, the candidate for this initiation cannot, if his efforts are to be rewarded, begin too early to devote himself to the beauties of the body. First of all, if his preceptor instructs him as he should, he will fall in love with the beauty of one individual body, so that his passion may give life to noble discourse. Next he must consider how nearly related the beauty of any one body is to the beauty of any other, when he will see that if he is to devote himself to loveliness of form it will be absurd to deny that the beauty of each and every body is the same. Having reached this point, he must set himself to be the lover of every lovely body, and bring his passion for the one into due proportion by deeming it of little or of no importance. Next he must grasp that the beauties of the body are as nothing to the beauties of the soul, so that wherever he meets with spiritual loveliness, even in the husk of an unlovely body, he will find it beautiful enough to fall in love with and to cherish--and beautiful enough to quicken in his heart a longing for such discourse as tends toward the building of a noble nature. And from this he will be led to contemplate the beauty of laws and institutions. And when he discovers how nearly every kind of beauty is akin to every other he will conclude that the beauty of the body is not, after all, of so great moment. And next, his attention should be diverted from institutions to the sciences, so that he may know the beauty of every kind of knowledge. And thus, by scanning beauty's wide horizon, he will be saved from a slavish and illiberal devotion to the individual loveliness of a single boy, a single man, or a single institution. And, turning his eyes toward the open sea of beauty, he will find in such contemplation the seed of the most fruitful discourse and the loftiest thought, and reap a golden harvest of philosophy, until, confirmed and strengthened, he will come upon one single form of knowledge." —From Plato's Symposium 

Ah, the Symposium—that was a work of true philosophical poetry. I was so inspired in those days. And don't let the title fool you either (why are the titles of my dialogues so misleading?): what I present here is not some academic conference, attended by a bunch of distinguished professors. No, it's a drinking party! And by the end, everyone is totally plastered and incoherent.

Now it is true that before it's gets to that point, the guests give a series of speeches on the nature of love. (We didn't have television or iPhones—what else was there to do?) Naturally, Socrates' speech is the last one, so he can top everyone else's. But I gave some of the dialogue's other characters, especially the playwright Aristophanes, some memorable speeches, too.

The speech given here by Socrates is actually attributed by him to a mysterious priestess named Diotima. That's one of my favorite techniques, by the way—having characters relate things they've heard from other people, or in general, presenting stories within stories within stories. Some find it confusing, but I like the indirectness of it all. Anyway, Socrates claims that this Diotima is the one who taught him everything he knows about the art of love.

Well, I think you've already gotten the sense that my discussions of love, even if they center on eros, aren't exactly racy. The phrase "Platonic love" didn't come from nowhere, you realize. But still you notice that the process I describe here begins with a very familiar, down-to-earth phenomenon—the simple attraction to another person that is the subject of a million love songs and romantic comedies.

Now if this were a romantic comedy, the coming together of the two lovers would be the end of it. Oh, of course, there would first have to be the obstacles, the miscommunications, and the temporary breakup, all leading up to the climactic frantic run through the rain to the airport. But then it would all be over: the final declaration of love would be made, and our lovers would live happily ever after.

For me, though, it's just the beginning.

On my account (i.e., Diotima's account by way of Socrates), while you start off by loving one beautiful body, you soon begin to notice there are lots of other equally beautiful bodies as well. No, the point is not, "I can't be tied down anymore, baby, I need to be free to play the field!" (You were hoping I would say it's okay, weren't you? Sorry!) Instead, it's a matter of realizing that trying to find fulfillment in this way is too limited. Rather than being narrowly attached to one person, the lover-in-training learns to appreciate the physical beauty of everyone.

But soon you realize that's limited, too. You can't just look at people as if they were pretty objects; you need to look within. It's the beauty of the soul that counts! And once you reach that level, you start wanting to compose poetry, write love songs, that sort of thing. (Or if you're a contestant on the Bachelor, this is the tender moment when you give your love interest that scrapbook that you and the producers of the show have carefully constructed.)

And then you start to realize that, hey, it's the words and the larger ideas they express that's where it's really at. At first, that means social institutions and the like ("All of you are very lovely, certainly, but I'm afraid I've fallen for…the Constitution."). But then it hits you that there is something even broader. That's right, it's knowledge that is most beautiful and that you really care for.

And your conception of knowledge keeps getting more and more exalted until finally it ends in a vision of the Beautiful itself, the form of beauty. (I go on to rhapsodize about that at great length in the next passage in the Symposium.)

So, you see, what I present here is what is usually referred to as the "ladder of love." In a way that is similar to the Phaedrus, but not identical, I show how physical attraction, properly guided, leads step-by-step to a transcendent insight. I guess you could say my story would begin as a Jennifer Aniston movie and end as St. Matthew's Passion by Bach.

I'm not quite sure how well that would do at the box office, though.

"Parmenides: I imagine that the way in which you are led to assume one form of each kind is as follows: -You see a number of large objects, and when you look at them there seems to you to be some one character, the same as you look at them all, and from that you conclude that the large is one.

Very true, said Socrates.

Parmenides: What about the large itself and the other large things? If you look at them all in the same way with the mind's eye, again won't some one thing appear large, by which all these appear large?

Socrates: It would seem so.

Parmenides: So another form of largeness will make its appearance, which has emerged alongside largeness itself and the things that partake of it, and in turn another over all these, by which all of them will be large. Each of your forms will no longer be one, but unlimited in multitude." —From Plato's Parmenides

The Parmenides is from the end of my middle period—so now things are getting really convoluted. This dialogue is an imagined discussion between Parmenides (a famous philosopher who pre-dated me) and the young Socrates—Socrates when he was still just a whiz kid. The first part of the dialogue consists of Parmenides delivering a series of sharp objections to my theory of forms. And Socrates, whiz kid though he may be, is having a lot of difficulty coming up with answers to these objections.

This passage contains what is usually referred to as the "Third Man Argument." It's just a short argument, as you see, but you wouldn't believe how much attention it's gotten. Some people have suggested that the objection is invalid, though I didn't realize it; some people have suggested that it's a good objection, but that I have an answer up my sleeve; some people claim that, for me, this is pretty much the nail in the coffin for the theory of forms. Those commentators do like to speculate about my intentions, don't they? That's how I like it.

But let's go through the argument step by step, and you can make up your own minds. First I have Parmenides describe why Socrates believes we have to assume the forms. Suppose there's a bunch of things that we call beautiful—a painting, a sunset, a picture of me (I am quite attractive, I hope you realize). We call them all by the same name, so there must be some feature they all share, which Socrates calls the "form" of beauty. That common ingredient, the form, has to be somehow separate from the things that partake of it.

So far so good. But then consider together the Form of the Beautiful and all those beautiful things—that painting, that sunset, and, of course, me. There must be some common feature these all share, right? Otherwise we wouldn't call them all "beautiful." But…but…but then it seems, by the same logic used before, we have to assume a new form, the New Form of the Beautiful, to account for that common ingredient.

And then we do the same thing again! What if we consider together the beautiful things (including me), the Form of the Beautiful, and the New Form of the Beautiful? Again there has to be something common, and so we have to introduce the New New Form of the Beautiful. And so on, and so forth. It seems we necessarily end up not with one Form of the Beautiful but with an infinite number of Forms of the Beautiful!

This is simply cray cray. If there isn't just one basis to each phenomenon, what is my theory of forms explaining anyway? If I do have an answer to this objection, I sure don't have Socrates state it in this dialogue.

So which is it? Is this the beginning of the end for my prized theory? Do I have a secret solution to this problem, but I'm craftily leaving it for the reader to work it out (a.k.a. messing with your minds)? Or am I just…confused?

You all know the drill, Shmoopers: you be the judge.

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