Have you ever been in a really good online discussion, where people disagree but listen to each other? Or have you ever been in one in a convention, where people are tossing ideas around and bouncing them off each other? Plato’s dialogues are like that, except without a followup key. The way they’re written is like hanging out with friends, and somebody will say something and before you know it Socrates will be bouncing off the ceiling again. Plato wrote them, but in first person from the point of view of Socrates, and Plato said he wrote them down just the way he remembered Socrates telling them. General opinion is that sometimes he did and sometimes he didn’t, and as Socrates was dead before they were published, there’s no telling. But they read as if you were there.
My very favourite has always been the Symposium, (it means “drinking party”) but the other day I picked up the Republic to check a quote and before I knew it I was hip deep in the argument. My link there is to the full online texts by Benjamin Jowett, of “if it is knowledge, then I know it” fame, but it’s a little Victorian, as you might expect. The translation I own and recommend is J.M. Dent’s Everyman translation, which is lively and fast moving. Also when I buy an Everyman book I feel I am supporting autodidacts everywhere. Avoid the Penguin Classics translation, which is stilted. It’s as if they think because it’s been two thousand five hundred years since these guys sat down and got into it that you have to be dry and respectful about it. The Everyman edition is supremely readable.
The Republic begins: “I went down to the Piraeus yesterday with Glaucon the son of Ariston.” They’re there to celebrate the festival of Bendis, a Thracian horse goddess, and they’re about to go when some friends who live in the Piraeus, the port of Athens, drag them off home with them for a discussion before the torchlit relay races in the evening. This is exactly the kind of thing that happens. They get into an argument about the nature of justice with Thrasymachus, who reminds me a bit of Carlos Has An Axe. Then they really get going and Socrates starts to talk about the way society works, and the way it could work, and then the way he’d set everything up in his ideal world. This is where it stops being a story of some men on a hot day in Athens in 360 BC and turns into science fiction.
I came to Plato via Mary Renault, which gave me the advantage of knowing some of the characters beforehand. I also came to Plato in my teens, and with a general impression from C.S. Lewis that it was all in Plato (“what do they teach them in these schools”) but no reverence. I read Plato the way I read science fiction, and at the same time. So the science fictional republic in The Republic was right up my street. In fact, the first novel I ever completed, at fifteen or sixteen, was about an attempt to set up Plato’s Republic where everything went wrong with it because people are human. Even at fifteen I couldn’t read a sentence like “the wives of our guardians are to be common, and their children are to be common, and no parent is to know his own child, nor any child his parent” without immediately starting to think of how this would all get snarled up because people will persist in falling in love.
Finding things wrong with Plato’s ideal Republic is like shooting fish in a barrel, and Plato (as Piper) was wrong about the cyclic nature of states and the harm it does. There’s a lot of wrongheaded nonsense there, and one sometimes longs to leap in and push the yes-men surrounding Socrates out of the way and come up with a proper objection. (There’s one point in Book V where even Thrasymachus just says yes, Socrates, meekly, to something I’d be prepared to type my fingers out arguing with.) But it’s interesting, it’s an interesting if bizarre utopia, with women equal and to do gymnastics naked with the men, and be educated with them. It starts with kidnapping ten year old children—well, Socrates doesn’t say kidnapping, but where else are you going to get a whole city’s worth of ten year olds? Also I don’t think Plato remembers being ten very well if he thinks they’re clean slates to write on what you will. Every time I read it I rip it to shreds in my head. That’s part of the joy of it.
If you like conversation and you haven’t been fortunate enough to read Plato’s dialogues, I thoroughly recommend them, they’re a ton of fun.
Jo Walton is a science fiction and fantasy writer. She’s published eight novels, most recently Half a Crown and Lifelode, and two poetry collections. She reads a lot, and blogs about it here regularly. She comes from Wales but lives in Montreal where the food and books are more varied.