Fave Plato Bits

by John Holbo on November 24, 2013

I’m curious – for teaching purposes! What are the Plato bits that you especially like, that aren’t any of those usual bits that always get taught in Intro Philosophy? If you could include one unconventional Plato selection – whole dialogue, or chunk of one – in an intro philo course, what would it be, and why? (In short, this thread is your opportunity to get all indie about Plato. “I only read dialogues that don’t exist.” Please, let your hipster flag fly. You’ll probably sound like a Straussian.)

Bonus exercise: write a commentary on a Plato dialogue in the style of a Pitchfork music review.



bjk 11.24.13 at 3:14 am

“Phaedr. I will do as I say; but believe me, Socrates, I did not learn the very words; nevertheless I have a general notion of what he said, and will give you a summary of the points in which the lover differed from the non-lover. Let me begin at the beginning.

Soc. Yes, my sweet one; but you must first of all show what you have in your left hand under your cloak, for that roll, as I suspect, is the actual discourse.”

The is the Greek equivalent of “is that a scroll under your toga, or are you just glad to see me?”


Glen Tomkins 11.24.13 at 4:25 am

I’ve always thought that the Gorgias was the Platonic ideal of a Socratic dialogue. It’s got it all. Socrates winning arguments with rank sophistry just to blow things up, the image of some dude trying to wear three cloaks and three pair of boots and three hats all at once, Socrates actually being emotively eloquent, epistemology fully elucidated to no one’s satisfaction — what more could anyone ask of a Socratic dialogue?


GiT 11.24.13 at 4:53 am

And Callicles in the Gorgias is a souped up version of Thrasymachus, which is fun.


bianca steele 11.24.13 at 5:18 am

Heh heh. He said “hardly.”


bianca steele 11.24.13 at 5:19 am

Sorry, this was a serious thread.


SoU 11.24.13 at 5:48 am

Are you implying that Strauss was just a hipster who had a taste for the classics?


Lawrence Stuart 11.24.13 at 6:05 am

The track “Meno’s Diss” is particularly strong. It forces Socrates to invoke anamnesis, which brings into high relief Plato’s role as analeptic author engaged in an operation of recollection fraught with complexity. It is one of those moments where the form and content of the album enter into a dialogue of extraordinary erotic power: the tantalizing promise of eternal truth mediated by the paradoxical necessity of story telling.


Robert 11.24.13 at 6:43 am

Which dialog starts with Plato pretending to know about herbs for curing headaches so that this cute young guy’s uncle will introduce Socrates to him? And when Socrates sits down next to the young guy, the guy at the end of the bench falls off when the guys on the bench slide down to make room.


js. 11.24.13 at 7:12 am

The third man argument from Parminedes (obviously!). The non-being stuff from, Theaetatus is it, is also pretty good.

(Frankly, though, I’ve always found teaching Plato to be a bit terrifying and have done my best to avoid it.)


Meredith 11.24.13 at 8:15 am

The opening of the Republic. Such familiar word order to the English speaker, and for that very reason strange for the English speaker also familiar with ancient Greek in its formal mode (or whatever to call it — the way people talk when they’re not talking the way they normally would). Add on the shock of katabasis from the word go, which invites me in to completely new (and infinitely old) worlds. (All this in spirit of js’s comment. Plato very scary “to teach.”)


Palindrome 11.24.13 at 10:14 am

I only read dialogues on the original papyrus, the playback fidelity is amazing.


Agog 11.24.13 at 11:36 am

‘The debt shall be paid, said Crito; is there anything else?’

In case I don’t see all y’all this week: happy Thanksgiving.


bjk 11.24.13 at 11:59 am

@8 Charmides

“And when Critias told him that I was the person who had the cure, he looked at me in such an indescribable manner, and was just going to ask a question. And at that moment all the people in the palaestra crowded about us, and, O rare! I caught a sight of the inwards of his garment, and took the flame.”

“Took the flame” is another good one. Jowett knew all the best Victorian slang.


bjk 11.24.13 at 12:00 pm

Don’t worry, I’ve got more.


godoggo 11.24.13 at 12:31 pm

It is shocking for a whole harmony to be inharmonical, or for a rhythm to be unrhythmical


godoggo 11.24.13 at 12:36 pm

Let us then affirm the paradox that strains of music are our laws, and the latter being the name which the ancients gave to lyric songs, they probably would not have very much objected to our proposed application of the word…

Can any one who makes such laws escape ridicule?


Anderson 11.24.13 at 1:20 pm

I’m with Glen on Gorgias. The trio of Gorgias, Polus, and Callicles is great. Socrates arguing with himself, likewise. And seriously, it’s a “relevant” set of arguments even today.

My favorite bit from Plato, or at least the one I seem to quote most often, is from the Gorgias too:

“And what is my sort? you will ask. I am one of those who are very willing to be refuted if I say anything which is not true, and very willing to refute any one else who says what is not true, and quite as ready to be refuted as to refute; for I hold that this is the greater gain of the two, just as the gain is greater of being cured of a very great evil than of curing another. For I imagine that there is no evil which a man can endure so great as an erroneous opinion about the matters of which we are speaking.” Obviously this passage goes near to the heart of the dialogue (doing evil vs suffering evil, knowing what is good or evil, whether refutation can cure evil in oneself…).


Hugh 11.24.13 at 1:35 pm


Too many pops and drop-outs in the papyrus pressings (I’m not sure I trust rumors that Oxyrhyncus has plans to issue the remastered singles soon). Granted, the damage doesn’t interfere with the b-side track, “Documentary Text (version)”, but the only place you’d find the papyrus pressings is still in a trash heap – or Christ Church College, Oxford (natch). Better to cope with some loss of fidelity in one of the more stable vellum pressings, even the dubiously-mastered gray market releases. That’s assuming, of course, your conscience forbids an end-run around physical distribution. If not, just download the whole album from a dubious online source, like Pirate Bay, or the Perseus Project. Completists will, nonetheless, be on the lookout for the ultra-collectible double A-side 7″ “Mummy Cartonnage” cut with “Lacunae”. Although many copies exist, it’s a tough one to spot as they are all white-label dubplates cut by hand.


AJ 11.24.13 at 1:57 pm

@11 – the iPad app take of the papyrus version is even better than the real thing. It takes me higher.


sam 11.24.13 at 3:49 pm

I’ve always liked to pair these two passages for the, uh, difference in attitude:

As Socrates was speaking, Pythodorus said he expected Parmeni-
des and Zeno to be annoyed at every word. Instead, they paid close
attention to him, and from time to time glanced at each other and
smiled as if in admiration. When Socrates finished, Parmenides
expressed this. Socrates, he said, your impulse toward argument is
admirable. Now tell me: do you yourself thus distinguish, as you
say, certain forms themselves separately by themselves, and
separately again the things that have a share of them? And do you
think that likeness itself is something separate from the likeness
which we have, and again one and many and all the others you just
heard Zeno mention?

Yes, I do, said Socrates.

And of this sort too? said Parmenides. For example, a certain
form of just, alone by itself, and of beautiful and good and
again all such as these?

Yes, he said,

Well, is there a form of man separate from us and all such
as we are, a certain form of man by itself, or of fire or water

I have often been in perplexity, Parmenides, he said, about
whether one should speak about them as about the others, or not.

And what about these, Socrates — they would really seem ridic-
ulous: hair and mud and dirt, for example, or anything else which
is utterly worthless and trivial. Are you perplexed whether
or not one should say that there is a separate form for each of
these too, a form that again is other than the sorts of things we

Not at all, said Socrates. Surely these things are just what we see
them to be: it would be too absurd to suppose that something is a
form of them. Still, I sometimes worry lest what holds in one
case may not hold in all; but then, when I take that stand, I retreat,
for fear of tumbling undone into depths of nonsense. So I go back
to the things we just said have forms, and spend my time
dealing with them.

Parmenides, 130a-e


Master Tung‑kuo asked Chuang Tzu, “This thing called the Way ‑ where does it exist?”
Chuang Tzu said, “There’s no place it doesn’t exist.”
“Come,” said Master Tung‑kuo, “you must be more specific!”
“It is in the ant.”
“As low a thing as that?”
“It is in the panic grass.”
“But that’s lower still!”
“It is in the tiles and shards.”
“How can it be so low?”
“It is in the piss and shit!”

The Book of Chuang Tzu.


matt 11.24.13 at 4:34 pm

Laches is accessible, red hott dialectical interrogation of ordinary life. I often teach a course where we read a dozen dialogues, but not the Laches, and I miss it.


Carol Atack 11.24.13 at 4:58 pm

The Euthydemus has something for everyone, from its locker-room setting to its rapid-fire dialogue, and whether you prefer an analytical logic-chopping approach to tackling logical fallacies, or more literary deconstruction of Socrates’ unreliable narration. And its secondary literature provides opportunities for engaging with Straussians.

Failing that, Laws III is something of a masterpiece of structure and argument, and deserves a great deal more love than it usually gets.


Hector_St_Clare 11.24.13 at 5:08 pm

I like the idea of a Council of Guardians running things, that way you wouldn’t have idiot politicians running around catering to the lowest common denominator.


Clifford Smith 11.24.13 at 5:14 pm

I once had a dream in which I was at a University second hand book sale and found a Platonic dialogue entitled the “Phallus”. I don’t know whether my subconscious is still just a 14 year old boy turning my grad school concerns into dirty puns by night, or whether there’s something more going on there…


ChrisTS 11.24.13 at 6:23 pm

The Symposium. If not all of it, at least Aristophanes’ speech. Then pair it with the Song of Love from Hedwig and the Angry Inch


Peter Hovde 11.24.13 at 7:23 pm


oldster 11.24.13 at 8:33 pm

When it first came out, Plato’s Dialogues didn’t sell very many copies. But everyone who bought one started a philosophy.


J 11.24.13 at 11:07 pm

The part in “Symposium” from about 201e to 202b:

-Or haven’t you found out yet that there’s something in between wisdom and ignorance?
-What’s that?
-It’s judging things correctly without being able to give a reason. Surely you see that this is not the same as knowing- for how could knowledge be unreasoning? And it’s not ignorance either- for how could what hits the truth be ignorance? Correct judgement, of course, has this character: it is in between understanding and ignorance.
(Nehamas and Woodruff translation)


mattski 11.24.13 at 11:55 pm

Please, let your hipster flag fly.

OMG. My favorite Plato was written by Izzy Stone, and it consists of a man-sized beat down administered to Plato’s hero & idol.


Francis Spufford 11.25.13 at 12:19 am

Hector @25 I like the idea of a Council of Guardians running things

Then you’re in luck, for the late Ruhollah Musavi of Khomein was influenced by the Republic when he was working on his theory of the ‘trusteeship of the jurist’, and that’s why in Teheran, right now, a Council of Guardians is preventing Iran’s elected politicians from carrying out any wild idea they happen to take into their heads. To the inexpressible enhancement of piety and virtue.


Tony Lynch 11.25.13 at 12:29 am

I’ve always thought that the ideal dialogue would feature Socrates and Aristophanes together. Then I came across this, and – despite manifest issues of provenance – it seems I was right.



Anderson 11.25.13 at 12:47 am

Peter, that made my day.


Gene O'Grady 11.25.13 at 1:07 am

You could try the Menexenus for the just plain “What in the world is going on here?” effect. Or the non-Platonic Theages for a sense of close but no cigar.


LFC 11.25.13 at 4:04 am

Peter Hovde’s link (@25) is quite clever. Despite my memory of Reservoir Dogs being … imperfect.


Palindrome 11.25.13 at 4:41 am

In the allegory of the hipster, the prisoner who was released returns to speak with his fellows, who are still imprisoned in the cave. They ask him where he has been and what he has seen.

He replies, “Yeah, I’ve been interacting with this really obscure level of reality, you’ve probably never heard of it.”


Doctor Science 11.25.13 at 5:28 am

The part in the Symposium about Achilles & Patroklus, which is the first slash discussion ever recorded. Not surprisingly, it’s about “who tops?”, which until recently was *always* the first topic slash fans would discuss. I love the way Plato (or his sockpuppet) turns aside from his line of argument to swipe at Aeschylus, a BNF who is Doing Their OTP Wrong. Plato can’t help getting distracted, he just has so many feels!


Doctor Science 11.25.13 at 6:34 am

This version without links to fanlore.org:

The part in the Symposium about Achilles & Patroklus, which is the first slash discussion ever recorded. Not surprisingly, it’s about “who tops?”, which until recently was *always* the first topic slash fans would discuss. I love the way Plato (or his sockpuppet) turns aside from his line of argument to swipe at Aeschylus, a BNF who is Doing Their OTP Wrong. Plato can’t help getting distracted, he just has so many feels!


John Holbo 11.25.13 at 7:07 am

I’d say oldster has won the thread, so far. Honorable mention to Republic Dogs.


John Holbo 11.25.13 at 7:08 am

“Yeah, I’ve been interacting with this really obscure level of reality, you’ve probably never heard of it.”

And that was funny, too.


Lisa Schweitzer 11.25.13 at 7:18 am

I have a great fondness for the Hippias Minor, as I have very strong opinions on Odysseus versus Achilles. Other happy points: I have a tremendous guilty pleasure for Book 10 of the Republic.


QS 11.25.13 at 3:48 pm

It’s not esoteric by the standards of this thread, but there is nothing better than Socrates personifying the Laws of Athens in the Crito.


Russell Arben Fox 11.26.13 at 1:57 pm

Coming late to this, and it may have already been mentioned, and moreover it probably just demonstrates my own Luddite sympathies, but I always enjoy calling students attention to Plato’s description of the “feverish” city in Book II of the Republic, with its “delicacies, perfumed oils, incense, prostitutes, and pastries.” So, the costs of the modern city? Prostitution, Victoria Secrets catalogs, and cupcakes.


godoggo 11.26.13 at 2:43 pm

Do you think the end of the world will come at nighttime?


John Emerson 11.26.13 at 9:23 pm

Socrates’ syrupy dirty old man act in “Phaedrus” is amazing. Lay off the flattery, dude.


John Emerson 11.26.13 at 9:42 pm

I’ve also been working on the idea that the love of wisdom is a purified and improved analogue of eros. Considering the amount of projection, idelaization, misperception, and false consciousness is tied up in eros, that doesn’t seem like a very good comparison to make. The philosopher’s perception of the True and the Good is as valid the lover’s perception of his beloved? Such things always end badly.


J.R. 11.27.13 at 1:59 am

No love for the First Alcibiades? How the mighty have fallen.


Ed Herdman 11.27.13 at 2:20 am

Amazing comment thread.

Having paid some time there, I really appreciate anything Socrates (Plato?) had to say about the poets, including in Plato’s “Defense.”

“If a man comes to the door of poetry untouched by the madness of the Muses, believing that technique alone will make him a good poet, he and his sane compositions never reach perfection, but are utterly eclipsed by the performances of the inspired madman.”

Shout out to Francis Spufford and Lawrence Stuart. Also IRT “sam:” I always liked that Chinese passage better. Chinese philosophy don’t get no respect.


bjk 11.27.13 at 11:24 am

The comedic sequence in the Protagoras between Socrates, Protagoras and Prodicus is the funniest scene in the dialogues. Socrates sets up Prodicus as the straight man (“Bad”) and leaves Protagoras spluttering in exasperation.


QS 11.30.13 at 2:41 am

“utterly eclipsed by the performances of the inspired madman.”

That sounds like Birth of Tragedy Nietzsche.


Ed Herdman 11.30.13 at 3:34 am

It may well be – just cribbed some random thing I found online that looked close to what I remembered. But it’s strikingly close to Plato. The actual lines from the translation of Plato’s Defense (part of a newer translation of Crito) I read recently are actually different – this one: http://papers.ssrn.com/sol3/papers.cfm?abstract_id=1023142

Socrates’ lines from 22a through 23b here are great: Everybody thinks they know more than they do, and the person who goes about trying to find wisdom ends up hated and in great poverty because they value the task more than those of other people. It’s true!

From the Defense, Socrates is portrayed as having written this:
“Reading the works [of poets] which I thought they had really
labored over, I would ask them what they meant, so that at the same time I
might also learn something from them. I am ashamed to tell you the truth,
gentlemen, but nevertheless it must be told. Practically anybody present,
so to speak, could have better explained what they had written. And so
again I quickly realized the following about the poets: that they do not
write what they write because of their wisdom but because they have a
certain nature and are possessed, like the seers and fortune-tellers, who
also say many fine things but know nothing about what they’re saying. It
seemed clear to me that the poets had undergone a similar experience.
And at once I understood that, because of their writing, they thought
themselves to be wisest of all men even about other things that they
weren’t. So as a result of this I went away thinking that I was superior to
them in the same way as I was to the politicians.”

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