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  • Writer's pictureSam Lloyd

A 'Classic' project

Updated: Jan 10

Even my closest friends don't know my secret passion: I love ancient Greece. Recently, this passion has led me to embark on an unusual project . . .

 

When I was a boy, Egypt and Mesopotamia fascinated me. One day, I made a model of the great Ziggurat of Ur and took it to school. A very stupid teacher scolded me that 'my parents must have made it' and ignored it for the rest of the day.

 

As a teenager I discovered that history was full of interesting people, too; I searched the library shelves for books about famous thinkers. I was surprised to find a book by Einstein that was not about science, but world peace - and I read 'The Apology' and 'Crito', Plato's famous dialogues about the trial and execution of Socrates.


The Death of Socrates, Francois-Xavier Fabre. Socrates holds the cup of hemlock he is about to drink.


I loved the Socrates depicted in these stories: questioning everything, showing up the pompous and foolish politicians and 'experts', a wise and funny man who died rather than abandon his principles. I assumed the stories were 'true'; they were certainly real to me.

 

I tried to emulate Socrates, becoming a schoolyard rebel, questioning the teachers: 'why must we wear ties on hot days?'; 'why do we wear uniforms at all?'; 'why do we go to school anyway?'; 'why are there rules that can't be questioned?' My Socratic career came to a head when a friend and I organised a rebellion against the School Song - a remarkable piece of Edwardian tripe about the virtues of Eton and Rugby - and got suspended.

 

Fast forward to 2015: thinking about writing a book about my youth in Mildura, I created a rebellious schoolboy character named Socrates Smith. This sent me back to reading Plato's Dialogues. I discovered there were lots of them, up to thirty or forty depending on which ones you consider genuine. I also came upon what is called 'the Socratic problem'.


Detail of The School of Athens by Raphael. Plato and Aristotle (Plato's student) are in the centre; Plato's teacher, Socrates, is sidelined to the left. This sums up scholarly attitudes to these philosophers persisting today.

 

There is a consensus that Plato wrote the Dialogues. Scholars also agree that they are fictional:  dramatic recreations by which Plato expressed his ideas. The 'problem' is that the Dialogues disagree with each other. Sometimes Socrates says one thing, another time the opposite. Some are downright embarrassing, rambling on with no philosophical conclusions reached. A couple are plain weird. I learnt that classics scholars explain away these oddities in two ways: either they were written at different phases of Plato's life, as his ideas changed and he grew doddery, or they were conceived to a cunning plan in which mistakes were deliberately inserted as a way of guiding readers towards the truth.


My stage character Socrates Smith grew out of my childhood interest in the philosopher Socrates


Now it's 2023: having spent hectic months putting together my stage comedy 'An Evening with Borges', I look forward to putting my feet up for the summer and finally reading those damned Dialogues! As I start to read, I too am struck by the inconsistencies in them.


Why is one dialogue in 1st person, the next in 3rd? Why do some have elaborate introductions setting the scene, while others just launch straight into the argument? Why does Socrates repeat himself and so often fail to conclude an argument? Why are there dialogues in which Socrates doesn't appear at all?

 

I re-examine the expert's explanations. Those who think Plato changed his ideas and writing style over time argue endlessly about how to order the Dialogues to justify this assertion. Every expert has a different chronology, picking on tiny details they claim shows 'this one' was written before 'that one'. Meanwhile, the 'unitarians' devise obtuse master plans that require Plato to have been a Shakespeare, Newton, and Leonardo da Vinci rolled into one.

 

Something smells. As Socrates put it at his trial, "How you, O Athenians, have been affected by my accusers, I cannot tell; but I know that they almost made me forget who I was - so persuasively did they speak; and yet they have hardly uttered a word of truth."

 

It reminds me of those overly complex models of the solar system devised by medieval astronomers, with planets revolving around each other to show how the sun moves around the earth. Then Copernicus and Galileo come along and say, 'your assumption is wrong! If the earth moves around the sun, all the problems go away!' So it is, I believe, with the Dialogues: remove the assumption that Plato wrote them, and the problems disappear.

 

That is the project I have embarked on: to show that Plato did not write the Dialogues as dramatic fiction; rather, he took transcripts of actual conversations, combined them with verbal recollections of people who had heard Socrates speak, polished and revised them, and so produced a body of work that over time came to be considered 'Plato's Dialogues'.


I believe a project to record the words of Socrates was initiated during his lifetime by Plato and other followers. Upon Socrates death, the need to record his final words gave impetus to this project, resulting in those moving dialogues I read as a boy. Plato continued to collect, edit and revise manuscripts as he became a respected philosopher in his own right, and he even used one of the dialogues as the first chapter of his own work about the ideal state - Politeia (the Republic). Towards the end of his life, Plato composed several fictitious dialogues that no longer feature Socrates, including the Laws.


The front page of the Politeia (better known as The Republic) from a medieval manuscript. Even a bad reader of modern Greek can make out "Platonos" at the upper left.


So far, progress is good. I'm examining the dialogues for internal evidence. I'm also reading a lot of other classical texts - there is a surprising amount of anecdotal evidence for my claim 'hidden in plain sight'. I've also done basic stylistic analysis of the texts themselves. So far, I have developed a tentative thesis that explains:

·      why some dialogues are in 1st person and most in 3rd;

·      why some dialogues have descriptive introductions while many don't;

·      the odd writing style, structure, and unsatisfactory ending of some dialogues;

·      why and when Plato 'wrote' the dialogues

 

In undertaking this project, I have set myself three rules: assume historical documents are genuine unless proven otherwise, judge the dialogues as pieces of historical writing not philosophical texts, and accept the most parsimonious interpretation, not the most elaborate. As the principle known as Occam's razor puts it, if you have two competing ideas to explain the same phenomenon, you should prefer the simpler one. So far, that approach is paying dividends.

 

It's no small thing to question 2,500 years of scholarly consensus on something as important to Western civilisation as Plato's dialogues. If I'm even half right, it will make a lot of experts look a lot less wise than they consider themselves to be. Socrates would have approved.

 

 

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