The scholarly consensus over Plato's Dialogues
" I think, we think, a lot of people think, that Socrates is a sort of a spokesman for Plato" says Robin Waterfield, the author of Plato's first ever book-length biography, published in 2023
It is 347 BCE. A slave enters Plato's bedchamber. He hurries to check his condition - the master has had a fever for several days. The body is cold. Plato's soul has begun its long journey down the sacred rivers to Tartarus and the Acherusian lake where it will be judged, and being one of those who "duly purified themselves with philosophy [will] live henceforth altogether without the body, in mansions fairer still which may not be described." (Plato, 'Phaedo')
News spreads to the students and visiting philosophers gathered under the plane and olive trees of the park near The Academy, Plato's school of philosophy outside ancient Athens. His closest associates assemble at his residence, where amongst other practical matters they must ensure the safekeeping of their teacher's library. In a room adjacent to the bedroom, papyrus scrolls fill the cubby holes of wooden cabinets like little wine-racks. There are scrolls unrolled on a reading table, and wax tablets on which Plato has been revising the opening lines of 'The Republic'. A comedy by Aristophanes lies beside his pillow.
Plato's chosen successor, his nephew Speusippus, checks that the accounts are in order, and begins to think about the funeral arrangements. One of Plato's senior students, Philip from Opus, is especially concerned to locate a manuscript on Athenian law that he has been helping the master complete.
In his final years, Plato's mind has been slipping and students like Philip have become increasingly important as he struggles to finish a number of works. Some never will be. 'The Philosopher', intended to complete a trilogy with 'The Sophist' and 'The Statesman', will never be written; 'Critias', the follow up to the 'Timaeus' - the famous work that tells the Atlantis myth - will remain incomplete. Philip is intimate enough with The Laws to finish the editing; he will also write a projected sequel, Epinomis. The master's pen will then fall silent.
All of these works must be protected from theft and damage; they also need to be sorted and catalogued. They are the legacy of Plato.
Checking through the library, the students separate out those works not by Plato - philosophical tracts by Pythagoras and Heraclitus, the histories of Herodotus and Thucydides, and the comedies of Aristophanes and Sophron.
Once these are taken out, the remaining works are those of Plato himself, his precious Socratikos logoi, the discourses, or dialogues featuring his famous teacher Socrates. Plato knew Socrates when he was a young man, around the ages of 16 to 25. While several of Socrates' students wrote Socratikos logoi, only Plato's will survive the centuries, probably because The Academy proves to be an enduring institution - unlike the schools of many other philosophers - surviving partial destruction in 86 BCE and lingering on even after its official closure by Emperor Justinian in 529. Well known to the students since Plato referred to them often in his lessons, the Socratikos logoi are - as far as they are concerned - the 'Works of Plato'.
The ruins of Plato's Academy
A tradition has been established. When, in 1484, the Florentine scholar Marsilio Ficino publishes the first ever translation of all Plato's Dialogues into Latin, he titles them 'Platonis Omnia Opera': 'The Complete Works of Plato'.
In the eighteen centuries between his death in 347 BCE and the fall of Constantinople in 1453, Plato's works will be in continuous circulation in the Greek speaking world, revered, transcribed, unaltered, and unquestioned. Occasionally forgeries will appear, but this just emphasises the veracity of the works left behind by Plato at his death. Even when rival philosophers accuse him of plagiarism, they do not question the authorship of the works they criticise. The Dialogues are the works of the great Plato, and they contain his doctrines. That he speaks through the character of Socrates troubles no-one either; as early as Plato's student Aristotle, 'Socrates' and 'Plato' are seen to mean the same thing: Plato.
In the Latin 'West' - the Western Roman Empire, and the various European kingdoms that follow its fall - only a few translated works will be widely known, principally The Timaeus, which finds favour with the Christian church for its depiction of a transcendent and immaterial God. Through a group of philosophers known as the Neo-Platonists, Plato becomes the celebrity ancient philosopher for medieval Christians. The 'father of Christian theology' Tertullian organises the Dialogues into groups; other Christians devise a reading order so as to best teach them, and Saint Augustine declares, “none are closer to us [Christians] than the Platonists” (Augustine, 'City of God')
With Ficino's and subsequent translations into Latin, Plato’s, and other ancient works flood Western Europe, setting the stage for the Renaissance. The complete Dialogues are not finally translated into German and English until as late as the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries. Until then, generations of schoolboys must struggle - like Billy Bunter, the English schoolboy in Frank Richard's humorous books - with their Greek declensions.
An untouchable consensus, born in Plato's death chamber, holds for two and a half thousand years. It holds today: Plato wrote the Platonic Dialogues; they are his works and his alone; they express his genius and express his ideas. Socrates is just a dramatic creation, a 'spokesman'. But somewhere, Aristophanes is laughing . . .