Thursday, January 29, 2009

Author Sketch: Plato (Apology, Crito)


Born c. 428 BCE, Died c. 348 BCE (lived to be approximately 80)
Born and lived mostly in Athens, Greece

Other Things That Happened in Plato’s Lifetime:
The Peloponnesian War between Athens and Sparta
King Weilieh of Chou became the Thirty-first Sovereign of the Thousand Year Chou dynasty (China)
Egypt regains its sovereignty from the Persian Empire
Many Jews had recently returned to their homeland after the Babylonian exile
The Celts established settlements in the British Isles

Works under study: Apology, Crito

The Great Works reading list kicks off with this pair of works from Plato. There is a staggering amount of historically verifiable information about Plato still known to us today and to write even a condensed version of his biography and historical impact would take up more space than I want to devote to these author introduction pieces. The biographical note from the Great Books edition (presumably written or, at least, editorially directed and approved by Adler himself) divides Plato’s adult life into roughly four periods and both of these are set during the first of them. As a citizen of Athens, Plato’s first decade of adulthood was a socially and politically chaotic one. He ambitiously pursued a career in politics until the execution of Socrates which, along with other political shifts taking place in Athens concurrently, ushered him not only out of politics but away from Athens for over a decade.

As a prolific writer well into his later years, Plato wrote on many topics, producing works of varying length and density on topics that range from fundamental (Apology) to awkwardly tangential (Lysis). One element that characterizes nearly all of Plato’s work is the dialogue form he uses, resulting in a document that reads much like a play with perhaps fewer blocking notes in the margins. What sets the tone of Apology and, to a lesser extent, Crito apart from most of Plato’s other work is the directness with which he addresses the audience to the story he is telling. The Apology is essentially an extended monologue by Socrates as he is on trial; a soliloquy delivered, at once, to the jury that will ultimately sentence him to death, but, also, to the reader who continues to find truth in his defense some twenty-five hundred years later. The effect is dramatic and challenges the reader throughout to remember that these words are not a journalistic account of Socrates’ trial, but a fictionalized distillation of his very essence as captured by a student and a dear friend. Both of these pieces, along with the unassigned third part to this sad story, Phaedo, are filled with the urgent passions of a brilliant young man who had yet to become one of the world’s most venerated and influential writers and thinkers but was well on his way.

Map of Athens, from The Atlas of Ancient and Classical Geography, by Samuel Butler (1907/8).

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