The Examined Life

Reading Plato's Interpreters

30 November 2018
Hulton Archives / Getty Images
Hulton Archives / Getty Images

LIKE MOST MIDDLE-CLASS INDIANS I was primed from early childhood to value a practical life over a contemplative one. The assumption was that only an education in science can develop one’s reasoning capabilities and, more importantly, solve the world’s pressing problems. So when I decided to enroll for a master’s degree in philosophy, the question that troubled me was less about whether the subject would lead me to the truth and more about how effectively it would help me use my reason. I was conditioned to believe that “reasoning” meant solving complicated mathematical and scientific problems, or figuring out the issues of poverty and development. So I chose politics over philosophy. Most contemporary problems are political, and the solutions to even non-political problems depend on politics, the best example being climate change. Yet, having made this decision, I continued to wonder how we could live well in the world without investigating what a good life is. And that is when I discovered the centrality of this question to the ancient Greeks and to classical Western philosophy, and these philosophers’ belief that reason was crucial to living the good life.

Greece had produced philosophers such as Heraclitus, Parmenides and Protagoras before Plato, the protagonist of this essay. But despite the variety in their thought—from the metaphysical to the cosmological—Plato’s predecessors are often clubbed together and referred to as the “Pre-Socratics.”

Plato was deeply influenced by his teacher Socrates, and Plato’s writings are referred to as Socratic dialogues. This is not merely because these works featured Socrates as the main character but also because they were written in a “dialectical” mode—a form of discourse in which characters are in conversation with each other, acknowledging what is worthwhile in the other’s argument, while at the same time productively criticising it. Most of Plato’s dialogues, including his most famous one, Republic, were written to counter some of the philosophical positions advocated by the Pre-Socratics. In taking on such a wide range of ideas, Plato ended up commenting on almost every possible philosophical subject. And it is this immensely rich contribution to the discipline that the British philosopher Alfred North Whitehead had in mind when he said, “the safest general characterization of the European philosophical tradition is that it consists of a series of footnotes to Plato.” Almost every major western philosopher, from Aristotle to Heidegger, has written about his ideas, and Platonic studies is a substantial field within Western philosophy. Some, such as Ralph Waldo Emerson, saw Plato as the quintessential philosopher, while others, such as Nietzsche, felt his ideas represented everything that philosophy should not be.

What struck me most about Plato was his conviction in the superiority of the contemplative life, an ancient belief that seems anathema today, when everyone is chasing quick fixes to problems and busy figuring out how to create “impact.” My fascination with Plato, and his student Aristotle, was rooted in the fact that they really cared about what I had secretly felt to be the most important question—how should we live?

Sreejith Sugunan is a PhD candidate at the Centre for Political Studies, Jawaharlal Nehru University. He has previously written for Himal Southasian, the Indian Express and The Wire.

Keywords: Socrates Plato