Hey, everybody, Plato is fun! Everybody ought to read him! Yay Plato!
That, at least, is the argument of Adam Fox in his 1945 book Plato for Pleasure (revised edtion 1962). “The works of Plato have generally been in the hands of philosophers and scholars when they ought to have been in the hands of the people,” laments Fox. He doesn’t think that 30 million Brits are going to head off to their beach holidays with Plato tucked in their pockets. But he figures that since it only takes about 50 thousand English people to know the works of Dickens and “make him a national treasure,” something similar ought to happen for Plato.
Fox writes to remind everybody that Plato is not only readable, but is actually pleasant to read.
Adam Fox (1883—1977) was Dean of Divinity at Magdalene College, Oxford, while C.S. Lewis was there. In fact, Fox was one of the original Inklings. He held the prestigious chair of Professor of Poetry at Oxford University for four years, and is buried in Poet’s Corner of Westminster Abbey.
In Plato for Pleasure, Fox admits that “the Anglo-Saxons are not a philosophical race.” So if Plato is mainly a philosopher who needs to be studied, it’s no use asking the English to get busy at the task. But Fox’s recommendation is that we (English-speakers, not just the English) ignore the professional philosophers. Instead we should simply “take up and read” Plato for ourselves. Note: not study Plato, but read him.
Plato in his Dialogues is such a superb master of literature, and the works are such delightful stuff, that they must be meant primarily to be read and not to be studied. Their entertainment value is very great, and although considerable part of them cannot be read without thinking, we need not and should not stop to think much until we have got to the end of the piece. Then we can stop to think it over or not as we like. The great thing is that as many as possible of those who are capable of any serious reading should read the works for the pleasure of reading. It is to be feared that too many who have had Plato’s works in their hands have not had this idea of pleasure in their heads at all. They have aimed all the time at finding out what he thought or seeing what he says about this or that, when, the works being what they are, this is often not possible, not what he himself intended. (p.2)
Fox warns that there are some difficult passages in Plato: “In the Dialogues a great deal of the thinking is inconclusive and some of it is wrong. Some of it is very dry and parts of it have ceased to have much significance.” But even this is not a disadvantage, says Fox. The bad patches are cautionary; they show you how to avoid the pitfalls that spoil conversations.
You learn from the pages of Plato how to have a good talk and to some extent how not to spoil good talk. You learn how to go hunting for the truth and how precious truth is and how elusive, and you experience all the sport there is in tracking down the truth. You have something of the same sort of pleasure as the successful detective without his sorded setting. And this pleasure in pursuit of truth is very valuable, because most of us are not well equipped to discover the truth. We have not the right kind of courage or the powers of mind. It is perhaps one of Plato’s chief contributions to our social and mental well-being that he persuades us that the search for truth can be in itself a great pleasure, sometimes one might almost say great fun, even if the prey escapes us in the end. (p. 5)
Plato shows that thinking can be fun. Fox quotes a Greek professor (Henry Jackson of Cambridge) as tesifying that “If Socrates is the master of those who teach and Aristotle is the master of those who know, Plato is the master of those who think.”
So what if philosophers can do tricks with Plato that are far beyond the understanding of the rest of us? “Philosophers may point out a multitude of very interesting things in Plato which others would not notice or could not understand, just as a sociologist could point out hundreds of very interesting things in Dickens.” Philosophers and sociologists would be right about all that fascinating stuff. But they would be missing out on the main thing these writings are for: “The proper approach to the widest appreciation of Plato and of Dickens (different as they are) is to approach their writings as works of creative literature. They do not so much describe the world as make a world of their own. Plato had a genius for making up serious conversations such as men hold with each other when they think as they talk. No one surpassed him in representing just that.” (p. 6)
Plato’s dialogues are indeed exquisitely crafted. Fox relates the legend that Plato on his death-bed was still trying to think of a way to improve the first words of his greatest dialogue, The Republic. “True or not, the survival of this anecdote is a testimony to the detailed perfection of his style, and possibly a faint reminiscence of the pains it cost him to attain that perfection.” (54)
Beyond the literary appreciation (which we would expect from a professor of poetry), Fox also commends Plato as instruction in the art of thinking. He anatomizes the elements of Plato’s dialectic:
In the use of dialectic there are several distinguishable lines of procedure. One of these is famous under its Greek name of Elenchus. What is distinctive about it is its effect upon the person who is subjected to the process. It is the same effect as that of a successful cross-examination. It convicts the person under examination of some sort of error. It gets him into a corner. He does not know where to turn next, a situation which the Greeks called aporia, or resourceslessness. (74)
Plato for Pleasure is a fun little exhortation to pick up Plato and read around in the dialogues. Fox may make it sound a little easier than it is. But he is right that no special technical training is needed. The average intelligent reader, hungry for truth and motivated to learn how to think, can jump right in and get a lot out of an attentive reading of Plato.
Where to begin? At the Torrey Honors Institute, we give our students the dialogues Meno, Euthyphro, Apology, Phado, Symposium, Phaedrus, Republic, and Timaeus. For more information, check out the Plato chapters in John Mark Reynolds’ new InterVarsity Press book, When Athens Met Jerusalem.