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Plato's late dialogues have often been neglected because they lack the literary charm of his earlier masterpieces. Charles Kahn proposes a unified view of these diverse and difficult works, from the Parmenides and Theaetetus to the Sophist and Timaeus, showing how they gradually develop the framework for Plato's late metaphysics and cosmology. The Parmenides, with its attack on the theory of Forms and its baffling series of antinomies, has generally been treated apart from the rest of Plato's late work. Kahn shows that this perplexing dialogue is the curtain-raiser on Plato's last metaphysical enterprise: the step-by-step construction of a wider theory of Being that provides the background for the creation story of the Timaeus. This rich study, the natural successor to Kahn's earlier Plato and the Socratic Dialogue, will interest a wide range of readers in ancient philosophy and science.
Philosophy is a talkative subject, and it must have begun in conversation. Unfortunately, all we have from the early period is texts, and these are not abundant. But if evidence for the use of writing in philosophy before Plato is fragmentary, evidence for oral performance in this period is almost nonexistent. What little we know is generally derived from Plato, like the picture of Zeno reading his arguments before a small audience in the Parmenides. But how well informed was Plato about practices a century earlier? Was Heraclitus' book designed to be read aloud before such an audience? Or does the report that Heraclitus deposited his book in the temple of Artemis mean that he wanted to keep it out of circulation? Did Parmenides and Empedocles compose their verses for public performance, or only for easier memorization? We do not have answers to such questions, and I will have little to say about conditions of performance or publication.
My topic, then, is the written use of prose and poetry in the development of Greek philosophy in its first two centuries, from Thales to Plato. I am using philosophy here as an abbreviation for “philosophy and science.” The distinction is not always a useful one to draw in the Presocratic period. It is characteristic of Greek philosophy in its formative period – as again of European philosophy in the seventeenth century – that it develops in close conjunction with mathematics and natural science.
Although ‘ethics’ is a term that comes to us from the Greeks, Greek moral philosophy is notably different from typical modern discussions that fall under the same rubric. Some of our key moral concepts are absent or inconspicuous in Greek ethical debate. For example, much of modern ethics gravitates around the concepts of duty or moral obligation and rights, but neither of these concepts has any equivalent or close analogue in Greek speculation about how one ought to live. Similarly, the various oppositions between egoism and altruism or benevolence have no direct parallel in the ancient discussions. Since the Greeks have no counterpart to the Biblical injunction, ‘Thou shalt love thy neighbour as thyself’, the question of altruism or benevolence is not a central moral issue. The ancient gods made relatively few moral demands upon their worshippers. There is no Greek parallel to the Ten Commandments, or more generally to the Biblical notion of God as moral lawgiver. As a consequence of this fact, there is also no Greek equivalent to the Kantian notion of the ‘moral law’, as the secular, internalised version of divine command.
So much for the absence in Greek thought of some of the concepts that structure modern discussions in moral philosophy. On the other hand, the Greek moral vocabulary is dominated by three pairs of opposite terms that have no direct equivalent in modern terminology. The basic terms of moral evaluation are good–bad (agathon–kakon), admirable–shameful or noble–base (kalon–aischron), and just–unjust (dikaion–adikon).