Plato for Beginners

Abigail Roberts

McCallie School

Plato remains a canonical author both in Classics generally and as a choice for students to begin reading ancient texts in Greek.  Whether they cut their teeth on the Apology or some other work, intermediate students can often feel the enormous amount of work they put into learning the fundamentals of Greek has still left them unable to read basic Greek prose at an average level.  In fact, of course, Plato's writing is not basic nor was Plato average.  It is worth spending some time on the features of Plato's Greek which are common to his style but not usually the focus of beginning language instruction.  This paper discusses the philosophy and some examples of material being assembled for a brief, intermediate reader on Plato designed to ease students' introduction to Plato's Greek.

A handful of brief passages (a page each or less) from a few canonical dialogues can prepare students for the most common features of Plato's Greek and his thought in general.  First, some review and emphasis on key grammatical constructions is in order.  Most of Plato consists of people asking and answering questions, for example, so a survey of the structure of different types of questions is important, no less because beginning textbooks rarely address the topic.  Other grammatical concepts which are likely still swimming in students' head deserve systematic review: use of participles, conditions, and indirect statement.  In each case, the review and survey of the grammar can focus specifically on how Plato uses the construction and how he uses it to advance a particular philosophical argument or to make a particular point.

A pragmatic look at elements of Plato's style also helps students.  Praise of Plato's style as rich and brilliant will not help a student much but a discussion of basic particles and what they tell us about the tone of sentence can help.  Reinforcement with examples is crucial.  Most of all, though, students should see that by reading Plato in Greek they pick up on the sarcasm, ironic humor, and penetrating characterization which they would struggle to discern, if they can at all, in a translation.

Finally, students should be introduced to the skeleton of Plato's philosophy, with key terms in Greek and to Plato's basic methods of presenting philosophical ideas.  A passage where an idea is refuted and another where a new term is introduced and defined goes a long way toward making students cmmfortable with ideas and terms like "elenchic" and "neologism."

Much of what a student learns in reading Plato will be helpful in reading other Greek authors, not least because of his towering influence over later writers.  This does not mean, however, that learning to read Plato is intuitive or natural.  Plato, his ideas, and his writing seemed strange and difficult to many of his fellow Greeks, so it is only respectful of our students to allow that learning to read and understand Plato does not come automatically, and that some pragmatic aids and instruction will help climb the ladder to the Good and the Beautiful.


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