Review of Exploring Plato's Dialogues

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Exploring Plato's Dialogues: A Virtual Learning Environment on the World-Wide Web

Anthony F. Beavers, Associate Professor of Philosophy and Religion at the University of Evansville, has produced this site with the assistance of associate editor and bibliographer Christopher S. Planeux, Adjunct Lecturer of Classical Studies at Indiana University - Purdue University, Indianapolis, and staff. The editors announce their hope that "high school and college teachers will integrate this resource into their courses."

The homepage provides access to: introductory comments; a life of Plato; translations of the Crito, Phaedo, Phaedrus, Symposium, and Republic (with links to the Greek text in the Perseus Project); bibliography; an Internet discussion group; and credit and copyright information. There is a button as well for on-line scholarship, which includes some standard secondary works (Burnet's Early Greek Philosophy and Jowett's introductions to the Phaedo, Phaedrus, and Symposium) as well as original professional papers by scholars and graduate students (currently empty) and undergraduate papers as well as a topical search engine/index (one item).

Introductory Comments describe the site, available search techniques, and site-indigenous resources; they also provide instructions for contributing resources to the site.

A Life of Plato offers a thumbnail sketch of Plato's life and background, with special reference to Plato's relatives and associates and their connection with the death of Socrates (see below).

The Translations are those of Jowett with Fowler's Loeb also for the Phaedo and Phaedrus. In addition to the five currently on the site, the editor notes that the staff is working to put up the Apology, Crito (already there), Euthyphro, Meno, Parmenides, Sophist, Statesman, and Theaetetus.

Bibliography provides a selection of both general resources and short bibliographies for each of the dialogues currently on the site.

The Internet Discussion Group is an email list sponsored by the site editors that announces itself as "open to anyone with a serious interest in the study of Plato." The site includes discussion group guidelines.

On-line Scholarship presents both indigenous items and links to other Internet resources.

This site can provide a point of entry for high school and college users and for the general public. For those who like to use translations and to check the Greek text, the links to the Perseus Project - just click on the Stephanus page number to get there - may prove engaging. The Topical Search Engine and Index for Scholars of Plato (one and the same item) offers six search domains (genres) and two search types which enable the user to design a search before making an entry in the search box.

Although the Introductory Comments advertise a "comprehensive bibliography of print resources," almost all of the work along these lines remains to be done. This site is not a new searchable Lustrum. The editors might start by indicating what years, languages, indices, journals, and so on are covered by their bibliography so that the users might understand better what universe is intended to be addressed comprehensively. Put another way, if the bibliography is to be as sparing as it is, the editors would help their readers by saying so and by explaining their principles of selection. Some entries seem to be misclassified; Adam's edition of the Republic, for example, appears as a secondary source. As the site is developed, it would be helpful to have accounts of databases such as The Philosopher's Index, with links to them. Until these links are in place, more advanced scholars may prefer to use the on-line library resources of their own research universities. In any case, the user needs to be told what is available here.

Beyond these technical issues there are issues of substance. Those who set up sites with the less advanced user in mind arguably serve that user best by avoiding whatever is likely to have a substantial risk of giving a misimpression, whatever their own beliefs. The Oxford Junior Encyclopedia is a model of sound practice in this regard in the hard-copy medium. The current site's Life of Plato, which follows immediately upon the Introductory Comments, fails to meet this standard in at least two respects:

First, it refers to a "consensus" that "divides Plato's writings into three broad groups." In fact, if there ever was a consensus on this issue, it has deteriorated over the last several decades in the face of logical, historical, and statistical criticisms. Even those who claim that there are groups of writings don't agree on what falls into them. Some of the least productive Platonic controversies since the middle of the last century have had to do with the sequence of dialogues. Those who want details should consult the work of Debra Nails, among others. The entire three-stage developmental program is very much in question.

Second, it claims that "a rabid conservative religious movement . . . led to the execution of Plato's mentor, Socrates." From an empirical standpoint, rabidity is difficult to detect at this remove. And conservative religious movements of the modern kind probably were not the driving factors in Athenian politics. In fact, the Greeks didn't have a word for 'religion' or 'religious' (OCD). As Burnet pointed out in contrasting "The Real Offence [of Socrates]" with "The Alleged Offence" in Greek Philosophy: Thales to Plato almost a century ago:

"We must at once put aside the idea that it was for not believing the stories told about the gods. It is not likely that any educated man believed these, and uneducated people probably knew very little about them. There was no church and no priesthood, and therefore the conception of religious orthodoxy did not exist. So far as mythology was concerned, you might take any liberty. . . . No one could be prosecuted for what we call religious opinions." (Pp. 182-183.)
Subsequent scholarship has not moved very far from Burnet on this point, as is shown by the closing words of Robert Parker's chapter "The Trial of Socrates" in his Athenian Religion (Oxford, 1996): "the issue was not fundamentally one of theological orthodoxy." The phenomena as we have them are those more of a political trial than of a religious one. It is to be hoped that, if the editors have new evidence for a rabid conservative religious movement in Athens in 399 and for its connection with the death of Socrates, they will present it for scholarly assessment in one of the journals. A more carefully qualified stance is called for at a site with this one's intended readership.

In summary, Exploring Plato's Dialogues, if it is expanded along the lines projected, could provide an attractive resource for its intended users. There must be many times when high school and college teachers, and students as well, would be aided greatly by being able to get information on translations, texts, standard works, and articles all in one place on the Web. Who would not be? But interpretation is another matter. Even if the compilatory part of the project goes forward as advertised, users will have to avail themselves of more than the usual discretion, if the present state of the site is any indication, when they deal with the interpretations offered here.

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