Reading Plato

Histories of Meaning
Earl Jackson, Jr.
Winter 1999

I. The First Readings in Plato

Texts: Meno; Ion; Cratylus; Seventh Letter

Initial Reasons for selection

As I stated in the course description, the major project of the seminar is an examination of major texts from Western European Classical Antiquity and Middle Ages that focus on philosophical and aesthetic questions concerning „meaning.“ Within this very broad guideline, I selected the four Platonic texts for the following reasons:

  1. Meno. The Meno is traditionally considered one of the exemplary dialogues generated from the quintessential form of the Socratic question: ti esti … “ What is …?“
  2. In the Meno the question is „What is areté [virtue]?“ As in the Euthrypho is it „What is hodion [piety]?“; in the Laches, „What is courage?“

    The Meno also is a good example of Socratic method – profession of ignorance, and the elenchus or cross-examination of the addressee.

  3. Ion. The first dialogue in which Plato addresses the relation between (or distinction) poetry and interpretation.
  4. Cratylus. An early inquiry into the relation between words and their referents.
  5. Seventh Letter. A text that addresses issues similar to those raised in the dialogues listed above.

Strategic Reasons

d. Seventh Letter

Folklore has it that when President Andrew Jackson was considering persons for posts in his administration, he would invite them to dinner. While maintaining a normally cordiality, Jackson was secretly watching the prospective candidates very carefully as the first course arrived. If the candidate salted the food before eating it, that individual was no longer a candidate. Those who tasted their food before deciding to salt or not to salt remained in the running.

I selected the Seventh Letter and provided a copy without any background or annotations with something similar in mind (though not so permanent). I wondered if any students who chose to summarize or respond to the letter would do so without commenting on or wondering about the situation in which the letter was written, the situations it addressed, the identities and agendas of the parties addressed and the parties the writer describes. I envisioned three levels of possible response:

[1] Describing the „philosophical moments“ of the letter while ignoring the

unglossed context and situations thereof.

[2] Calling attention to the missing contexts, or even protesting that the

absence of context presented insurmountable difficulties in interpreting or

assessing the letter at all.

[3] Doing research to supply the missing information, and then synthesizing the results of that research with a critical appraisal of the letter per se, thereby addressing the text both in terms of its philosophical content and its historical context. This is the most felicitous of the three possible types of response.



Beyond the third level of response, the Seventh Letter also might test the passion of the student. There is a passage in the Seventh Letter that might have triggered alarm, shock, questions, and email expressing all that.



The third level of response listed above, a synthesis of contextual research and critical engagement is the level of response that all of the texts we will read should receive. In order to encourage and facillitate this level of response, on this I have catalogued and annotated a wide variety of resources (electronic and print).

This is the level of response I attempt myself in preparing the class and participating in the seminar. I will recount my own progress with the texts here on this site, and document the any online resources I used in each textual encounter.


I begin with my readings of the Meno