For many centuries now, people have been making big piles of hay out of the dialogues of Plato. Each pile created has the remarkable property of closely resembling its maker. Totalizing philosophers are absolutely positive that Plato’s hodge-podge of dialogues all piece together to make a nice neat system. Nietzsche said that Plato was boring because the Greek was a philosopher first and a citizen second. I.F. Stone, the late great investigative journalist, accused Socrates, Plato’s beloved teacher and mentor, of fascism. Enter Keith Quincy, who, while never using the “F” word (neither did Stone), is quite adamant that Plato was anti-democratic.
Quincy is absolutely correct about this. It’s difficult to understand how a blatantly imperialistic work like The Republic ends up being taught as a positive model of democracy, but many of us have read it as such in high school. Plato is quite clear, in even the most fumbling translation, that the philosopher should be king, that democracy, in a word, sucks, and, while he’s at it, that poets and musicians have no place in his ideal “republic.” Go figure.
Quincy likens his one-volume collection of the dialogues to a can of condensed milk. It’s much better than that; I always found reconstituted condensed milk pretty vile stuff. But the analogy is otherwise apt: what we get here is the meat of the dialogues. Purists and snobs will complain that this is a Reader’s Digest condensation, but Quincy is smarter than that. This single volume version of Plato provides a much-needed service for students and teachers, as Plato’s dialogues are notoriously long-winded and frequently obscure. Each dialogue is prefaced with a brief introduction which provides not only a general road map of where the particular dialogue is going but also some juicy, provocative historical and (when possible) biographical bits. The combination of context and road map makes this a perfect book for an introduction to ancient philosophy course.