Platonism: Recommended Readings

On this page, I compare the various translations of Plato’s complete works, offer some traditional suggestions for which dialogues to read first, and recommend a few commentaries by later Platonic teachers to supplement Plato’s own works.

Plato’s Complete Works

The place to begin, of course, is with a good edition of Plato’s dialogues. In terms of which translations to pick, there are an incredible number of choices out there, but for getting all of Plato’s works in a single package, in English, there are really three main options:

Option 1: Plato, Complete Works, edited by John M. Cooper and D.S. Hutchinson. Hackett, 1997.

For the last two decades, this has widely been considered the standard edition of Plato’s works in English. Many, though not all, of these translations have appeared in separate, smaller paperback editions from the same publisher.

Advantages: The language feels very familiar and up-to-date for contemporary readers, while only rarely sacrificing precision and accuracy.

Disadvantages: Because these translations are newer, they’re still in copyright, so you’ll need to pay for them. That said, this is a volume that you can return to year after year, so think of it as an investment. Also, because different dialogues were prepared by different translators, important technical terms are not always translated the same way, which can be mildly disorienting, and make it a little more challenging to appreciate the interconnected unity of Plato’s works.

Conclusion: This volume offers the easiest, most accessible entry into Plato for modern English speakers. You’ll eventually run up against its shortcomings, but that will probably be some time in coming.

Option 2: The translations of Thomas Taylor.

The first complete English translation of Plato, these appeared in the late 1700s and early 1800s, so they’re now available for free in the public domain. (If you prefer a printed volume, they have been reprinted in a very handsome hardcover edition, spanning five volumes, by the Prometheus Trust; readers in the United States can order from here.)

Taylor’s translations and other essays were avidly read, and abundantly praised, by the likes of William Blake, Henry David Thoreau, and others among the Romantic poets and American Transcendentalists, and they were the standard English version of Plato for more than a century.

Advantages: They’re free. More than that, though, Taylor had a deep and insightful, even preternatural understanding of Plato’s philosophy, and it shows, both in the translations themselves, and his prefaces and footnotes which accompany them. Moreover, his notes over include extensive quotations from, or paraphrases of, the brilliant commentaries written by Plato’s heirs in the Neoplatonic schools of Athens and Alexandria.

Disadvantages: As you would expect from translations produced more than two centuries ago, Taylor’s language is sometimes a bit archaic or unfamiliar to modern readers. That said, in my experience, you pretty quickly get used to this. Also, Taylor has the unfortunate habit, which was common in his day, of “translating” the names of the Greek Gods into “equivalent” Roman Gods. So, for example, we find Minerva where Plato mentions Athene, Neptune where Plato refers to Poseidon, and Jove where Plato speaks of Zeus.

Option 3: The translations of Benjamin Jowett.

These translations are very popular in some circles, but other than their pricetag (free!), I’ve never understood why. To my mind, you get most of the disadvantages of the earlier two options, with very few of the advantages. While not quite as archaic as some of Taylor’s language, these translations are still over a hundred years old, and compared to the fluidity of the Cooper/Hutchinson volume, it shows. Yet to my mind, Jowett’s work lacks the depth of insight that comes through in Taylor’s translations and notes. Still, they’re an option, and to each their own.

Where to begin?

So, you have a copy of Plato’s complete works. This is a huge amount of material! Where to begin?

The Iamblichean Curriculum

By the 3rd century CE, the teachers in the Platonic school in Alexandria, as well as the Academy in Athens (which was still an active institution, more than six centuries after Plato’s death!) had settled on a standard curriculum, by which students were introduced to some of the foundational ideas of Plato’s philosophy. This is often called the “Iamblichean” curriculum after the philosopher Iamblichus, who is given credit for this way of organizing Plato’s dialogues.

The first three dialogues were:

  • Alcibiades (see notes below)
  • Gorgias
  • Phaedo

These three dialogues, in this order, still make an excellent introduction to the core themes of Platonic philosophy today. In my experience, all three stand on their own feet, and continue to provide fresh insight and encouragement every time I return to them.

Once you’ve spent some time reading and reflecting on these dialogues, and perhaps a few others, your next stop might be a few of the traditional commentaries on Plato’s works, which I discuss below.

Some Notes about the Alcibiades

Two small notes about the Alcibiades: First, this dialogue is sometimes called “First Alcibiades,” to distinguish it from a spurious work known as the “Second Alcibiades.” Second, in Cooper and Hutchinson’s edition of Plato, this dialogue is marked as being of “dubious authenticity;” in other words, modern scholars argue about whether or not Plato himself really wrote it. These doubts were not at all shared in antiquity—even those ancient scholars who were worried about the authenticity of other allegedly Platonic texts were quite satisfied that Plato wrote this one. Moreover, the modern doubts are generally based on the fact that the dialogue is “too easy” or “too straightforward” in its meaning—but when you think about it, these are the perfect reasons to start with it!

Other Options

All that said, there are lots of excellent ways into Plato’s work, so if another dialogue strikes your fancy, by all means, feel free to start there!

Commentaries on Plato (and others)

In addition to Plato’s own works, we’re fortunate to have a variety of philosophical commentaries written by later Platonists, specifically for beginning students. While the beginning student of the 6th century CE would differ in certain ways from today’s beginner, these texts still provide an excellent route into the most mature, final flowering of the Platonic tradition in antiquity.

Olympiodorus

For the first three dialogues in the Iamblichean curriculum, we have traditional commentaries in the form of lectures given to beginning students by the Alexandrian Platonist Olympiodorus. Writing in the 6th century CE, Olympiodorus explains the dialogues page by page, drawing on the insights of nearly a thousand years of scholarship and study. Modern translations of these commentaries are:

  • Olympiodorus, Life of Plato and On Plato First Alcibiades 1–9. Translated by Michael Griffin. Bloomsbury Academic, 2016.
  • Olympiodorus, On Plato First Alcibiades 1028. Translated by Michael Griffin. Bloomsbury Academic, 2017.
  • Olympiodorus, Commentary on Plato’s Gorgias. Translated by Robin Jackson, Harold Tarrant, and Kimon Lycos. Brill, 1998.
  • Olympiodorus, Commentary on Plato’s Phaedo. Edited and translated by L.G. Westerink. 2nd revised edition. Prometheus Trust, 2009.

While the first two volumes are available as only somewhat-overpriced paperbacks, the Gorgias commentary is unfortunately only published as a criminally expensive academic hardcover. That said, you can probably borrow it directly from a state university, or from your public library via interlibrary loan. Olympiodorus’ commentary on the Phaedo—the most challenging of these three commentaries—is available for a truly reasonable price from the Prometheus Trust (in the USA, here).

My recommendation is first to read each dialogue alone, then on a second (or subsequent) pass, to read the dialogue and the commentary side by side.

We also have Platonic commentaries on the Alcibiades by Proclus and on the Phaedo by Damascius, who were heads of the Academy in Athens in the 5th and 6th centuries CE, but these are intended for more advanced students, and are a bit more difficult. Start with Olympiodorus instead!

Simplicius

For a practical guide to ethics from a Platonist perspective, we’re blessed with a commentary on the Handbook of Epictetus, written by Athenian Platonist teacher Simplicius in the 6th century CE. While Epictetus himself was a Stoic, his Handbook is concerned much more with the “what” than the “why” of Hellenistic ethics. Simplicius’ approach is to supplement Epictetus’ sound practical advice, with a rigorous Platonist physics and metaphysics.

The English translation is split into two volumes, which also include the full text of Epictetus’ Handbook itself:

  • Simplicius, On Epictetus Handbook 1–26, translated by Tad Brennan and Charles Brittain. Bloomsbury Academic, 2014 [originally Duckworth, 2002].
  • Simplicius, On Epictetus Handbook 27–53, translated by Tad Brennan and Charles Brittain. Bloomsbury Academic, 2014 [originally Duckworth, 2002].