How to Start Reading Philosophy and Why You Should: Plato’s Euthyphro

PlatoFor general readers, philosophy has a bad reputation. For one thing, like classics in general, people tend to think of philosophical books as extremely difficult to understand, even on a surface level. Additionally, while it’s obvious that reading a book on science or history is beneficial, the benefits of philosophy aren’t nearly so obvious. In fact, it would be easy to skim through a random philosophy book, especially one written in the last one hundred years, and wonder what connection any of this stuff has with real life. Put more bluntly, readers who are unfamiliar with philosophy might ask why they should bother trying to understand this material, especially when the author seems to enjoy writing in a deliberately (and maliciously) convoluted way.

I’m willing to admit that some philosophers do deserve their intimidating and uninviting reputation. However, I also know that reading philosophy is a richly nourishing activity, so I’m here to tell you that you need to start with Plato’s dialogues. And one of them, Euthyphro, perfectly demonstrates why no philosopher is better at making you want to read more philosophy.

Euthyphro is, as I said, a dialogue. All of Plato’s works basically were. This is a crucial reason why Plato is so approachable. He isn’t Hegel or Kant, with their hundreds of pages of dense prose filled with complex words they made up to explain even more complex ideas. Instead, reading Plato is like reading a play. Yes, sometimes someone, usually Socrates, will say something that’s confusing, but even those parts always feel conversational. And in most cases, just when you’re thinking something is confusing, a character in the dialogue will flat out say, “I don’t know what you mean,” and get a clearer explanation.

Another great thing about Plato’s dialogues is that they aren’t philosophy-lite. That is, you won’t feel like you’re not dealing with serious issues. Far from it – in Euthyphro, a man named Euthyphro (most dialogues are named after the person Socrates is talking to) is about to prosecute his father for murder. Socrates asks if he’s worried that he’s doing something wrong, even unnatural, by trying to condemn his own father. Euthyphro insists he’s acting piously, and then we’re off on a meticulous exploration of what piety means. In other dialogues, Socrates and others try to answer what is justice, what is love, and other fundamental questions. And though the effort to answer these questions almost always ends in failure, the lack of resolution is one of the best parts of Plato’s works. Rather than tell us what to think, Plato invites us to think about the issues ourselves.

There are plenty of other reasons to read Plato, like the chance to see Socrates, one of literature’s most (in)famous characters, in action. But bottom line – Plato’s dialogues are extremely readable, deal with issues we can all relate to, and will leave with questions that will encourage you to read more. Euthyphro is great for beginners to Plato because it’s short and focused on a single issue, allowing you to get a sense of how these dialogues work without having to read through all ten books of Republic, which deals not only with the concept of justice but has Socrates and friends constructing a perfect society.

Incidentally, the philosopher Karl Popper wrote a scathing critique of Plato’s supposed utopia in The Open Society and Its Enemies. Why did he think Plato’s ideal society was basically a fascist dictatorship? I guess you’ll have to read Plato and then Popper to find out.

So go read it (Euthyphro and then everything else). Now.

Note:  If you like Plato, two other good authors to read are Rene Descartes and David Hume. Those two also write as if they meant to be understood. And by the way, I’m not trying to diminish philosophers whose writing style isn’t as straightforward. Some of the most challenging books by such authors have been the most rewarding. But I would never have had the mental endurance to work through those texts if I hadn’t already been interested in philosophy, and I would never have been interested in philosophy if roughly ten years ago a teacher of mine hadn’t wisely suggested I start with Plato.

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