In This Article Plato's Philebus

  • Introduction
  • General Overviews
  • Bibliographies
  • Editions and Translations
  • Commentaries
  • Collections of Papers
  • The Dialogue’s Date
  • The Unity of the Dialogue
  • Dramatic Aspects
  • Cultural Background
  • Choice of Life
  • The Cosmological Argument
  • The Classification of Sciences
  • Beauty, Truth, and the Good
  • The Philebus and the “Unwritten Doctrines”
  • The Reception of the Philebus

Classics Plato's Philebus
by
Sylvain Delcomminette
  • LAST MODIFIED: 29 November 2018
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780195389661-0326

Introduction

The Philebus is almost unanimously considered as one of Plato’s last dialogues, probably written around the same time as the Timaeus. Unlike other late dialogues, however, it takes the more conventional form of a conversation between Socrates and two interlocutors: Philebus and Protarchus. Philebus in fact refuses to discuss and remains silent for most of the dialogue, leaving to Protarchus the task of defending hedonism against the attacks of intellectualism championed by Socrates. The Philebus is a particularly rich and difficult work, which has often been viewed as messy. Although it has received the subtitle “On pleasure” since Antiquity, it contains, besides a lengthy examination of pleasure that notably argues for the possibility of false pleasures, a reflection on the relations between unity and plurality, an exposition of dialectic presented as a “god-given” and “heavenly” method, a fourfold classification of “all there is,” a cosmological argument purported to show that the world is governed by intelligence, and a hierarchical classification of the different kinds of knowledge. All these elements are integrated in a quest for “the good,” which at the beginning of the dialogue is identified to the best human life, but at the end seems to gain greater generality and concern not only human beings but also the whole or the universe. Are all these themes supposed to connect somehow, and if they are, in what manner? This question was already debated by the Neoplatonist commentators and was taken over by modern scholarship since the 19th century. Another question that has provoked scholars is the relation between the “metaphysics” exposed in the dialogue and Plato’s “unwritten doctrines” referred to by Aristotle. However, the greatest part of scholarship on the Philebus is currently devoted to scrutinize a theme or a portion of the text itself. After a relative neglect, this dialogue has indeed become the focus of much scholarly work during the last decades. The present bibliography had consequently to be highly selective and favors the most useful starting-points for further explorations of the wealthy literature devoted to this fascinating text.

General Overviews

The best general overviews of the Philebus are still to be found in the general interpretations of Plato’s philosophy by the great scholars of the last century, which have the advantage of situating the dialogue in the more general frame of Plato’s works. Friedländer 1969 and Guthrie 1978 are particularly good examples, very different in character. For a more recent presentation, see Meinwald 2008. One can also refer to the excellent introductions of the translations by Frede 1993 and Taylor 1956 (both cited under Editions and Translations).

  • Friedländer, P. 1969. Plato. 3: The dialogues, second and third periods. Translated by H. Meyerdoff. Princeton, NJ: Princeton Univ. Press.

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    Originally published in German in 1930 (second edition in 1960). Chapter 28 contains an excellent account of the dialogue, full of perceptive observations.

  • Guthrie, W. K. C. 1978. A history of Greek philosophy. Vol. 5, The later Plato and the academy. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge Univ. Press.

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    Pages 197–240 of this monumental work contain a good standard overview of the dialogue.

  • Meinwald, C. 2008. The Philebus. In The Oxford handbook of Plato. Edited by G. Fine, 484–503. Oxford: Oxford Univ. Press.

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    A concise account of the dialogue, focusing on the way the “metaphysical and methodological equipment” introduced at the beginning relate to the later parts.

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