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on 24 January 2004
I started to read this book hoping to find references to the influence of ancient Greek philosophy on Christianity. My previous attempts at digesting philosophy books were doomed to failure - I found them rebarbative, difficult to understand for "the non-initiated" like me (I come from a scientific background) . Thus, my experience in reading philosophy made me reluctant to take up yet another book in this field. However, this title tempted me (Understanding Plato) and gave myself another chance to find some comprehensible answers to what I was looking for. This time I wasn't disappointed. At all. This was the first experience of reading philosophy which I have thoroughly enjoyed. For me, this was the book which made me believe that philosophy is not always dry, heavy writings which just the members of the philosophy club would be able to grasp. I believe it is the comprehensible style of writing (direct, very logical, non-elusive) and the way David Melling introduces the reader into the scene of Plato's world which makes the book so enjoyable.
He begins by placing Plato into his historical context and among the philosophers and the political situations which influenced him. He then starts to present many of Plato's dialogues in a sort of chronological order. The beauty of the structure is that the chapters are not independent, but form steps of a staircase taking the reader's understanding from the ground level upwards through the stages Plato's philosophical discourse.
Throughout the book, the author sets up challenging game-like situations which make the reader feel as if part of the discussion group, as one of the characters in the dialogue, raising questions and solving problems. I found the chapter on the explanations of the forms (the lengthiest one) exceedingly interesting and at the same time easy to grasp in spite of the fact that this concept seems to be one of the most difficult to understand in Plato's writings.
The last chapter of the book is reserved for the discussion of the Plato's last dialogue "The Laws". Melling presents Plato here as a person filled with compassion and understanding of the real needs of the people, a man of great experience (he wrote the "The Laws towards the end of his life) and acceptance of others.
Even though David Melling presents the book as an introduction to understanding Plato, I find it to be a book which can unlock most of the "mysteries" which seem to surround the great philosopher.
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on 21 October 2011
This is a very nice overview of Plato's thinking and writing. It is realtively easy to read and provides very good summary style overview of key texts. The book is very well layed out.

My one caveat is that this may be just a little too deep for someone with no philosophical background (though I would suggest you try it), and on the other hand it is sometimes a little bit too light for someone who wants a serious and critical philosophical review of Platos writing. This would be ideal for someone studying plato at degree level - but probably not sufficient on its own to get into some of the details of his writing.
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Understanding Plato by David J. Melling, Oxford, 1987, 192 ff.

An overview of Plato's life and work
By Howard A. Jones

This is an excellent introduction to Plato for the general reader and for those beginning a philosophy course - in fact, the best such introduction I have read. The author was Dean of the Faculty of Humanities, Law and Social Science at what is now Manchester Metropolitan University at the time this book was written, some two decades ago. But ancient Greek philosophy doesn't change, even if its interpretation evolves, so the age of the book should be no deterrent to readers.

The author takes us through Plato's dialogues in more or less chronological order, as far as this is known. But the chapters also highlight the principal focus of each dialogue. Thus, we learn that the Protagoras is about virtue, the Meno about learning, and the Theaetetus about the nature of knowledge. In many dialogues, the topic of interest subtly changes from one thing to another in the course of the discussion, and this Melling illustrates. Plato's important Theory of Forms has a couple of chapters to itself. We read how Plato's philosophy developed through his career from the Laches to the Laws, some later dialogues contradicting or at least modifying Plato's earlier views.

I would unreservedly recommend this book as a highly readable introduction to Plato, perhaps before tacking the dialogues themselves, quotations of which are to be found within the text. The book has suggestions for further reading and a useful index.

Dr Howard A. Jones is the author of The Thoughtful Guide to God (2006) and The Tao of Holism (2008), both published by O Books, Winchester, UK.

Classical Thought (OPUS)
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on 15 October 2010
After studying and teaching Philosophy for over 25 years, I can HONESTLY say that this is the best book on Plato that has been written, yet few know about this secret gem!
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on 14 June 2012
This book reminded me of sitting in a maths lesson at school and struggling to keep up while the teacher tried to explain difficult ideas in language that was alien to me.

I was hoping this short book (170 pages) would explain some of Plato's main ideas in a clear way. I don't think I was much closer to understanding Plato by the time I'd finished reading.

I felt it was often too confusing for the general reader and, I suspect, too basic for philosophy students.

Too many sentences start with phrases like "It is evident that...", "It would not be inconsistent to argue...", "It must be admitted that..." and "It is obvious that...".

The writing style is clunky and dated. Take this on the Theory of Ideas: "The Idea of the Good is itself knowable as well as being the source of the knowability of all that is knowable."

Or this on forms: "If the Form which is the source of the X-ness of other forms is not the source of X-ness, then we seem to be left with an impossible dilemma."

Perhaps it's impossible to avoid such constructions when trying to explain Plato's work, but I found it clumsy and awkward to read.

I'm still searching for a clear guide to Plato for the general reader.
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on 30 July 2015
A must have Plato for Dummies which no one appears to have written. Easy to read and highly recommended.
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