Plato dreamed of a reality that no living person knew much about, a world of absolutes next to which our reality - you, me and Monday mornings - is muddled and transient. He deemed the world of theatre to be even more shadowy, where actors manipulate and deceive our skills of truth finding.
In a somewhat puritanical mood, he rejected from his theoretical republic the whole industry of dramatic entertainment - actors, theatres, even poets. A little wistfully, probably; for he lived only streets away from Sophocles, Euripides and Aristophanes, and he himself wrote the dialogues that gave life to Socrates.
Our even more illusory world of "virtual reality" would fare no better.
Plato would have noted that people in pixels lack the flesh and blood even of posturing actors. But he'd have been intrigued, less publicly. And he might have modelled his theory of forms in html. Almost certainly, he'd have let Socrates get up to his tricks with "virtual reality".
Plato surely would have accepted the concept of internet as library. Some excellent sites offer resources and texts for classical studies, with detailed knowledge immediately available and copies for everyone. There is no shyness that restrains some of the scientific and commercial disciplines; there are no secrets to hide. Poets, philosophers and historians of the ancient world are posted on the net for all to easily find, in full and free. Classical studies has never been so accessible; like rummaging through a skip and coming upon jewel after jewel.
The Perseus site is the place to start, with hundreds of Latin and Greek texts, each word annotated to ease the labour of preparation. Labour-saving has come on a bit since the days of Cicero's student son, who wrote to his father's librarian: "Get a clerk here as quickly as possible to help with my lectures. A Greek if you have one. Anything to ease the tedium of taking notes."
Tedium vanishes if you click "Lemmatiser" at the Collatinus site. Here you can drop some Latin into a box and half a second later have a gloss on every word, although not yet with contextual intelligence, and with one other small proviso: it translates only Latin into French. But this technology has some potential.
A comprehensive guide to classical websites and software is available from Circe, a European project part-funded by the Socrates programme (no relation. The ancients freely lend their names to these initiatives, which are meant to be commemorative. But if all such characters are reborn as worthy associations in the nurture of knowledge, we'll begin to forget who they used to be. Circe, once a seductive enchantress, is now a classics and ITC resources course for Europe.) Circe's partners from Belgium, Denmark, France, Greece, Italy and the UK share a mission to inform and support ICT as a classroom resource in all partner countries and beyond. Their draft guide is already published, with website development courses for teachers to follow. The guide is comprehensive, with ideas and recommendations full of good things - websites, software, texts, translations, dictionaries, translation aids, exercises - including one to help with the scansion of poetry.
Julian Morgan, the UK partner, calculates that technology reduces by about three quarters the time his pupils spend teasing out the meaning of a Latin or Greek text: "It gives more of the lesson to talking about what the authors were actually saying and how they're saying it." He has a point - the time spent looking up words all too easily muffles a text's deft touches.
Morgan believes ICT is an excellent gateway to the ancient worlds - his own company, J-Progs, is leading the charge with classical software - but he adds a note of caution. "You've got to have real teachers to present it," he says. "Digital resources should support and not replace the teacher." A familiar cry: we catch our enthusiasms from people, not from pixels. The trouble is, fewer and fewer teachers of classical languages are being trained at only three institutions: Cambridge, King's College London and Strathclyde.
Cambridge has now launched the software version of its Latin course. Will Griffiths, director of the Cambridge School Classics Project, is optimistic about attracting schools, including those with no specialist classics provision. He hopes that, with the aid of the software, teachers of other languages and disciplines will adopt and support the aspiring young classicist. But will other teachers have the time or the skills for this? Modern languages are hardly over-staffed as it is.
The prevailing view is that we are better off with expert teachers of classics to keep alive these literary and cultural gems of the past. So the cry goes out for teachers to step forward and make use of the rich and accessible library now available online. They may not be Plato's reality in the absolute, but they could be the next best thing.
If any site deserves to be called the internet classics library, this is it; software available:
Comprehensive guide to software and internet resources:
Software guides to Rome, Roman Britain and more; good photographs: www.j-progs.com
Another site brimming with Latin authors: www.thelatinlibrary.com
Resources and links for teachers, plus reviews of software: www.jact.org
Pick of the sites - J"lemmatiser" for instant gloss support (Latin into French): http:collatinus.fltr.ucl.ac.be
Homepage of the Cambridge Latin Course - software version now released: www.cambridgescp.com
A what's-up in UK classics: www.friends-classics.demon.co.uk Classics bookshop in north London: www.hellenicbook service.com
exercises, a must for learners of Greek - go to "Eton in Action""Greek Project": www.etoncollege.com
Listen to Latin poetry read by prize-winning Malvern girls: http:www.pyrrha.demon.co.uk
The Internet Classics Archive (good for translations): http:classics.mit.edu
Read (and hear) the news in Latin www.yleradio1.fizgo.php?z=20031213131686314670
A variety of Latin and Greek authors, elegantly framed: www.fh-augsburg.deharsch augustana. html