Category: Works of Plato

Socratic and Platonic dialogue

Socratic dialogues are the dialogical texts written by Socrates’ pupils, whose protagonist is Socrates himself; the Platonic dialogues reserve a prominent place among them. However, Plato’s early dialogues are also called “Socratic”.

Dialogue and the writing of philosophy

At the time when Plato started off as a writer, at the beginning of the fourth century BCE, there is no established tradition for the writing of philosophy. For transmitting their ideas, previous philosophers had used prose (Anaxagoras, Democritus, Sophists) as well as poetry (Xenophanes, Parmenides, Empedocles), oracles (Heraclitus) or exclusively oral teaching (Pythagoras, Socrates).

This is certainly not irrelevant to the level of literacy in Greece in the fifth and fourth century. As the studies of E. Havelock [1963] have shown, at the beginning of the fourth century, one still is to a great extent in a time of orality, rather than widespread literacy. Hence, the written text --including philosophical texts-- is aimed as a rule at communal recitation rather than personal study.

It is uncertain whether Plato was the first to decide to write philosophical dialogues. We also know of Xenophon’s Socratic dialogues, which seem to come after the Platonic dialogues, and dialogical fragments have come down to us from Antisthenes, Aeschines, Phaedo and Euclid, as well as testimonies regarding Aristippus. In the Poetics (1447b11) Aristotle refers to a literary genre, the “Socratic discourse”, which was developed within the circles of Socrates’ pupils; this confirms the suspicion that the philosophical dialogue is closely related to the figure of the historical Socrates and the influence of his teaching. In the first half of the fourth century, there must have been an extensive production of dialogical texts starring Socrates. Thus, it could be the case that the philosophical dialogue began as a form of vindicating the memory of Socrates, as is also evidenced by Plato’s decision to frame all his dialogues in the dramatic scenery of the second half of the fifth century, i.e. of the period in which Socrates lived and taught.

What is the Platonic dialogue?

To a modern reader the Platonic dialogue at first recalls a dramatic work. One is faced with lively dialogical texts that are carefully set in all their details: the people appearing in them are largely historical or seemingly historical figures of the fifth century; there is emphasis on scenery detail and dramatic time is adhered to in order to give the impression of realism. The language of the dialogues seems to be the everyday language of Plato’s time, often incorporating even vulgar expressions of oral speech. The most central feature of the dialogues, however, is their self-sufficiency. Plato’s works are autonomous units, they do not rely on other texts of their author, nor do they directly refer to anything beyond themselves. Therefore, they can be read as independent works.

These features render Plato’s dialogues more similar in form to Shakespeare’s works rather than Kant’s or Hegel’s. In line with this argument, a point regarding content can be made: the reader who is familiar with Plato’s philosophy is often left with the impression that the interlocutors, in the context of exchanging arguments, reject positions that could very well be considered Platonic. Thus, even though there is always a protagonist of special significance and authority in a dialogue, it remains unclear whether Plato identifies with the protagonist’s views.

Nonetheless, approaching the Platonic dialogue as a dramatic work is oversimplifying. They exhibit numerous important traits that distance them from the conventions of theatrical plays.

The content of Plato’s dialogues is made up almost exclusively by arguments. The dialogue form converts the presentation of arguments into the mode of questions and answers. To carry this kind of dialogical discussion forward, the stage centre is typically occupied by two people only. When more than two people are present, those who don’t occupy the spotlight either remain silent throughout or wait their turn to join the discussion when the previous interlocutor is done. Such a dialogue is in no way realistic, even in a time of logocracy when discourse was decidedly prevalent, such as fifth-century Athens.

There is no equality between protagonists in the Platonic dialogues. There is never a free exchange of arguments, with one side having the advantage over the other at some point and losing it at a later point -- from the start the roles are distinct: Plato makes it clear that only one of the interlocutors is the expert, the knowledgeable teacher, the person taking up the task of testing. The other characters are either ignorant individuals, conceited characters, learners, or good and helpful interlocutors. And, ultimately, there is always one figure who is victorious and one who is defeated. Therefore, the devised dialogue does not reflect a free discussion in the Athenian marketplace, but is rather a simulation of teaching or dialectical learning.

In addition, there are many tampering instances with regard to historical facts and the historical figures appearing in the dialogues. The Menexenus is an extreme case: in this dialogue Socrates is made to deliver a funeral oration after 387 BCE (Peace of Antalcidas), i.e. twelve years after his death and, moreover, having learned it from Aspasia, who is still alive and in charge of a school of rhetoric! What constitutes for us a result of research would have been self-evident for Plato’s contemporaries -- the dialogues do not represent historically certified meetings of people during the fifth century.

Lastly, the Platonic dialogues are not always directly dramatic, as is the rule for a work of drama. Of the dialogues that are arguably considered to be authentic, thirteen are directly dramatic, eight are narrated dialogues, three are directly dramatic but framed by a written work, and four are monologues. It is obvious that Plato attributes great importance to the formal element of his texts (prologue, direct or reported speech, framed narrative), but it is by no means clear if the form each time selected facilitates the dramatic sequence or if the choice is made based on the reader’s philosophical background.

Conclusion

Plato chooses a particularly complicated narrative structure as a vehicle for his philosophy. There is no doubt that approaching the Platonic dialogue as an exclusively literary or dramatic text is simplistic and philosophically shallow. On the other hand, separating the dialogue form from its content is arbitrary, anachronistic, and it deprives the interpreter of significant dimensions of Plato’s thought.

Plato is convinced, as the Phaedrus (276a-277c) makes clear, that philosophy is mainly a μάθημα, i.e. a live and oral exchange of views on issues of vital importance -- on justice, on virtue, on the beautiful. Philosophical initiation takes place through an essential, yet unequal, relationship of learner and teacher. Thus, dialogue is the kind of written work that comes closer to an oral exchange of views and arguments, and seems to overcome to the greatest degree possible the drawbacks of the written word.

Author: Vassilis Kalfas
  • Frede, M. "Plato’s Arguments and the Dialogue Form." Smith, N. , Klagge, J. eds. Methods of Interpreting Plato and his Dialogues, Oxford Studies in Ancient Philosophy. 1992.
  • Havelock, E. A. Preface to Plato. Cambridge MA, 1963.
  • Kahn, C, Plato and the Socratic Dialogue, The philosophical Use of a Literary Form. Cambridge, 1996.
  • Rossetti, L. Philosophie antique. 2001.
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