Plato is known throughout history as the author of some of the most poetic, lively, interesting and probing dialogues ever written. Not only are they crucial in the philosophical development of the western world, they are also literary classics in their own right. But, to what extent was this success dependent on the form in which Plato chose to convey his teachings: the dialogue form? Why did Plato use the dialogue form rather than straight poetry or prose like his contemporaries?
The central character in Plato’s dialogues was usually Socrates.
Despite knowing very little factually about the historical Socrates, academics are largely agreed that he did actually exist. Socrates was a historical figure, famously put to death by the Athenian State for corrupting the young and for trying to introduce new Gods. Although these were the official reasons for his death, it is likely that the real reason was political, due to his relationship with the Oligarchy Party.
Even before falling foul of the Athenian State, Socrates was never a popular figure due to his annoying habit of stopping people in the street to question them in detail about philosophy in a style similar to that depicted in Plato’s dialogues.
Socrates himself never wrote a word; however, the philosophy of the historical Socrates seems to have been centred on a search for a definition, particularly in ethical terms, as it was ethics and to some extent language that chiefly occupied the historical Socrates.
This tendency to explore philosophy in search of a definition is certainly one that is reflected in Plato’s early dialogues such as Gorgias or Protagoras.
As we have no documented evidence from Socrates himself, when we read the words of Plato’s character of Socrates, are we reading words said by the historical figure or merely those put into the character’s mouth by Plato? Apart from what we can gather from Plato’s dialogues, which are preserved in their entirety, we know very little of the history of Plato’s literary career.
His purpose in publishing his dialogues is unknown, as well as the dates of both the writing and publication of each of the dialogues. Despite this, scholars have grouped Plato’s works into those written in the early, middle and late periods of his philosophical career which is thought to have started soon after the death of the historical Socrates, continuing until his death aged around 80 in approximately 348BC1. It is largely in the early and middle dialogues that the influence of the thoughts of historical Socrates can be seen.
It is in Plato’s most famous work the Republic that critics begin to attribute the philosophical ideas to Plato himself rather than to Socrates. Book one of the Republic varies in both style and ideas from the last nine books, leading scholars to suppose it was written separately as an earlier dialogue. It shows Plato to have reached a point in his philosophical career where his use and the scope of the Socratic dialogue style reached an end. Book one is deliberately set up to be unsatisfactory to show this.
Plato is using it as a tool to allow him to progress from the early Socratic dialogues into the deeper discussions we see in the latter half of the Republic, particularly in the extended metaphor of the cave, and in the later dialogues such as Parmenides. The dialogue form allows Plato to abandon old ideas in favour of new ones, regardless of their contradictory nature, as his theories change and develop. The historical Socrates held many radical ideas, notably those in favour of totalitarianism and against the Athenian democracy of the time. These views made Socrates unpopular during his life and probably contributed to his death.
By using a dialogue form and exploiting irony fully, Plato the author was able to distance himself personally from the views held by his character of Socrates. This was important not only for Plato’s own safety, but also for the development of his philosophy. Despite distancing himself slightly from the views of Socrates, the character usually suggests ideas that Plato was thought to be personally sympathetic with. It has been suggested that Plato’s dialogues, due to their form, allowed Plato to argue through and test his arguments in favour of his philosophical theories.
This explains why the character of Socrates is occasionally defeated in the debate, showing areas in which Plato’s philosophical argument was not fully developed. The dialogue, with its account of an open and free debate is a more democratic writing style, which acts as a contrast for the totalitarian views of Socrates. It is less focussed around one person than straight prose. The style in which the dialogues were conducted assumed that there was a higher authority, which was capable of imparting a deeper understanding and knowledge of the absolute truth, and that this authority is equally accessible to all.
Knowledge is not elitist if sought in the correct manner2. Another implication of the dialogue form and its inherent democracy is that it allows Socrates a certain element of humbleness. The emphasis is taken away from him directly, allowing the discussions to be more accessible both for the characters present at the discussion and also for the reader. One of the most important reasons behind Plato’s choice of the dialogue form relates to his ideas about teaching and learning. Plato did not see lecturing as either ‘proper’ or effective teaching.
His pupils, readers and followers were not vessels to be filled with information3. They Socratic Method of dialectic used in his dialogues is concerned with leading the mind to self-discovery and self-realisation. This was supposed to produce students who would be able to continue their pursuit of the philosophical truth on their own, without reliance on their ‘teacher’4. In the dialogues, especially the Meno, Plato explains his theory of learning and recollection. The character of Socrates in this dialogue makes his apparently unsupported claim that the soul is immortal and that there is a cyclic reincarnation and rebirth.
He claims that in our previous lives and in the other world where our soul is in-between bodies, we have learnt everything there is to know. This is often referred to as the Platonic Theory of Recall. Learning and seeking knowledge are both merely recollection. Socrates counters Meno’s paradox with his ‘Lazy Argument’: we do not have to earn anything new; it is only a matter of stirring old knowledge into recollection. For Plato then, the role of the teacher is not to impart new knowledge, as we already know everything, but instead to ask the appropriate questions to catalyse this recollection of previous knowledge.
With his use of the dialogue form, Plato aimed to ask his reader such questions as would stir in them this recollection. He is encouraging the participation and intellectual development of his reader as well as Socrates and his interlocutors. The character of Socrates often considers himself to be like a midwife. Just as a good midwife coaches a pregnant mother on giving birth to her baby on her own, Socrates drew out what was already inside someone in an under developed state. The participation of the reader is therefore crucial to the purpose of both Plato and his mouthpiece, Socrates.
Plato’s desire to involve his reader in the ‘action’ of the debates can be seen in his use of the dialogue form. Dialogues, if written well as Plato’s’ were, can be immensely dramatic. “They are staged interactions in which reader and listener – like the dialogical participants themselves – become immersed, and absorbed in the scene5”. Readers and critics throughout history have been unable to prevent themselves from ‘taking sides’ in the debate. This potential for reader involvement and participation makes the dialogue form so ideal for Plato’s purpose.
In addition, the dramatised and often humorous nature of the dialogues captures the creative, fun side of philosophy, making it attractive for future newcomers to the discipline. The philosophy of the historical Socrates was often concerned with the quest for a definition, be it of Justice, Virtue or Happiness. The quest for a definition of Justice is pursued in several of Plato’s dialogues. The whole of Republic was written to continue this quest. Consequently, few of the dialogues are brought to a satisfactory conclusion.
The dialogue form is flexible in that it allows him to do this without the dialogue seeming incomplete. Plato’s intension with his dialogues is that he is not only ‘teaching’ others his philosophical ideas, but also that he equips them with enough knowledge through experience of Socrates’ questioning method of how to explore and discuss, that they are able to carry on the quest themselves. As David Fortunoff says, the “philosopher-teacher has to model for the interlocutor the process of learning in the exhibitive or active mode of judgement, respectively6”.
He considers it “an education in a way of life (agi?? gi?? ) for the student, and not only in acquiring specific knowledge7”. In addition, due to the dramatic and absorbent nature of the dialogues, the reader’s interest is excited and maintained throughout. By bringing the dialogues to an unsatisfactory conclusion, Plato’s aim is to motivate the reader to continue the search alone; giving them the facilities to do so is of no benefit, if he cannot motivate his audience. Socrates uses a similar form of motivation for individual participation in his discussions with his interlocutors.
As part of his Socratic dialogue method, Socrates reduces his interlocutors to a state of aporia, or confusion through removing the false beliefs they previously held by exposing the inconsistencies and inadequate nature of their argument. Socrates has been accused of leaving them in this state; however, Plato gives his readers, clues as to how we might continue the search ourselves. In Meno, Socrates explains the importance of this phase in his philosophical teaching8. At the start of the experiment with the slave boy, he was certain that he knew the answer, but he was wrong. With Socrates’ instruction, by the end, he knew that he was wrong.
Initially, he was not perplexed, but he was in fact wrong. By the end of the dialogue, he may be perplexed, but he does not hold any incorrect ideas. He is in a better state than he was before Socrates reduced him to the state of aporia. In addition, he is now motivated to pursue the answer on his own because he now knows that he doesn’t already know it. Socrates’ reduction of both his interlocutors and his readers to perplexity is a crucial tool of Plato’s to involve them in the debate and most importantly, to give them the motivation to realise what they don’t know and to seek to fill the void.
Above all, Plato’s reason for writing his dialogues as he did was to allow him to do philosophy with us, the unknown reader. The dialogue form allows him great flexibility as it leaves the debates open to interpretation. None of the dialogues are ‘closed’; there is always the possibility of further debate at a later date. This is important because it makes allowance so that every time you pick up Plato’s work, it will be different. All the dialogues rely heavily on personal participation and interpretation.
These depend on and will change according to a person’s experiences, moods, opinions and beliefs. As a person’s perspective will never be the same at any two separate points in time, your experience of Plato’s work and philosophy will change. For Plato, this was crucial. Socrates produced no writings of his own and Plato, despite writing his many dialogues was suspicious of writing to say the least. At the end of the Phi?? drus, Plato discusses the “inferiority of books and writing in general to pure thought9”. From 274ff. , Plato explains the history of writing and Theuth’s story.
He argues that writing doesn’t help memory or learning, it will only remind people. It is a few sections later on in the Phi?? drus that Plato explains his main objection to books and to the art of writing: words can’t answer your questions, they will always say the same things; “with written words; they seem to talk to you as though they were intelligent, But if you ask them anything about what they say, from a desire to be instructed, they go on telling you just the same thing forever10″. By using the dialogue form, Plato is trying to overcome this problem.
Due to the many interpretations possibly and their flexible nature, the dialogue form has more potential to be able to answer questions or at least instruct the student on how to answer the questions themselves than standard inflexible prose. Despite this, a book will never be able to defend itself or provide further arguments in favour of its point. In the VIIth Letter, Plato expresses views even more anti writing. In section 341c-e, he claims that writers of philosophy can have no real knowledge of the subject. He then goes on to say that; I certainly have composed no work in regard to it, nor shall I ever do so in future, for there is no way of putting it in words like other studies. Acquaintance with it must come rather after a long period of attendance on instruction in the subject itself and of close companionship, when, suddenly, like a blaze kindled by a leaping spark, it is generated in the soul and at once becomes self-sustaining11”. Due to the lack of historical evidence about Plato’s writing, it is hard to tell what he meant when he said he had written nothing on the subject of philosophy.
Suzanne suggests that it is possible that he wrote all of his dialogues after this letter, in the last ten years of his life12. Regardless of this, it is clear that Plato’s choice of the dialogue form is closely linked to his mistrust for writing and books that were intended to teach and lecture. Another of Plato’s objections to the art of writing is that it cannot choose who reads it. For Plato, not everyone was equally fit to do philosophy. Educating the unfit about philosophy would only lead to “some unjustified contempt in a thoroughly offensive fashion13”.
In the Phi?? drus, as part of his critique of the art of writing, Plato complains that “Once a thing is put in writing, the composition, whatever it may be, drifts all over the place, getting into the hands not only of those who understand it, but equally of those who have no business with it; it doesn’t know how to address the right people, and not address the wrong14”. However, the dialogue form, although it allows the author to overcome many of what he considers problems in writing standard prose, cannot prevent the wrong people from reading it.
It is for this reason that Plato and particularly both the historical Socrates, and his character in Plato’s dialogues would argue that the only true way to do philosophy is on a one-to-one basis. This method of doing philosophy, used by Plato, his character Socrates, and also by the historical Socrates, was often known as ‘elenchus’. It involves a one-to-one debate consisting of questions and answers with the debaters not moving on until they have reached an agreement, which if both are intelligent people, should be the truth.
The aim of this is for both of them to work together to achieve the truth through agreement. Usually, the questioner has more knowledge than the person being questioned does, and in Plato’s dialogues, Socrates usually takes this role. The dialogue form is a more accurate way of recording the questions and answers in their entirety, and communicating every stage of the discussion without impeding either its flow or its clarity or its meaning. The dialogue form allowed Plato to show the movement of the discussion and of the human interactions that put it in context.
The exact representation of events in the dialogues is perfect to not only show, but also to teach the art of dialectic. The Oxford Dictionary of Philosophy defined ‘Dialectic’ as “most fundamentally, the process of reasoning to obtain truth and knowledge on any topic… In the middle dialogues of Plato however, it becomes the total process of enlightenment, whereby the philosopher is educated so as to achieve knowledge of the supreme good15”. Thus, dialectic is a very important technique and skill for Plato and his students.
Due to its nature, the best way to teach it is through example. It is only due to the dialogue from chosen by Plato that future students see this successfully illustrated. The character of Socrates was accused by interlocutors of using dialectic and manipulating what he was saying to try to outwit them. Indeed, Socrates used irony on a daily basis. Before Plato’s Socrates, irony was understood as mere mockery and deception. Socrates’ unique use of irony altered this. It became a tool of the educated and knowledgeable.
Irony requires thought and intellect to be both used and understood successfully. For Socrates, this ensured that his interlocutors were worthy of his philosophical teachings. It also provokes discussion and creates interest in pursuit of knowledge. One of the many reasons why the historical Socrates was perceived as irritating by many in Athens was due to his frequent use of irony, which after a while becomes annoying, as many of his interlocutors and readers alike have since discovered. By not stating something clearly, people must come to their own conclusions as to what was meant.
This not only means that different people will arrive at different answers, but also that the same person at different times will arrive at different answers. This was a tool used by Plato not only to increase the flexibility of his writing, but also to distance himself from the radical views of the historical Socrates. Socrates had many enemies and Plato was able to use irony to ‘water down’ his beliefs and merely hint at them rather than stating them openly. In this way, the dialogue form goes hand in hand with Plato’s use of irony and its political implications.
Plato clearly chose the dialogue form carefully and for many reasons. With his great suspicion of writing and books in general, it is almost surprising that he did not follow his mentor Socrates and not write a word. However, of all forms in which to write, the dialogue is without doubt the most successful in conveying his philosophy and his teachings in a manner which is not self-contradictory. The use of the dialogue form significantly has links with, and refers to many areas of his philosophy, particularly those relating to learning and recollection, teaching and the ways in which to conduct philosophy.