I'm investigating a set of puzzles - what are Plato's Dialogues? How were they written? By whom? What is it about them that has fascinated people for millennia? I believe the answers lie within the Dialogues themselves, in their words and construction, their grace and oddness . . . Like all art, they are living entities, they speak to us, and they hold the secrets of their own creation.
In my quest to find the truth about the writing of Plato's Dialogues, I have described the consensus that arose following his death: the Dialogues are the works of Plato.
When scholars of the consensus say that Plato wrote Plato's Dialogues, they are not simply stating the obvious. They are declaring that Plato did something extraordinary: the Dialogues are extraordinary documents. Because they are, to say that he wrote them is to express a belief in what Plato is: one of the greatest geniuses who ever lived, a philosopher whose mind defined virtually all the modern fields of philosophy, a writer whose work is so revolutionary, so transcendent, so expansive, that he belongs with Shakespeare or James Joyce. As the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy enthuses, Plato is:
"One of the most dazzling writers in the Western literary tradition and one of the most penetrating, wide-ranging, and influential authors in the history of philosophy."
Let's calm down a little and look at what a dialogue is. To paraphrase Diogenes Laërtius, a 2nd century CE Roman historian, a dialogue is a conversation, composed of question and answer, about philosophy or politics, with a vivid representation of the people involved, and the way that they speak. In the Socratikos logoi it is almost always Socrates having a conversation/debate/argument with one or more companions.
Here is an example from The Crito:
SOCRATES: Shall we insist . . . that injustice is always an evil and dishonour to him who
acts unjustly? Shall we say so or not?
SOCRATES: Then we must do no wrong?
CRITO: Certainly not.
SOCRATES: Nor when injured injure in return, as the many imagine; for we must injure no one at all?
CRITO: Clearly not.
SOCRATES: Again, Crito, may we do evil?
CRITO: Surely not, Socrates.
SOCRATES: And what of doing evil in return for evil, which is the morality of the many - is that just or not?
CRITO: Not just.
SOCRATES: For doing evil to another is the same as injuring him?
CRITO: Very true.
SOCRATES: Then we ought not to retaliate or render evil for evil to anyone, whatever evil we may have suffered from him.
This reads like the script of a play and in a way, it is (I will explain later how theatre influenced the genre and how dialogues like this were rehearsed and read). But the 'play' always has a philosophical intent: to analyse a philosophical proposition to see if it holds up - like this example where Socrates asks Crito to consider if it is always wrong to do an injustice. The Dialogues are full of exchanges like this, which can go on for many pages. The Crito is over 4,000 words and it is among the shortest of the Dialogues.
Two of them are so long or complex that we would call them 'books': The Politeia, better known as The Republic, is 89,000 words and The Laws 106,000. Many others are not just dialogues but also contain speeches of various kinds and mythical or historical stories. The Apology, perhaps the most famous Dialogue, is almost entirely a speech.
It's no wonder that Diogenes, straight after his simple definition of a dialogue, breaks them down into various types. According to him (I've simplified and modernised the speech),
"Of the Platonic dialogue there are two kinds: explanatory and investigative: and these are divided, the explanatory into two kinds, theoretical (about science and logic) and practical (about ethics and politics). And of the investigative there are likewise two kinds; one is like a fight with gloves, and the other a fight with gloves off."
We'll see in Book 5 how, in the context of 5th century Athens, philosophical discourse could be like a fistfight! For now, I want to show that the Dialogues are not simply records of a conversation written for entertainment. They are philosophical constructions by which a philosopher not only shows off his ideas but instructs the reader how to work on problems for themself.
We might wonder how Plato learnt to write in this way. It has been suggested that the Socratikos logoi was an original genre, entirely his invention; it seems more likely that he perfected an existing form that had perhaps developed out of theatre. Plato himself seems to have taken an interest in the way Athenian playwrights constructed their scripts. Regardless, he became a master of the genre. The best Dialogues have evocative scene-setting:
SOCRATES: Let us turn aside and go by the Ilissus river; we will sit down at some quiet spot.
PHAEDRUS: I am fortunate in not having my sandals, and as you never have any, I think that we may go along the brook and cool our feet in the water; this will be the easiest way, and at midday and in the summer is far from being unpleasant.
SOCRATES: Lead on and look out for a place in which we can sit down.
PHAEDRUS: Do you see the tallest plane-tree in the distance?
PHAEDRUS: There are shade and gentle breezes, and grass on which we may either sit or lie down.
SOCRATES: Move forward!
and dramatic situations and characters:
"Several times in the course of the discussion Thrasymachus had made an attempt to get the argument into his own hands and had been put down by the rest of the company, who wanted to hear the end. But when Polemarchus and I had done speaking and there was a pause, he could no longer hold his peace; and, gathering himself up, he came at us like a wild beast, seeking to devour us. We were quite panic-stricken at the sight of him.
He roared out to the whole company: "What folly, Socrates, has taken possession of you all? And why, silly billies, do you knock under to one another? I say that if you want really to know what justice is, you should not only ask but answer, and you should not seek honour to yourself from the refutation of an opponent but have your own answer; for there is many a one who can ask and cannot answer."
The range of genre, the complex construction, and the theatrical sophistication of the best Dialogues is one reason scholars call them extraordinary. Some have likened Plato the writer to Shakespeare and Moliere, Euripides, or even Homer. I think these comparisons are a stretch, but it's not really as a writer that Plato is remembered and celebrated. It is for the philosophical breadth of the ideas the Dialogues contain.
Philosophy may be said to comprise several branches or fields. The number of these varies, but a typical list will include:
Metaphysics: the study of the fundamental nature of reality
Epistemology: the study of the nature, origin, and limits of human knowledge
Ethics: the study of what is right and wrong in human behaviour
Aesthetics: the study of beauty and taste
Logic: the study of the laws of thought and correct reasoning
Political Philosophy: the study of the nature, scope, and legitimacy of governments
With the exception of aesthetics, the Dialogues of Plato touch on all philosophical fields. The quote from The Crito, above, is an example of a Dialogue examining an ethical question: 'is it right to behave in a certain way?'. The Politeia, or Republic, is a great and early attempt at political theory: 'what form should an ideal state take?' All of the Dialogues test different forms of reasoning and explore the nature of knowledge, and a few of them propose metaphysical schemes to explain the cosmos.
The first organised discussion of some philosophical fields ever in Western thought occurs in Plato's Dialogues. Not without reason did the British philosopher A. N. Whitehead declare:
“The European philosophical tradition . . . consists of a series of footnotes to Plato."
When we see him as the brilliant author of such philosophically seminal works, it is little wonder that Plato came to be revered. Yet I wonder how many people read the next two sentences of Whitehead’s quote:
"I do not mean the systematic scheme of thought which scholars have doubtfully extracted from his writings. I allude to the wealth of general ideas scattered through them”
There's a lot in this innocent-seeming remark, and I will pick it up again.