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  • Writer's pictureSam Lloyd

The Puzzles of Writing about Plato

Well, I've done it . . . or have I? Anyone who's written anything will know those feelings of doubt: should I check it one more time? Did I forget to put in . . . Is that part ok . . .

I started writing about the writing of Plato's Dialogues in late December, nearly 3 months ago. I knew I was taking on a big challenge; I genuinely did not know what the conclusion would be. I felt in my bones that something was wrong with scholarly assumptions about the writing of the Dialogues - that they are fictional and written entirely by Plato - and I cared about that because of my admiration for Socrates who, it seemed to me, was poorly treated by these assumptions.

But my gut feelings could turn out to be plain wrong.

Early on, I felt that regardless of my findings, there is an interesting story to tell about the Dialogues, which have rarely been written about in a popular way. A lot of people, I guess, have dipped into the Apology, the Phaedo, the Crito, or the Euthyphro - the works that document the tragic end to Socrates' life - but like me have been prevented from going any further by the puzzling unreadability of most of the rest. For those people, I definitely recommend the Lysis, or the Phaedrus, both beautiful short works on love and friendship.

As I wrote what I thought would become a book, I discovered many thought provoking things. For example, I found abundant ancient sources confirming the widespread circulation of 'dialogues of Socrates' during his lifetime, long before Plato was writing. I also found passages in certain of Plato's Dialogues and letters that suggest he used such existing documents to create his works. I became puzzled, then, as to why it was so fervently held that such things could not exist, and that the Dialogues are fictions.

Giuseppe Arcimboldo,

'The Librarian', 1566

Courtesy Wikipedia

In order solve those puzzles, I realised that I needed to develop a convincing hypothesis. The book project lurched to a halt.

Perhaps, like Socrates, I have a divine voice; perhaps it's instinct; I knew something was fishy in the way classical scholars explain certain puzzles in the Dialogues. The main one is what is collectively known as 'the Socratic Problem'. Strictly speaking, this 'problem' is about why the 'Socrates' Plato depicts is so different from his depiction by other contemporary writers, especially Xenophon. But it can be expanded to include other issues, like 'why does Socrates' philosophical position change all the time' or 'why does Plato never speak?'

Over generations, classical scholars have fought academic battles over these questions, ultimately arriving at two explanations. I won't go into them here; suffice to say they both require a lot of philosophical gymnastics, and both end up requiring you to read the Dialogues in a certain order to 'understand' Plato's philosophy.

Because that's what it's all about to classical scholars: Plato's philosophy; no-one else's, and nothing but philosophy. I wondered if the incongruities in the Dialogues of Plato might not be a philosophical problem, but a product of the way the Dialogues were written.

In science, there is a principle is known as 'Occam's razor': if you have two competing explanations for the same phenomenon, you should prefer the simpler one. Could I find a simpler explanation for the puzzles of Plato?

I read the Dialogues again, focusing on all the small changes that occur in the writing. Why is this one in first person, that one in third? Why does this one start with a dialogue, then turn into a myth? Why does a different speaker turn up out of nowhere in the middle of that one? After a lot of analysis, I had the germ of an answer:

Each of the Platonic Dialogues is a compilation of dialogues, conversations, stories, speeches, narratives, or recitations, like a row of dominoes, with each domino being a text of a different genre.

Even the simplest dialogues are like this. Here is a diagram of the Lysis:

The Lysis: L = Linking conversation

It's a beautiful work, in which Socrates quizzes two youths about the nature of friendship. Socrates is invited into a newly built sports complex by Hippothales, who hopes Socrates can show him how to talk to his love-interest, Lysis. With the help of Lysis' friend Menexenus, Socrates gets close to Lysis; Menexenus is called away and Socrates engages Lyisis in conversation.

The conversations that follow are called philosophical 'dialogues'. These have a set format: one person proposes a question for consideration; that person then asks the other a series of questions intended to get towards the answer. At some point, the question is answered (in the positive or negative) or no conclusion is reached.

The Lysis has five of these. Look at the diagram above and you will see that the speaker (other than Socrates of course) alternates. Also, notice that between each dialogue there is a short bit of conversation. The conversations include discussion about the previous dialogue, what to do about it, and who will take part in the next dialogue.

But, if Plato was writing an original work, why have so many short dialogues? Why introduce changes of speaker? Why set up complicated excuses for the changes?

I believe it is because each of the 5 dialogues in the Lysis began life as a transcript of an actual dialogue with Socrates, collected by a follower during his lifetime. These verbatim transcripts were necessarily short, so to create a longer work they needed to be joined together. The dialogues were transcribed on different occasions so the topics don't quite match either, thus the ploy of using conversations to shift speaker and topic.

Along with my previous research on ancient sources, I now had a hypothesis to explain the 'puzzles of Plato'. I wrote this thesis up in a 2,000 word summary, intending to publish it on a classical studies website.

But I haven't.

2,000 words is not enough to do justice to my thesis; it didn't allow me to give enough examples, or present enough textual analysis, to present a convincing case. It could be dismissed as half-baked idea. I had to explain my thesis in full. I also had to apply my thesis to the 'problems of Plato' to see if it explained them. I had to test my hypothesis.

So, that's what I have been working on the past month and a half: 2,000 words has grown to 14,000 words, and I not only explain my thesis in detail, with many examples, I apply it to those problems scholars have agonised over, and propose explanations to all of them.

I am now going to show my work to a classics scholar at Melbourne Uni who has been supportive of my project. After that I'm not sure: I will almost certainly publish it on a public website so I will let my followers know. But I'm aware that my work lacks the academic heft to impress the scholarly community, and I'm not sure there is enough content to fill a popular book either.

After all this work, it remains a puzzle to me, too . . .

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