Plato (427–347 BC)

DOI: 10.4324/9780415249126-A088-1
Version: v1,  Published online: 1998
Retrieved June 19, 2024, from

9. Other dialogues of inquiry

In Protagoras it is Socrates himself who works out and defends the theory that knowledge is sufficient for virtuous action and that different virtues are different forms of that knowledge (see Aretē). He does not here play the role of critic of the theory, nor are there other interlocutors who might suggest alternative perceptions: indeed Protagoras, as partner not adversary in the key argument, is represented as accepting the key premise that (as he puts it) ‘wisdom and knowledge are the most powerful forces governing human affairs’ (352c–d). It would be a mistake to think that Plato found one and the same view problematic when he wrote Laches and Charmides but unproblematic when he wrote Protagoras, and to construct a chronological hypothesis to cope with the contradiction. Protagoras is simply a different sort of dialogue: it displays Socratic dialectic at work from a stance of some detachment, without raising questions about it. Protagoras is an entirely different kind of work from Gorgias, too: the one all urbane sparring, the latter a deadly serious confrontation between philosophy and political ambition. Gorgias unquestionably attacks hedonism, Protagoras argues for it, to obtain a suitable premise for defending the intellectualist paradox that nobody does wrong willingly, but leaves Socrates’ own commitment to the premise at best ambiguous (see Socrates §6). Incommensurabilities of this kind make it unwise to attempt a relative chronology of the two dialogues on the basis of apparent incompatibilities in the positions of their two Socrates.

Space does not permit discussion of Ion, or of Hippias Minor, in which Socrates is made to tease us with the paradox – derived from his equation of virtue and knowledge – that someone who did do wrong knowingly and intentionally would be better than someone who did it unintentionally through ignorance. Interpretation of Euthyphro remains irredeemably controversial. Its logical ingenuity is admired, and the dialogue is celebrated for its invention of one of the great philosophical questions about religion: either we should do right because god tells us to do so, which robs us of moral autonomy, or because it is right god tells us to do it, which makes the will of god morally redundant.

Something more needs to be said about Lysis and Euthydemus (which share a key minor character in Ctesippus, and are heavy with the same highly charged erotic atmosphere) and Hippias Major. They all present Socrates engaging in extended question and answer sessions, although only in Hippias is this an elenchus with real bite: in the other dialogues his principal interlocutors are boys with no considered positions of their own inviting refutation. All end in total failure to achieve positive results. All make great formal play with dualities of various kinds. Unusually ingenious literary devices characterize the three works, ranging from the introduction of an alter ego for Socrates in Hippias to disruption of the argument of the main dialogue by its ’framing’ dialogue in Euthydemus, at a point where the discussion is clearly either anticipating or recalling the central books of Republic. All seem to be principally preoccupied with dialectical method (admittedly a concern in every dialogue). Thus Hippias is a study in definitional procedure, applied to the case of the fine or beautiful, Lysis a study in thesis and antithesis paralleled in Plato’s œuvre only by Parmenides, and Euthydemus an exhibition of the contrast between ’eristic’, that is, purely combative sophistical argument, demonstrated by the brothers Euthydemus and Dionysodorus, and no less playful philosophical questioning that similarly but differently ties itself in knots. It is the sole member of the trio which could be said with much conviction to engage – once more quizzically – with the thought of the historical Socrates about knowledge and virtue. But its introduction of ideas from Republic makes it hard to rank among the early writings of Plato. Similarly, in Lysis and Hippias Major there are echoes or pre-echoes of the theory of Forms and some of the causal questions associated with it. We may conclude that these ingenious philosophical exercises – ’gymnastic’ pieces, to use the vocabulary of Parmenides – might well belong to Plato’s middle period.

Citing this article:
Schofield, Malcolm. Other dialogues of inquiry. Plato (427–347 BC), 1998, doi:10.4324/9780415249126-A088-1. Routledge Encyclopedia of Philosophy, Taylor and Francis,
Copyright © 1998-2024 Routledge.

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