Plato (427–347 BC)

DOI: 10.4324/9780415249126-A088-2
Version: v2,  Published online: 2002
Retrieved February 20, 2019, from

4. The Platonic dialogue

Who invented the philosophical dialogue, and what literary models might have inspired the invention, are not matters on which we have solid information. We do know that several of Socrates’ followers composed what Aristotle calls Sōkratikoi logoi, discourses portraying Socrates in fictitious conversations (see Socratic dialogues). The only examples which survive intact besides Plato’s are by Xenophon, probably not one of the earliest practitioners of the genre.

One major reason for the production of this literature was the desire to defend Socrates against the charges of irreligion and corrupting young people made at his trial and subsequently in Athenian pamphleteering, as well as the implicit charge of guilt by association with a succession of oligarchic politicians. Thus his devotion to the unstable and treacherous Alcibiades was variously portrayed in, for example, the first of the Alcibiades dialogues ascribed to Plato and the now fragmentary Alcibiades of Aeschines of Sphettos, but both emphasized the gulf between Alcibiades’ self-conceit and resistance to education and Socrates’ disinterested concern for his moral wellbeing. The same general purpose informed the publication of versions of Socrates’ speech (his ’apology’) before the court by Plato, Xenophon and perhaps others. Writing designed to clear Socrates’ name was doubtless a particular feature of the decade or so following 399 bc, although it clearly went on long after that, as in Xenophon’s Memorabilia (see Xenophon §2). After starting in a rather different vein Gorgias turns into Plato’s longest and angriest dialogue of this kind. Socrates is made to present himself as the only true politician in Athens, since he is the one person who can give a truly rational account of his conduct towards others and accordingly command the requisite political skill, which is to make the citizens good. But he foresees no chance of acquittal by a court of jurors seeking only gratification from their leaders.

Placing Socrates in opposition to Alcibiades is a way of defending him. Arranging a confrontation between a sophist (Protagoras or Hippias) or a rhetorician (Gorgias) or a religious expert (Euthyphro) or a Homeric recitalist (Ion) and Socrates is a way of exposing their intellectual pretensions, and in most cases their moral shallowness, while celebrating his wit, irony and penetration and permitting his distinctive ethical positions and ethical method to unfold before the reader’s eyes. The elenchus (see Socrates §§3–4) is by no means the only mode of argument Socrates is represented as using in these fictional encounters. Plato particularly enjoys allowing him to exploit the various rhetorical forms favoured by his interlocutors. But it is easy to see why the dialogue must have seemed to Plato the ideal instrument not only for commemorating like Xenophon Socrates’ style of conversation, but more importantly for exhibiting the logical structure and dynamic of the elenchus, and its power in Socrates’ hands to demolish the characteristic intellectual postures of those against whom it is deployed.

In these dialogues of confrontation Socrates seldom succeeds in humbling his interlocutors into a frank recognition that they do not know what they thought they knew: the official purpose – simultaneously intellectual and moral – of the elenchus. It would not have been convincing to have him begin to convert historical figures with well-known intellectual positions. The main thing registered by their fictional counterparts is a sense of being manipulated into self-contradiction. In any case, the constructive response to the extraordinary figure of Socrates which Plato really wants to elicit is that of the reader. We have to suppose that, as conversion to philosophy was for Plato scarcely distinguishable from his response to Socrates (devotion to the man, surrender to the spell of his charisma, strenuous intellectual engagement with his thought and the questions he was constantly pursuing), so he conceived that the point of writing philosophy must be to make Socrates charismatic for his readers – to move us to similar devotion and enterprise. In short, the dialogues constitute simultaneously an invitation to philosophy and a critique of its intellectual rivals.

Whatever Plato’s other accomplishments or failures as a writer and thinker, one project in which he unquestionably succeeds is in creating a Socrates who gets under the reader’s skin (see Socrates §7). Plato has a genius for portrayal of character: the ’arrogant self-effacement’ of Socrates’ persona; the irony at once sincere and insincere; the intellectual slipperiness in service of moral paradox; the nobility of the martyr who loses everything but saves his own soul, and of the hero who stands firm on the battlefield or in face of threats by the authorities; relentless rationality and almost impregnable self-control somehow cohabiting with susceptibility to beautiful young men and their erotic charm. Also important is the ingenious variety of perspectives from which we see Socrates talking and interacting with others. Sometimes he is made to speak to us direct (for example, Apology, Gorgias). Sometimes Plato invites us to share complicity in a knowing narrative Socrates tells of his own performance (as in Charmides, Protagoras). Sometimes someone else is represented as recalling an unforgettably emotional occasion when Socrates dominated a whole roomful of people, as in the most powerfully dramatic dialogues of all, Phaedo and Symposium. Here we have the illusion that Socrates somehow remains himself even though the ideas advanced in them must go beyond anything that the historical Socrates (or at any rate the agnostic Socrates of Apology) would have claimed about the soul and its immortality or about the good and the beautiful.

Citing this article:
Schofield, Malcolm. The Platonic dialogue. Plato (427–347 BC), 2002, doi:10.4324/9780415249126-A088-2. Routledge Encyclopedia of Philosophy, Taylor and Francis,
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