Examining The Platonic Dialogues

The word “dialogue” comes down to us from the Greeks. It means to converse with one another, or to meet with one another. Thus Plato’s “dialogues” are conversations between people, and they also inspire gathering and conversation. In examining the kind and character of each Platonic dialogue, we proceed as biologists as if dissecting contents to reveal the form of the dialogues.

In the first place there are two kinds of Platonic dialogues: narrated and performed. A narrated dialogue is one in which people are recounting, or recalling, the scene of the dialogue. It serves as a kind of introduction to the setting and there are nine narrated dialogues, with six narrated by Socrates. An example of a narrated dialogue is the Theaetetus. A performed dialogue simply begins en media res without an introduction and is the most common type of Platonic dialogue as there are twenty-four performed dialogues.

A second division of the Platonic dialogues is between Socratic and non-Socratic dialogues, wherein Socrates is the chief speaker. In the vast majority of dialogues (twenty-eight) Socrates is the chief speaker. An example of a non-Socratic dialogue is the Laws or the Sophist.

Third, we notice the large number of proper names serving as titles for the dialogues (twenty-seven of thirty-five, such Theaetetus or Phaedrus). Elsewhere in ancient literature we find proper names as the titles of tragedies (Oedipus or Antigone), however in the Platonic dialogues the proper names are mostly contemporaries of Socrates, not classical heroes. However, in some ways the Platonic dialogue is a kind of harmony between tragedy and comedy (see the end of the Symposium). In only four dialogues does the title reveal the true subject matter: RepublicLawsSophist, and Statesman.

Lastly, the setting and the characters of the dialogues. All of the dialogues occur within Athens, excluding the Laws (and its debatable sequel the Eponimis). However, the Phaedrus occurs outside the city walls of Athens and the Republic takes place down the harbor of the Piraeus. In no dialogue does Socrates speak with a common worker -a laborer, artisan, blacksmith and so on, despite the fact that he is always considering them and in the Apology he identifies the people with whom he engages.

As has been said, one of the central problems with writing is that the text is universal and equally shared among all people. That is, the writer must speak to everyone on an equal standing. However, the Platonic dialogue, in its deliberate ambiguity and obfuscation, is an attempt to overcome this problem of writing -that is, to transcend the finitude of the passing moment, while preserving the esotericism of the teaching: to communicate something common to many people while preserving a more exclusive teaching for a few.

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