The Form of the Dialogue

This article is part of our new ‘one-to-watch’ blog series, where we showcase articles written by school students who hope to attend Warwick University:
Ishmael Levy (Year 12), a prospective Warwick student, from Merchant Taylors’ School Northwood, gives an erudite analysis of the Platonic dialogues.


For as long as they have held writers’ interests, the words Plato, Socrates, and dialogue have been bundled together with such frequency that it’s easy to pass over the last of the trio without any pause for thought. But, stop to think, and it becomes easy to wonder: “Dialogues? Why bother with those? Why not stick with the obvious – a plain block of simple prose?”

If philosophy does indeed mean loving knowledge (or words to that effect, as we time and again are reminded) it is easy to question why Plato was so keen on parcelling it out in such an unusual form. This article will explore the importance of the dialogic structure, some possible arguments for and against its use, and the problems presented to us by some of Plato’s own philosophies, when we consider the manner in which they are presented.

Some Background

Delving into the mechanics of Plato’s works can only take us so far unless we are comfortable with the world that produced them. A comprehensive examination of the ins and outs of Athenian life in the early-to-mid 300s B.C. is sadly out of the question, but, with the help of some gross over-generalizing, and a brief look at Athens’ recent history, an essential outline can be easily sketched. Towards the end of the previous century, in 404, Athens lost her position as “the most powerful state in Greece” (Sarah B. Pomeroy, 2009. pp. xix) to Sparta, as the 27 year-long the Peloponnesian war (named after the region of Greece in which Sparta sits: the Peloponnese) drew to a bitter close.

That famous Athenian governmental system, democracy, was overthrown and replaced with a kind of puppet regime friendly to Sparta, which by 403 had crashed and burned in payment for its tyranny over the Athenian people. Plato, born soon after the start of the Peloponnesian war, would have been a young man of about 25 when this restoration of Athenian democracy began, and not much older when this new-old government condemned the aged Socrates to death in 399 (Plato, Five Dialogues, 2002. pp ix). This is the year with which most chronologies of Plato’s dialogues start, but pinpointing the exact dates and order is an unsolvable, and at times immensely tedious, task – mainly because, as drily asserted by Doctor Leonard Brandwood, we have such “little help either from external sources or internally” (Brandwood, 2009. pp 1). Nonetheless, the evidence we do have makes it clear that between the appearances of Plato’s first works in the 390s B.C. and the foundation of his Academy in the early 380s, post-war Athens displayed a remarkable ability to bounce back from her misfortune.

Life on street level reflected this: more complex bank systems began appearing as wealth changed hands ever faster; the metic class of foreign residents in Athens expanded and came to include some of the city’s wealthiest occupants (Sarah B. Pomeroy, 2009. pp 240); Aristophanes’ made his name with a stream of slanderous and biting satires (ibid. pp. 238) and the likes of Lysias and Isaeus were establishing their fortunes penning defence speeches for those unlucky enough to find themselves on the wrong end of a lawsuit (Lysias, 1989. pp. xviii) As the background to Plato’s works, this sheds some important light on the nature of their form.

A Question of Readability?

While avoiding the trap of dramatising the past, it nonetheless seems fair to say that Plato’s world was a fast-paced one: characterised by, among other things, unprecedented social mobility and new money. Could his dialogic works be thought of as a result of this? Could it be argued that Plato structured his work around interactions between people – be they wise or unwise, rich or poor, layman or Socrates – because this would ring truest with his audience, who would themselves be privy to hundreds of such interactions every day? The argument seems solid, but it requires us to assume that Plato’s key intention is to make his philosophy as accessible as possible. The truth, however, becomes a little more nuanced once we start looking at the dialogues themselves. The Meno, for example, is often taken to be a quaint parable with the redeeming message that everyone, regardless of sex, age, and so on, has the innate capacity to learn anything: we are all philosophers in the making.

No doubt a positive message, this appears and reappears frequently as a theme in all manners of literary works (headmasters’ speeches included) leading all the way to the present. Timberlake Wertenbaker’s 1988 play Our Country’s Good, which deals with the question of rehabilitating prisoners in an 18th century British colony, serves as an excellent example:

RALPH. Sir, I —

PHILLIP. In the Meno, one of Plato’s great dialogues, have you read it, Lieutenant, Socrates demonstrates that a slave boy can learn the principles of geometry as well as a gentleman.


PHILLIP. In other words, he shows that human beings have an intelligence which has nothing to do with the circumstances into which they are born.

RALPH. Sir —

PHILLIP. Sit down, Lieutenant. It is a matter of reminding the slave of what he knows, of his own intelligence. And by intelligence you may read goodness, talent, the innate qualities of human beings.

RALPH. I see — Sir.

PHILLIP. When he treats the slave boy as a rational human being, the boy becomes one, he loses his fear, and he becomes a competent mathematician. A little more encouragement and he might become an extraordinary mathematician. Who knows? You must see your actors in that light.

(Wertenbaker, 1995. pp. 71)

Second Lieutenant Ralph Clark, an ambitious but struggling lower officer helping to oversee the colony’s convicts, has here been given the task of directing them in a performance of George Farquhar’s The Recruiting Officer by his Admiral Arthur Phillip. Phillip’s wish is to encourage the prisoners to “think in a free and responsible manner”, and Ralph, despite his reluctance, is eventually won over and persuaded to have faith in his “actors[‘]” latent abilities as human beings. Wertenbaker’s message is clear, and the allusion to the Meno serves as a reminder both of Phillip’s erudition and his trust in his fellow-man – which, it seems, he shares with Plato.

This philanthropic view of the philosopher is a popular one, and it provides some neat backing for this readability-based justification of the dialogues’ form. After all, it makes complete sense that if Plato believes we are all capable of acquiring philosophical and mathematical knowledge, he would choose to present his teachings in a format that is instantly involving. The “plain block of simple prose”, I facetiously mentioned at the start of this article, may have been Plato’s most straightforward option, but it came with no guarantee that it would have kept his readership engaged. If Plato wanted an audience to listen to what he had to teach them and learn from his knowledge,which he believed them all capable of doing, placing them amidst the back-and-forth of a conversation would have been an excellent way of doing so: perhaps the best available to him.

The Problem of Aporia

However, as said, the above argument has its flaws. The main problem is that exactly what Plato wants us to learn from his dialogues so often eludes us – and we end up in aporia: the state of difficulty and confusion that Plato makes Socrates claim (in the very same Meno) is a necessity in the search for true knowledge.

SOC. There now, Meno, do you observe what progress he [the slave boy mentioned in the above extract] has already made in his recollection? At first he did not know what is the line that forms the figure of eight feet, and he does not know even now: but at any rate he thought he knew then, and confidently answered as though he knew, and was aware of no difficulty; whereas now he feels the difficulty he is in, and besides not knowing does not think he knows.

MENO. That is true.

SOC. And is he not better off in respect of the matter which he did not know?

MENO. I think that too is so.

SOC. Now, by causing him to doubt and giving him the torpedo’s shock, have we done him any harm?

MENO. I think not.

SOC. And we have certainly given him some assistance, it would seem, towards finding out the truth of the matter: for now he will push on in the search gladly, as lacking knowledge; whereas then he would have been only too ready to suppose he was right in saying, before any number of people any number of times, that the double space must have a line of double the length for its side.

MENO. It seems so.

SOC. Now do you imagine he would have attempted to inquire or learn what he thought he knew, when he did not know it, until he had been reduced to the perplexity [aporia] of realizing that he did not know, and had felt a craving to know?

MENO. I think not, Socrates.

SOC. Then the torpedo’s shock was of advantage to him?

MENO. I think so.

SOC. Now you should note how, as a result of this perplexity [aporia], he will go on and discover something by joint inquiry with me, while I merely ask questions and do not teach him; and be on the watch to see if at any point you find me teaching him or expounding to him, instead of questioning him on his opinions.

(Plato, Euthyphro, Apology, Crito, Phaedo, 2017. pp. 313 – 315)

Here we see Socrates – teacher to Plato and the man whose lead he follows – quite clearly espousing the benefits of imparting confusion, rather than information, on a learner. Socrates argues that it is essential to reducing someone to aporia before presenting them with the truth – which can then be realised “by joint inquiry”. In other words, one of the morals awaiting us in the Meno is that we must “un-learn”, as it were, our old knowledge before attempting to acquire anything fresh. If we aim to become philosophers and prove our love of knowledge, Plato and Socrates would have us read works that confuse rather than clarify.

Bear this in mind, and the argument that Plato simply wants his writing to be as readable as possible suddenly seems contrary to his intentions. Looking elsewhere in Plato’s dialogues exposes us to aporia in a number of different guises. The Euthyphro famously ends with its eponymous character, seeking to prosecute his father for the murder of a slave in the name of piety, abruptly leaving Socrates after having his various definitions of piety interrogated and undermined. Invited to give a final definition, Euthyphro leaves, and the dialogue ends, in aporia:

SOC. Then we must once again consider what holiness [to hosion] is from the beginning, since I won’t be keen to cry off before I understand it. Come on, don’t turn your back on me, but concentrate your mind in every way as best you can and this time tell me the truth, for if any man knows, you know, and like Proteus you’re not going to be released until you tell me. For if you didn’t know clearly what the holy [to hosion] and the unholy are, there is no way you would ever have undertaken to prosecute a man who is old and your father for murder on behalf of a man who is a hired labourer. But also the fear of the gods would have prevented you risking not doing it in the right way; and you’d be a disgrace among men. But now I know well that you think you know clearly what the holy [to … hosion] is and what it isn’t. So tell me, excellent Euthyphro, and don’t conceal what you believe it is.

EUTHYPHRO. Another time, Socrates. You see I’m in a hurry to go somewhere right now and it’s time for me to leave.

(Plato, Euthyphro, Apology, Crito, Phaedo, 2017. pp. 81 – 83)

A Golden Mean?

Perhaps, however, there is a middle ground. Aporia may well have been the intended destination of the majority of Platonic dialogues, but that doesn’t mean Plato was under any obligation to make them impenetrable. If anything, the form and structure of the dialogues make aporia an easier concept to grasp: Plato enables us to witness its hold over Euthyphro and watch its benefit on the boy in the Meno. He can even guarantee our attention with a few surprising jokes along the way – as in the gentle, yet firm, gallows humour exhibited in the Phaedo.

PHAEDO. “What does this mean, Socrates?” asked Simmias. “Is it your intention to go off keeping this thought to yourself, or would you share it with us too? In fact it certainly seems to me that this good thing is to be shared by us as well, and at the same time it’ll be a defense for you if you can persuade us of what you say.”

“Well I’ll try,” he said. “First of all let’s examine what it is that Crito here seems to me to have been wanting to say for some time.”

“What else, Socrates,” said Crito, “other than that the man who is going to give you the poison has been telling me for some time that you must be advised to talk as little as possible? You see he says that people get heated through talking too much and that you mustn’t do anything like this to affect the action of the poison. If not, those who do that kind of thing are sometimes forced to drink it two or three times.”

Socrates said: “Well, take no notice of him. Just let him be prepared to give me a second dose of his stuff, and a third if necessary.”

“Well I more or less knew you’d say something like that,” said Crito, “but he’s been pestering me for some time.”

“Never mind him,” he [Socrates] said.

(Plato, Euthyphro, Apology, Crito, Phaedo, 2017. pp. 315 – 317)

Aporia aside, there is an irresistible note of comedy as a mildly cantankerous Socrates scorns his soon-to-be poisoner: we can almost imagine a shrug or wave of the hand accompanying his dismissal. It is moments like these, described in the dialogue by a witness to Socrates’ execution, that infuse Plato’s writing with an all-important sense of humanity and character. Even if we concede that Plato’s dialogues often lead us into paradox, confusion, and aporia, it cannot be denied that their absorbing wit, and the immediacy of their nature, never fail to make the journey seem worthwhile.


Primary Sources:

Lysias. Lysias (Loeb Classical Library). (G. Goold, Ed., & W. Lamb, Trans.) London: Harvard University Press. (1989).

Plato. Five Dialogues (2nd ed.). (G. M. Grube, Trans.) Indianapolis: Hackett Publishing Company, Inc. (2002).

Plato. Euthyphro, Apology, Crito, Phaedo. (C. Emlyn-Jones, & W. Preddy, Trans.) London: Loeb Classical Library. (2017).

Wertenbaker, T. (1995). Our Country’s Good. London: Methuen Publishing Ltd.

Secondary Sources:

Brandwood, L. (2009). The Chronology of Plato’s Dialogues. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Sarah B. Pomeroy, S. M. (2009). A Brief History of Ancient Greece: Politics, Society and Culture. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

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