© 1996 Bernard SUZANNE Last updated November 21, 1998
Plato and his dialogues : Home - Biography - Works and links to them - History of interpretation - New hypotheses - Map of dialogues : table version or non tabular version. Tools : Index of persons and locations - Detailed and synoptic chronologies - Maps of Ancient Greek World. Site information : About the author.

E-mail Archives :
The order of Plato's dialogues

February 19, 1995

This page is part of the "e-mail archives" section of a site, Plato and his dialogues, dedicated to developing a new interpretation of Plato's dialogues. The "e-mail archives" section includes HTML edited versions of posts that I submitted on various e-mail discussion lists about Plato and ancient philosophy.

The following post was an answer to my post "Order of Plato's dialogs: a new hypothesis", dated February 8, 1995

From : pepplej@kenyon.edu
Date : 14 Feb 95 23:41:17
Subject : The order of Plato's dialogues

I'd like to comment upon the new hypothesis concerning the order of Plato's dialogues suggested by Bernard Suzanne. M. Suzanne, the thing that I find most strikingly wrong about your hypothesis and your justification of it is that you never mention the theory of forms! And this from someone who claims to love metaphysics. In addition, I assume that people became interested in the question of the order of the dialogueues because they saw what seemed to be contradictions in doctrine, which suggested a change of mind. Perhaps I missed something here, but I don't think you accounted for these. In addition, while it's true that "we actually know nothing for sure about the date and order of composition of Plato's dialogueues," we do have some information from which we can make reasonable guesses. The traditional chronology fits in with that information. While one can be skeptical about some of that information (such as that from the Seventh Letter), I have yet to see a chronology that seems more plausible. That the death of Socrates falls in the exact middle of the pages according to your hypothesis seems to be just a meaningless coincidence. (Remember HAL from Arthur Clarke's 2001, a name which gives us IBM if each letter is advanced by one? Clarke claims not to have noticed this when he wrote that novel.) Why shouldn't we expect the death of Socrates at the very end instead of the middle? The failures to explain the Menexenus and the Parmenides are just typical problems of what Thomas Kuhn calls normal science and which every hypothesis will be subject to. Finally, what do you make of the "unwritten doctrines" and the lecture On the Good?

John Pepple
Kenyon College

To: sophia <sophia@liverpool.ac.uk>
Date : February 19, 1995, 06:18:48
Subject : Re: Pepple on the order of Plato's dialogues

Answering some of the points John Pepple makes in his post:

1) About the death of Socrates in the middle of the dialogues as I order them: I don't intend this to be a proof of anything by itself! One dot doesn't make a painting, but many dots starting to show a pattern perhaps do. And this is only one among the many dots that I find in looking at the dialogues, at their individual structure, at their relationship with one another, and at the relationship of their form with what I understand they are trying to tell us. Would it be surprising that Plato, the proponant of the "theory of forms" (here we go!), use the form of his dialogues, as well as the words they contain, to talk to us?.. But it's true, I may be color blind, and see the wrong pattern in the dots, a pattern that is there only for me...

2) Wy the death in the middle, and not at the end?

a) Because this event was the turning point in Plato's life, and always stayed at the center of his thought: Socrates is the man who lived by what he said till the end and died for it; not only "logon", but "ergon" too (all the Phaedo is built around this couple logoi/erga); he "proved" the truth of what he said by holding to it more than to his own mortal life.

b) Because, in the dialogues as I read them, the soul is in the middle, as the bridge between the world of becoming, the world of appearance and action, the world in which Socrates the just is condemned and executed (displayed in tetralogies 2 and 3 of my ordering, after the introduction in the first tetralogy), and the world of being, the world of words and thought, the world in which Parmenides, unwilling father of the rhetoric of Gorgias, of Callicles and Thrasymachus, can be "killed" in words by an unnamed fellow citizen, in order to free reason and make true thinking possible (displayed in tetralogies 5 and 6 of my ordering, in order to make the "ergon" of tetralogy 7 possible). And the one who can teach us what the soul is is Socrates, between the return of the ship (in the Crito, at the end of tetralogy 3, after the "act" of his life, his trial) and the final "act" of his death who seals the truth of his discourses, between one night in his life (the Symposium) enlarged to his whole external life told by the beloved disciple who couldn't understand the master, the drunken Alcibiades in his last appearance in the dialogues, and one day in his "death", enlarged to his whole "internal" life told by himself to the faithfull disciples, between the cock chanting to a new day (Symposium, 223c) and the cock to be offered to Asclepios, the physician of bodies, once Socrates, the physician of souls no longer needs it to awaken him (Phaedo, 118a, the last words of Socrates). Because to lead us beyond the soul in the world of being and thought, Socrates must die first believing that the soul doesn't die, and return, rejuvenated in the disciples (what about young Socrates in the Parmenides, and a namesake, the "young Socrates" of Theaetetus, Sophist, Statesman, resembling Socrates in "word" while Theaetetus resembles him in "body"?), to expand the truth to the whole cosmos by becoming progressively "anonymous".

3) What about the "theory of forms"? Well, I couldn't tell it all in one posting! And this is no simple matter. Let me state, at this point, that I believe the "theory of forms" is one of the least understood parts of Plato's thought, thanks in no small part to Aristotle, who was the first not to understand it (I already said elsewhere that I thought Plato saw this, and that it is why he chose a guy by the name of Aristotle to answer Parmenides in the dialogue by that name; I also think that it is why Plato didn't want Aristotle to succeed him as head of the Academy, but again, this is only a guess, a dot in the picture). And yes, it is to try and explain what they understood of the "theory of forms", and because they could not fit together what they read of it in Aristotle and in Plato, that many scholars resorted to the "evolution" stuff and devised the "traditionnal" chronology, or worse, the story about the "unwritten doctrine", as a "deus ex machina" to explain the discrepencies. But this traditionnal chronology lies on a vicious circle: you are not supposed to read the so-called "theory of forms" in, let's say the Hippias major, because it is an early dialogue; and it is an early dialogue, because you don't find in it the "theory of forms", at least the one you find in Aristotle. But alas, this one, you can only find in Aristotle, and the one Plato held, you can find in all the dialogues: Plato never tried to "separate", but to "distinguish", and, above all, to encompass the whole of "being"; and for him, being was not limited to material being; He never developed a theory of two worlds (at least the way Aristotle would have him do it), but, on the contrary, tried to reconcile Heraclitus and Parmenides, the friends of the earth, and the friends of "forms". Yes! these are different kinds of being; yes, forms are "choristos" from one another and from material beings; but this does not mean there are two worlds, but only different kinds of realities in a world larger than either side wants it.

To make my point, let me show you where I find forms in a dialogue where people seem in pain to find them, the Timæus: the Timæus describes the genesis of man along with that of the world he lives in, not for the mere sake of doing "scientific" research, but because this must be a model for the work of man in this world as a builder of himself and of cities (and I may show you some day a striking parallel in the plans of the Timæus and the Laws). Accordingly, we will find not one, but four candidate forms of man in this dialogue. But let me show them in the reverse order of their appearance:

- the first form of man is, guess what, the triangles that make up matter! Yes, one way to look at man is as a mere material compound, and for Plato (and in this, he anticipates today's science) even matter has a "form" (only the "chora" does not have one, and that's precisely what defines it);

- the second form of man is the one given him by the secondary gods, according to the "plan" handed them by the demiourgos; it is the "form" his body must have to host his soul, explained in a "finalist" way where he describes this "creation"; this "form" is the one a physician would like, it is described in terms of organs and functions;

- the third form of man is his soul itself, created by the demiourgos, and explaining what man is, a creature between matter and thought, between becoming and being

- the last form of man is the pure "form" he is meant to built himself in him, the "being" he is supposed to become in uniting the parts he is made of, and himself with his fellow men with the help of his reason, which distinguishes him from the other animals, and that is called, we know it since the Republic, "justice"! Understand now why the Timæus starts with a summary of the Republic!?.. Even before the "dialogue" really starts in its "materiality", we are put in the presence of the end of the whole process, which does not end with the work of the gods, but is our own to complete, with the ultimate "form" of man, that is his own "good"... (And this introduction with the summary of exactly the first half of the Republic is not just the introduction of the Timæus, but of a whole trilogy, which is not Timæus, Critias, Hermocrates, as Plato wants us to believe, but Timæus, a Critias interrupted at the very moment the gods assemble and the god of gods is about to talk of the way to bring order back in man's world, in a speech made by one who believes gods are man's creatures, and understood justice the way we all know, and the Laws in the place of a third speech by a Syracusan general, and as a "rewriting" in this world of the second part of the Republic (the education of the philosopher-kind and the "formal history" of political regimes) in the light of man's good shown in the Philebus.

You may now try to reword this with Aristotle "technical" vocabulary, and see if, by chance, the four "forms" might not smell like four "causes", this work to be continued like a "potentiality", an "entelechy", and so on... But please, forget Darwin, and try to understand the disciple through the master, not the other way around!

And you see why Socrates the just is in the middle, and his trial and death at the center: because he was the just man, he was the man...

...But enough for today...

Plato and his dialogues : Home - Biography - Works and links to them - History of interpretation - New hypotheses - Map of dialogues : table version or non tabular version. Tools : Index of persons and locations - Detailed and synoptic chronologies - Maps of Ancient Greek World. Site information : About the author.

First published December 8, 1996 ; Last updated November 21, 1998
© 1996 Bernard SUZANNE (click on name to send your comments via e-mail)
Quotations from theses pages are authorized provided they mention the author's name and source of quotation (including date of last update). Copies of these pages must not alter the text and must leave this copyright mention visible in full.