© 1996 Bernard SUZANNE Last updated November 21, 1998
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E-mail Archives :
Order of Plato's dialogues: a new hypothesis

February 8, 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.

To: sophia <sophia@liverpool.ac.uk>
Date : February 8, 1995, 22:15:19
Subject : Order of Plato's dialogs: a new hypothesis

Hello! Everybody! Being new to that list, let me introduce myself. My name is Bernard SUZANNE. I'm french, and fifty. I am not a philosopher by profession, but a DP system's architect in a regional bank, in Montpellier, in the south of France, where I live since 1987, after having worked for almost 20 years with IBM, 6 of which in Poughkeepsie, NY, USA. Prior to that, I graduated from "Ecole Polytechnique", a well known high level scientific "school" in Paris. Yet, I always loved metaphysics, philosophy and theology, and came across Plato's dialogs about fifteen years ago, while attending theology classes for adult lay people at the "Institut Catholique de Paris".

Since then, I have developed an alternative theory on the composition of Plato's dialogues and even wrote a manuscript (in French) about it two years ago that I could not yet get published.

I post a summary of my hypothesis to this list after having sent it to Stephen Clark while shopping for Newsgroups and Forums on Plato, and he suggested I do so.

I started from the fact that we actually know nothing for sure about the date and order of composition of Plato's dialogues, and that everything that is said and written about it, no matter how assertively, is nothing but hypotheses. Most of the current hypotheses evolved from a time where the problem was to sort out which dialogues were actually Plato's through an "evolutionist" approach to his thought designed to reconcile the supposed contradictions between dialogues without denying their being from Plato. Lately, stylometry gave a "scientific", and thus supposedly objective, twist to this approach. But hypotheses they are and hypotheses they stay. And none of these hypotheses gives a satisfactory explanation to for instance why Plato wrote such dialogues as the Menexenus, or the Parmenides, if these are viewed as independant writings.

To make it short, my hypothesis is that Plato wrote a single work, made up of seven tetralogies (not those of Thrasyllus, be reassured), most likely late in his life, and that you might call this work, if you want, "The Philosopher" (remember that never written dialogue that was supposed to complete the Theaetetus, Sophist, Statesman trilogy ?..). This work does not trace Plato's evolution through most of his life, but guides the philosopher-to-be along the path to sophia in the light of Plato's own experience, both his own "evolution" as recounted in the VIIth Letter, and his experience at the Academy, summed up in his old age. In other words, the "progress" that can be tracked from dialogue to dialogue is not Plato's progress, at least while he writes the dialogues, but the progress the reader-student is supposed to go through, that might have been Plato's long ago... The seven tetralogies, in the order I assume they should be read (and you see that, in this approach, the problem is no longer the order of compositon but the order of reading, and it might be conceivable that Plato wrote several dialogues at a time, and didn't wrote them in the order of reading, or went back to them to perfect them, or...) is as follows, each tetralogy being made up of an introductory dialogue and a trilogy:

Tetralogy 1, or "in search of students":

Tetralogy 2, or "the sophists" (about belief, or eikasia)

Tetralogy 3, or "Socrates, the true philosophos"

Tetralogy 4, or "the soul"

Tetralogy 5, or "the logos"

Tetralogy 6, or "dialectic reasoning and epistèmè"

Tetralogy 7, or the philosopher in the world (kosmos)

As you may see, this order is quite compatible with the current conclusions of stylometry. But the trick is that it does not matter any more, because we are no longer looking at the order of composition as a key to understanding Plato.

There is more to say about this scheme: displayed in an array (with each tetralogy in a column) (1), it shows that each of the three lines that include one piece of the trilogies evokes one of the three parts of the soul in the Republic: the first piece of each trilogy moves in the sphere of the otherness, the unlimited, world to the epithumia (and that's where we eventually find "science" as we know it, in the Timæus); the second piece of each trilogy moves in the sphere of the mixt, will, judgment, thumos; and the last piece of each trilogy evokes sameness, limit, logos. On the vertical axis, you can see that the centerpiece of the work is the tetralogy on soul, the center of which is the Republic, Plato's masterpeice, which provides all the clues to organizing the whole work: the tripartition of the soul, to organize the lines of the array, and the four parts of the divided line to organize the columns: setting aside the first and last tetralogy, which form the introduction and conclusion of the whole work, and the fourth, which is its backbone, we are left with four tetralogies to lead us through the four segments of reality. The tetralogy of the sophists moves in the sphere of eikasia, illusion, relativity; the tetralogy of Socrates moves in the sphere of true belief, pistis, of which Socrates is the best example; the tetralogy of the logos moves in the sphere of dianoia, and the tetralogy of reasoning in the sphere of epistèmè.

The whole scheme shows how important politics are for Plato: we start with the young Alcibiades, a would-be politician who was unable to profit from Socrates' frienship, and whose story justifies the whole education process that Plato wants us to attend in order not to end up like him; and we end up with the Laws, which are the ultimate goal of the whole education process: how to put our reason to work in this world. The lengthy path through linguistics, epistemology, natural science, rhetorics, etc., was only intended to pave the way to action in politics, as reason is what makes a man and must guide his whole life, both personnal and social.

There is a lot more that could be said about this hypothesis: the perfect symmetry, on both sides of the soul's tetralogy between the physical murder of Socrates in the Apology by his fellow citizens (the many) and the "symbolic" parricide of Parmenides by one of his fellow citizens (one) in the Sophist; the fact that, in my opinion, the Critias was left unfinished purposedly by Plato, in order to present his readers with a test: though Critias was Plato's cousin, he was also one of those who, according to the VIIth letter, disgusted him from active politics, and the dialogue is not an apology of his cousin, but on the contrary an example of what should not be done; history as Critias wants to (re)write it is the contrary of what the Athenian Stranger will do in the 3rd book of the Laws, and those who regret that the work was not finished are precisely those who fail the test!..

I also propose plans of various dialogues that show how the same marvelous construction presides over all the dialogues, including one for the Apology that kills forever the idea that it might be a "dialogue of circumstance" written soon after Socrates' death, and reveals that the Apology is built around the same structure as the whole work, with the "soul" in the middle (look for the few occurrences of the word "psuche" in the dialogue); I show aslo how the seven speeches in the Symposium can be matched to the seven tetralogies, and how the trilogy Theætetus, Sophist, Statesman can be put in parallel with the whole plan: the Theætetus with the first five tetralogies, the Sophist with the sixth, of which it is the centerpiece, and the Statesman with the last one, that it anticipates; and again, the seven definitions of the sophist in the dialog by that name also match the seven tetralogies (by the way that's what put me on the track of my thesis, because this is an avowed trilogy).

But enough is enough. This note is too long already. I only hope that it will give you the envy to pursue the dialogue, whether it be to criticize or to explore more deeply an hypothesis that, I think, is no worse that those that are currently "politically correct", and seems to me to make better sense of the works of a man who was probably the greatest philosopher so far, and the greatest writer as well. But don't get me wrong! I am not trying to present Plato's "system", because that's not what he was doing: he knew better than anybody that you can't "teach" somebody what he doesn't want to learn (see Alcibiades); he just wanted to "help", as he says through the mouth of Megillus in the last words of the Laws, which are his last words to his reader, to guide us, accompany us, and present us with some examples, namely the one of Socrates (by the way, if you count the number of pages of the whole dialogues according to the plan I propose, the almost exact middle fall at the end of the Phædo, on the death of Socrates!...), provided we were ready to wonder, to marvel to thaumazein, as "thaumazein" is the first step to philosophy (see Theætetus), but not like Alcibiades, whose "thaumazein" in the first words of the first dialogue of the whole work was unable to lead him in the right path. In order to do so, when he saw his death coming, and that he couldn't continue writing dialogues in the soul of the students of the Academy, he set up to write is testament to the world, and put all his wisdom not in giving us the answers (like an Aristotle would do), but in showing us the way to find them by ourselves in ourselves... How long did that take, I would not venture to guess; but to those who might doubt it possible, I will give the example of the Summa Theologiæ of Thomas Aquinas, written in about seven years at the end of his life (and he too was a life long teacher, and his work deserves its name, and follows as rigorous a plan as might exist...); or that of Proust who wrote the Remembrance of Time Lost in about fourteen years, with a war in between, he too at the end of his life.

(1) See the map of the dialogues for such a display. (back)

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)
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