© 1996 Bernard SUZANNE Last updated November 21, 1998
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Fiction in the Platonic dialogues

August 26, 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 : August 26, 1995, 10:55:19
Subject : Re: fiction in the Platonic dialogues

On Tue, 22 Aug 1995, Scott Carson wrote:

>... My general point was that Plato himself had a philosophical agenda, and we don't have any reason to be blind to the possibility that he was using Socrates as a mouthpiece. We may *like* the Socrates of Plato's dialogues better than the Socrates we find in Xenophon or Aristophanes, but there is no independent evidence that *that* Socrates was the historical one.

To which Nicholas Koenig answered the same day:

> Although I am basically in agreement with you where most of the Platonic corpus is concerned, I think a decent case can be made for regarding the Apology, at least for the most part, as historically accurate. As Judy points out, Plato was in a position to know the points made by Socrates in his defense. No doubt he did not reproduce the ipsissima verba in his own work, but it is difficult to believe that he would have produced a substantial fabrication. Even if he wanted to rewrite history, it seems likely that enough persons were still around to immediately point out any major inaccuracies. Plato's philosophical agenda no doubt takes precedence over any historical portrayal of Socrates in the dialogues. But only the Apology purports to reproduce an historical event and it is difficult to see how Plato could have offered anything but a substantially accurate version of what Socrates said.

On his part, Duvoisin wrote the same day:

> I think it is indisputable that the Platonic dialogues are fictional works. There are rhetorical pointers throughout the texts to suggest as much, as well as obvious anachronisms sprinkled here and there. But that does not mean they are simply false. Everything depends upon how one uses the term fiction. And here there is plenty of room for cross-confusion with the related debate concerning whether the dialogues offer an accurate representation of the historical Socrates. This is an entirely different issue with its own set of questions and rules of argument from the debate over the interpretation of the dialogues as fiction.

>...(some aside deleted)...

> But to return to the question of fiction, I think that two sorts of problems immediately arise:

> 1) There is no widespread acceptance in philosophical circles of the significance of fiction (or literature) in philosophical writing. So one has constantly to argue for the possibility of a fictional form of writing that does not forfeit all philosophical value in advance. As a result, the real task of interpreting the fictionality of philosophical texts can hardly get off the ground. And yet, ironically, this is precisely the task that so many of the Platonic dialogues explicitly call for, namely coming to grips with fictionality of philosophical argumentation as such, especially dialectic, with its dependence on vocabulary, modes of speech and argument that are not entirely literal, nor entirely defensible in strictly logical terms. Here I'm thinking of an obscure text like the Hippias Minor which is explicitly about the problem of interpreting the Iliad and the Odyssey as part of a philosophical argument. But I suspect that we can all see the implications of this text for the Republic, the Symposium, the Timæus, the Protagoras, and all the other dialogues that raise the question of the philosophical significance of fiction, mythos, poetry and poetic language in one way or another.

> 2) Because the debate about fiction in the dialogues never seems to get off the ground, we are always stuck asking questions which, although important, can't help being phrased too crudely. As philosophers, we aren't prepared to think about the problem of fiction with enough sophistication. Rather than dwell insistently on general questions of the truth-value of fiction, we ought to be looking at the details of specific fictions in the dialogues, or thinking about the kind of fiction a particular dialogue may be engaging in, and the generic constraints that it might entail. Is the Protagoras, or the Meno, or the Euthyphro, a comedy? And if so, what kind -New Comedy, Old Comedy, Satire, etc. What specific devices are used in the dialogue to produce its comic result and what are its philosophical implications. How do specific dialogues make use of recognizable comic conventions and plots? How do the "philosophical" elements of the dialogues fit in with these plots; are they perhaps themselves "comic", as Nietzsche often seems to think?

>These are the sorts of questions we need to ask ourselves, questions that address the detail of the text. Then maybe, we might find ourselves in a better position to talk about the fiction of the dialogues, and also about the philosophy of the dialogues.

Rather than talking about "fiction" in the dialogues, I prefer to look at the other side of the coin and talk about "truth". I think most of the problem here addressed comes from the fact that we have a very "materialistic" view of truth inherited from the scientific world: we tend to think that there is one single "truth" about Socrates' trial, and that is what we would get had a tape recorder recorded Socrates' speech at his trial. But this is only one "truth" about the trial, and not necessarily the most important. After all, 500 or so "jurors" heard it and a majority of them were not convinced. So why would Plato waste time puting it on writing "as is"? It seems to me that Plato was looking after Socrates' "truth", but not that "factual" truth. Rather, he was looking for an inner truth that could be of value not only to Socrates, that was dead by then, but also to himself --and for that, he didn't have to put it down in writing--, and above all to later generations, to us readers. But words, in their "materiality", still are but images of that inner truth, and even Socrates' own words at his trial were only a limited attempt to express his "truth", the "real" meaning of his life and death, the "idea" of justice he lived up to, the "paradigm" he took as a goal. Socrate didn't say "know myself", but "know thyself", and looking for the "historical" "truth" about him is of no help to us. On the contrary, it is a way of not adressing the more disturbing questions that he wanted us to ask ourselves, the ones he asks for instance in the Crito, and which give the true meaning of his life: why is it always better to suffer injustice, even at the cost of one's own life, than to return an eye for an eye, a tooth for a tooth, evil for evil?

As a parenthesis on this topic, I'd like to give an instance of what I mean, taken from some recent reading. It shows, I think, that you may be a top scholar, expert at formal logic, spend sixty years splitting hairs on Plato's dialectic, putting his Socrates' arguments in Russelian form to measure their worth, and yet completely miss the point. Case in point: the epilogue of a book by Gregory Vlastos called "Socratic Studies" (Cambridge UP, 1994) whose title is "Socrates and Vietnam". In it, Vlastos asks the question, is it true that, as Plato writes in the last words of the Phædo, Socrates was "a man we might say, who, of all those we came to know was ... the most just". To answer that question, he challenges Socrates record (as we "know" it) in public life, taking two instances: the debate on the Sicilian expedition of 415, and the one about the punishment of Mytilene after its defection to Sparta (or later of Torone, Sicyon and Melos). Why is it, says he, that Socrates didn't speak up in the assembly to prevent such horrors as dooming all males in the rebelious city? He suggests that Socrates felt he had a god-ordered mission "to live philosophising, examining himself and others", and that his understanding of "philosophizing" didn't include speaking in the assembly. And he goes on comparing Socrates' life with his own as a scholar, sympathizing with him up to the point where he realized that he could no longer keep silent during the Vietnam period, and thus reproaching Socrates his own silence in such dreadful circumstances...

Setting aside the fact that we don't know for sure that Socrates didn't speak up at the assembly those days, I must say I have a hard time looking at Socrates as a "scholar" in the manner of M. Vlastos! That would be to give reason to Aristophanes' Clouds against Plato, to see the philosopher the way the Thracian maid of the Theætetus saw Thales (may be Socrates should have first inquired about the "truth" of the story, the name of the city where it occured, and of the star Thales was gazing at, the date of the fall, the diameter of the well, the name, birthplace and age of the maid, and of her boss, and so on...) and as Theodoros the scientist of that same dialogue was too happy to see it, as a stargazer looking at far away "truths" in some remote "heaven"!

Besides, he judges of the magnitude of the occasion by criteria that were not Socrates', and that's a key point. We tend not only to have a materialistic view of the truth, but also of the worth of a human "person"! We talk about the sacredness of the human "person", meaning little more than the human body, and we are more concerned with life's length than with its worth. Killing all males in the rebelious city is a horrible deed, so we think, because of the number of dead, old and young, and Socrates, to be a perfectly just man by Vlastos' standard, should have done something to try and save them. But that is not the way Socrates (let's say, to be fair, Plato's Socrates) sees things! For him, man is not just a bundle of flesh and bones, and to live, or rather to live well, the only thing that is worth it (Crito, 48b), is not akin to simply breathe. It is to keep justice in one's soul, inner justice as well as "social" justice, the later being impossible without the former, of which it is an "image in larger letters" (Republic). In the Gorgias, Socrates takes the example of the sea-captain who cannot know if saving his passengers' lives was good for them or not (cited by Vlastos himself on p. 47 of the same book!). Well, it's the same here. Who is doing evil? The Mytilenians? Some might have already, some not. For those who have, it might be better to die that to go on living unpunished; for the others, they would not be worse off than Socrates himself after his trial: they would suffer evil rather than do it. So who needs to be "saved"? Not the Mytilenians, but the Athenians! Those who were about to do evil. And that had been Socrates' job all along: try and teach them a different kind of justice. So why a sudden sense of urgency? Why risk his life now in the assembly for no better result than peson to person dialogue he had been conducting for years already, just because a number of innocent people could end up their lives been just men (that is, just souls) forever, reaching the goal they had been seeking all along and might miss by living longer? And, yes, Socrates had a right to say that because, from him, it was no mere words: he lived and died by it, and knowingly so, as the Crito proves...

Socrates was not "saving" his life (by not speaking up in defense of the Mytilenians) in order to keep on publishing articles in learned reviews read by a happy few, nor was he "saving" time from teaching students (as Vlastos regrets he could not do more often) to spend it on scholarly research work. He was doing all along what he thought was the best political work he could do: "teaching", bugging, his fellow citizens, those at risk of comitting injustice, the ones he felt he had a responsibility towards, one at a time, or a few at a time (because he knew that was the only way having a chance to succeed in the long run), again and again, trying to change their minds, not to save their bodies...

Such misunderstanding is of no small consequence because, as I see it, it strikes at the heart of Plato's purpose: the very sentence Vlastos took as a starting point is for me at the center of Plato's dialogues (both "logically" and "materially", in the way I read the dialogues as a structured whole, as I indicated in posts earlier this year). All the dialogues are but a long journey to make us understand what Plato came to understand himself (though we don't know when) and that changed his life and made him a teacher and writer, what he sets in front of us in the Crito, that is, why it was better for Socrates to die than to escape, even knowing that he had been uinjustly, though lawfully, condemned by his fellow citizen, and why that would make him the most just man, the best politician and the best philosopher.

If we don't see that, if we think that man is nothing more than his body (even if we admit this body includes a brain: Kephalos is no logos, and the soul is no organ), then I'm afraid Plato can do very little for us, except be a matter of scholarship...

And actually, we are not that far from the initial topic about the "historicity" of the Apology. In order to answer this question, there is a lot of other questions we should answer first: why did Plato write the Apology? When? For what public? But again, these questions cannot be answered whithout first enlarging them to the whole of the dialogues, that is, Are most dialogues independant works written at various times during Plato's career? Or are they part of a larger whole of which they are only building blocks? Or else...

There is a set of "commonly agreed upon" answers to these questions, and Nicholas Koenig's answer implicitly assumes them: Plato wrote dialogues during most of his life, starting shortly after Socrates' death. These dialogues reflect his state of mind at the time he wrote them, and he changed his mind, he "evolved" during his long life of teaching. The dialogues were intended for the outside world, and read by his contemporaries outside the Academy. When he didn't give an answer to a problem in a dialogue, it is because he didn't have the answer at the time. And so on (most of these answers, by the way, are in keep with what would do one of today's scholars or teachers)... And, as far as the Apology is concerned, it was written a few years after Socrates' death and was one of Plato's first published works, if not the first one.

The problem is that all this is but a scafold built on quicksand by generation after generation of scholars, a bundle of hypotheses on top of hypotheses on issues on which we don't have the beginning of the start of a "proof". We must admit that we know nothing certain on when Plato wrote his dialogues and why, whether they were even published outside the Academy during his lifetime, and so on. In the absence of any "fact", we are left with building hypotheses. The problem is, those hypotheses tend to be more in line with the mood of the time than with Plato's own writings: challenging authorship during the "critic" period of the early XIXth century, "evolutionary" with Darwin et al., "scientific" and "computer-based" with stylometry in our time... But the test of a "scientific model" is whether it accounts for the facts, all he facts, or it must be changed (one single experiment, and a weird one at that, Michelson's experiment, led Einstein for the newtonian model to relativity). With Plato's dialogues, the primary "facts" are the dialogues themselves. And, with the "current thinking", I have a hard time reconciling the image of Plato writing all his life and what he says of writing at the end of the Phædrus, I can't understand a Plato writing books to tell his fellow citizens he had an interesting question to submit them, but no answer to it, I can't figure out why Plato would write the Menexenus to show he is better at their games than the rhetors he otherwise ridicule and accuses of all the evils, or the Parmenides to "kill" the theory he is supposed to have built, without anything to put in it's place...

Or for that matter, one more "Apology" after all those that are lost, only to be more "truthfull" to his master's voice, if what his master had said had proved not convincing enough...

But when I look at the Apology, and find that it is structured according to a very rigorous plan in perfect symetry beneath the apparent split in three different speeches, around two clustered mentions of the "soul" right in the middle, that are the only ones in the whole work, and that appear in what summarizes man's purpose (29d-e) and Socrates' mission (30a-b) in life, a two part plan that opposes in corresponding subsections:

when I see the Euthyphro as a perfect "prelude" to the Apology, opposing the letter of the law, defended by one who can only talk of "gods" that are but hypostatized images of men, to its spirit, defended by one who doesn't want to hear about such gods, and exploring, behind an apparent chat on the definition of piety, the relationship of piety with justice, to show that it is impossible to define what is depicted as a part of justice if you don't agree on what justice means;

when I see the Crito as a perfect follow-up on the Apology, the logical conclusion of the trial, the point where Socrates actually "dies" in spirit in refusing to leave, but at the same time gives meaning to his whole life;

I can but think that all this is not mere chance, and I come to realize that there might be other hypotheses that are more in keeping with Plato's written words.

Is it possible, and not inconsistent with what little we know for sure about it, that Plato did not accompany his "evolution" (which I don't challenge) by his dialogues, written along the way, but retraced it after the fact, as a pedagogical device. It is possible that Plato didn't write his dialogues as separate works, but as pieces of a larger whole, which pave the disciple's path toward his own "truth", not Socrates' or Plato's, not giving answers but simply leading to them. It is possible that Plato didn't write them during his whole lifetime, but only late in his life, when he realized that he could not forever keep on "writing" directly in his students' souls. It is possible that they were not intended to be "published" outside the Academy, and were not, during Plato's lifetime, so that Plato could keep on reworking them, as a tradition has it. It is possible that many readers misunderstood the so-called "theory of ideas", starting with Aristotle, because they were looking for answers where there were only hints, for "dogmatism" and well wrapped "theories" where there was only pedagogy, "psychagogy" (as the Phædrus has it), soul awakening and road signs. All that is possible, and no worse hypotheses than the ones currently admitted, and it gives a much brighter image of Plato, if not of those who followed him (pace M. Darwin!)...

It is possible that Plato intended to rewrite all the poetry, tragedy and comedy that was used in his time to educate youngsters (he gives a hint of that somewhere in the Laws, when talking about education) all at once in a set of seven "tetralogies" that composed a complete "cursus" for the philosopher-lawgiver (to himself and to others), using Socrates as a "paradigm", but a Socrates "transfigured" from the shortcomings of matter-of-factness to the deeper "truth" of his "soul", of his "logos" (but not the one that could be tape-recorded!...), a cursus starting with the thaumazein of a would-be politician that ended up an evil one despite Socrates' "love" for him, Alcibiades, and ending in the rewriting of the laws of the city along the road leading to the god of god's sanctuary in the island of the ancient lawgivers, by an anonymous athenian "stranger" walking along with a namesake of Alcibiades' father. It is possible that the Menexenus is part of a trilogy on logos intended to give exemples of the evils logos can make at all levels of one's soul: the logos of the poietes (Ion) that speaks to man's feelings (his epithumiai); the logos of the sophists and eristics (Euthydemus), that speaks only to man's "will", to his thumos, with no reference to reason, to the true logos; the logos of the politicians (Menexenus), that give false "reasons" to justify their evils, using their "logos" to lead their people to war upon war; all that introduced (to make a tetralogy) by the comedy of the words (prime matter of speech) in the Cratylus. It is possible that this tetralogy prepares the next one, one that is designated as such by Plato himself (at least the trilogy in it), the tetralogy about dialectic and the proper use of the logos in us, including the trilogy Theætetus, Sophist, Statesman, preluded by the "comedy" of the Parmenides. It is possible that the Apology is part of a trilogy along with the Euthyphro and the Crito, preluded by the missed dialogue between Anytus and Socrates in the Meno (the "comedy" of the guy who didn't want to know what virtue was, but wanted to know if it was teachable, host of a man who knew without even talking to him that Socrates was teaching the wrong kind of virtue), together making up a tetralogy on "facts", on "pragmatism" (opposed to the "relativism" of the previous tetralogy on the Sophists, which starts with the Protagoras, and goes on with Hippias major, Gorgias (with a foreword on Socrates' trial in its middle) and Hippias minor), and built around the fact that changed Plato's life, Socrates trial and death (as said earlier, for all practical purposes, Socrates is dead at the end of the Crito, but, then, he is fit, before his actual death, now that we know he means what he says (his ergon is up to his logos), for the long trip inside the soul that makes the central tetralogy, preluded by a glimpse at Socrates' life in the Symposium, and continued by the trilogy Phædrus, Republic, Phædo).

It is all possible, yet it is still all hypotheses! But, contrary to many others, and as Socrates, in bringing forward those assumptions, I know that I don't know. They are hypotheses, but they are a worthy risk to take for a change, and, since I developed them about fifteen years ago, I found them a worthy guide in understanding Plato... and myself through Plato. So, what more could I say?...

Try them, you'll like them...

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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