Essays in History, Politics and Culture: Copyright Ronald Ferguson 2006 




- Socrates and Plato

- Socrates' Investigative Way of Life

- The Range of Platonic Thought

- The Republic

- From Dialogue to Dialectic


1. Socrates and Plato

It is impossible to begin to give credit to these two thinkers in one short session. We outline some of the central issues raised by these two philosophers, and the problems concerning them.

One of the most difficult problems is actually in distinguishing the thought of Socrates from that of Plato. Socrates himself has not left any of his own writings; so far as we know, he made none. Most of what we have of his thought comes from the dialogues written by Plato, his pupil, and a brief memoir written by another pupil, Xenophon.

The problem with Plato's account of Socrates is that they were probably all written after Socrates' death in 399 B.C., and it is very hard to know to what extent Plato put his own more developed thought into Socrates mouth. Certainly the dialogues which have tentatively been regarded as 'later' Platonic works seem to present a highly developed system which does not fit in with many scholars' views of Socrates.

A work such as The Protagoras, on the other hand, seems to portray in a more 'dramatic' way the kind of intellectual conversations that were current during Socrates' lifetime (Guthrie 1956, p7). A dominant and systematic theory of knowledge is also lacking from this dialogue: it is possible that this work reflects more of Socrates' questioning approach rather than the extended metaphysical system attributed to Plato. Karl Popper, for example, in his work The Open Society and Its Enemies argues that Socrates' vitality had been warped by the older Plato into a conservative and implicitly totalitarian world-view. Dr Kai Hahlweg (formerly of Bond University) argued that Plato betrays a great concern for the discovery of perfection, which in its political aspect becomes an emphasis on elite leadership and an obsession with the static stability of the state.

However, arguments based on a clear-cut distinction between the views of Socrates and Plato face the danger of a certain circularity. Since our only substantial source for Socrates comes through Plato, and the various dates for his works are based on assumptions about the type of material we would expect from Socrates verses Plato, the entire argument remains hypothetical. Such hypotheses remain useful as exploratory tools, and for political evaluations, but should not be confused with definitive historical assessments. Furthermore, Plato's most famous (or imfamous to some) political work, The Republic, has been often been treated in a linear way, rather than looking at the different levels of this complex text. Fortunately the writings and other sources do show us something about the way Socrates conducted his life, as distinct from the particular beliefs Plato attributes to him.

2. Socrates' Investigative Way of Life

In general, the written sources do indicate the kind of social practice Socrates was involved in. Whether in the dialogues, e.g. the Apology, or the memoir by Xenophon, or the few references in Aristophanes' comedy The Clouds, it is clear that Socrates was engaged in asking troublesome questions. In particular, he seems to have questioned people about how they knew things, and how they decided on proper courses of conduct. In this there was an implicit criticism of the existing state of affairs. But the main aim was to cut away fallacies and inaccuracies to get closer to the truth. This is the basis of the famous Socratic irony. One of the most amusing recountings (or recreations) of this irony is found at the opening of The Apology, where Socrates was defending his life before a rather hostile Athenian jury. It opens: -

I do not know what effect my accusers have had upon you, gentlemen, but for my own part I was almost carried away by them; their arguments were so convincing. On the other hand, scarcely a word of what they said was true. I was especially astonished at one of their many misrepresentations: I mean when they told you that you must be careful not to let me deceive you - the implication being that I am a skilful speaker. (Apology, 17A, p45)

Socrates, then, was certainly engaged in a certain type of social action, and in particular a critical questioning which led to a limited kind of knowledge. In this respect he might be regarded as one of the fathers of the Cynic philosophers, as well as of the Platonic tradition of thought. It was this critical approach to public and private life at Athens, as well as unfortunate associations with Alcibiades and Critias (one of the Thirty Tyrants) which contributed to popular prejudice against him (Vlastos 1983a). This does not necessarily mean, however, that Socrates really was anti-democratic in a general sense; George Grote and Gregory Vlastos, for example, interpret the Crito as indicating that Socrates was a supporter of the Athenian constitution, but a critic of the way individual Athenians conducted themselves in public life (Valstos 1983a).

Kenneth Seeskin has assessed Socrates as 'not an analytic philosopher, a phenomenologist, a pragmatist, or an existentialist. He is a unique person embarked on a mission which he invented' (Seeskin 1987, p150). This mission, however, continued as major pursuit for knowledge, truth and virtue, and the possible bases or methodologies to approach these issues, which has continued unbroken for 2,500 years. This mission at once shaped the way person might lead their own life, but also was held to be a demonstrated and public means of seeking and defending the truth as the rudder for ethics and political behaviour. It is this critical type of thinking which is presupposed in the writings of Plato. It is central to note that this 'mission' was both practical and theoretical at the same time.

3. The Range of Platonic Thought

The range of Platonic thought, no doubt due in part to the impetus provided by and problems set by the Pre-Socratic thinkers and Socrates, is enormous. Whitehead's notion that Western philosophy has been little more than a 'series of footnotes to Plato' is only slightly exaggerated - Western philosophy until the Enlightenment in large measure a dialogue between the ideas implicit in the systems of Plato and Aristotle. Plato's ideas, of course, had an enormous influence on thinkers such as Plotinus and St. Augustine, and formed one of the areas of interest throughout the Medieval and Renaissance period. We can see the impact of Platonic and Socratic thought on a later thinker such as Nietzsche (in his The Birth of Tragedy); -

Anyone who has ever experienced the pleasure of Socratic insight and felt how, spreading in ever-widening circles, it seeks to embrace the whole world of appearances, will never again find any stimulus towards existence more violent than the craving to complete this conquest and to weave the net impenetrably tight. (trans. by W. Kaufman, N.Y., Random House, 1976, p97, in Seeskin 1987, p12)

Platonic thought, and the issues raised by Platonism, are still alive and influential in many areas of modern philosophy, whether in the kind of process metaphysics envisaged by A.N. Whitehead, or ethical systems which try to derive their validity from views of implicit constraints and emergent values found in physical or natural systems, which still use organic metaphors as part of their explanatory systems. Likewise, the attempt to built grand theoretical systems incorporating physics, biology, sociology and politics are also implicit in the Platonic system, which indeed attempts to make a cosmos out of a myriad of different things, ideas and experiences. It tends to focus, however, on ideals and types which are held to be universal truths from which particular cases or policies may be deduced (see further below).

The range of Plato's thought can be assessed by a brief (and therefore rather limited) listing of some of the topics covered in a few of his dialogues: -

Title Topics Discussed Include:

Apology Death of Socrates; Search for true knowledge

Crito Obedience to Law

Euthyphro Definition and Piety

Laws Constitutions and Law Codes for Greek Cities

Meno Re-membrance of Knowledge

Phaedo Immortality of the Soul

Protagoras Whether Virtue Can be Taught

Republic Justice and Ideal States

Sophists Issues of nothingness, otherness and change

Statesmen Evaluation and administration

Symposium Nature of Love

Theaetetus Issues of memory and experience


Plato tried to unify the ideas of previous science and philosophy, as well as his own investigations into a 'general theory of value' (Brumbaugh 1981, p143) which would not only explain why the world exists as is does, but also tell us how to live and act. Plato himself schematised his theories in The Republic Book VI (section 511A). This schema has been reconstructed by Brumbaugh in the following diagram: -

Diagram I: Four Kinds of Platonic Knowledge (After Brumbaugh 1981, p143)


TO AGATHON | (The Form of the Good)|

BEING Tested Theory - Noesis ('Knowing Why')

Hypothesis - Dianoia ('Knowing That')


BECOMING Techniques - Pistis ('Knowing How')

Stories - Eikasia ('Guessing' or Telling Myths')

'Knowing That' involves partial systemisations, using hypotheses, generalisations, and exact descriptions to help provide a predictive knowledge. 'Knowing Why' aims at complete systems incorporating tested theories which include an evaluation (Brumbaugh 1981, p145) of the meaning and value of the part to the whole. Ultimately, from this viewpoint, questions of fact become questions concerned with meaning and value.

Notice at the top we have a conception which is a summation all other forms of knowledge. This is called the Form of the Good, and through it Plato explains how the other forms of knowing fit together. Before explaining it, however, I will briefly explore the Platonic conception of a Form (sometimes called a Universal or an Idea). A Form is that which allows two different objects to be the same type of thing, e.g. two squares of differing size are both squares because they partake in the Form of a Square. Even though there may be thousands of differences between the two instances of a square (and indeed, neither may be drawn perfectly), we can say that both of them are squares at the same time. This 'squareness' is much more than a single shared property. It is the 'intrinsic reality' which constitutes its only proper definition. And in Platonic thought this Form is more Real than any single object, since the Form has coherence, permanence and completeness. Furthermore, from Plato's point of view, knowledge of the Form provides us with certainty, since any individual object can be destroyed or changed, while the Form cannot. This can be summarized in another famous diagram: -

Diagram 2: The One and the Many (Forms and Particulars) - (After Crantor, head of the Platonic Academy 3rd century B.C., and Brumbaugh 1981, p158)




* *

* * * Many Systems of Form

* * * * BEING

* * * * * Many Forms and Laws


* * * * * *

* * * * * * * Many Physical Objects

* * * * * * * * BECOMING

* * * * * * * * * Many Phenomena: Shadows,

* * * * * * * * * * Reflections, Appearances

The Form of the Good, in fact, allows Plato to hypothesise a universal order which creates a cosmos out of a mere collection of things. Indeed, the higher levels of knowledge subsume the lower in a one over many relationship, with the apex held by the Form of the Good, which is also the One, i.e. the 'God' Plato speaks of in his later dialogues. This last doctrine, however, was held to be intelligible only to those who had received years of philosophical, mathematical and dialectical training (Gaiser 1980, p14 following The Republic VII, 536 B-540 C & Parmenides 136 E). The one occasion when Plato gave a public lecture on this most of the audience left before the end of his address. (Konrad Gaiser, 1980, pp23-28, argues that Plato gave this purposively complex lecture in order to dispel public opinion which may have turned democratic Athens against his Academy, where private lessons were given to advanced students).

Using the theory of Forms, the differing facets of the world, from astronomy to geometry, from biology to mind, physics to ethics are all placed as part of the same order. It is for this reason that Plato could not specialise in one area and ignore the rest - they are all directly interconnected. The Form of the Good also provides a connection between the world of mind and matter. As expressed by Robert Brumbaugh: -

The Form of the Good is the highest form and cause: it operates both in our thoughts and in fact, and gives reality its complex systematic order. (Brumbaugh 1981, p150)

We can perhaps look at this from another perspective. For Plato, there are three different aspects of any 'thing'. Plato states that there are three kinds of any object, using a famous example where he is discussing the nature of ordinary objects, using the example of a bed (Plato The Republic 595a-607a). The first bed exists in nature and is created by God. Now for Plato this is not just any bed, it is the ideal, or perfect form from which all other examples of a bed are derived. There is only one of these ideal forms, which is a kind of template or ideal plan of a bed. There is a second bed made by the carpenter, which is the physical bed. There can be numerous different examples of this kind of bed, but they all share the essential properties of the bed which are found in the ideal form. It is the carpenter's skill, his special craft or techne, which constitutes a genuine knowledge about 'beds', but only in so far as he understands and can reproduce the necessary and appropriate functions of a bed. The third 'bed' is its representation as created by the painter, or artist. The artist is not really an artificer or a maker, he only imitates what has already been created. This means that his imitation must be inferior, since it is twice removed from the true knowledge of the bed. The imitator is, in the words of Socrates, 'a long way off the truth.' (For this reason, poets and artists actually deceive their audience and should be banned from having too much influence on areas of knowledge in which are really ignorant, e.g. politics).

The Forms, then, are both principles which allow the proper generation of the particulars which partake of their properties, and also the means through which the rational cognition of the Form can be achieved. An understanding of the Forms is required for a proper understanding of truth, beauty, and justice, whether in public or private life (Plato The Republic VII, 517).

4. The Republic

One of Plato's most famous and contentious works is the book we know as The Republic (in fact a Latinized title added by Roman scholars). It has been claimed as one of the first political treatises outlining the proper management of an ideal state - critics, on the other hand, claim that the formulation of this ideal state is really an argument for authoritarianism, for elite rule and in the end totalitarianism. It is true that the book does contain criticisms of democracy, for example in Book VIII (562), Plato's Socrates argues that: -

The democratic city is athirst for the wine of liberty, and they that are set over it to fill its cup with that wine may be evil; and so I fancy it takes more of unmixed liberty than is proper and gets drunk, and then if its rulers are not absolutely obliging in giving it liberty in plenty, it chastises them and accuses them of being wicked oligarches." (The Republic 562)

These words sound to modern thinkers like those of a paternalistic elitist, but any person who has studied the events of Athenian history from 415-399 B.C. will understand the very real crises suffered under the direct mode of democratic government. Plato's alternatives are conservative, but there were limitations on its was elitist and totalitarian strands: for Plato the state still had to be based on a level of consensus of the ruled. The Republic can be more freshly approached if we bear in mind a few issues.

Firstly, the book was never known to Plato as The Republic: this is of course a Roman translation of one of the main themes of the work - Aristotle had apparently referred to the work as the Politea, that is, a work on the political life of the Greek city-state. However, it does not seem to have been given this title by Plato at all. This should not surprise us because the main theme is not the polis (city-state) itself, but the definition of justice. In order to try to accomplish this task, Plato moves the discussion to what would constitute a just state, arguing that the lineaments of justice would be more readily detected by looking at an organism on a larger scale. The implicit assertion, of course, is that justice will only be found in a proper relation of the parts to each other within a harmonious whole, whether this whole is an individual, a state, or the cosmos. Out of 10 books, the political description of this ideal state is central only in books II-IV, and peripheral in books V-VII.

Furthermore, justice is not sufficiently defined by a just society. Plato, in Book IX, shows that the just life is established by three proofs - the effects of justice and injustice on society, the constitution of the human soul, and the nature of reality and truth.

Indeed, for Plato virtues such as courage, justice, wisdom, and temperance 'have intrinsic value through the right order they give to the combination of appetite, ambition, and intellect which characterizes a human soul' (Brumbaugh 1981, p157). This is not a golden mean, as argued by Aristotle, but a dynamic balance required for the soul to remain in its own state of 'natural justice'.

In summary, a just man can only be so because he is attempting to live in a society where justice can have some place in accordance with an appropriate knowledge of both the nature of man and truth. And for Plato these natures are neither conventional nor contingent. The Republic presupposes an ontology and an epistemology, a theory of the nature of being and a theory of how we come to experience and understand invariants in the world. Indeed, a great deal of the book is spent establishing the appropriate way we can come to understand virtues such as justice, truth, courage and beauty. This is required because appearances can both change and also be initially deceptive. No mere description of them can substitute for a genuine understanding. Furthermore, mistakes in naming and reasoning, though backed up by a persuasive rhetoric, will nonetheless lead to false conceptions and to an improper conduct of life (e.g. see the sophist Thrasymachus in Plato's dialogue, Protagoras).

The Republic, then, is an exercise in the methods of arriving at a proper means of analysing political life - it was not envisaged as the particular constitution for any particular city. This is clearly expressed at the end of Book IX (section 592): -

'You speak of the city whose foundation we have been describing, which has its being in words; for there is no spot on earth, I imagine, where it exists.'

'No, I said; ' but perhaps it is laid up in heaven as a pattern for him who wills to see, and seeing, to found a city in himself. Whether it exists anywhere or ever will exist, is no matter. His conduct will be an expression of the laws of that city alone, and of no other.' (The Republic 592)

In other words, The Republic provides an insight into justice and just behaviour, not into a pragmatic city constitution. This view is verified by a comparison with constitutions that Plato developed for the actual use of new city-state in Crete, that is, in his work called the Laws. In the Laws we do not find elite guardians to run the state, nor philosophers-kings, but rather the rule of Law is emphasised as the only way to avoid corruption and ruin: -

The Lesson is that we should make every effort to imitate the life men are said to have led under Cronos; we should run our public and private life, our homes and cities, in obedience to what little spark of immortality which lies in us, and dignify this distribution of reason with the name of 'law'. (Laws IV, 714)

Indeed the following section of the text (714-5) reads as an explicit refutation of the kind of arguments used by Thucydides' for the Athenians' justification of imperial power as found in the Melian debate ('might is right', rendered by Plato as justice is 'whatever serves the interest of the stronger'). Obedience to law is also a justification for Socrates' action in not escaping his death sentence in 399 B.C., a theme extensively developed in the Crito.

Indeed, for Plato, the only way we can discover the reality behind otherwise conventional notions such as justice, truth, and the Good, is through a specifically philosophical method which he calls dialectic.

5. From Dialogue to Dialectic

As part of the background to this issue, we must note firstly that for Plato all useful knowledge forms part of a specific body of knowledge directly relevant to a particular task or function: - that is, a techne, which can only be pursued with appropriate training and skill. The difficulty arises, however, when we ask what kind of techne is required for a creator of constitutions and ruler of states.

Furthermore, the particular expressive form used to communicate ideas is highly significant. In the past philosophy had used poetry, epigrams, maxims, in the case of Pythagoras diagrams and geometry, and in the period of Plato had also begun using prose and a form in some ways similar to drama - the philosophical dialogue. It became apparent that any given idea should use an appropriate form of expression (Brumbaugh 1981, p137). Which form of expression and discovery is most appropriate for philosophical discourse?

We might notice first that most of the works of Plato which are accepted as genuine take the form of dialogues. (There are a few letters whose genuineness is much debated). In the dialogue known characters speak in turn and give their differing viewpoints. We have already seen that for Socrates knowledge was a living experience derived from a real involvement with the ideas and with viewpoints being expressed in intense debate between a small group of individuals. One of the few ways that this commitment to mental engagement could be imitated in a document would be through the use of a dialogue, which provides that give and take, the flow back and forth of a real discussion between disputants. Though 'second best', the written dialogue did provide Plato with a wider audience than his students or those he could debate with face to face (Guthrie 1956, p10). However, there is a certain irony here - in suggesting that the Dialogues of Plato are already one step removed from the actual dialectic, this accused them of being one-step further removed from 'real' knowledge than the kind of activity promoted by Socrates.

To write these works as monologues, as the straightforward expression of a thesis and proof, would have been to lose this critical movement between question and answer, and the critical re-assessment of that answer. Likewise, a philosophical work should adopt those education tools in practises which it recommends in theory. The dialogue is perhaps the closest written form to the process of dialectic itself. Furthermore, the dialogue also allowed some presentation of the type of characters involved, with their foibles and particular viewpoints. This form gives complex philosophical debate a lively and personal touch, and often expresses complex ideas using everyday observation and language.

There is more to the matter than this psychological and rhetorical dimension however. Firstly, the use of characters to represent certain viewpoints allows the reader to sympathise with and follow a given line of argument more closely. This is important - especially if this line of reasoning is one which the literary Socrates is about to destroy. When talking to Protagoras and Thrasymachus (in the Protagoras), Socrates insists that they should say what they really think, and not assent to any statement out of the desire to be agreeable, or engage in a purely hypothetical debate. Socrates insists that debating from positions which you really support is an injunction which must be followed in order for real learning, and for the process of dialectic, to occur.

This was exactly the sticking point for most sophists of the time, who were willing to use any argument to get to any preselected end. The identification of particular arguments with particular persons, then, indicates the way these ideas are actually owned and articulated in life.

Secondly, these ideas are not viewed by Socrates as mere matters of academic opinion or pragmatic utility which might be accepted or rejected at will. Rather, they represent knowledge which is used in choosing both actions and personal conduct - that this, they are the basis of ethics and politics. This linking of ideas, characters, and their political and social implications within the dialogue form is quite intentional. In spite of popular and later misconceptions on this point (see Vlastos 1983, pp495-6), Socrates did not view himself as a sophist, but had theories of knowledge and morality directly opposed to sophists such as Thrasymachus and Gorgias, (though he may have had more respect for Protagoras). Hence Plato has Socrates state to his friend in the Protagoras dialogue: -

"But wouldn't a man like you be ashamed" said I [Socrates], "to face your fellow-countrymen as a Sophist?" (Plato Protagoras 312A)

The use of the dialogue form, then, is based both upon an attempt to recreate the Socratic method, but also upon a particular way of relating ideas and their criticisms, theses and antitheses. Two particular philosophical methods are embedded in these dialogues.

The first is a method called elenchus. This involves a serious of questions to which a respondent is forced by his own reason to give a series of negative responses. This process cuts away what something isn't until we can arrive more exactly at what is. Elenchus is commonly defined in terms like the following: -

In Socratic dialectic, a form of cross-examination that refutes an opponent's thesis by drawing out contradictory or otherwise intolerable consequences from him. Aristotle uses the word to mean 'refutation' . . . (Flew 1979, p103)

However, the notion is much more precise than this. Seeskin has observed that elenchus ' means to examine, refute, or put to shame' (1987, p1). It thus requires a dialogue, and in that dialogue people must be intimately connected with the positions they take up. Elenchus places moral as well as intellectual demands upon the respondent (Seeskin, pp1-3). That elenchus relies so strongly only a method of negative argumentation implies that after all falsity has been stripped away, the truth will remain. And indeed, Plato does hold that the discovery of truth is actually a remembrance of things which the soul already knows. An appropriate set of questions are merely required to draw forth this knowledge.

The second method discussed by Plato is that of dialectic itself. Dialectic should not be confused with argument or conversation - though it can be viewed as a special type of dialogue. It represents a particular way of using arguments and counter-arguments in order to achieve a true understanding. Further, dialectic is a model for effective thought as well. Seeskin expressed this idea quite well: -

Plato frequently describes thinking as a dialogue the mind carries on with itself. In this way, conversation becomes a paradigm. Even when one is engaged in silent reflection, the model Plato looks to is that in which two people secure agreement before moving ahead. . . . In a Platonic context, it is not enough to have a thesis, antithesis, and synthesis: there must be people willing to defend them. (Seeskin 1987, p23)

In The Republic, dialectic is discussed in relation to other lesser studies such as music and geometry. Plato's Socrates says: -

"Then, Glaucon, . . . is this not at last the real melody played by dialectic? It is intelligible, and its copy is the power of sight which we described as at length endeavouring to look at the real animals, then at the real stars, and finally at the real sun. So too when any one tries by dialectic though the discourse of reason unaided by any of the senses to attain to what each reality is, and desists not until by sheer intelligence he apprehends the reality of good, then he stands at the goal of the intelligible world, as the man in our simile stood at the goal of the visible." (The Republic VII, 532).

Dialectic then, is the only means of truly apprehending reality, and it must constitute the basis of any attempt to define the good, whether in ethics, politics or art. Seeskin, however, has noted that this method of dialectic remains problematic: -

After being told that dialectic is a systematic way of discerning the essence of things, Glaucon asks for a fuller description of its nature, forms, and method (Republic 532d-e). But Socrates refuses, claiming that Glaucon would not be able to understand such a description for it would no longer be an image of what they are talking about but the reality. It is not clear what to make of this remark. . . . Is it impossible to give an account of dialectic without also giving an account of the things whose essence it apprehends. (Seeskin 1987, p39-40)

A stronger likelihood is that dialectic cannot be defined in any static way. To do so, to use mere words or strict categories, would rob dialectic of its crucial power - to turn it into some kind of mental 'object'. In other words, the only sufficient way to define dialectic is by performing it, and in doing so one must always be addressing another object and not itself, just as the eye cannot directly see itself but only its reflection (a view implied unclearly in Seeskin 1987, p43).

For Plato, then, the only way to understand the form of the Good is through the process of dialect. And it is only from an understanding of the form of the Good that issues such as justice, truth, dialectic, education and ethics can be appropriately decided upon. Dialectic is the techne of the philosopher, but it is also much more than a mere 'knowing how'. It is also a way of creating and testing hypotheses which provide a sure knowledge of how things are, and why they exist and why certain relationships exist between the parts and the whole. This knowledge is especially required in the governance of the states, and it is precisely for this reason that statesmen should either be philosopher kings, or at least be informed by philosophers.

It should not surprise us, therefore, that Plato was also deeply involved in education. In The Republic he outlines an entire curriculum for philosopher-rulers, including martial training, gymnastics, music, geometry, and dialectic. Furthermore, he set up a research institute in Athens called the Academy - this name derives from the public garden named after the hero Hekademas which was near their educational centre (Brumbaugh 1981, p140). Here a wide range of detailed researches were undertaken, as well as lectures and educational programs. Programs included mathematics, astronomy, ethics, pure philosophy, and what we would call politics and constitutional law - the Academy sent out consultants to help colonies set up new laws codes (see Plato's The Laws as an example of this kind of work). The Academy was the precursor of all Western advanced research centres, as well as to a certain extent our university system. The Academy itself continued teaching down to 529 A.D., whence, under pressure from the Christian emperor, if moved east under Persian patronage.

The question we might now ask, however, is whether The Republic is dialectical? Personally, I think that the text does not structure or embody a truly dialectical process: nor could it do so. Rather, Plato is leading the reader through a series of questions to a foregone and already established conclusion. Compared to what seem to be the earlier dialogues (e.g. The Symposium, The Protagoras), Socrates' speeches are much longer in The Republic and the role of the second main speaker, Glaucon, is much more that of a sounding board. Glaucon is very much like the slave boy in the Meno dialogue, being lead towards an understanding of justice by agreeing to or denying a set of propositions which Socrates puts forward as a series of conceptual steps. The text then is based on the process of elenchus. From Book VI on The Republic verges on being a philosophical monologue, working out the issues implicit in the earlier sections.

As such, The Republic itself is not dialectical, though it may be the offshoot from an earlier dialectical process. As a written account, of course, it could do little more than imitate and intimate the central nature of dialectic. For this reason Socrates wisely declines trying to define dialectic - it could only be defined in the action of mind apprehending not just the relationship between two opposites, but in apprehending the process of understanding itself. Defining dialectic would be itself a non-dialectical process. Furthermore, any definitions must remain incomplete, since the definition itself could be refuted and modified through dialectical process. For this reason Plato has to rely upon metaphors such as that of the Cave and the metempsychosis myth concerned with rewards in the after-life.

Plato is, of course, quite aware of these limitations. Plato was somewhat suspicious of the writing of philosophy, as it was a static form which could not defend itself and as such can fall into the hands of the 'wrong' people (Seeskin 1987, p4, Plato Phaedrus, 275 d-e). Philosophical and dialectical training should therefore only be given to mature persons who had first studied other disciplines. It is only through this extended interaction between students and teachers that 'precise and universal knowledge' is attainable (Gaiser 1980, p15, following The Laws XII 968 C-E). It was for this same reason that his lecture 'On the Good' was never given a definitive published form in a dialogue or letter (Gaiser 1980, p21).

Plato's writings themselves, then, can never stand in for dialectic itself. That they are mistakenly used as definitive formulations to support or attack current political and social institutions merely indicates their 'sophisticated' misuse. The specific solutions formulated in the dialogues, whether the guardians of the ideal state, or the idea of ruler-kings, are mere footnotes to more pressing and central concerns. They inform rather than instruct. Nor can any straightforward reading of such texts step in for philosophical thinking itself.

In the same way we might now glimpse the real legacy which Socrates passed on to Plato - a particular way of approaching knowledge, a 'knowing how' which leads on not only to a knowing that, but towards a knowing why.

Therefore, Seeksin argues that: -

Socratic method is neither subject, nor object, nor situation neutral: it requires a dialogical encounter in which the moral worth of the participants is at stake. To the degree that this encounter is the paradigm for understanding thought in general, discovery, intellectual advancement, always has had a practical dimension. If Socrates is right, there is no special branch of learning devoted to moral education. All education worthy of the name imposes moral tests . . . (Seeskin 1987, p149-50)

The real legacy Socrates and Plato have given us is this commitment to an engagement with the problems of achieving understanding, and an approach whereby we ourselves can continue to learn.


6. Bibliography and Further Reading


ARISTOPHANES (trans. by A.Sommerstein) The Archarnians, The Clouds, Lysistrata, Harmondsworth, Penguin

PLATO (trans. by H. Tredennick) The Last Days of Socrates, Harmondsworth, Penguin, 1969

PLATO (trans. T.Saunders) The Laws, Harmondsworth, Penguin, 1988

PLATO (trans. W.K.C.Guthrie) Protagoras and Meno, Harmondsworth, Penguin, 1956

PLATO, (trans. A.D..Lindsay) The Republic, London, Heron Book, n.d.

XENOPHON Conversations of Socrates, trans. Hugh Tredennick & Robin Waterfield, Harmondsworth, Penguin, 1990

XENOPHON Xenophon in Seven Volumes, Vols. I-VII, trans. Carleton L. Brownson, Cambridge MA, Harvard University Press, 1985-1986


BARKER, Ernest Greek Political Theory: Plato and his Predecessors, London, Methuen, 1979

BARRETT, Harold The Sophists: Rhetoric, Democracy, and Plato's Idea of Sophistry, Novato CA, Chandler and Sharp, 1987

BRUMBAUGH, Robert S. The Philosophers of Greece, Albany, State Uni. of N.Y. Press, 1981

FLEW, Anthony (ed.) A Dictionary of Philosophy, London, Pan, 1979

GAISER, Konrad "Plato's Enigmatic Lecture 'On the Good'", Phronesis, 25, 1980, pp5-37

GUNNELL, John G. Political Philosophy and Time: Plato and the Origins of the Political Vision, Chicago, University of Chicago, 1987

GUTHRIE, W.K.C. "Introduction" to Plato, Protagoras and Meno, Harmondsworth, Penguin, 1956, pp7-25

GUTHRIE, W.K.C. A History of Greek Philosophy, Vols I-IV, Cambridge, CUP, 1975

KERFERD, G.B. The Sophistic Movement, Cambridge, CUP, 1984

KRAUT, Richard Socrates and the State, Princeton N.J., Princeton University Press, 1984

SEESKIN, Kenneth Dialogue and Discovery: A Study in SocraticMethod, Albany, State Uni. of N.Y. Press, 1987

VLASTOS, G. "The Historical Socrates and Athenian Democracy", Political Theory, II, 1983a, pp495-516

VLASTOS, G. "The Socratic Elenchus", Oxford Studies in Ancient Philosophy I, 1983b, pp27-58

Extended Further Reading

REALE, Giovanni A History of Ancient Philosophy: I, from the Origins to Socrates, trans. J. Catan, Albany, State University of New York Press, 1987

ROWE, C.J. "The Structure and Argument of Plato's Phaedrus", Proceedings of the Cambridge Philological Society, no. 212 (new series no. 32), 1986, pp106-125

SANTAS, Gerasimos "Plato on Love, Beauty and the Good", in DEPEW, David J. (ed.) The Greeks and the Good Life, Fullerton, California State University, 1980, pp33-68

SAUNDERS, Trevor J. "Plato on the Treatment of Heretics", in FOXHALL, L. & LEWIS, A.D.E. (eds.) Greek Law in its Political Setting: Justifications not Justice, Oxford, Clarendon Press, 1996, pp91-100


Essays in History, Politics and Culture: Copyright Ronald Ferguson 2006