© 1998 Bernard SUZANNE  Last updated December 13, 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.

A new set of hypotheses

"Doesn't it look like the various parts of the speech have been thrown in at random ? Can you see any necessity for what has been said in second place to come in second place rather than any other one of the things that have been said ?" (Phædrus, 264b)

Why the Parmenides or Menexenus ?

The starting point of my criticism of the current view on the dialogues is the underlying image it gives of Plato. I cannot admit that a man whose influence on all subsequent schools of thought was so great could have written a dialogue such as the Parmenides for the sole purpose of telling the world he had found a glitch in his earlier theories, had nothing better to propose in their place, but would in the meantime amuse his readers by showing Parmenides at work in some "tedious game" ; or a dialogue such as the Menexenus for the sole purpose of showing Athens how much better he was than the rhetors at their own games, after having criticized them all his life. I cannot admit the assumption that the simplistic theory that Aristotle criticizes as Plato so called "theory of forms" was actually what Plato held, and that Aristotle was better at interpreting Plato than Plato himself, just because he was posterior to him and that, by the "evolutionist" token, posterior is of necessity better (in fact, I hold to the contrary that Plato was much better than Aristotle at understanding other's theories from the inside and criticizing them on their own premises, that he exercised this gift not only on his predecessors, but on his pupils too, and on Aristotle himself as well, much better than Aristotle did against him, and that it is no coincidence if the pale interlocutor of Parmenides in the dialogue that bears his name is another Aristotle, historical as he may be). I cannot admit the ease with which so many scholars find contradictions or "evolution" in Plato's thought where there may only be partial viewpoints seen from different angles, complementary rather than contradictory, especially when they use the conclusions these efforts are supposed to prove as a means to dismiss more profound interpretations of "earlier" dialogues, precisely because they are "early"...

So what ?...

A consistent set of dialogues from a teacher, not a dogmatist

I want to suggest that there is a set of 28 dialogues that was written by Plato as a whole, probably in a much shorter period of time than usually assumed, and probably late in his life (but of this I have no proof, and I ask the reader to not judge the hypotheses by the external "evidence" before it could even fly, but to judge it by the internal consistency it gives to the dialogues before calling in "external" evidence, be it "psychological likeliness" or you name it). I want to suggest that these dialogues don't develop "theories", don't give "answers", at least ready-made answers, because Plato was well aware of the fact that no answer will do unless it comes from inside -- "know thyself" was Socrates' motto, not "know me" (who speaketh to thou)--, but pave the way for the reader toward his own truth and being. I want to suggest that the "evolution" that may be seen across these dialogues is not due to the changing mood of their author over the period of time he was writing them, but is a pedagogical device consciously chosen by Plato to reach his goal, and that, if it has anything to do with the author's evolution, it is not with his evolution while he was writing, but before he started writing after having completed it, used as a guide in helping others to follow the same path.

With a political purpose in mind

And I want to further suggest that Plato was not that idealist looking in a "world of forms" high above to escape from this one, but one who had one main purpose in life, to form the best politicians there might be, and to help people understand what it means to put their logos (reason) to task to bring kosmos (order) in the city of men, because that's what it means to be men, that is "logical" (rational) political animals. That's why the road starts with a discussion between young Alcibiades and Socrates about entering the political career and end with the Laws. But in between, it's a long way to justify why man should look at the intelligible and not let his physical desires took over, and why his true happiness, his true good, lies in the harmonious balance between all the parts he is made of, matter as well as spirit. It's a long way to help us understand why we should not be content with "either..., or..." (either passions or reason, either this world or the heavens, either me or the other, and so on...) but we should strive for "and..., and..." (reason and passions, but with moderation ; this world, with its material limitations and the intelligible one to help us overcome some of these limitations ; me with the internal "justice" of a harmonized tripartite soul and the others with the external justice of a well governed city ; and so on...) Along the way, we must come to understand why people behave as they do, what make them act (eros) and talk (logos) ; what speech is ; what science is ; whether there is a truth ; what it means to "think" ; what is man made of and what is the "soul", that part of him which makes him more than just plain matter, and explains that he may deal with "immaterial" constructs such as the mathematical ones ; and much more...

A masterfully structured path toward the truth

And this long process is organized, believe it or not, in seven tetralogies, but not those of Thrasyllus. Each tetralogy is made up of one "introductory" dialogue and a trilogy. These tetralogies are organized along two structuring principles which are introduced in the Republic, the central dialogue of the central tetralogy, symmetrically on either side of the middle of the dialogue, which states the central message of the whole set of dialogues, that unless philosophers become kings or kings start philosophizing, there won't be peace on earth for men (Republic, V, 473c-e) :

Using all available devices to get the point across

This carefully built organization of the dialogues is but one of the many devices Plato uses to get the point across. Rather than simply stating in plain words, in explicit "theorems", the truths he tries to lead us to, he wants us to be actively participating in the process ; thus he would rather use all the literary devices he can think of as so many converging clues to help us see the point. The most obvious one is the dialogue form. But there are many other ones, and it should be said that, in Plato's dialogues, everything contributes to understanding and has "philosophical" meaning : the "setting" of the dialogues, the names of the characters (most Greek names have a "meaning" that should have been obvious for all Greek speaking readers in Plato's time) even when they are those of "historical" characters (Plato didn't choose their names, but he did choose to make them part of this or that dialogue, as it should be obvious by now that the dialogues are not journalistic reports of actual conversations between Socrates and other people, but carefully constructed recreations by a brilliant writer truer to the spirit of his master than to the "historical" facts), the "staging" details surrounding the main discussion, etc. In other words, for Plato, there is not art on the one side and philosophy on the other, but art as a means to convey meaning and raise us toward philosophy and truth. But isn't that the whole idea behind Diotima's speech in the Symposium ?...

What's more, Plato, the supposed holder of a "theory of forms", put into practice in his dialogues what he was holding : he took great care of the "form" of his written works, because "form" has more to do with meaning than mere "matter" (here, the written words). Thus, it is always a good idea to look for the plan(s) of each dialogue to help understand what it is about. But, being a master at his art, Plato took great care not to leave too obvious tracks of the plans he used to write his dialogues, or, when he did so, one should be careful not to jump too hastily to conclusions, because the forms are visible only to the mind and when a "form" becomes too visible, it probably hides a deeper form for us to seek. Accordingly, it is customary to find dialogues with multiple plans superimposed on one another, a more "visible" one hiding a more "intelligible" one, the former usually off balance while the later brings back perfect symmetry to the dialogue (that's why I will often refer to size of sections and subsections in the plans, measured in number of Stephanus' pages).

You may now proceed to the "map" of the dialogues that graphically presents the overall structure of the dialogues proposed in this new hypothesis (for a non-tabular version of it, click here). And from the "map" you may proceed to comments on individual tetralogies and dialogues (names that don't show up as links in the "map" correspond to tetralogies and dialogues for which commentaries are not yet available).

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 May 16, 1996 - Last updated December 13, 1998
© 1996 Bernard SUZANNE (click on name to send your comments via e-mail)
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