© 1996, 2005 Bernard SUZANNE Last updated June 6, 2009
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.
Tetralogies : 1st tetralogy : The start of the Quest - 2nd tetralogy : The Sophists - 3rd tetralogy : Socrates' Trial - 4th tetralogy : The Soul - 5th tetralogy : Speech (logos) - 6th tetralogy : Dialectic - 7th tetralogy : Man in the World

Overview of Tetralogies

The journey toward our own being

The journey through the dialogues constitutes an educational process under the leadership of Plato/Socrates. It doesn't purport to give us ready-made answers, but rather to be the helping hand that wants to free us from our chains and lead us outside the cave, only to have us eventually come back dons in it to help in turn our brethren prisoners build a more palatable city where more people can live more happily (1). It thus requires an active participation from us readers, because what we are after is not Plato's truth, but our own truth, our own answers, our own being (2). Someone else, be it Plato or Socrates, can show us the way, may even at times, like Socrates' daimon, point at wrong directions and stop us before we take them, but nobody can step in our shoes and be ourselves in our place.

In that journey, Plato is no dreamer taking us with him in some kind of eerie heaven of eternal truth that he would mistake for the real world, but a man who understood that one cannot change society for the better, which is the sole worthy purpose for leaders and rulers, unless he first changes men themselves individually, beginning with himself ; and that the first step in that direction is education. But to make men happy in this world, you should know what man is, what this world is and what happiness is, and this is a long story...

The Philosopher unearthed

It is possible to look at the whole set of dialogues as constituting the Philosopher, that dialogue that was hinted at at the beginning of the Sophist (217a-b) and again at the beginning of the Statesman (257b-258a), but supposedly never written, or you might want to keep this title for the last tetralogy, which describes the trip back to the cave by showing us what it is to be a true philosopher-king :

The visible, the intelligible and the soul in between

But, before reaching this conclusion, the journey proceeds through all levels of "being" shown by the analogy of the line at Republic, VI, 509d-511e, at all levels of apprehension made possible by the threefold structure of our soul displayed at Republic, IV, 436a-441c.

What does it take to become a ruler?

It starts by stating the question, what does it take to be a man, and to become a ruler :

Of course, this is only the first step and, to make the point, all these dialogues involve kids. And, of course, we are not given answers yet, but only food for thought, in dialogues that deliberately raise more questions than they answer (in what some call Socratic "aporia"), and are meant to shake some of our certitude, to amaze us and make us wonder (thaumazein in Greek), like Alcibiades at the beginning of the first dialogue (Alc. 103a), because, as we will be told much later, at the beginning of the Theaetetus (155d), amazement is the beginning of philosophy.

From illusions to dialectic

Between this introduction and the conclusion, the program unfolds in five steps : two tetralogies deal with he visible world, two with the intelligible realm (in the sense of the analogy of the line), and, in between, the central one deals with the soul which is the "bridge" between both "realms".

In keeping with the analogy of the line which inspires this layout, each pair of tetralogies dealing with either the visible or the intelligible includes a first tetralogy having to do with "images", either visible (illusions, such as those manufactured by the Sophists) or intelligible (words as "images" of thought and beings), and a second one dealing with "the real thing", facts in the realm of the visible, dialectical thought and forms in the realm of the intelligible. And in each tetralogy, the trilogy proceeds from the level of the feeling and desiring soul in direct relationship with the physical (from phusis, meaning "nature") world up to the level of the reasonable (logikos, at the root of the word "logic") soul through the level of the willing and choosing soul inducing our behavior in action (èthos, origin of the word "ethics") (3).

Socrates' trial and Parmenides' "parricide"

This design sets a parallel between

This is shown by the fact that the Apology and Sophist stand in the same position in their respective groups, that is, middle dialogue of the trilogy in the second tetralogy of the pair. Thus, Parmenides is seen by Plato as the spiritual father (willingly or not, this is another question) of a trend of thought that, by identifying thought and being, words and thought, led to sophistry and to the excesses of rhetoric, which, when put no longer in the hands of clowns such as Euthydemus and his brother, but in those of the likes of Callicles (who foresees the trial and death of Socrates at the very center of the Gorgias, see Gorgias, 486a-b), was eventually responsible for the death of Socrates.

Between logical and physical death

As regards the central tetralogy on the soul, it takes place between the "logical" death of Socrates (Socrates is all but dead at the end of the Crito, once he has definitely refused to escape and accepts his execution due the next day) and his "physical" death at the end of the Phædo. Now that Socrates has proven in his acts that he stands by his words, even at the price of his own temporal life, and even when he knows that somehow, he is wronged by his judges, he is a credible teacher for the highest truths on this life. And the trilogy on the soul can now unfold between one night in Socrates' life, enlarged to his whole "material" external life retold by a drunken Alcibiades, with whom we started the journey and who himself confesses he was unable to take advantage of Socrates' friendship (Symposium) and one day in Socrates' "death", enlarged to his whole "spiritual" internal life retold by himself to cheer his half-laughing, half-crying friends (Phædo). And the centerpiece of this tetralogy which is also the centerpiece of the whole set of dialogues, is the Republic, which displays justice properly understood as the ultimate "idea(l)" of man, and provides the keys needed to unravel the structure of the dialogues.

Logical and material center

Thus, the Republic, middle dialogue of the middle trilogy, is the logical center of the work, and delivers in its exact center Plato's deepest creed :

"Unless either philosophers become kings in the cities, or those who are now called kings and rulers sincerely and adequately get to philosophize, and there can be found in the same person both political power and philosophy, the crowd of those who are nowadays driven by their nature toward either one exclusive of the other having been forcibly set aside, there can be no end, dear Glaucon, to the evils in cities, nor, methinks, to those of humankind." (V, 473c-d)

But the material center of the set of dialogues so arranged falls almost exactly at the end of the Phædo (4), that is at the death of Socrates ! Socrates' death was probably the single most important event for Plato in his life, and the last words of the Phædo, the "visible" center of the dialogues, speak of him as

"the man of which we may say that, among those of his time we came to know, he was the best, in other words, the most sensible and  most just" (118a),

that is, the best visible image of a true man. Socrates, for Plato, is the closest thing he knew to the just man of the Republic, and that's why he, and not Plato, is our guide through the dialogues.

The parallels

But that is not all. The way we have been looking at the dialogues so far, stressing the symmetries around the central tetralogy is not the only one. There is at least another way to look at them which is suggested by several parallels that can be found between the set as a whole and individual dialogues or trilogies.

The seven speeches of the Symposium

One of these is the parallels between the seven tetralogies and the seven speeches in the Symposium :

The seven steps of the dialectical trilogy

Another parallel is between the seven tetralogies and the sixth trilogy, the one which is most clearly identified as a trilogy by the text itself, and which is sort of a summary of the whole journey, the trilogy Theætetus, Sophist, Statesman :

The seven definitions of the sophist

Yet another parallel is between the seven definitions of the sophist given in the Sophist and the seven tetralogies.

The short path of Isocrates

The point is, in all these parallels, we see a pattern that separates the first five elements from the last two. Applying this same pattern to the tetralogies, and considering the first five aside from the last two, we see that they lead us to the doorstep of dialectic. As part of the whole journey they constitute a long preparation, a propaedeutic to the ultimate ascent toward the knowledge that will make us true philosophers. But what if we stop here and don't make it past Parmenides ?...

If we apply the same structural investigations to this truncated program we applied to the whole set, we find that its logical center is the trial of Socrates (the Apology is the middle dialogue of the middle trilogy, the third one, in the group made up of the first five), while its physical center is the end of the Phædrus (5). And what we find at the end of the Phædrus is a somewhat surprising "prophecy" of Socrates regarding a supposed beloved of his named... Isocrates !

The Phædrus is a critic of rhetoric and Isocrates happens to be the brightest pupil of Gorgias, the prince of rhetoricians at the time of Plato, and a prime rival of his, head of a competing school that precisely pretended to educate the young without "wasting" time in those dialectical exercises he assimilated to the kind of eristical tricks Plato makes fun of in the Euthydemus. A closer analysis of the short prophecy of Socrates shows that it is ironical and that Plato is subtly ridiculing his opponent with some of his (Isocrates') own words.

But the point is that the shorter path is the path that stops at rhetoric, the path that Isocrates proposes to his students, a path that leads to Socrates trial and death, and to the kind of politics that is portrayed in the Menexenus, the concluding dialogue of the fifth tetralogy, and thus of that truncated program : politics feeding on rogue demagoguery and interchangeable speeches written by professional speech writers, conducted by leaders ever ready to justify wars and crimes in the name of superior interests that only benefit themselves. And, if it were needed, we get a confirmation of this reading in the first words of Socrates in the Menexenus : "What did you specially have to do at the Council Chamber ? Obviously, you must think you have reached the term of education and philosophy, and, judging you have had enough now, you conceived to turn to more important business, and you try to govern us the elder, wonderful boy, in spite of your age ! " (Menex., 234a) The path that ends there is the path that confuses words and thought because it could not overcome Parmenides' legacy. In short, either you go all the way and end up drawing the Laws on your way toward god's place, or you stop at the end of the fifth tetralogy, like Isocrates, and must settle for the politics of the Menexenus, that of the Pericleses and their likes, or worse...

(1) See Republic, VII, 514a-521b for the famed analogy of the cave, that should be read all the way through, and not amputated of the most important trip back. (<==)

(2) By "our own truth", I don't mean that any "truth" will do, that each one can come up with whatever opinion he wants, which would be the relativism in the manner of Protagoras and his "man measure" that Plato fought so hard, but that we must be confident enough that the answers we accept or come up with are our best shot at the truth we are seeking to act accordingly in our own life, even if it means, as was the case for Socrates, accepting an unjust death. (<==)

(3) This shows how the tripartition of the soul introduced in the Republic may have been at the origin of the division of philosophy by Plato's followers into physics, ethics and logic. But going throught the dialogues associated with each level also shows that those words, especially "logic", should be taken here in a much broader sense than the one they took after Plato(<==)

(4) The total number of Stephanus pages for all dialogues up to and including the Phædo is 787, and for all remaining dialogues, it is 799 ; out of a total of 1586 pages, the mathematical center, assuming all pages to be of equal size, falls at page 793, that is, 6 pages later, which is within less than 1%, probably smaller a margin of error than that due to partially filled pages at the beginning and end of each dialogue, or to the fact that we don't know how the scrolls used in Plato's time were filled by continuous writing with the calligraphy of the time, without separating spaces between words or punctuation marks. (<==)

(5) 454 Stephanus pages for all the dialogues up to and including the Phædrus, out of a total of 909 for the first five tetralogies, that is, within one page of the exact count ! (<==)

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.
Tetralogies : 1st tetralogy : The start of the Quest - 2nd tetralogy : The Sophists - 3rd tetralogy : Socrates' Trial - 4th tetralogy : The Soul - 5th tetralogy : Speech (logos) - 6th tetralogy : Dialectic - 7th tetralogy : Man in the World

 - Last updated June 6, 2009
© 1996, 2005 Bernard SUZANNE (click on name to send your comments via e-mail)
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