Ever wonder why Plato chose to speak and write in the dialogue form? If so, you’re not alone. I’ve wondered that myself in the past while reading some of his work. And even back then it seemed to me that he was trying to somehow record some important knowledge, sometimes philosophical concepts and sometimes even (alternative) history, without getting into trouble. Back then some topics were so controversial that if he were to personally speak of them as his own opinion, or perhaps even present them as facts, he would have risked his life.
Suzanne suggests that it is possible that he wrote all of his dialogues after this letter, in the last ten years of his life.12 Regardless of this, it is clear that Plato’s choice of the dialogue form is closely linked to his mistrust for writing and books that were intended to teach and lecture. Another of Plato’s objections to the art of writing is that it cannot choose who reads it. For Plato, not everyone was equally fit to do philosophy. Educating the unfit about philosophy would only lead to “some unjustified contempt in a thoroughly offensive fashion.”13
In the Phaedrus, as part of his critique of the art of writing, Plato complains that “Once a thing is put in writing, the composition, whatever it may be, drifts all over the place, getting into the hands not only of those who understand it, but equally of those who have no business with it; it doesn’t know how to address the right people, and not address the wrong.”14 However, the dialogue form, although it allows the author to overcome many of what he considers problems in writing standard prose, cannot prevent the wrong people from reading it.
It is for this reason that Plato and particularly both the historical Socrates, and his character in Plato’s dialogues would argue that the only true way to do philosophy is on a one-to-one basis. This method of doing philosophy, used by Plato, his character Socrates, and also by the historical Socrates, was often known as ‘elenchus’. It involves a one-to-one debate consisting of questions and answers with the debaters not moving on until they have reached an agreement, which if both are intelligent people, should be the truth.
I think it’s highly likely that Plato was worried about “the wrong” hearing or reading about his views on the many subjects that he discussed and them developing “unjustified contempt in a thoroughly offensive fashion.” And “the wrong” of course being the naïve and ignorant masses, that we know of today as the ‘sheep,’ or those who are still asleep, or the Social Justice Warriors (SJW) responsible for “cancel culture.” For example, if Plato would have presented what he wrote in “The Symposium” as being based on historical fact, or as his own view, that would probably have landed him in prison or on the stake like Giordano Bruno. And I do think, based on my own research, that much of what he wrote in “The Symposium” has its roots in historical fact, as discussed in my post “Sexual Suppression And Repression I: Definition And Origin.”
One alternative approach would be what is called ‘elenchus’ in the above quote, where you share certain knowledge with one person at a time. This enables you to gauge how a person responds to certain information so that you can get a feel for how far you can go with them and minimize the risk of them getting offended. But as I’m sure you can imagine, this approach doesn’t scale well. In comparison, if you write down the information once, you can share it with many more people with little extra effort.
So Plato found a way to still record the knowledge he had for future generations in writing, while not taking too much risk: He presented the information as being from someone else in a story. Plato went so far as to have two levels of indirection; it wasn’t just that Plato was telling a story, but he also created characters in his story, who would be the ones to actually convey the knowledge in their own stories inside his main story. So if “the wrong” would get offended by what Plato was saying, he could just tell them to relax, because not only was he just telling a story, but the information was coming from some fictional character inside his story. Even if you were as stupid as “the wrong,” how can you get mad about a supposed hypothetical or fictional theory held by a fictional character inside another hypothetical or fictional story?
I think this is how Plato solved the problem of not being able to prevent the wrong people from reading his writings. If the wrong people would read his writings, he could safely hide behind his fictional characters in the story, saying: “Hey, it’s the opinion of that fictional character in my story. How can you get angry at me? How can you get offended by what this fictional character is saying? What are you, fucking stupid?” It’s a type of plausible deniability.
And I understand from my own experience why Plato would choose to convey certain information in the way he did. Even today, there are a lot of topics that are controversial and can cause problems. In some countries having the wrong opinion, or sharing certain information might cost you your life, land you in jail or in a “re-education camp.” In other countries, you might get deplatformed, ‘cancelled,’ and/or become unemployable — even in the so called “land of the free and the home of the brave.” So even today, people find it easier to convey certain controversial ideas indirectly though various art forms. This is why, for example, comedians can often get away with talking about certain controversial subjects on stage.
Much of what I write about here on my blog can be considered controversial in many countries around the world, and locally I’ve also had negative reactions on some of the topics I discuss and opinions that I have. I have no doubt that a few hundreds of years ago I would have been put to death by the barbarians living at that time for some of the things I write about today. But unlike Plato, I don’t really give a fuck.