Plato and the Elements of Dialogue

by John H. Fritz

186 pp. Lexington Books. $85.00

Every time any writer does philosophy, John H. Fritz reminds us, we’re dealing with an action and thus with setting.  Dialogues differ from treatises and essays and meditations not because they take place at a certain time and place and involve characters but because the genre called dialogue makes a reader aware of those things where other genres tend to hide them (6).  In his recent book Plato and the Elements of Dialogue, Fritz treats such literary elements of Plato’s work not as merely decorative but in terms of how character, time, place, and literary frame add and alter philosophical content (8).  The result is a look at Plato’s writing not mainly in terms of the concepts that one can glean once the narrative elements are gone but as a network of claims and characters and settings and structures, all of which add to the complexity and the power of the thought.

Among the genres in which people write philosophy, dialogue stands out as a form that actually represents the embodied, time-spanning character of philosophical discussion (15-16).  Someone always speaks to someone else, and who those people are matters.  Moreover, a dialogue situated in the prison where Socrates is about to drink hemlock adds an urgency to the question of the soul’s fate after death just as a dialogue in which a very young Socrates strives to articulate a nascent doctrine of forms but runs into the strong interrogation of the elder statesman Parmenides reminds the reader that philosophy always stands as a practice of investigation and that the aim is not to state what is true for all time but to pose questions in the face of what we might be tempted to regard as true.

The first three speakers in the Symposium demonstrate one possible relationship between concept and character, perhaps the simplest: Phaedrus, Pausanias, and Eryximachus have certain personal traits that mirror the content of their speeches on eros.  Phaedrus, the young lover of rhetoric and speeches, composes a straightforward classical epideixis for eros and holds forth the mortal higher than the divine and the younger men in pederastic pairs above their older lovers (24-26).  In the Republic, on the other hand, the characters Glaucon, Cephalus, Polemarchus, and Thrasymachus appear early in the text but stand as exemplars of the timocratic, oligarchic, democratic, and tyrannical personalities that the dialogue later explores (35-47).  Reading the Republic this way leads Fritz to the somewhat unconventional claim that Republic exhibits a literary unity that does not rule out layers of revision but does stand as a more complex picture than the notion that the dialogue about the character of dikaiosyne stands as the “original” dialogue and the lengthy allegory of the city and the mind as a latter add-on.

Fritz does not content himself with strictly human characters, though: in Crito the Laws of Athens enter the second half of the dialogue–in Socrates’s own allegory–to produce the dialogue’s most memorable statement about the individual’s responsibility to the community (59), and Socrates also displaces the origin of his own philosophical career to the Oracle of Delphi in the Apology (61), a move that Fritz finds suspicious because Socrates attributes his work as a philosophical interrogator to the Oracle’s word, yet nobody would have thought to ask about the wisdom of Socrates had he not already demonstrated some capacity to reason publicly (60).  After he examines these moments of definite displacement, Fritz examines a number of places in the dialogues in which Socrates or another character poses a question indirectly with constructions like “if someone asked you” (68), which puts the question on the table for the interlocutors but does not require that the person posing the question take full responsibility for it (66).  Ultimately, as Fritz presents things, all of Platonic thought is modeled on dialogue (81), meaning that Plato’s work simultaneously strives to know unhindered by existential particularity and writes all of his extant philosophy in a genre that highlights particularity by putting all the words in particular characters’ speeches.

Whenever Socrates appears in a dialogue, Fritz reminds us (and I can’t believe I sometimes forget this), he situates the conversation and thus the concepts within a definite, one-lifetime span.  Some of the Socratic dialogues also rely on frame-dialogues or frame-narratives that add extra context, but at a minimum Plato keeps on the page the reality that these are local, recent, particular conversations, never the timeless structure of thought as such.  Beyond that, almost all of the reliably authentic Platonic dialogues use what Fritz calls “definite time” to situate the conversation at a particular moment in Socrates’s life and thus add the character of that moment to the philosophical meaning (104).  Most notably here the Parmenides, as I mentioned earlier, puts Socrates in the position of a Glaucon or a Crito in the later dialogues, posing his questions and in turn being questioned by an older master of dialectic, in this case the dialogue’s eponymous Parmenides (105-106).  The important thing here is that the chronological setting of the conversation keeps Socrates from being a one-dimensional dispenser of wise sayings, giving a reader who knows several dialogues a dramatically-developed character, a man, whom an aspiring philosopher might emulate.  When the great exposer of contradictions learns to expose contradictions from a master’s exposure of his own contradictions, the philosophy that emerges becomes more complicated and more promising.

Geographic place can also figure into the philosophy that a dialogue enacts: Fritz notes that, in the lead-up to the extended philosophical conversation in Lysis, the text mentions at several points, sometimes in Socrates’s words and sometimes in other characters’, that the dialogue will happen at a wrestling school “just outside” (125) the city walls, and the conversation itself happens not too far outside the wrestling school itself (129).  Thus the ethical position of friendship, a relation neither identical with the citizen’s responsibility to the city nor so removed from citizenship that they have nothing to do with one another, take on meaning not only from the characters’ speeches but also from where those speeches happen.  Once again, Fritz’s working assumption as he works through each dialogue is that the literary elements are just as deliberate as the content of the speeches and thus stand to add networks of connections between character, time, place, and concept that make the dialogues far better when one minds the dramatic details rather than shuffling them off to the side as unimportant.

A few of the Socratic dialogues–but not many–do not specify when the conversation takes place, save during the lifetime of Socrates, and some do not specify where, save in some place where Socrates has been before.  In such cases, Fritz argues, a careful reader should not regard the omission as mere literary sloppiness but as deliberate withholding, a philosophically significant negative space in the corpus (136).  His locus for this mode of literary reading is the Philebus, in which Socrates and two otherwise-unknown interlocutors engage the grand question of what constitutes a good human life.  Fritz insists that, because the subject-matter is universal and logically prior to so many other investigations, the indefinite place (nobody mentions a place) and time (the dialogue starts mid-conversation and ends likewise) communicate the pervasive character of the subject-matter in a most fitting way (138).  Once again, Fritz’s attention to literary details promises, especially for the one re-reading Plato’s Socratic dialogues, new occasions to attend to the text and new ways to connect the parts of Plato’s inquiry.

The last full chapter deals with the handful of dialogues that use frame-stories or frame-narratives to situate the conversation.  These dialogues begin not with Socrates and an interlocutor but other people, usually years later, talking about the dead philosopher and recalling together his conversations.  Theatetus, in the frame of Theatetus, tells his own interlocutor that Socrates’s influence has made him a better citizen and a better person (143).  Phaedo at the beginning of the Phaedo, as well as during the interruptions to the story, frames the story of Socrates as a re-telling of Theseus and the Minotaur, with Socrates playing Theseus, the fear of death playing the minotaur, and Phaedo himself playing Ariadne, the supporting character who encourages and assists the hero when the hero’s morale declines (157).  The main function of the frame, in this view, is to expand the scope of the dialogue’s context, adding the latter-day memorial context to that of Socrates’s own moment.  Once more Fritz emphasizes that such context-stretchers are not defects in the text but deliberate and helpful literary choices, moments when Plato allows different sorts of thought than are possible when the reader more immediately encounters Socrates as a character.

The book ends with an appendix on the critique of writing in the Phaedrus, and in spite of my familiarity not only with the dialogue but also with Richard M. Weaver’s and Jacques Derrida’s famous essays on the dialogue, I thought about new things when I read Fritz’s treatment of that section.  Unlike most Socratic dialogues, Phaedrus engages the reader both as a conversation between Socrates and an interlocutor and as a written text from Plato to a reader.  The self-referential act of representing Socrates as anti-writing in a written dialogue makes the reader aware, in a way that usually does not happen, of the double context (Socrates’s and the reader’s) that any written Socratic dialogue relies upon, and Fritz’s attention to that doubling opens up some really interesting possibilities for reading and teaching the dialogue.

Beyond the usual caveats about academic-book pricing (they’re almost always too pricey to be practical purchases), I commend this book as a good investigation into realities in Plato’s dialogues that, in other moments, even a veteran reader like me might be inclined to ignore.

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