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Philosophy and Literature 26.1 (2002) 84-106

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Irony in the Platonic Dialogues

Charles L. Griswold, Jr.


INTERPRETERS OF PLATO have arrived at a general consensus to the effect that there exists a problem of interpretation when we read Plato, and that the solution to the problem must in some way incorporate what has tendentiously been called the "literary" and the "philosophical" sides of Plato's writing. The problem is created by the fact that Plato wrote in dialogue form, indeed a specific type of dialogue form. The solution must somehow combine into a coherent theory of the "meaning" of the dialogues, the ways in which these texts work (such as the use of imagery, metaphor, myth, allusion, irony, as well as argument). At the same time, there exists enormous disagreement about how one ought to move from these general observations to interpretation of a particular text. 1

The problem of interpretation lies not merely in the fact that Plato wrote dialogues. That alone would not necessarily present any hermeneutical issues of unusual difficulty. Plato's distinctive use of the dialogue form creates the difficulties. The genre that we might call "the Platonic dialogue" is distinguished by several relevant characteristics.

First, there is no character called "Plato" who speaks in any of the dialogues; indeed, "Plato" is mentioned twice in the entire corpus, once as being absent (Pho. 59b10), and once as being present (Apol. 38b6). Authorial anonymity is thus an important feature of the dialogues. 2 At least ab initio, we are not justified in identifying Plato with any one of his characters. Indeed, there are positive reasons why he cannot be identified even with Socrates, as I will discuss below. 3 Plato is absent from his own texts; no simple act of reading them will allow us to ascertain what his views are. 4 It does not follow that Plato's views are [End Page 84] entirely absent from the dialogues—say, in the form of some mysterious "esoteric teaching"—and that they cannot be elicited by a complex act of reading. Just how Plato's views are to be extracted has been, again, the subject of a very long debate. 5 I myself think that Plato's views can be so elicited. 6 But the fact of his anonymity as author means that "Plato's meaning" is not ascertainable in the way that, say, "Kant's meaning" may be ascertainable in the Critique of Pure Reason.

A second feature of Plato's dialogues contributes to the interpretive puzzle. The dialogues are clearly fictional in character. They are not—they could not be—transcriptions of conversations which took place. Some dialogues could not have taken place even when the interlocutors were historical figures (for example, at the Phaedrus' ostensible dramatic date the real Phaedrus was not in Athens). Not only are many of the characters entirely fictional, there is clear evidence that even "Socrates" is very much a fictionalized version of the historical character. I am referring not just to the famous statement in the (possibly inauthentic) Second Letter, 7 but to the fact that the Socrates of Plato's dialogues is presented as being a super-human character. This is evident from Alcibiades' description of him in the Symposium as well as from a number of subtle fictions. For example, Plato has Socrates narrate the entirety of the Republic from memory, without a single moment of hesitation or (so far as the reader can tell) any lapse of memory. This fantastic feat is complemented by Socrates' equally fantastic stamina in conversation. The lengthy Protagoras, for example, is narrated in its entirety by Socrates immediately after the dialogue itself has occurred. Socrates never shows any fatigue of any sort. It is not just hyperbole to say that Plato's Socrates is heroic; he is carefully compared, in passages I cannot examine here, to both Achilles and Odysseus. Socrates' absolute calm and self-control before death also evidence his superhuman character. The relation between the historical Socrates and the Platonic Socrates is the source of much fruitful controversy. It suffices for...


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