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Kenneth Seeskin SOCRATIC PHILOSOPHY AND THE DIALOGUE FORM Philosophy does not become literature merely because it is written in dialogue form. We could take the latest issue ?? theJournal ofPhilosophy, invent dummy characters, think of leading questions, and come up with a "dialogue" which would have no literary significance whatever. Even if it were to be rewritten by a gifted stylist, it would not become literature unless the dialogue form were an integral part of the author's conception of philosophy. To put this in a different way, not all philosophy can become literature. In most cases, a philosopher's ability to write well is a bonus: it makes him easier to read and teach but does not affect the direction of his argument.1 Descartes was an accomplished writer and so was Hume; but there is no reason to regard the Meditations or the Treatise as works of literature. Their conclusions would not be altered even if they had been written in the rumble-bumble prose of Kant. It is only when form and content work together that a piece of philosophy can claim literary significance. I One case where they do work togetiier is die Socratic dialogue.2 It is clear that a great deal would be lost if Socratic philosophy were written in straight, expository prose. As Gregory Vlastos once noted, Socrates does not just have conclusions to impart but a mediod for arriving at diem.3 That mediod is eknchus or refutation, a method which lends itself to the dialogue form because it requires mat at least two voices be heard. It requires, in addition, diat die people whose voices we hear be intimately connected with the positions they take. The first rule of Socratic elenchus is that die respondent must say what he really thinks. When Protagoras attempts to break this rule by adopting a hypothetical view about the nature of virtue (331c), Socrates stops him immediately. When Callicles shows hesitation in answering Socrates, Socrates replies that unless he has the courage to speak freely, the inquiry cannot proceed (Gorgias 494c ff.). Even when the respondent's compliance would make his job much easier, 181 182Philosophy and Literature Socrates insists that the respondent not say anything short of what he truly believes (e.g., Crito 49d). The result is diat the respondent has more at stake than die outcome of a philosophical argument: to die degree that he follows Socrates' rule, he is putting his life on die line. As Nicias tells Lysimachus in the Laches: . . . whoever comes into contact widi Socrates and talks with him face to face, is certain to be drawn into a discussion witii him. And no matter where die discussion begins, he is carried round and cannot stop until he is led to give an account of himself, and of the manner in which he now lives his life and the kind oflife he has lived up to diat point. And once he has been led to do diat, Socrates will not let him go until he has dioroughly and properly put all his ways to die test. (187e-188a) It is impossible in a Socratic context to defend a position at odds with one's own behavior. At stake are the moral intuitions which underlie everything he stands for. Protagoras has a great deal to lose if it should turn out diat virtue is not teachable, Gorgias ifit should turn out diat rhetoric is not an art, Eudiyphro ifit should turn out that prosecuting one's father for murder is impious, Laches if it should turn out diat courage is knowledge of good and evil. It follows diat elenchus is more dian an exercise in philosophical analysis. In asking people to state and defend the moral intuitions which underlie their way of life, Socrates inevitably reveals something about dieir characters. Elenchus, then, has as much to do with honesty, humility, and courage as it does with logical acumen: the honesty to say what one really thinks, the humility to admit what one does not know, and the courage to continue me investigation. Most of Socrates' respondents are lacking in all diree. Protagoras becomes angry, Polus resorts to cheap rhetorical tricks...


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