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FORM AND STYLE
Plato was not only a great philosopher, he was also a dramatic artist. His exciting presentations of intense, unique conversations offer you the opportunity to participate in profound discussions and to see language beautifully used. Both his ideas and his artistry have resisted time. His work is as relevant today as it was twenty-four centuries ago. Why do Plato's writings continue to fascinate?
Plato had a knack for interweaving the elements of high drama with complex philosophic thought. The expressive form he used is called a dialogue (a word that comes from the Greek language and means "conversation between two or more people," or, literally, "talking through" some issue). Plato wrote more than thirty dialogues and is often credited with having invented the dialogue as a literary form. The Republic is his most famous dialogue, perhaps the most provocative, and one of the longest.
But what exactly are Socratic dialogues? First, they are conversations in which a man called Socrates is almost always the main speaker. Generally the dialogues begin with Socrates casually meeting some people in the street. After a few pleasantries are exchanged Socrates turns the conversation into a philosophical discussion. And during the course of the conversation, he finds that his companions are using terms that are vague and ambiguous, that demand clarification and definition. Thus, he asks them to explain their terms, such as "justice," "knowledge," or "love."
Through a series of questions, Socrates attempts to help his companions discover their own ignorance (the starting point of philosophy is the realization that you do not have knowledge) and then to lead them to greater understanding through the systematic search for knowledge. Plato calls this method of question and answer "dialectic"; that is, the process of playing one idea against another and of making analogies so that genuine insight may be gained. The Republic offers you many examples of dialectic.
Plato's dialogues are probably similar to confrontations Socrates actually had with Athenian citizens. Dialogues, then, are dramatic presentations of philosophical discussions. But beware! These conversations with Socrates do not always run smoothly. Arguments result; tempers flare. Yet Socrates inevitably emerges unscathed, victor of the debate. Even so, there are many moments of high drama in the dialogues. In some of the dialogues the humor is delicious; in others, there are declarations of outrageous devotion. Whatever the situation, Plato provides comic relief, reveals human frailties, and presents provocative discussions on principal concepts of human conduct.
Why did Plato cast his philosophical writings in the dialogue form rather than in the form of a scholarly essay? Some scholars claim that the young Plato, before he met Socrates, wanted to be a dramatic poet like Sophocles and Euripides and that perhaps he even wrote a few plays. Other scholars present evidence suggesting that Plato's works were performed in competitive, intellectual games during religious festivals. And still others believe that the young Plato, after watching and admiring the masterful debates of Socrates, wanted to re-create Socrates' teachings in a way that would capture the dramatic force of his mentor. Perhaps there is some truth in all of these views. After all, Plato was a superb dramatic artist who created thought-provoking, sometimes gamelike, discussions and debates similar to those Socrates engaged in with the people of Athens.