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11. The Socratic method, thought to be invented by Socrates and employed by Plato in many of his dialogues, is a form of argumentation that seeks knowledge (usually definitions of such abstract concepts as justice and virtue) by a process of question and answer. In Book VII Plato refers to this method as dialectic. He describes dialectic as the systematic inquiry into the true nature of things by asking and answering questions in a logically rigorous manner (533a-d).
The purpose of the method is to reveal the significance and truth of such claims as "justice is telling the truth and paying one's debts" (330d-331d) and "justice is to the advantage of the stronger" (336b-347e). When the method is successful, it culminates in the questioner (usually Socrates) catching the answerer in a contradiction or in an argumentative impasse. An impasse occurs when the answerer sees the problems with or the errors in his thinking and sees that he can progress no farther in the argument until he redefines his terms or even denies his original claim. Thus, the method is often used to arrive at the starting point of a philosophical discussion rather than simply determining the answer. Ideally, however, the answerer can find a way out of the impasse and discover a truth.
For example, in Book IX Socrates uses the process of dialectic to prove that philosophers, not tyrants, have true pleasure. First he presents two concepts that seem to be in conflict-pleasure and pain. Then he demonstrates that although pleasure and pain are opposites, they are not really in conflict because, for instance, the riddance of pain is not pleasure but is a neutral state intermediate between pleasure and pain. Thus, the so- called pleasures that tyrants seek-the fulfillment of bodily appetites-are merely relief from such pain as hunger or thirst.
At this point Socrates has presented a potential conflict and has reached an impasse-pleasure cannot be the satisfaction of bodily desires. He then proceeds to demonstrate what true pleasure is.
Other examples of dialectic are found throughout The Republic, but perhaps the best are in Book I, beginning with the simple discussion with Cephalus and moving to the more complex argument with Thrasymachus on the profitable nature of injustice.
12. For centuries Plato has inspired people to imagine their own vision of the Good Life. His success as an artist philosopher stems in part from his dramatic presentations of provocative ideas. Through the use of dialogue and poetic images he has stimulated others to examine the nature of reality and human life with both intellectual seriousness and playfulness.
As an artistic form, dialogue permits Plato to demonstrate the movement of an argument. Dialogues are conversations between two or more characters and, as conversations, they exhibit the liveliness of intellectual discovery. For instance, Socrates claims that he does not know what "justice" is, but he says, after some prodding from his young friends Glaucon and Adeimantus, that he is willing to explore the nature of justice. What ensues is an intellectually exciting conversation, with Socrates as the main speaker, that takes many turns, has a few detours, but ultimately leads to a vision of the perfectly just state. If Plato had simply written a treatise on the nature of justice we would have been denied the pleasure of witnessing a keen mind in the process of seeking understanding and of creating a dramatic picture of life in an "ideal" society.