Spinoza presented his work in a proposition/theorem format following Euclid, presumably to varnish his work in the seemingly eternal verities of mathematics.

Is there any significance as to why Plato presented his work mainly as dialogues? Or does it simply reflect that the pre-eminant artform of the time was the theatre, so varnishing his work with the glamour of the theatre. Are his works, not dialogues, but actually a play, where the dramatic tension is not provided by the human condition, but the condition of philosophy?


The SEP entry on rhetoric & poetry in Plato confirms my characterisation of his dialogues as drama:

Plato's remarkable philosophical rhetoric incorporates elements of poetry. Most obviously, his dialogues are dramas with several formal features in common with much tragedy and comedy (for example, the use of authorial irony, the importance of plot, setting, the role of individual character and the interplay between dramatis personae). No character called “Plato” ever says a word in his texts. His works also narrate a number of myths, and sparkle with imagery, simile, allegory, and snatches of meter and rhyme. Indeed, as he sets out the city in speech in the Republic, Socrates calls himself a myth teller.

  • I like to imagine that dialogue reveals at least one powerful interpretation of "what philosophy is": [a form of art][1], in which questions are the medium. I've nothing to back that up with, though- which is why I'm commenting, instead of answering. :) [1]: rationallyspeaking.blogspot.de/2013/05/philosophy-as-art.html
    – Ryder
    Aug 2, 2014 at 16:59
  • @Ryder: or perhaps the 'drama' of philosophy :). Aug 20, 2014 at 0:27

4 Answers 4


i would agree that it is an extension of the socio/cultural context within which Plato existed, but i don't think it was done to endow his work with a glamour, or to approach the subject matter he addresses through some kind of artistic enterprise. It would be interesting to do a McLuhan style analysis of how the dialogic form of expression impacts its reception, but I think a better way to look at it is to consider the way the Greek's viewed truth not so much as a corrospondence between propositions and states of affairs, but as something to be produced through rigourous adherence to the various principals (temperance, etc) thought to be conducive to its realisation. Foucault has written many things relevant to this question, for eg., but most of all his analysis in The Order of Things of the Greek conception of truth would be useful for investigating the significance of the form which Plato's work takes

  • Its interesting you brought up McLuhan, as I was musing on his the 'medium is the message' when I asked the question. What do you mean by 'rigourous adherence to the various principals (temperance, etc) thought to be conducive to its realisation'? Jun 11, 2012 at 19:48
  • i mean the tendency for much of Greek truths to conform much more to the the form 'how to' rather than 'what is' .. the ethic of temperence was for many a thinker of that age a 'truth' which informed action, so rather than being an essentialist definition of phenomena it was a truth which took the form of a principle that informed conduct. Much of Greek philosophy of coarse was concerned with questions of 'what is', but i think the Socratic method was aimed at confuting peoples' certitude in the essentialist style answers given in dialogue
    – Dr Sister
    Jun 12, 2012 at 2:40
  • When I think of temperence right now I think of moderation. When you talk of the ethic of temperence are you alluding to Stoicism? Jun 12, 2012 at 18:15
  • Not really. In the Phaedo Plato says "Temperance is understood not to be carried away by the desires, but preserving a decent indifference toward them." The regulation of pleasure (sexual, degustation etc), attaining a balance between pleasure and its deferment which is optimal for bodily/mental health, and social justice
    – Dr Sister
    Jun 13, 2012 at 2:06

If you look at the role of anamnesis in Plato's epistemology, we all already know what he is going to say, at some level obscured by our personality. The Socratic method of dragging apparently already-known truths out of various people may be the only reasonable way to present them that is truly consistent with the implied theory of knowledge. In order to fall back on Socratic analysis between stories, you kind of need the Dialog format.

  • 1
    +1 Plato's use of dialog is consistent with his philosophical position that he is not teaching per se, but rather stimulating the reader's memories of a deeper Reality. Oct 2, 2014 at 17:39
  • Yeah. Mathematicians like to fall back on this form when they feel the same way -- when they want their audience to have a succession of 'aha' moments with them, and feel how natural math can be. Look at dialogues in for instance Martin Gardner and Douglas Hoffstadter, or Knuth's Surreal Numbers (or even in Galileo, though that had politics behind it). I really feel that is what Plato is after -- the feeling of now natural clear thinking can be, which is the emotional force behind something like anamnesis.
    – user9166
    Oct 2, 2014 at 17:44

There are several reasons.

First, formal logic had not been invented yet. Plato began writing by depicting conversations held by Socrates that took place prior to the invention of both Aristotelean and Stoic logics. The idea that a written work could take a geometric form would not occur for almost a hundred years after Socrates with Euclid's Elements.

Second, the spoken word was considered by most of the ancients to be preferable to the written word with regards to pedagoguery. Even more formal writings, such as Aristotle's, weren't written to be read so much as they were intended to be lecture notes. In such a world, the dialog would be a nice trade off that retains some of the features of the written word even though the work is being written.

Third, at least according to some authorities, Plato was intentionally disguising his own point of view and trying to give his readers puzzles that they would need to figure out for themselves. The dialog format is much more suited to that sort of esoteric writing than are other forms.


I see no reason to think that it is nothing other than trying to show Socrates' dialog. Even though reversals are very theatrical, I have seen them myself in intellectual disputes as well. In keeping with this it would definitely have been possible were Socrates as formidable and notable a debater as to cause the stir that he did. It would be consistent with having the head of a teaching academy want to record your discussions.

The stylizing that happens can simply be simplification from concerns about whether Plato remembers right the details Socrates told him or whether Socrates remembers them right, but simply to get to the dynamic force of the ideas that radiated from Socrates' dialectic process.

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