Dialogues Teach Us
In an earlier essay, we saw that in Plato's dialogues Socrates practiced an extraordinary kind of shared mystical experience in which he served as a psychagogic midwife, overseeing the process of the divulgence of, the bringing into being of, new elements: ideas, feelings, inspirations, understandings, and images.
This process, known as dialectic (maieutic psychagogy), is an interpersonal activity in which the leader and participants enter a higher state of consciousness, allowing psychic material to flow through them.
They fly by the seat of their pants, not following a script. They gain union with their Higher Self and create new understanding by the interaction and coalescence of ideas from all active participants in the interchange.
A person could certainly write a description or a record of this phenomenon of maieutic psychagogy--as Plato did in his dialogues. But it's factually impossible to write a spiritual experience; this is something which can only be lived.
Even though the process of dialectic cannot be written--since it must be experienced--the results, the transcript of dialectic interchanges, can be recorded in written form. That is precisely what Plato's dialogues are: written chronicles of prior dialogical experiences, containing an important new kind of knowledge acquired through dialectic.
Some scholastics and academics have completely misconstrued Plato's statements concerning writing, assuming that he means that nothing of any importance can be recorded in a written form. What he was saying--on the contrary--was that the PROCESS of maieutic psychagogy, dialectic--cannot be transmitted through writing, since it requires that a person actually experience the procedure.
Plato would not have written his dialogues and letters had he believed that writing could not transmit something of value. It was just that writing cannot impart the essential process--dialectic--through which genuine knowledge is initially divulged. This experience must be undergone, lived through.
At the beginning of a dialectic process, none of the participants "knows" consciously "the answer or answers." The "answer" or "solution" or "hypothesis" is a joint creation or discovery or invention produced in the process.
Dialectic is a process of bringing to birth realities, ideas, and images we do not know are within us or which come into being in the process--like a cake, which did not exist as a cake before the process of mixing, cooking, and baking took place.
Dialectic is joint inspiration, the sharing and mixing of intuitions to produce a new understanding. It is a discovery of something you have only a vague intimation of at the beginning. The special process used in dialectic--called elenchus-- 1 is a unique kind of ritual in the sense of a process evoking spiritual presence or power or knowledge.
What Is Plato Doing In His Dialogues?
As dialectic was extraordinary shared mystical experiences, orchestrated by Socrates, we can expect the written record of these events to contain exceptional--and veiled--features.
We often misread the dialogues as though they were merely ordinary conversations, arguments, or debates, and from that perspective Socrates can appear to engage in useless logic-chopping, definition-searching, and cross-examining of the other participants.
When we begin to comprehend the subtlety and profundity of Plato's thought in general, we learn to expect that his dialogues would have been constructed with the utmost care in conveying recondite 2 meanings. Once we understand what is actually going on in Plato's dialogues--what and how he is teaching us--every discrete element in the dialectical interchange is seen to have a specific meaning and purpose.
To understand Plato's dialogues, we'll need to shift mental gears in several different ways. As we discovered in an earlier essay, the essence of Plato's philosophy was an ongoing battle against exactly the same kind of twisted, unreal, counterfeit world that we presently face in the twenty-first century. Philosophy--the search for wisdom and truth--arises out of the resistance of the soul to its destruction by a perverted world. The situation Plato faced--and we now face--is the life-or-death of our very being.
Secondly, we must approach the dialogues as "situational learning" phenomena.
"This new technique of teaching and learning presents situations which provide the student a certain form of experience that can assist in our self-transformation. Of course the situations do not possess a mechanistic magic; they cannot change us automatically. We must use them in order to explore and transform ourselves. At the same time, however, the form of experience the situations provide can begin to affect us in ways which we may not at first recognize. As we participate in the situational learning experiences, we may find ourselves changing in ways which our old categories and feelings cannot explain."
Norman D. Livergood, "Situational Learning" 3
We must avoid plunging heedlessly into a dialogue, assuming that a superficial reading of the words will provide insight. Approaching each dialogue with a necessary sense of respect and anticipation, it's necessary to carefully study how Plato created his dialogues to encourage specific transformative responses in the reader/listener.
We'll discover that he carefully selected specific details of character, behavior, wording, sequence, interaction, and implication. The structure of Plato's dialogues indicates their genius: we gain an understanding of fundamental concepts by bringing into dialectical juxtaposition the best ideas of the false world and the best ideas of the world of truth.
In this essay, we'll examine in detail two specific dialogues--the Laches and the Meno--to illustrate the important elements involved in what Plato's dialogues teach us and how they teach us. The Laches 4 is presented in a separate window (which you may want to leave active to refer back to as needed); the salient parts of the Meno are provided in a link-out later in the essay.
Laches or Courage
We begin our study of the Laches by scrutinizing its name and the cast of characters. We're studying the virtue named courage. The seven persons present on this occasion are two older men, their sons, their guests--two army generals--and Socrates.
It appears to be a good choice of persons with whom to attempt to understand the essence of courage. The two older men were sons of famous--and courageous--fathers, but they themselves were spoiled to the point that they have done little if anything courageous in their lives. They wish their sons to acquire positive qualities and since they cannot learn these from their fathers' example, they're asking the two army generals and Socrates how they might help in the positive development of their sons by other means, possibly learning to fight in armor.
We begin, then, with two older men who demonstrate some amount of courage by openly admitting that they have not lived very wisely, that they are concerned for their sons' well-being, and are seeking advice from persons they consider to be knowledgeable and honest. Lysimachus and Melesias believe that Laches and Nisias can be courageous enough to speak truthfully when asked for their advice--not merely giving an answer to please the petitioners.
Laches also mentions that he had fought with Socrates in the battle of Delium and can testify to Socrates' courage in warfare.
Melesias' son Thucydides is named after his grandfather, an interesting detail which Plato has crafted into the drama.
Hence we have an interesting name to include in the mix of the dialogue: a participant is named after a famous Athenian whose courage had been questioned in regard to his losing an important battle. But even after being exiled, he had shown courage by writing an outstanding history which presented what he considered to be the truth, not just an account pleasing to those in power.
The historical Thucydides, an Athenian aristocrat, was probably in his late twenties at the time the Peloponnesian War began. He realized its importance from the beginning and began planning to write its history. In 424 BCE, (twenty years before the war ended in the defeat of Athens), Thucydides had been elected an Athenian general, and for failing to prevent the loss of an important city to the Spartans was exiled from Athens, whether justly or not.
He spent the rest of the War collecting data and talking with participants in the various military maneuvers, writing the most famous account of the war between Athens and Sparta, History of the Peloponnesian War. Herodotus, writing a few decades earlier than Thucydides, recorded almost all he heard, whether he believed it himself or not, producing a very questionable historical record. Thucydides stands at the other pole; he gathers all available evidence, then shapes his account to emphasize the truth in strict adherence to carefully verified facts.
Lysimachus' son Aristides is also named after his famous grandfather. Aristides had not only been a very courageous military leader but a fair and equitable administrator--so much so that he had been called "Aristides the Just." When exiled unjustly by Themistocles, Aristides did not hold a grudge against his detractor. Thus we have in this case not only an example of courage but of courage with justice and equanimity.
Keeping in mind that Plato is operating at a higher metaphysical and spiritual level in the dialogues, we carefully peruse all the veiled or implied elements as well as those on the surface.
How Is Plato Teaching Us In His Dialogues?
In the Laches, Socrates appears to be having an ordinary discussion with four other participants, seeking answers to specific questions and definitions of certain terms.
But from the very beginning, Socrates makes it clear that the dialectical investigation is much more than a superficial disputation and that the goal of the dialogue is actually to understand the essence of a kind of knowledge of which the purpose is the betterment of the souls of the two youths in specific and human souls in general.
The surface question--Should the sons of Lysimachus and Melesias be taught the art of fighting in armor?--is not the real goal of this dialectical investigation. The superficial interpretation of the phenomenon as an instance of argumentation is a complete distortion of what is in actuality a shared mystical experience.
Though the dialogue is conducted through the use of words, the ultimate purpose of the dialectical investigation is not to discover the definitions or meanings of words. 5 The purpose of the elenctic process is:
Socrates' orchestration of the dialogue involves persons referring to their ordinary experience; for example, their experience in battle or their ordinary understanding of words and concepts. But Socrates's purpose is to move the participants--and us readers/listeners--beyond the ordinary world of meanings and experiences to a higher state of awareness.
- Understanding the essence of a metaphysical Form: in this instance, courage
- Self-understanding and self-improvement on the part of the participants
- Revealing inconsistent, unproductive, or thoughtless beliefs, characteristics, or behaviors to establish true and sound understandings and behaviors
- Purging the soul of internal and external obstacles that interfere with learning
- Becoming aware of one's ignorance and redirecting oneself towards a virtuous life, beneficial to one's soul
A Platonic dialogue is--from one aspect--a kind of litmus test 6 to determine the quality of the reader or listener. To a non-enlightened and self-satisfied person reading or listening to a dialogue, it can seem to prove the utter futility of abstract argumentation and definition-seeking. To that kind of person, the dialogue will appear to have no relevance or applicability to him and he may then assume that philosophy in general is a useless waste of time.
The failed interpretations of Plato's dialogues cover a wide range and always tell more about the interpreter than the dialogue. For example, most academic "philosophers" misconstrue Plato's dialogues as nothing more than arguments or debates, with Socrates "cross-examining" and belittling the other participants. At the same time, some of these pedants assume that Plato was setting out a system of doctrines in his dialogues.
I would agree with Gonzalez 7 when he asks: "Can there be any form of writing less suited to presenting a systematic philosophy than Plato's dramatic dialogues?"
"We find the seeds of all philosophical systems in Plato's thought, without it itself being one of these systems; it is the idea of philosophy, the crucible in which the different forms of philosophy are born, the unchanging sun in the middle of philosophy's planetary movements and formations. . . . Plato philosophizes where others indoctrinate, he lifts one's spirit to the pure essence of the Idea where others degrade and confine it to the letter of a system. This is why Platonism is the very spirit of philosophy or Philosophy Itself."
Friedrich Ast, Geschichte und System der Platonism Philosophie
Instead of presenting a system of doctrines, Socrates leads the participants in the dialogue (and us the reader/listener) into a higher state of awareness. He begins by encouraging Laches and Nicias to act on their assumption that they possess sufficient experience and knowledge to give competent advice about how young men should be educated.
Laches and Nicias are quite eager to give advice to Lysimachus and Melesias, presuming that their merely possessing experience and some sense of what a word like "courage" means is sufficient qualification to give expert advice.
Socrates encourages Laches and Nicias to launch into their advice-giving, but it soon becomes clear to all the participants that the two equally "experienced experts" have arrived at loggerheads, disagreeing completely as to how to educate young men.
Plato is showing that even the most experienced--and most presumptuous--persons do not have the special kind of knowledge required to assist in the improvement of the human soul. The dialectical process he is orchestrating will ultimately lead to that kind of knowledge, which in part will consist in having rid oneself of pretension of knowledge or skill which one does not actually possess.
Socrates is dealing with four persons who come to the dialogue with specific assumptions and pretensions. For example, Lysimachus and Melesias assume that mere experience, on the part of Laches and Nicias, is an adequate basis for being able to provide sound advice about educating young boys. Now that Laches and Nicias have come to a point of disagreement, Lysimachus assumes that this is a mere dispute that can be settled by majority vote and asks Socrates to cast his.
At this point, Socrates shows that a mere majority vote does not lead to the kind of knowledge they are after, that a person's opinion--to be useful--must be based on genuine understanding. Socrates also takes this occasion to show that the surface question about whether or not the sons should learn how to fight in armor is not the main concern; that they are actually pursuing the understanding of what kind of knowledge enables a person to assist in the betterment of the human soul.
Socrates now addresses another assumption which Lysimachus and Melesias as well as Laches and Nicias hold: that genuine knowledge can be gained by studying with sophists, the only teachers who claim to teach how to improve the human soul. Socrates says, ironically, that he has never been taught by sophists, because he is too poor to pay their fees. Part of the reason Nicias presumes that he has knowledge of such a word as "courage" is that he has studied with the sophist Damon.
Laches, Nicias, and Socrates now agree that a person who has the knowledge of how to improve the human soul should be able to demonstrate that they possess this knowledge. They also agree that such knowledge requires virtue and that the specific virtue they should try to comprehend is courage. Socrates now begins to work with another assumption of Laches and Nicias: that an understanding of a virtue such as courage is demonstrated by being able to arrive at a consistent definition of the word "courage."
Laches suggests that endurance is always a factor in courage and Socrates shows that that is not the case--that sometimes retreat is a real sign of courage. Socrates agrees, however, that endurance can sometimes be an aspect of courageous behavior, and suggests that their persisting in dialectical inquiry is a way of understanding and demonstrating courage. "We are gaining the understanding of the knowledge required for helping to improve human souls by what we are ourselves doing in this process of dialectic," Socrates is saying.
And Plato is saying: "You readers of this dialectical investigation, by your perseverance in studying what's happening in this written dialogue, are developing an experiential understanding of yourselves (e.g. how easy it is to be put off by long passages of text) and of higher Ideas such as Courage. You're observing Socrates acknowledge that he doesn't have a definitional knowledge of 'courage'--which most people take to be a necessary sign of possessing courage."
"While yet respecting the literary form of the Dialogues as exhibitive construction, we could say that the real subject-matter of most of the dialogues is at least as much education in the dialectical process as it is inquiry into specific philosophical problems. From the very lack of philosophical closure that characterizes many of the Dialogues, we may again observe that instruction in the dialectical method may often be their primary purpose." David Fortunoff, "Dialogue, Dialectic, and Maieutic: Plato's Dialogues As Educational Models"
Nicias persists in believing that a person can only be said to possess courage if he can provide a workable definition of the word. He also believes that one attains a virtue such as courage by having theoretical knowledge of it. He then demonstrates, he believes, that he has courage by offering his definition of courage as knowledge of what is to be dreaded or dared either in war or in anything else. Socrates shows Nicias that what he is really saying is that courage is knowledge not merely of what is to be dreaded and what dared, but practically a knowledge concerning all goods and evils at every stage. Socrates then shows that this definition of courage means that it consists in all virtues--and therefore is not a proper definition of a specific virtue called courage.
" Socrates . . . has the courage of recognizing . . . his own vulnerability before the truth. His courage is inseparable from his confession of ignorance. . . He has the courage to risk inquiring beyond experience, to seek knowledge actively, despite the recognition that this knowledge will never provide the victory of complete mastery nor dispel ignorance once for all." 8
To the participants in the dialogue Socrates is saying, "we've experienced that the knowledge required for helping to improve human souls--our true goal--cannot be attained by trying to define a word such as 'courage,' is not a technical knowledge attained by being taught by self-appointed experts such as the sophists, and is not even gained by being able to demonstrate it in specific behaviors. The knowledge we seek can only be attained by the dialectical process we're engaged in: opening ourselves to inspiration from our Higher Consciousness, admitting and acknowledging our false presumption of knowledge, and persevering in a genuine search for experiential understanding of a Higher Idea."
The outcome of the dialogue Laches for the original participants--as it should be for us as well--is that in light of our continual discovery of new areas of ignorance--through dialectic--we all should continue to search for wisdom.
"God has not vouchsafed to His creatures any means of attaining unto knowledge of Him except through impotence to attain unto knowledge of Him."
Hujwiri, Revelation of the Veiled Mysteries
How Plato Teaches in the Meno
To begin, you'll want to bring up the extra window containing the relevant excerpt from the Meno and read through the entire document to see how Socrates teaches a young slave boy by eliciting his intuitive memory of geometrical realities.
Mathematics and especially geometry were seen by such Perennialist teachers as Pythagoras and Plato as among the most effective means of understanding and entering a spiritual realm composed of eternal, unchanging (invariant) Forms or Ideas. The world of mathematics is one where all entities are defined and if we follow its principles then our conclusions are unequivocal. We say that it is a "closed" world--because most of its elements are defined, but we must remember that the world of mathematics also contains symbols which point beyond it: irrational numbers, transcendental numbers, infinity, point, zero, etc.
Plato begins his teaching at this point in the Meno by asserting that all learning is recollection. He bases this on the idea that the human soul is immortal and having seen all things that exist, whether in this world or in the higher world, has knowledge of everything. If we want to learn about something, we must go to that source of all knowledge: the human soul. Since the human soul already possesses all knowledge, then true learning must be recollection.
The dialogue had begun with an investigation of the Idea, Virtue, with Meno, a sophist, asking a rhetorical question: How can we investigate Virtue if we don't already know what virtue is? Socrates answers that we can investigate Forms--eternal Ideas--because our soul already possesses all knowledge.
To demonstrate his point--and lead Meno further into the dialectical process--he shows that a slave boy, untutored in geometry already has an intuitive knowledge of some aspects of geometry. As we read the account of Socrates' teaching the slave boy, we come to the same interesting point that we did in studying the Laches: the actual goal of the investigation is something which cannot be known through ordinary experience.
In the Laches we saw that the knowledge of how to improve the human soul cannot be known through defining the word "courage," receiving training in courage from self-appointed pseudo-experts (sophists), or speaking of or demonstrating instances of courageous behavior. In the Meno, Socrates, Meno, and the young slave boy are investigating a phenomenon that is equally "unknowable:" the length of the side of a square containing eight square feet is an irrational number: the square root of 8.
Engaging the young boy in the process of dialectic brings him to the point where he can recognize the correct answer to the problem, even though he cannot state the length of the sides in numbers (since it is an irrational number). And the young lad also arrives at a very positive state of consciousness in which he recognizes his ignorance (of how to quantify the sides of the square) and is eager to learn the answer. The slave boy's attitude is in sharp contrast to that of Meno, who continues to demonstrate a presumptuous and arrogant air of self-importance which means that he cannot possibly learn anything.
As we saw with courage in the Laches, we now find in the Meno: by engaging in the process of dialectic (maieutic psychagogy), we learn to acknowledge and admit our ignorance and persevere in seeking true understanding.
What the young slave boy recognized is something which cannot be taught. He could be required to memorize the answers to problems--the counterfeit method used in pseudo-education in America today. But he would not know anything; he would merely be a persons stuffed with other peoples' ideas and "knowledge." Socrates demonstrated that the slave boy already had an intuitive knowledge of elementary aspects of geometry; learning is remembering.
"Most of the points I have made in support of my argument are not such as I can confidently assert; but that the belief in the duty of inquiring after what we do not know will make us better and braver and less helpless than the notion that there is not even a possibility of discovering what we do not know, nor any duty of inquiring after it--this is a point for which I am determined to do battle, so far as I am able, both in word and deed."
As we study Plato's dialogues, it becomes increasingly clear that Socrates was a truly advanced Perennialist teacher who was able to induce participants in a elenctic inquiry into a higher state of consciousness. Socrates' powers of dialectical initiation were truly magical. We can gain a sense of this magic through this newly-constructed dialogue.
A New Platonic Dialogue: Aristocles 9
Persons of the dialogue:
Perictionè, Aristocles, Glaucon, Adeimantus, Socrates
Perictionè, the mother, and her three sons, Aristocles, Glaucon, and Adeimantus, are conversing in their living room.
Perictionè: Shortly before his death, my good husband Ariston, and your father, wrote a binding will spelling out what properties should be left to you, his sons. Being an exceptionally wise man, Ariston wrote in his will that he was dividing his estates between you in such a way as to insure that you, his sons, would find a truly initiated man to be your teacher and guide.
Along with the homestead which he deeded to me, your father left seventeen estates between you and decreed in his will that these properties should be divided among you in a very definite manner. None of the properties was to be sold before the division of properties was completed. Your father's will expressly stated that you, Aristocles, the oldest, should have half, Glaucon, the middle in age, one-third, and you, Adeimantus, the youngest, should have one-ninth.
However, since your father's death, we have invited over two dozen persons claiming to be advanced teachers and none of them has been able to divide the estates between you in the apportionment set out in your father's will.
Adeimantus: Perhaps we should sell the estates after all, and divide the sum of money in the fractions our father has set out.
Glaucon: No, our attorney tells us that this would invalidate the will.
Aristocles: The teachers you have invited, mother, though all possessing grand reputations, have all been sophists, as these are the most public teachers in Athens. Perhaps we should inquire of a teacher who is not a sophist.
Perictionè: Who do you suggest, Aristocles?
Aristocles: I have been studying for a short while with a teacher named Socrates, and I have asked him here today to see if he can solve the riddle of our father's bequest.
Perictionè: Excellent, I have heard that Socrates is a wise teacher. Perhaps he can find the solution to the enigma after all.
Socrates is announced by a servant and enters the room.
Perictionè: Welcome, Socrates. It is our fond hope that you can find a resolution to this conundrum. It appears that only a teacher who is also a magician can solve the enigma.
Socrates: I do not claim to be a magician, Madame, but I will do my best. Tell me how your husband's will decreed that the apportionment of properties is to be made.
Perictionè tells Socrates of the details of Ariston's will.
Socrates muses for a few moments, then speaks to Aristocles.
Socrates: You have been studying with me for a short while, is that not true?
Aristocles: Yes, for just a little over two months.
Socrates: Do not your friends call you Plato, because you have a wide frame--and a broad turn of mind?
Aristocles (somewhat embarrassed): Yes, they have given me that nickname.
Socrates: Then you and your brothers follow my way of thinking in this matter, and I believe we can arrive at a solution to the problem of your father's bequest.
Everyone is excited by Socrates' statement.
Socrates: Glaucon, we will first add my own estate to the seventeen your father has left you three brothers. That will then make how many estates to be divided among you?
Glaucon: Eighteen in total.
Socrates (to Perictionè): Did your husband's will disallow the adding of an estate to the sum he left his sons?
Perictionè: No, there was no such stipulation.
Socrates: Now, Adeimantus, you were to receive what fraction of your father's estates?
Socrates: And one-ninth of eighteen is how many?
Socrates: And you, Glaucon, were to receive what fraction?
Socrates: And one-third of eighteen is what amount?
Socrates: Finally, you, Plato, were to receive what fraction of the estates?
Aristocles: Half, which is nine.
Socrates: Excellent. Then, Plato, what is the sum of 2, 6, and 9?
Socrates: And the one remaining, the eighteenth, I will reclaim as mine. And the enigma is solved.
"So Plato's dialogical method and his Socrates' psychagogically taught dialectical method were maieutic in that, as communicative media, they mimed and put on display the Socratic method. Plato modeled a dialectical process of coming-to-know that seeks afresh, for each inquiry-occasion, what actions might be apposite ('right'). The Socratic method is creative insofar as it produced cognitive gain or a changed perspective. It guides us anew each time to just and right human responses. It provides the guidance for initiatory responses demanded by each uniquely evolving occasion one faces. The 'novelties' devised by Socratic dialectic and Platonic dialogical art are representations of the creative, artistic aspect of philosophy. They characterize and imbue intellectual experience with an excitement, a kind of intellectual 'fun,' that shows itself through the avid reader-responses the Dialogues still command."
David Fortunoff, "Dialogue, Dialectic, and Maieutic"
Plato's Dialogues As Educational Models
1 Elenchus comes from the Greek word for "examine" or "investigate." In both the Meno and Book I of the Commonwealth (commonly mistranslated as The Republic), Plato compares elenchus to a Mystery initiation ritual, indicating that it plays a complex role in the experience of the teacher and student. Elenchus is today frequently misdefined as "cross-examination" or "refutation." It's actually the process of revealing inconsistent, unproductive, or thoughtless beliefs, characteristics, or ideas and establishing true and sound understandings. Socrates' elenchus revealed self-contradictions in the participants' positions to guard against taking another person as an expert when he wasn't. It also revealed beliefs the participants didn't know they had. In Plato's dialogues, elenchus involves purging the soul of internal and external obstacles that interfere with learning. The purpose of elenchus was to help the participant become aware of his ignorance and redirect him towards a virtuous life, beneficial to his soul.
2 Recondite: hidden from sight, concealed; difficult or impossible for one of ordinary understanding or knowledge to comprehend
[Merriam Webster's Collegiate Dictionary, tenth edition]
3 See: Norman D. Livergood, "Situational Learning," Humanist Educator, 1977
4 As usual, I have fashioned my own translation of the dialogue from the original Greek text.
5 The dialogue Laches ends with no agreed-on definition of courage. Plato would not have crafted a dialogue merely to show Socrates' failure to arrive at a definition; the purpose of the dialogue is clearly something other than that.
6 Litmus test: the use of an element, such as a treated paper or a specially constructed psychological inventory, to determine if a decisive quality or potency is present or not
7 Gonzalez, Francisco J., Dialectic and Dialogue: Plato's Practice of Philosophical Inquiry, 1998, p. 4
8 Ibid,, p. 37
9 Adapted from the Sufi story "Dividing Camels," presented by Idries Shah in Thinkers of the East