The Classical Quarterly (New Series)

Research Article

Did Plato Write Socratic Dialogues?

Charles H. Kahna1

a1 University of Pennsylvania

My title is deliberately provocative, since I want to challenge both the chronology and the philosophical interpretation generally accepted for the dialogues called Socratic. I am not primarily interested in questions of chronology, or even in Plato's intellectual ‘development’. But the chronological issues are clear-cut, and it will be convenient to deal with them first. My aim in doing so will be to get at more interesting questions concerning philosophical content and literary design.

Interpreters should perhaps think more often about such questions as: Why did Plato write dialogues after all? Why does a little dialogue like the Laches have such a stellar cast, with so many major figures from Athenian history? Why does Plato re-create the schoolboy atmosphere of the Charmides and Lysis? Why does he compose such a large and vivid fencing-match between Socrates and the long-dead Protagoras, in a conversation supposed to have taken place before Plato himself was born? The view which I wish to challenge tends to assume that Plato's motivation in such dialogues was primarily historical: to preserve and defend the memory of Socrates by representing him as faithfully as possible. From this it would seem to follow that the philosophic content of these dialogues must be Socrates' own philosophy, which Plato has piously preserved somewhat in the way that Arrian has preserved the teachings of Epictetus. The counterpart assumption tends to be that when Plato ceases to write as an historian he writes like any other philosopher: using Socrates as a mouthpiece to express whatever philosophical doctrines Plato himself holds at the time of writing.