Tuesday, 4 August 2009

Plato’s Dialogues and The Trial of Socrates

Primary version of this post at Barry Stocker's Weblog, with picture, not just the link to it!

Image above is a drawing of the trial of Socrates

I’m being reading and making notes on Plato, as early preparation for next semester’s classes. One thing I noticed which I had not noticed before is how much of a shadow the trial of Socrates casts over the dialogues. We have Plato’s account of the trial, The Apology, the Euthyphro dialogue for shortly before the trial, the Crito for the gap between trial and execution by forced suicide, and the Phaedo for Socrates speaking just before death. Not only that, but Theaetetus is set shortly before the trial, Meno includes a speaker who was one of Socrates’ accusers. Going a bit beyond that, Phaedrus refers to the dangers of legal speeches, Symposium features the comic dramatist Aristophanes who contributed to the destruction of Socrates’ reputation in The Clouds. I’m sure there are many other moments of foreshadowing of the trial, and related issues in the dialogues. This observation does not draw attention to anything new about Socrates about Plato, but I have started to think more about how these dialogues, and all Plato’s dialogues may be connected with the great debate of Socrates’ trial. The trial represents the decadence of Athenian democracy for Plato, where bad arguments have triumphed over reason in the chaos of democratic opinion mongering and money grabbing. However, if Socrates’ dialogues stands in contrast to the spiteful speeches at the trial, they are deeply embedded in the democratic discourse of Athens. How could these dialogues exist in any other culture, they need a context of irrational democratic manipulation . That’s what happens when anything goes in democratic debate, there is a space for anything goes philosophical debate.

Plato’s Socratic dialogues ironically comment on the degenerate dialogue of the trial, but are also dependent on such events, on such unlimited verbal nastiness and trickery.

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