Thursday, May 3, 2007

Socratic Dialogue and Drama

I started following Andrew Keen's Great Seduction blog with at least a mild amount of interest. So when he threw down a gauntlet that was right up my alley (an interesting mix of metaphors, no doubt), I took it as an excuse to get into his comment space. However, since much of what I wrote there bears heavily on much of what I write here, I figure I ought to provide an edited replay at this site.

The question that had been placed on Andrew's table was why there was no Socratic dialogue on the Internet. Andrew made some interesting points, even if he got off to a glib start:

It's because Socrates doesn't have a blog. And it's also because the Internet is particularly ill suited to Socratic dialogue. Socrates loathed print media. God knows what he would think of the anonymity of the blogosphere. The reason why Socrates' dialogues work is that, in his circle, everyone knew everyone else. It was, in Web 2.0 speak, "full disclosure." Thus the most memorable dialogues -- Socrates' intensely polemical encounter with Thrasymachus in The Republic, for example -- come with the full weight of two lives led in perpetual intellectual disagreement. Could Socrates' conversation with Thrasymachus be replayed on the anonymous blogosphere? I doubt it.

Needless to say, the best way to respond to someone who has actually read Plato is by drawing upon your own readings of Plato. Here is the heart of my comment (slightly edited):

I would like to argue that Socratic dialog cannot be found because, like it or not, it is a literary artifact! Plato was not some glorified court stenographer, following after Socrates and his coterie, scrupulously committing every word to recorded text. He was an author with a keen sense of dramatism, and you find it in all stages of his work. My personal favorite is the framework that surrounds Socrates' dialog with Theaetetus over the nature of knowledge, which begins with Theaetetus' bloody corpse being brought back from battle and ends with the memory that the dialog took place just before Socrates' went off to his trial. So much for what we learned about knowledge in that conversation!

In all fairness I have to admit that I was influenced in this idea of viewing Plato as being as much a dramatist as he was a philosopher. Back when I was living in Los Angeles, there was a small theater group that did a word-for-word staging of the "Symposium;" and, to this day, I regret missing any of the performances! However, having adopted this perspective, I think it is also important to note that the narrative element can also be found in Plato's letters, particularly the wish-I-had-a-wonderful-time letter he wrote to the "friends and companions of Dion" after he managed to get out of Syracuse with his skin intact!

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