How to do dialectics with rhetoric?

How to do dialectics with rhetoric?
Socrates’ use and transformation of rhetorical discourse in Plato’s Symposium.


By Christian Keime – paper given at the international symposium “Plato and Rhetoric” – Keio University (Tokyo), 25-27 April 2014



Despite appearances, the Symposium is not entirely dedicated to rhetoric: dialectic in this dialogue takes up as much room as in the Gorgias and the Phaedrus, since Socrates’ praise of eros proves to be in a dialectical relationship with the ciselyvious discourses. This dialectical relationship has two aspects: (1) a conversational side: as well as the figure of the dialectician who interrogates his audience, Socrates borrows many ideas from the orators who praised eros before him; (2) a logical side: Socrates corrects these ideas by defining them as the dialectician usually does, that is, by dividing and unifying kat’ eidê.



Plato’s Symposium consists almost exclusively in rhetorical discourses, which praise eros or Socrates. This feature has led commentators to hold two dominant views about Plato’s conception of rhetoric in this dialogue:

The first view is that the Symposium displays brilliant examples of rhetorical practice, but scarcely provides any theoretical account of what rhetoric really is, with the exception of the brief clarification Socrates makes at the outset of his discourse (198c-199b: see TEXT 8): a good rhetorician, Socrates says, should tell the truth and not praise his subject matter in an unqualified sense. Hence, paradoxically enough, interpreters often neglect the Symposium when they investigate Plato’s view of rhetoric.[1] Those who take this text into account concentrate on Socrates’ discourse and comment on it in the light of Socrates’ short theoretical explanation aforementioned: they take it as an exemplary case of philosophical rhetoric, entirely committed to the expression of truth[2].

The second commonly held view is that, whereas in the Phaedrus or the Gorgias Socrates develops his reflection on rhetoric through a reflection on dialectic, either to oppose the two practices (Gorgias) or to reconcile them (Phaedrus), the Symposium only gives voice to rhetorical discourse. For once, Socrates seems to discard the form of speech and thought he always advocates as the best way of doing philosophy: τὸ διαλέγεσθαι.[3]

The aim of this paper is to qualify both of these views: (1) I shall argue that the Symposium provides more theory of rhetoric than would appear at first reading, and that this theory is not confined to the requirement that the philosopher tell the truth. (2) I would also like to show that, despite appearances, dialectic takes up a lot of room in the Symposium. The two arguments are closely connected: in my view, Plato demonstrates that, in order to act as a philosopher, the rhetorician must not only tell the truth, but, more generally, act as a dialectician; he must integrate the devices and the purposes of dialectic into his rhetorical practice.


I. Definitions

Before turning to the Symposium, however, let us provide a brief account of what Plato means by “rhetoric” (ῥητορικὴ τέχνη) and “dialectic” (διαλεκτικὴ τέχνη, or more commonly διαλέγεσθαι[4]).

  1. Dialectic

διαλέγεσθαι or διαλεκτικός, may refer in Plato to two distinct things: a communicational or conversational activity and an intellectual or logical operation. The first meaning amounts to the current meaning of διαλέγεσθαι in ancient Greek: discussing together, particularly through the means of questioning (See TEXT 1: in the Cratylus (390c), Socrates says that he who knows how to question (ἐρωτᾶν) and to answer (ἀποκρίνεσθαι) deserves to be called διαλεκτικόν).

But, as the Republic and the Sophist put it (see TEXTS 2), to be διαλεκτικός is also to be able to find the truth about an idea (particularly the idea of Good) thanks to a logical operation: one must determine to which species (εἴδη, or γένη) the object belongs, by noticing the differences between these species (through the operation of distinction, διαίρεσις), as well as their common points (through collection, συναγωγή).[5]

Though these two aspects of διαλέγεσθαι may appear heterogeneous, Plato brings out their intimate connection.[6] In the dialogues, Socrates does not merely undertake to show the logical definitions and distinctions he has elaborated, particularly about what is good or not, he also and above all tries to convince his interlocutors that these distinctions hold, so that they behave morally well. In the Gorgias for example, Socrates elaborates the logical distinction between ἐμπειρίαι and τέχναι to highlight the nature of rhetoric as it is commonly practised by Gorgias and his pupils: this rhetoric, which is characterized as a mere ἐμπειρία, must be opposed to the true rhetoric, which belongs to the class of “τέχναι”. Socrates does not elaborate these distinctions for the sake of reasoning logically. He wants to persuade his interlocutors to discard their current practice of rhetoric and become true rhetoricians, searching for the definition of justice and teaching it to their pupils. And to achieve persuasion Socrates must submit his interlocutors to the conversational practice of διαλέγεσθαι, which basically consists in having the interlocutor speak his mind at every stage of the examination. At first the interlocutors state an opinion, which will be submitted to examination (e.g. rhetoric, as it is practised, is the best of all activities). During the examination, by answering the dialectician, they get an insight into the real nature of rhetoric (which appears, thanks to the distinction mentioned above, as a mere ἐμπειρία). By the end, they are led to acknowledge that they did not know the definition of what they argued about (rhetoric), and that, in the light of the newly coined definition, they should radically correct their initial statement (rhetoric, as it is currently practised, is bad, and a true rhetorician should search instead for the definition of justice). During the whole examination, nobody has been called as witness to the argument except the interlocutor himself (see TEXT 3).[7] Since, by answering to the dialectician, the interlocutor has finally rejected his initial statement, he is bound to the conclusion of the examination. After transforming his logos, he must transform his life. As Socrates’ purpose is not merely scientific but also ethical and protreptic, he cannot confine himself to the logical practice of reasoning as we find it depicted by the Stranger of Elea in the Sophist. He must implement this logical operation into the frame of a conversation.[8] Both processes of defining things κατ᾽εἴδη and having the interlocutor speak are congenial: in Plato, the dialectician aims to bring out the truth through the words of his interlocutor.

  1. Rhetoric

By using the Gorgias as an exemplary case to account for dialectic, we have already gained some insight into Plato’s view of rhetoric: rhetoric is a twofold matter (διπλοῦς, 503a). The bad side of it is the existing rhetoric, whose purpose is to flatter the audience (κολακικὴ ῥητορικὴ). The good side of it is the true rhetoric (ἀληθινὴ ῥητορικὴ, 517a), which knows the nature of justice and aims to educate the audience, rendering their souls just and temperate (504d). I wish to show briefly that, in the Gorgias as well as in the Phaedrus, Plato’s theory of good and bad rhetoric is deeply connected to his view of dialectic. Existing rhetoric is bad because it lacks both features that characterize dialectic, namely the definition through division (the logical feature) and the expression and examination of the personal views of the audience (the communicational feature). And when Socrates designs an ideal rhetoric, he supplements the existing rhetoric with these two dialectical features.

a. The logical feature

Let us start with the logical feature. At the outset of the Gorgias, Chaerephon begins to interrogate Polos about the nature of Gorgias’ art. Socrates cuts the discussion short on the grounds that Polos did not answer Chaerephon’s question: “what is rhetoric?” Instead, Polos praised rhetoric, and this neglect of the “what is X?” question, Socrates says, is characteristic of those who are less exercised in διαλέγεσθαι than in “what we call rhetoric” (τὴν καλουμένην ῥητορικὴν, 448d, see TEXT 4).[9]

But when he comes to envisage a true or ideal rhetorician, Socrates endows him with the skills of the dialectician that Polos proved to be deprived of: the orator must know the truth, particularly when it comes to justice.[10] This ability to know the truth implies that in his speech the good rhetorician can separate species and gather individual things into classes, as Socrates himself does in the Phaedrus: each one of his two discourses on eros reveals one part of eros (μέρος, εἶδος, 265e-266a). And commenting afterwards on his own rhetorical practice (see TEXT 5), Socrates says that he engaged in the two operations of dividing and gathering (τῶν διαιρέσεων καὶ συναγωγῶν), and that the speakers who are able to do so must be called dialecticians (διαλεκτικούς, 266b-c). Thus, on a logical level Socrates assigns the capacities of the dialectician to the good orator.

b. The communicational feature

In the Phaedrus, Socrates also broaches the communicational aspect of good and bad rhetoric. Existing rhetoricians, he says, are unable to know the nature of the souls of their audience, whereas the good rhetorician must use his dialectical rationality to define the nature of the souls he addresses (see TEXT 6). Knowing to which species (εἴδη) each soul belongs, the orator will be able to adapt his discourse to it, like a good doctor who chooses his drugs according to the nature (φύσις) of his patient. In the case of the orator, the “drugs” are the convincing λόγοι through which he will be able to teach the student about what is good and what is not, and the “cure” will be the moral improvement of the soul. Like dialectic, rhetoric is a way of transforming souls by persuading them (ψυχαγωγία τις διὰ λόγων). And the means of achieving this is similar to the means employed by the dialectician. Whereas the dialectician questioned his interlocutor in order to build an argument that consisted only in the words of the interlocutor himself, the orator addresses his audience with the words and the images this audience is likely to understand and admire. He thus crafts a discourse which is in part the reformulation of the interlocutor’s point of view. Like the dialectician, the good orator makes his interlocutor speak his mind. Good rhetoric, as it were, is endowed with the “dialogical” characteristic of the discourse that M. Bakhtin identified in the monologues of Dostoyvesky’s heroes: the orator integrates the point of view of the addressee, even when he disagrees with him.[11]

In sum, the orator’s ability to adapt to his audience’s tastes equates the dialectician’s ability to have the interlocutor speak – which I have identified above as the “conversational feature” of dialectic. This suggestion may appear far-fetched, but it is supported, I argue, by a passage from the Meno (75d-76e, see TEXT 7) where Socrates cannot question Meno, who forces him to provide a definition of colour. Then the philosopher resorts to the λόγοι of Gorgias and Empedocles, which he himself dislikes, but which Meno is very familiar with. Socrates states that giving such an answer, based “on what the questioned person acknowledges he knows” (δι’ ἐκείνων ὧν ἂν προσομολογῇ εἰδέναι ὁ ἐρωτώμενος), amounts to answering more dialectically (διαλεκτικώτερον ἀποκρίνεσθαι, 75d).

To conclude, the true rhetoric Socrates advocates in the Gorgias and above all in the Phaedrus proves to be full of (or rather fuelled by) dialectic. To practise true or philosophical rhetoric, the orator must act as a dialectician in two ways. First, he must logically know the nature of his subject matter, by determining which genre it belongs to and which genres it is composed of. Second, he must also adapt to his audience by presenting them with a discourse which integrates and corrects their points of view. In doing so, he will manage “to write into the soul of his interlocutor” (Phaedrus 276a), achieving a conviction (πειθώ) as strong as the one the dialectician wishes to impress his interlocutor with.[12]


 II. The Symposium

These preliminary analyses may shed new light on the philosophical nature of Socrates’ discourse in Plato’s Symposium (201d-212c). As I said before, this discourse is generally regarded as philosophical in that it tells the truth (see TEXT 8). This interpretation is most relevant, but we could further it by showing that Socrates does not merely tell the truth: he tells it dialectically, in the two senses I have just given to this notion: (1) he borrows the discourses of his audience (the communicational feature) and (2) he corrects them by defining their main concepts dialectically (in the logical sense), that is, by dividing and gathering “κατ᾽ εἴδη”.

Socrates’ audience is represented in the Symposium by the first five speakers who praise eros, and whom Socrates challenges in his discourse. All of them put forward views on eros, paiderastia and related subjects (goodness, sophia, etc), which were transmitted by the poets and the sophists. These ideas played a dominant role in Athens at the turn of the fifth century BCE.

Thus, by having five competing orators speak before Socrates, and by having Socrates discourse borrow some ideas from the earlier ones, Plato builds an intertextual web which emphasizes that to achieve his educative purpose, the philosopher must reformulate intelligently, that is dialectically, the traditional prejudices (δόξαι) of his audience.

In this paper I shall focus on a single aspect of this dialectical intertextuality: the relationship between Phaedrus’ and Socrates’ discourses. I chose Phaedrus’ speech because it has not been commented on much, and its relationship to Socrates has been rarely noticed.

Phaedrus’ main point (see TEXTS 9) is that Eros leads towards happiness (εὐδαιμονίας, 180b), as it inspires love of honours (φιλοτιμίαν, 178d). When fighting before the eyes of his lover or his beloved, even a coward would not dare to run away from the battlefield. Love thus provides food for virtue (ἀρετή, 179a), and the most virtuous people, who are also the best lovers, are cherished by the gods (οἱ θεοὶ  … θαυμάζουσιν καὶ ἄγανται καὶ εὖ ποιοῦσιν, 180a-b). As a result, after their death, they achieve divine happiness, as the story of Achilles proves: after having sacrificed his life for Patrocles, the hero was granted permission to live in the Isles of the Blessed (εἰς μακάρων νήσους, 180b).

On the face of it, Socrates’ argument is the same as Phaedrus’ (see TEXTS 10): eros aims at happiness (εὐδαιμονεῖν, 205d), and an evidence for it is that most people dedicate their life to the pursuit of honours (φιλοτιμίαν, 208c); eros leads to virtue (ἀρετήν, 209a), and the best lovers, who are also the most virtuous men, will be cherished by gods and achieve a state of divine happiness (θεοφιλεῖ γενέσθαι … καὶ … ἀθανάτῳ, 212a).

However, Socrates gives totally new meanings to the ideas already put forward by Phaedrus: εὐδαιμονία does not consist in being awarded honours by humans or gods, but in becoming immortal (ἀθανασίας, 206a-207a). In this respect, the purpose of φιλοτιμία is not, like in Phaedrus’ speech, to pursue honours for themselves and for the delights they may provide at the very moment we get them (e.g. social consideration, sexual favours, etc…). On Socrates’ view, Achilles was φιλοτίμος because he wished to acquire eternal glory, that is, a kind of immortality (see TEXT 10a where Socrates clearly alludes to Phaedrus’ argument by resorting to the same examples: Alcestis and Achilles). On this view, φιλοτιμία is only one means of achieving happiness (i.e. immortality) among many others means. Socrates makes clear that we can achieve a higher kind of immortality when accomplishing not heroic deeds like Achilles, but intellectual endeavours, like Homer who wrote a poem about Achilles’ deeds (209d, TEXT 10b). And the highest form of immortality we can achieve will be that of the philosopher. When he reaches the top of the ladder of love, he neither accomplishes heroic deeds nor writes poetry, but he contemplates the eternal idea of Beauty, which is itself immortal.[13] On this view, the virtue (ἀρετή) that Socrates most values in the lover’s ascent is not the outstanding bravery of the warrior who does not fear death, but the wisdom of the philosopher who is able to contemplate a Form in itself. Thus the final, divine state of joy achieved by Socrates’ best lover has nothing to do with the pleasures awarded by the gods to the Homeric heroes in the Isles of the Blessed (banquets, rest, laughter, sex, etc). It consists in a kind of intellectual joy: the lover becomes immortal provided his soul is in direct contact with what is really immortal: the form of Beauty.

Therefore Socrates crafts a discourse which echoes Phaedrus’ theory of love. He redefines the main concepts on which this theory is grounded, mainly the notions of virtue (ἀρετή) and ambition (φιλοτιμία). In doing so, Socrates teaches his table companions – and Plato teaches his readership – a lesson on dialectic, since Socrates’ definitions turn out to be more dialectical (in a logical sense) than those provided by Phaedrus. I find at least two indications that Socrates’ restatement is stricto sensu dialectical:

(1) ἀρετή : Phaedrus always mentions virtue through a single word: ἀρετή, whereas Socrates uses a complex phrase: the good lover, he says, must beget φρόνησίν τε καὶ τὴν ἄλλην ἀρετήν (“wisdom and other forms of virtue”, 209a, see TEXT 10b). Through this phrase, Socrates indicates that he does not conceive ἀρετή as a simple idea but as a complex whole, made of several species.[14] Bravery (ἀνδρεία) is certainly one of these species, but Socrates makes clear that this is not the most important one: his phrasing brings out wisdom (φρόνησίς) as the dominant virtue that one should consider when one loves correctly. By coining a complex phrase that echoes Phaedrus’ basic wording (“ἀρετή”), Socrates means that Phaedrus was wrong in confusing virtue with courage. In order to tell the truth about eros and its relationship to virtue, one must be able first to distinguish the part (ἀνδρεία) from the whole (ἀρετή), second, to determine among the many parts of the whole, an idea which is the dominant or the best one. Both skills (dividing into species and knowing what is good) are characteristic of the dialectician (see TEXTS 2).

(2) φιλοτιμία : Socrates reformulates Phaedrus’ conception of φιλοτιμία in a similar way. Phaedrus caught a glimpse of the link between φιλοτιμία and happiness (εὐδαιμονία), but he viewed φιλοτιμία as the only means of achieving happiness, whereas the dialectician demonstrates that it is one means among many others (begetting children, writing poems, contemplating the Form of beauty…), and that it is not the best. Socrates can do this because he defines happiness (as immortality), which Phaedrus did not bother to do. Thanks to his definition, Socrates can define more precisely the generic concept of which φιλοτιμία is a part. Ambition does not merely belong to the class of “the means of achieving happiness” but to the class of “the means of achieving immortality”. Thanks to this new definition, the dialectician can perceive that φιλοτιμία is in competition with many other “means”, and that φιλοτιμία is not necessarily the best one. And if Socrates could provide a definition of happiness, that is of the good life (εὐδαιμονία), it is because, unlike his table companion, he has an idea (even though not the Idea) of what goodness consists in. It is also thanks to this knowledge of goodness that he can determine the moderate value of φιλοτιμία, and not regard it as a panacea, as Phaedrus did.

Therefore, in both cases (ἀρετή and φιλοτιμία) Socrates, contrary to Phaedrus, proves to think as a dialectician. He regards ἀρετή as a whole composed of many species, and he shows that φιλοτιμία must be viewed as one species of a complex whole that could be termed as “the means of achieving immortality”. And in both cases Socrates is able to divide and unify “κατ᾽ εἴδη”, thanks to his sufficient knowledge of the Good.

I believe that in the case of φιλοτιμία, Socrates gives additional evidence of the dialectical nature of his theory. When revealing the real purpose of φιλοτιμία, he says that, without this explanation, φιλοτιμία would be something full of ἀλογία (208c, irrationality, or “unreasonableness”, as H. Fowler rightly translates, TEXT 10a). In this passage Socrates implicitly blames Phaedrus, who spoke of a concept (φιλοτιμία) without knowing precisely its logon, or definition; Socrates also means that the role of his oratory is primarily to justify (literally, to “give reason to”, λόγον διδόναι) the concepts previously mentioned. Being “ἄλογος” is the blame Socrates lays on existing rhetoric, which does not care for the definition of what it speaks about, essentially the virtue of justice (see Gorgias 465a, TEXT 11: rhetoric, like cookery, is an ἄλογον πρᾶγμα) and “λόγον διδόναι” is precisely the task Socrates assigns the dialectician (Republic VII, 533c, Statesman 285d-286a).

Incidentally, Socrates (or Diotima) mentions the phrase “λόγον διδόναι” in the Symposium (202a, see TEXT 12). In order to explain what an intermediary (μεταξύ) is, Diotima gives the young Socrates an example: the correct opinion, or true belief (ἡ ὀρθὴ δόξα), is neither ignorance (ἀμαθίας) nor full knowledge (ἐπιστήμη, φρονήσεως), since it hits on the truth (τὸ γὰρ τοῦ ὄντος τυγχάνον), but it can give no reason (λόγον δοῦναι) for what it says.

This methodological digression may give us a clue as to the way we should conceive the relationship between Socrates’ discourse and the earlier ones. The first orators express correct opinions (ὀρθαὶ δόξαι) which Socrates transforms into knowledge (ἐπιστήμαι). What is new in Socrates’ discourse is not the concepts he puts forward; it is rather the way he defines these concepts, and the reasons he gives to account for them.


Afterword (rather than conclusion)

I claim that Socrates, in his discourse, interacts in a similar way with the four orators who speak after Phaedrus. I have no time to argue this point here. I can only sketch out the arguments of several papers that may be written in the sequel of this one:

Pausanias appears to remedy Phaedrus’ shortcomings, as he shares Socrates intellectual conception of virtue: he uses the Socratic phrase “φρόνησιν καὶ τὴν ἄλλην ἀρετὴν” (184d-e) and he insists on the benefits of φιλοσοφία (183c, 183a, 184d). However, for Pausanias, φρόνησις or φιλοσοφία is not the knowledge of essences: it amounts to memorizing the traditional lessons of the poets and the sophists with whom Socrates is in conflict.

By conceiving wisdom as a scientific knowledge (τέχνη[15]), Eryximachus comes closer to the Socratic conception of knowledge, but the way he links eros with science has nothing to do with what Socrates proposes: in Eryximachus’ view, the scientist implements eros in the natural world, but he is not driven himself by erotic desire; and eros, incidentally, is not viewed as an erotic desire, a driving force, but as a static state (quietness, harmony between the elements: 185a-b).

Contrary to Eryximachus, and like Socrates, Aristophanes conceives eros as a dynamic force that drives us to search for what we lack (ζητεῖ, 191d). But the comic poet fails to perceive the nature of the object this search aims at: Diotima will reveal that we do not strive for our lost halves, as Aristophanes thinks, but for goodness (τὸ μὲν ἀγαθὸν, 205e).

The next orator, whose name, not accidentally, is “Agathon”,[16] seems to provide what Aristophanes’ theory lacks: Agathon links eros with goodness (ἀγαθὰ, 197b).[17] But he misconceives this link: he thinks that eros is good and beautiful, whereas eros, which is a driving force, tends towards goodness and beauty, and, in itself, necessarily lacks the quality it strives for (201b).

Each of the earlier discourses puts forward one or two dominant words that reappear in Socrates’ discourse: ἀρετή, φιλοτιμία, φρόνησις, φιλοσοφία, τέχνη, ζητεῖν, ἀγαθὸν, etc. Thanks to this echoing effect, while reading Socrates’ discourse, we have a strong sense of déjà vu and we go back to the earlier speeches in order to understand precisely in what sense Socrates exposes an unheard truth, as he boasts at the outset of his speech.[18] Thanks to this second reading, the reader understands that the contribution of the philosopher, in the banquet, does not merely consist in adding a new theory to the existing ones. Rather, it consists in explaining in a dialectical way (λόγον διδόναι) the hackneyed concepts used by the traditional educators. The reader is also called on to realize that whatever his mode of speech may be (actual dialogue or rhetoric), the philosopher must remain in dialogue with his audience.



Text 1, Cratylus : the conversational aspect of dialegesthai.

Socrates :
 And who can best superintend the work of the lawgiver and judge of it when it is finished, both here and in foreign countries? The user (ὅσπερ χρήσεται), is it not?

Hermogenes :

Socrates :
 And is not this he who knows how to ask questions (ὁ ἐρωτᾶν ἐπιστάμενος)?

Hermogenes :

Socrates :
 And the same one knows also how to make replies (ἀποκρίνεσθαι)?

Hermogenes : 

Socrates : 
And the man who knows how to ask and answer questions you call a dialectician (διαλεκτικόν)?

Hermogenes :
 Yes, that is what I call him.

Crat. 390c (transl. H. N. Fowler, 1921)

Texts 2, Republic VII and Sophist: the logical aspect of dialegesthai:

2a, Republic VII

[Socrates :] ‘This, then, at last, Glaucon,’ I said, ‘is the very law (νόμος) which dialectics (τὸ διαλέγεσθαι) recites, the strain which it executes, of which, though it belongs to the intelligible, we may see an imitation in the progress of the faculty of vision, as we described its endeavor to look at living things themselves and the stars themselves and finally at the very sun. In like manner, when anyone by dialectics attempts through discourse of reason and apart from all perceptions of sense to find his way to the very essence of each thing (ἄνευ πασῶν τῶν αἰσθήσεων διὰ τοῦ λόγου ἐπ’ αὐτὸ ὃ ἔστιν ἕκαστον ὁρμᾶν), and does not desist [532b] till he apprehends by thought itself the nature of the good in itself (αὐτὸ ὃ ἔστιν ἀγαθὸν αὐτῇ νοήσει λάβῃ), he arrives at the limit of the intelligible (ἐπ’ αὐτῷ γίγνεται τῷ τοῦ νοητοῦ τέλει), as the other in our parable, came to the goal of the visible.’ ‘By all means,’ he said. ‘What, then, will you not call this progress of thought dialectic?’ ‘Surely.’

Rep. VII, 532a-b (transl. P. Shorey, 1969)

2b, Sophist

Stranger :
 Shall we not say that the division of things by classes (κατὰ γένη διαιρεῖσθαι) and the avoidance of the belief that the same class (εἶδος) is another, or another the same, belongs to the science of dialectic (τῆς διαλεκτικῆς ἐπιστήμης)?

Theaetetus :
 Yes, we shall.

Stranger :
 Then he who is able to do this has a clear perception of one form or idea (ἰδέαν) extending entirely through many individuals each of which lies apart, and of many forms differing from one another but included (ὑπὸ μιᾶς ἔξωθεν περιεχομένας) in one greater form, and again of one form evolved by the union of many wholes, [253e] and of many forms entirely apart and separate. This is the knowledge and ability to distinguish by classes (διακρίνειν κατὰ γένος) how individual things can or cannot be associated (κοινωνεῖν) with one another.

Soph. 253d-e (transl. H. N. Fowler, 1921)

Text 3, Gorgias : appeal for witnesses and the ethical purpose of dialegesthai

Socrates : 
At the beginning of our discussion, Polus, I complimented you on having had, as I consider, a good training in rhetoric (πρὸς τὴν ῥητορικὴν πεπαιδεῦσθαι), while you seem to have neglected disputation (τοῦ δὲ διαλέγεσθαι ἠμεληκέναι); and now, accordingly, this is the argument, is it, with which any child could refute me? By this statement, you think, I now stand refuted at your hands, when I assert that the wrongdoer is not happy? How so, my good friend? Why, I tell you I do not admit a single point in what you say.

[471e] Polus : 
No, because you do not want to; for you really agree with my statement.

Socrates :
 My gifted friend, that is because you attempt to refute me in rhetorical fashion (ῥητορικῶς γάρ με ἐπιχειρεῖς ἐλέγχειν), as they understand refuting in the law courts. For there, one party is supposed to refute the other when they bring forward a number of reputable witnesses (μάρτυρας) to any statements they may make, whilst their opponent produces only one, or none. But this sort of refutation is quite worthless [472a] for getting at the truth (πρὸς τὴν ἀλήθειαν) … [472b] But I, alone here before you, do not admit it, for you fail to convince me: you only attempt, by producing a number of false witnesses against me, to oust me from my reality, the truth. But if on my part I fail to produce yourself as my one witness (σὲ αὐτὸν ἕνα ὄντα μάρτυρα) to confirm what I say (ὁμολογοῦντα περὶ ὧν λέγω), I consider I have achieved nothing of any account [472c] towards the matter of our discussion, whatever it may be; nor have you either, I conceive, unless I act alone as your one witness, and you have nothing to do with all these others. Well now, this is one mode of refutation, as you and many other people understand it; but there is also another which I on my side understand. Let us therefore compare them with each other and consider if there is a difference between them. For indeed the points which we have at issue are by no means of slight importance: rather, one might say, they are matters on which it is most honorable to have knowledge, and most disgraceful to lack it; for in sum they involve our knowing or not knowing who is happy and who is not (τὸ γὰρ κεφάλαιον αὐτῶν ἐστιν ἢ γιγνώσκειν ἢ ἀγνοεῖν ὅστις τε εὐδαίμων ἐστὶν καὶ ὅστις μή).

Gorg. 471d-472c (transl. W. R. M. Lamb, 1967)

Text 4, Gorgias: existing rhetoric does not care for the truth

Socrates : 
Fine (καλῶς), at any rate, Gorgias, is the equipment for discourse that Polus seems to have got: but still he is not performing his promise to Chaerephon.

Gorgias : 
How exactly, Socrates ?

Socrates : He does not seem to me to be quite answering what he is asked (τὸ ἐρωτώμενον ἀποκρίνεσθαι).

Gorgias :
 Well, will you please ask him?

Socrates :
 No, if you yourself will be so good as to answer, why, I would far rather ask you. For I see plainly, [448e] from what he has said, that Polus has had more practice in what is called rhetoric than in discussion (τὴν καλουμένην ῥητορικὴν μᾶλλον μεμελέτηκεν ἢ διαλέγεσθαι)

Polus : 
How so, Socrates ?

Socrates : 
Because, Polus, when Chaerephon has asked in what art Gorgias is skilled, you merely eulogize (ἐγκωμιάζεις) his art as though it were under some censure, instead of replying what it is (ἥτις δέ ἐστιν οὐκ ἀπεκρίνω).

Gorg. 448d-e (transl. W. R. M Lamb, 1967)

Text 5, Phaedrus: good rhetoric and dialectical knowledge

 : Now I myself, Phaedrus, am a lover (ἐραστής) of these processes of division and bringing together (τῶν διαιρέσεων καὶ συναγωγῶν), as aids to speech and thought (ἵνα οἷός τε ὦ λέγειν τε καὶ φρονεῖν); and if I think any other man is able to see things that can naturally be collected into one and divided into many, him I follow after and “walk in his footsteps as if he were a god.
” [266c] but I have called them hitherto dialecticians (διαλεκτικούς).

Phaedr. 266b-c (transl. H. N. Fowler, 1925)


Text 6, Phaedrus: good rhetoric and adaptation to the souls of the audience

Socrates : Since the power of speech is in fact a leading of the soul (ψυχαγωγία), the man who means to be an expert in rhetoric must know (εἰδέναι) how many forms (εἴδη) the soul has. Thus their number is so and so (τόσα καὶ τόσα), and they are of such and such kinds (τοῖα καὶ τοῖα), which is why some people are like this, and others like that; and these having been distinguished in this way, then again there are so many forms of speeches (λόγων αὖ τόσα καὶ τόσα ἔστιν εἴδη), each one of such and such a kind. People of one kind are easily persuaded (εὐπειθεῖς) for one sort of reason by one kind of speech to hold one kind of opinion, while people of another kind are for these reasons difficult to persuade (δυσπειθεῖς).

Phaedr. 271c-d (trans. C. J. Rowe, 2005, modified)

Text 7, Meno: dialectic and adaptation to the soul of the interlocutor

Socrates : with friends who wish to converse with each other (ἀλλήλοις διαλέγεσθαι), as in our case, a gentler answer (ἀποκρίνεσθαι) is indicated, one more suited to dialectic (διαλεκτικώτερον). It is more dialectical (διαλεκτικώτερον) not only to answer what is true (τἀληθῆ), but to do so in terms which the questioned person acknowledges he knows (δι’ ἐκείνων ὧν ἂν προσομολογῇ εἰδέναι ὁ ἐρωτώμενος). So that’s how I’ll try to answer you.’ […]. ‘Then would you like me to answer you in the manner of Gorgias (κατὰ Γοργίαν ἀποκρίνωμαι), which would be easier for you to follow (ἀκολουθήσαις)?

[Socrates gives his answer…]

Meno : Your answer, Socrates, seems to me excellently put.

Socrates : No doubt because it is put in a way you’re accustomed to (σοι κατὰ συνήθειαν εἴρηται). […] It is an answer in the high poetic style (τραγικὴ), Meno, and so more agreeable to you (ἀρέσκει σοι) than my answer about figure […] But yet, son of Alexidemus, I myself am convinced the other answer was better (οὐκ ἔστιν ὡς ἐγὼ ἐμαυτὸν πείθω, ἀλλ’ ἐκείνη βελτίων).

Meno 75d-76e (transl. W. M. R. Lamb, 1967)

Text 8, Symposium: Socrates will tell the truth

[Socrates :] In my simplicity I imagined that the topics of praise should be true (τἀληθῆ λέγειν περὶ ἑκάστου τοῦ ἐγκωμιαζομένου), and that this being presupposed, out of the true the speaker was to choose the best and set them forth in the best manner. And I felt quite proud, thinking that I knew the nature of true praise (ὡς εἰδὼς τὴν ἀλήθειαν τοῦ ἐπαινεῖν ὁτιοῦν), and should speak well. Whereas I now see that the intention was to attribute to Love every species of greatness and glory (ἀλλὰ τὸ ὡς μέγιστα ἀνατιθέναι τῷ πράγματι καὶ ὡς κάλλιστα), [198e] whether really belonging to him not, without regard to truth or falsehood (ψευδῆ) – that was no matter; for the original, proposal seems to have been not that each of you should really praise Love, but only that you should appear to praise him (ἐγκωμιάζειν δόξει). And so you attribute to Love every imaginable form of praise which can be gathered anywhere; and you say that “he is all this,” and “the cause of all that,” making him appear (φαίνηται ) the fairest and best of all to those who know him not (τοῖς μὴ γιγνώσκουσιν), for you cannot impose upon those who know him. And a noble and solemn hymn of praise have you rehearsed. […] I do not praise in that way; no, indeed, I cannot. But if you like to here the truth (τά γε ἀληθῆ) about love, I am ready to speak in my own manner (κατ᾽ ἐμαυτόν), though I will not make myself ridiculous by entering into any rivalry with you. Say then, Phaedrus, whether you would like, to have the truth about love, spoken in any words and in any order which may happen to come into my mind at the time (ὀνομάσει δὲ καὶ θέσει ῥημάτων τοιαύτῃ ὁποία δἄν τις τύχῃ ἐπελθοῦσα).

Symp. 198d-19b (transl. B. Jowett, 1937, modified)


Texts 9, Symposium: Aretê and philotimia in Phaedrus’ theory of love

9a. [Phaedrus :] ‘The principle which ought to be the guide of men who would nobly live (μέλλουσι καλῶς βιώσεσθαι), that principle, I say, neither kindred, nor honour, nor wealth, nor any other motive is able to implant so well as love. Of what am I speaking? Of the sense of honour and dishonour (τὴν ἐπὶ μὲν τοῖς αἰσχροῖς αἰσχύνην, ἐπὶ δὲ τοῖς καλοῖς φιλοτιμίαν), without which neither states nor individuals ever do any good or great work (μεγάλα καὶ καλὰ ἔργα). And I say that a lover who is detected in doing any dishonourable act, or submitting through cowardice (ἀνανδρίαν) when any dishonour is done to him by another, will be more pained at being detected by his beloved than at being seen by his father, or by his companions, or by any one else.’

Symp. 178c-d (transl. B. Jowett, 1937)

9b. ‘What lover would not choose rather to be seen by all mankind than by his beloved, either when abandoning his post or throwing away his arms? He would be ready to die a thousand deaths rather than endure this. Or who would desert his beloved or fail him in the hour of danger? The veriest coward would become an inspired hero (ἔνθεον ποιήσειε πρὸς ἀρετήν), equal to the bravest, at such a time; Love would inspire him. “That courage” (μένος) which, as Homer says, the god “breathes” (ἐμπνεῦσαι) into the souls of some heroes, Love of his own nature infuses into the lover.’

Symp. 179a-b (transl. B. Jowett, 1937)

9c. ‘Achilles, son of Thetis, they honored (ἐτίμησαν) and sent him to his place in the Isles of the Blest (εἰς μακάρων νήσους ἀπέπεμψαν), because having learnt from his mother that he would die as surely as he slew Hector, but if he slew him not, would return home and end his days an aged man, he bravely chose to go and rescue his lover Patroclus, [180a] avenged him, and sought death not merely in his behalf but in haste to be joined with him whom death had taken. For this the gods so highly admired him that they gave him distinguished honor (οἱ θεοὶ διαφερόντως αὐτὸν ἐτίμησαν), since he set so great a value on his lover.’

Symp. 180a (transl. H. N. Fowler 1925)

Texts 10, Symposium: Aretê and philotimia in Socrates’ theory of love

10a. [Diotima :] ‘only glance at the ambition (φιλοτιμίαν) of the men around you, and you will have to wonder at the unreasonableness (θαυμάζοις ἂν τῆς ἀλογίας) of what I have told you, unless you are careful to consider how singularly they are affected with the love of winning a name (ὀνομαστοὶ γενέσθαι), “and laying up fame immortal (κλέος ἀθάνατον) for all time to come.”1 For this, even more than for their children, they are ready to run all risks, [208d] to expend money, perform any kind of task, and sacrifice their lives. Do you suppose,’ she asked, ‘that Alcestis would have died for Admetus, or Achilles have sought death on the corpse of Patroclus, or your own Codrus1 have welcomed it to save the children of his queen, if they had not expected to win “a deathless memory for valor,” (ἀθάνατον μνήμην ἀρετῆς) which now we keep? Of course not. I hold it is for immortal distinction (ὑπὲρ ἀρετῆς ἀθανάτου) and [208e] for such illustrious renown (δόξης εὐκλεοῦς) as this that they all do all they can, and so much the more in proportion to their excellence. They are in love with what is immortal (τοῦ γὰρ ἀθανάτου ἐρῶσιν).’

Symp. 208c-e (transl. H. N. Fowler)

10b. [209a] ‘there are persons,’ she declared, ‘who in their souls (ἐν ταῖς ψυχαῖς) still more than in their bodies conceive those things which are proper for soul to conceive and bring forth; and what are those things? Prudence, and virtue in général (φρόνησίν τε καὶ τὴν ἄλλην ἀρετήν); and of these the begetters are all the poets and those craftsmen who are styled “inventors.” Now by far the highest and fairest part (μεγίστη καὶ καλλίστη) of prudence is that which concerns the regulation of cities and habitations; it is called sobriety [209b] and justice (σωφροσύνη τε καὶ δικαιοσύνη). So when a man’s soul is so far divine that it is made pregnant with these from his youth, and on attaining manhood immediately desires to bring forth and beget, he too, I imagine, goes about seeking the beautiful object whereon he may do his begetting, since he will never beget upon the ugly. …. [209c] I hold that by contact with the fair one and by consorting with him he bears and brings forth his long-felt conception, because in presence or absence he remembers his fair. Equally too with him he shares the nurturing of what is begotten, so that men in this condition enjoy a far fuller community with each other (πολὺ μείζω κοινωνίαν) than that which comes with children, and a far surer friendship, since the children of their union are fairer and more deathless. Every one would choose to have got children such as these rather than the human sort— [209d] merely from turning a glance upon Homer and Hesiod and all the other good poets, and envying the fine offspring they leave behind (οἷα ἔκγονα ἑαυτῶν καταλείπουσιν) to procure them a glory immortally renewed in the memory of men (ἀθάνατον κλέος καὶ μνήμην).

Symp. 209a-d (transl. H. N. Fowler)

Text 11 Gorgias: flattery is an alogon pragma

Socrates : Flattery (κολακείαν), however, is what I call it [i.e. cookery] [465a] and I say that this sort of thing is a disgrace (αἰσχρόν), Polus—for here I address you—because it aims at the pleasant (τοῦ ἡδέος) and ignores the best (τοῦ βελτίστου); and I say it is not an art (τέχνην), but a habitude (ἐμπειρίαν), since it has no account to give of the real nature (φύσιν) of the things it applies, and so cannot tell the cause (τὴν αἰτίαν) of any of them. I refuse to give the name of art to anything that is irrational (ἄλογον πρᾶγμα): if you dispute my views, I am ready to give my reasons (λόγον).

Gorg. 464e-465a (transl. W.R.M Lamb, 1967)

Text 12, Symposium: What is a correct opinion (orthê doxa)?

[Diotima :] ‘You know, of course, that to have correct opinion, if you can give no reason for it (τὸ ὀρθὰ δοξάζειν καὶ ἄνευ τοῦ ἔχειν λόγον δοῦναι), is neither full knowledge—how can an unreasoned thing (ἄλογον γὰρ πρᾶγμα) be knowledge (ἐπιστήμη)?—nor yet ignorance; for what hits on the truth (τοῦ ὄντος τυγχάνον) cannot be ignorance. So correct opinion, I take it, is just in that position, between understanding and ignorance (ἡ ὀρθὴ δόξα, μεταξὺ φρονήσεως καὶ ἀμαθίας).’

Symp. 202a (transl. H .N. Fowler)


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[1] Contrary to Gorgias, Phaedrus, Menexenus, Apology, Ion, and Protagoras. See Erickson 1979 (most contributions), Nienkamp 1999, Yunis 2007, McCoy 2008.

[2] Lanham 1976: 36-48, Thompson 1979, Belfiore 1984: 137-149, Nightingale 1993, and Pernot 2000: 73.

[3] See the studies cited note 2.

[4] Whereas the noun form “ἡ ῥητορική” (ie. τέχνη) appears in several dialogues (Rep., Gorg., Phaedr., etc.), διαλεκτική (i.e. τέχνη) appears only twice in Rep. VII (534e, 536d). Thus we should have a more comprehensive view of Plato’s conception of “dialectic” if we also take into account the verbal form “διαλέγεσθαι”, more frequent in the dialogues, particularly in the phrase “ἡ τοῦ διαλέγεσθαι δύναμις” (ex Phil., Rep., etc). See Dixsaut 2001: 70. In this brief analysis, I will focus on the Gorgias and the Phaedrus, where Plato’s view of rhetoric receives its most elaborate and methodical treatment, and where it is articulated with his view of dialectic.

[5] cf. Soph. 251d (συναγάγωμεν), and Phaedr. 266b-c. This logical meaning of “separating, sorting out κατ᾽εἴδη” (Phaedr. 265e) or “κατὰ γένος” (Soph. 253e) does not belong originally to the middle form “διαλέγεσθαι” but rather to the active form “διαλέγειν”: Socrates plays on words and fuses within the original meaning of “διαλέγεσθαι” the logical sense of “διαλέγειν” (to sort out, to separate). Xenophon’s Socrates also plays on this double meaning (Memorabilia IV, 5, 12), but I suggest that Plato’s Socrates shows in a more elaborate manner how these two features (communicational and logical) are intimately connected within the same activity.

[6] In this respect, I disagree with commentators who resort to developmentalist views to account for this apparent inconsistency between the two aspects of dialectic (e.g. Robinson 1953: v-vii).

[7] This is why it so important that Callicles answers sincerely to Socrates (Gorgias, 487a-d).

[8] On the moral purpose of the Socratic conversation, see Gordon 1996 and Hadot 2002: 106.

[9] A similar accusation occurs in 471d: Καὶ κατ’ ἀρχὰς τῶν λόγων, ὦ Πῶλε, ἔγωγέ σε ἐπῄνεσα ὅτι μοι δοκεῖς εὖ πρὸς τὴν ῥητορικὴν πεπαιδεῦσθαι, τοῦ δὲ διαλέγεσθαι ἠμεληκέναι

[10] Gorg. 508c: τὸν μέλλοντα ὀρθῶς ῥητορικὸν ἔσεσθαι δίκαιον ἄρα δεῖ εἶναι καὶ ἐπιστήμονα τῶν δικαίων.

[11] See Bakhtin 1984.

[12] On this πειθώ, see Phaedr. 271c-272b and 276e-277a.

[13] About Socrates’ reformulation of philotimia, see Larsen 2013.

[14] Compare with Socrates dialectical distinctions about virtue in Lachès and Protagoras.

[15] 186b, e, etc.

[16] Plato is very familiar with this kind of puns, particularly through the mouth of Socrates, see the beginning of the Symposium

[17] ἐπειδὴ δ᾽ ὁ θεὸς οὗτος ἔφυ, ἐκ τοῦ ἐρᾶν τῶν καλῶν πάντ᾽ ἀγαθὰ γέγονεν καὶ θεοῖς καὶ ἀνθρώποις.

[18] To this extend, the reader is involved in a kind of dialectic. See Belfiore 1984.

Illustration : Yoshitoshi – Banquet At Koshida Palace © J. N. Chiappa & J. M. Levine


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