Saturday, July 12, 2008

Fun with Socrates and Plato

Something really entertaining is contained in the beginning of "The Republic" by Plato. Unlike the Socratic dialogues this book is considered to have probably been written by Plato himself and to reflect his point of view instead of that of Socrates. It turns out that Book II is the real start of it, because Book I contains a scene comic in the extreme that explains the shift from a dialogue format to something more straightforward. Socrates is talking to a small group of people about government, good conduct, just conduct, and is going off on tangents of tangents of tangents of seemingly unrelated analogies trying to prove something. After a while one of the people present, one Thrasymachus, gets angry at Socrates, demands that he stop beating around the bush and instead talk about the topic of justice directly. Socrates gives in, and Thrasymachus begins the sort of argument that you'd find in normal, non-dialogue format writing, arguing that injustice is really justice because people who are injust end up on top while just people stay at the bottom. Then Socrates responds, still kind of in dialogue format, after which Thrasymachus leaves. The next book starts with Glaucon, a frequent conversation partner in Plato's books, arguing that Socrates hadn't really come up with a good defense against the idea that what we think of as injustice is really justice. Then he in turn launches into a conventional philosophical discourse and when his character is exhausted his brother takes over and continues the argument.

The idea of someone finally not being able to take the dialogue format any longer, getting pissed off, and demanding that Socrates come right out and say what he means is really, really, funny. Look up the conventionally termed "Socratic Dialogues" to understand why this is so.

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