Why did Plato write The Republic as a dialogue?

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 The Republic is a work of remarkable philosophical complexity, and Plato’s choice of the dialogue form allows him to explore these concepts persuasively. The dialogue form places an added emphasis on the characters as individuals fulfilling certain roles. Thus, Plato presents the dramatis personae as stakeholders in society, and they are used as devices to further develop the philosophical discussion. Socrates is cast as the philosopher, and he is characterized as someone who has ascended the proverbial cave and is seeking to impart his wisdom to those who have yet to grasp what is. By using the dialogue form to capture their interaction, Plato provides a demonstration of Socrates’ belief that truth can only be derived through dialogue and reasoning. However, The Republic is not just a proof of the Socratic method; it is a multilayered defense of philosophy. It distinguishes Socrates’ pursuit of truth from the evils of sophistry, and also defends philosophers against the accusation that they are “useless” “stargazer[s]” (488e). Plato does this by drawing a parallel between Socrates’ relations with the others to the broader power dynamics between the philosopher and society’s stakeholders. The setting of the dialogue is a microcosm of the political community in Athens, and Plato uses this to illustrate the political dimension of philosophy that is highly relevant to society.

In his construction of The Republic as a dialogue, Plato characterizes the dramatis personae as actors of society with specific agendas. Polemarchus, whose name means “leader in war”, is the champion of the city’s interest in amassing resources. His philosophy of competitive aggression and self-gain is made evident in Book I, where he asserts that justice is the act of “doing good to friends and harm to enemies” (332d). This can be interpreted as a justification of violent warfare for the sake of strengthening the city. Another character, Thrasymachus the “fierce battler”, is portrayed both as a sophist and an advocate of tyranny, for he declares that justice is “the advantage of the stronger” (338e). In addition, Glaucon and Adeimantus are depicted as well-educated and youthful aristocrats with concerns that are representative of their socio-economic class. Glaucon’s preoccupation with material desires is clear when he “interrupt[s]” (372c) Socrates’ description of the simple lifestyle in the ideal city with the observation that they seem to “feast without relishes” (372c). As someone who is accustomed to unnecessary luxuries, he desires the ideal city to be one that contains “relishes, perfume, incense […]” (373a), and he instigates Socrates’ shift from the “healthy city” (373b) to the “feverish city” (373a). Adeimantus also objects to the stipulation that the guardians cannot “possess lands, and build fine big houses” (419a) even though they belong to the higher echelons of society, for the “city in truth belongs” (419a) to them. His initial opposition to this arrangement can be interpreted as his belief that the best, or aristocrats like him, should be justly rewarded.

This presentation of characters as stakeholders in society gives Plato the flexibility to integrate contemporary issues in Athens into his philosophical discussion. In Book V, Polemarchus, Adeimantus and Glaucon try to dictate Socrates’ line of argument by insisting that he elaborates on “what the manner of the community [of the guardians] is” (449c). As aristocrats that are well acquainted with Athenian attempts at empire building, the notion of founding an ideal city appeals to them, and they wish to delve deeper into a subject that aligns with their personal agendas. This is evident from their fixation on the guardians’ lifestyle, such as “the begetting of children” (449c) and “how they’ll be reared” (449c), which suggests that they are interested in the practicality of establishing this city and are entertaining the possibility of creating it in real life. Furthermore, Glaucon exhibits his impatience at determining the possibility of this regime when he asserts that they should not “talk any more about it” (471d), but focus instead on whether “it is possible and how it is possible” (471e). Through the inquiries of these characters, Plato creates an opportunity to comment on the atrocities of the Peloponnesian War. The dialogue form thus allows him to weave in discussion on issues that are peripheral to Socrates’ primary concern of justice. As Socrates fleshes out the details of the guardians’ communal living, he brings up the code of conduct that governs them in war (468a), and he establishes that the soldiers should not “enslave Greeks” (469c), “strip the dead” (469d) or “bring the arms to the temples as votive offerings” (469e) because they are “illiberal” (469e). The stakeholders in society therefore drive the discussion towards issues that allow Socrates to highlight problematic behavior in contemporary Athens, through its contrast to the ideal city. Apart from accommodating Plato’s critiques of the Greek age, the dialogue form reinforces Socrates’ role as the philosopher who leads the characters out of the proverbial cave mentioned in Book VII. The ideal city is merely a “pattern in speech” (472e) aimed at understanding justice in the individual. However, the characters approach the city as one that can actually be founded, and they are unable to truly understand the point of his arguments. Socrates’ acquiescence to the characters’ “insistent” “summons” (451c) contains a certain irony – he goes along with their line of inquiry even though he knows that they are only pursuing their narrow agendas. He eventually reminds them that the analogy of the city is for the purpose of “seeking both for what justice by itself is like […] [and for] injustice and the most unjust man” (472d). Thus, Socrates is cast into the role of a true philosopher who, though he has seen the “sun” (516b), nevertheless “go[es] down” (520c) into the “common dwelling” (520c) to assist the rest. The dialogue form allows Plato to show the way in which Socrates handles the misguided questions of the characters, and this disruption in the flow of argument is something the rigid structure of an exposition cannot achieve.

In his interaction with the stakeholders, Socrates guides them towards “fair, just and good things” (520c) through the Socratic method of inquiry and discussion. Unlike an exposition, the dialogue form that Plato uses allows him to illustrate exactly how this is carried out, and it exemplifies their philosophy that truth can only be attained in this manner. Throughout The Republic, Socrates is engaged in the process of testing assertions, and the exchange between Thrasymachus and Socrates in Book I is one such demonstration. Thrasymachus is portrayed as the archetypal sophist who is skilled at dialectic, and his argumentation style follows that of elaborate speeches, as seen in 343b – 344c, where he argues that “the just is the advantage of the stronger, and the unjust is what is profitable and advantageous for oneself” (344c). Notably, he is described as someone who “had it in mind to go away” after “having poured a great shower of speech into [their] ears” (344d). This unwillingness to entertain refutations to his argument contrasts to Socrates, who tirelessly questions all claims, as seen in his query on whether “the wage-earner’s art furnish[es] wages” (346b) etc.[1] Moreover, there is a clear juxtaposition in their attitude towards truth seeking. Whereas Socrates eagerly pursues knowledge, and he readily professes that he “does not know” (337e) but desires to “learn from others” (337b), Thrasymachus does not wish to uncover the truth. In fact, he is closed to this pursuit, as seen in his over-confidence that “he had a very fine answer” (338a) and his “[assent] with resistance” (346b) when Socrates questions his statements, which reflects a reluctance to pave the way for truth when it harms his “good reputation” (338b). Thus, Thrasymachus’ sophistry is a foil to Socrates’ pursuit of knowledge – the former is shown to be an oratorical skill that is used for competition and financial reward (337d), while the latter is conducted with the aim of deriving the truth through a meticulous step-by-step testing process. The dialogue form in The Republic is an appropriate literary medium because it incorporates this process and Plato creates a powerful demonstration of the Socratic method.

This effective demonstration, which is enhanced by the dialogue form, provides the first layer in Plato’s defense of philosophy. In Book V, philosophers are defined as “those who delight in each thing that is itself” (480a) rather than “lovers of opinion” (480a). There is a clear distinction between knowledge and opinion because the former is “dependent on what is” (478a), which refers to the universal Forms, while the latter is “something other than that which is” (478b). The sophists, on the other hand, are clearly shown to misrepresent what they “opine” (493a) as “wisdom” (493a) in Socrates’ characterization of the democratic assembly. There, the sophists “consort with the mob and desire to please it” (494a) through the manipulation of their arguments, resulting in a “great deal of uproar” (492c) rather than a measured process of truth seeking. The use of the dialogue form in The Republic therefore goes beyond the contrast of Thrasymachus and Socrates to a broader distinction between true philosophy and the evils of sophistry. It showcases the philosopher’s consistent pursuit for the truth in all areas of intellectual inquiry. Notably, the dialogue form emphasizes the interruptions of Polemarchus, Glaucon and Adeimantus[2], and this shows that true philosophers, unlike the sophists, do not “educate in nothing other than” (493a) the “convictions of the many” (493a). Rather, the philosopher is not afraid to address objections or propose radical ideas that are not easily acceptable to the public – this is the case in Book VI where Socrates announces that philosophy should be practiced in a way that is “just the opposite of what is done nowadays” (497e). The concern of society, voiced through Adeimantus, that philosophers are “completely vicious” (487d) is shown to be the product of “[corruption] by sophists” (492a). Thus, the dialogue form is utilized to launch a credible defense against the conflation of philosophy with sophistry.

In addition, the presentation of the dramatis personae as stakeholders in society through the dialogue form makes the second layer in Plato’s defense of philosophy possible. The relationships between the stakeholders mirror the dynamics of the political community in Athens. In the opening passage of Book I, a group of aristocrats prevent Socrates from “pressing homewards” (327b) and Polemarchus asserts that Socrates must “either prove stronger” (327b) than the group of them or “stay there” (327b). Interestingly, Socrates’ suggestion that coercion can be circumvented with persuasion (327c) is dismissed by Glaucon and Polemarchus, who declare that the power of persuasion is limited if they do not “listen” (327c). Although this exchange is done humorously, it introduces the political principles of persuasion and coercion, and also suggests that the philosopher must operate under the terms of the powerful stakeholders in society. The position of the philosopher in relation to society is therefore established from the onset of The Republic, and the miniature political community parallels a democracy where the majority (or in this instance, Polemarchus, Glaucon, and Adeimantus etc.) wields the power. Just like a democracy, where the consensus of the people is crucial for political progress, the consent of the group is necessary for progress in their philosophical discussion. The dialogue form reflects this, and the characters explicitly express their agreement in statements such as “of course” (501b) and “that […] in my opinion, is so” (499d), which recur throughout The Republic. It is only after such expressions of consent that Socrates continues with his inquiries. However, the dialogue form also draws attention to the interruptions and objections of Polemarchus, Glaucon and Adeimantus through their dissenting questions,[3] and Socrates the philosopher must persuade them through reason and inquiry. In clearly signposting the opposition and then agreement of the individuals, Plato explores and illustrates the extent of the philosopher’s influence on society. This is seen in Book I, where Polemarchus’ initial stand that “justice is doing good to friends and harm to enemies” (332d) is completely overturned after Socrates’ reasoning. Polemarchus concludes with the statement that what Socrates says about “the work of the just man” (335d) not giving “harm either [to] a friend or anyone else” (335d) is “entirely true” (335d). On a macro level, these examples suggest that philosophers must try to persuade the masses, and more importantly, that the masses can be persuaded. Socrates’ argument that the masses in a political community will not be “harsh” (501a) is illustrated in the dialogue’s political microcosm, where he ultimately wins over the group of characters in The Republic. It is an assertion that philosophers can impact society at large by persuading the stakeholders. This contests the perception held by society, one that is voiced by Adeimantus, that even the “most decent” (489d) philosophers are “useless” (489d). Moreover, there is a sense of self-reflexivity when Socrates espouses the necessity of philosopher-kings for the removal of “ills for the cities” (473d). In the course of the dialogue, the miniature community, which is initially democratic, seems to move towards the philosopher-king regime. As Socrates discusses the founding of the ideal city from the start of Book II and further develops his role as a teacher, he also takes on the symbolic position of ruler. Thus, the construction of a political community in The Republic allows Plato to defend philosophy against the accusations of its irrelevance to society because it turns philosophy into something political. The philosopher is shown to be more than a “useless stargazer” (488e); rather, he is a “pilot” (488e) who guides the city in the direction of wisdom.

In The Republic, the dialogue form is used in order to establish a convincing defense of philosophy against two accusations – firstly, that philosophy brings evils, and secondly, that philosophy is not useful to society. Through the presentation of the dramatis personae as stakeholders, a political community is constructed, and this allows Plato to show that philosophy can be highly relevant in the political arena. Furthermore, the dialogue form is an effective demonstration of the Socratic method, and it is ultimately used to distinguish philosophy from sophistry. There is no doubt that the power of Plato’s philosophical masterpiece lies in the way it is written, and The Republic would not be as persuasive without the use of the dialogue form.

Bibliography

Plato. The Republic. Translated by Allan Bloom. Basic Books, 1968.

[1] There are countless examples of Socrates’ method of inquiry and discussion. For more on this topic, refer to 345b – 354c.

[2] This is seen at the beginning of Books IV and V, among several other instances.

[3] This is seen at the beginning of Books IV and V, among several other instances.

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