If, as A.N Whitehead proclaimed, ‘the European philosophical tradition consists of a series of footnotes to Plato’, we may equally claim that the latter was to, a great extent, responsible for ‘terminating’ a richly rewarding intellectual practice enjoyed by Sophist philosophers, namely, the art of conversation. Plato’s entire philosophy rests on an unresolved paradox as he hides his personal identity behind the mask of his mentor and transforms Socrates’ spoken arguments into his own ‘fixed’ philosophical theory. What is at stake in Plato’s dialogue is the discovery of truth through a natural flow of expressed opinions and arguments, each one in turn critically analysed and assessed in the light of a philosophical method of rational investigation.
Plato famously rejected any ‘artistic’, as in, ‘artificial’, interpretation of reality, as he suspected the passions of the soul to blur our intellectual perception of reality. Yet, on reading any of his dialogues, the reader soon becomes aware of the ‘artificial’ nature of the way the discussion is being conducted. Despite the occasional exclamations and too rare developments offered by his interlocutors, Socrates remains in control of the dialogues and it is his arguments which eventually prevail over his friends’ half-baked opinions. To draw a musical analogy, it is as if Plato had been composing his symphonies out of ‘free jazz’ material.
The ‘real’ Socrates was probably far more open to exploring new ideas and facing aporetic situations than suggested by his philosopher scribe’. The very re-working of a conversation leads to a loss of spontaneity essential to the maieutic process, so dear to Socrates. Plato was the direct product of the Socratic method and it is all the more puzzling to see him ‘capture’ and ‘set’ the free flow of Socrates’ voice onto the pages of his Platonic dialogues. We will, indeed, never know about the nuances of Socrates’ voice nor the persuasive charm of his intonations, all important first-hand sensory experience that we have to ‘imagine’ in the re-interpretative act of reading. Twice removed from the thought of Socrates, every reader is thus condemned to having to construct Socrates in his own mind while speculating about the philosophical reality of Plato’s world of the ‘Forms’.
Reading the transcript of Richard Rorty’s lecture on Plato’s Phaedo gives us some idea of what Socrates, the unrivalled philosophical soloist, may have been like, with his pertinent personal remarks and quirky asides