Is Socrates’ Voice Different from Plato’s Voice?

Socrates never talks directly to us. So many will say that we can never trust that anything written by Plato is actually in Socrates’ voice.

I disagree. As you read, you may notice that there are at least two voices coming through Plato’s writings. Admittedly, it is all Plato. However, Socrates’ own voice is distinct, especially in the early dialogues.

The later dialogues do not even have Socrates as a character, so you can readily assume that the voice is primarily Plato’s, particularly in the person the Stranger or Guest.

But it is worthwhile to identify Socrates’ voice. How to tell the difference?

Here is my opinion:

Socrates is interested in individuals who are actually present before him in the moment. He is not concerned with those not present. Socrates was the master who sought to help others become free of false opinions. He was less interested in societal change, except to the extent where individuals let go of false opinions, a release from rhetorical illusion.

Plato, on the other hand, was the student who went on and attempted to codify Socrates, and use him as a mouthpiece for a more artistic purpose. Plato tended towards creating a plan for others, a planned moral State that reflected what he thought was ideal. Part of that plan included helping individuals become most moral through a planned education.

In my opinion, where Socrates comes through most is where he clearly advocates for individual choice, morality, and freedom to choose. He held greater concern about the health of each individual Soul rather than the health of society.

It appears he assumed that by helping each individual Soul, society by extension would improve.

Socrates believed in individual change from the inside out, with society changing as individuals changed. In other words, society changes bottoms up as you give individuals the proper education.

Plato came to believe more in change from the outside in, from laws and central control. His approach appears to be more from the top down for societal change, forcing people into an ideal, although there is evidence that he later was disillusioned with this approach.

His voice comes through more in ivory-tower planning and directing the lives of others. That is why so many elite modern-day planners have held Plato close, sometimes with disastrous results, as in the case of Joseph Stalin and other current societal planners.

Plato’s early writings are more Socratic. His later writings, particularly those that leave out Socrates, are more Platonic.

But I leave it to you to determine your own vision of each. Many will disagree with me. And in ten years, after reading Plato two or three more times, I may change my mind and embrace a new and completely opposing view.

It is a worthwhile journey.


from the Editor’s Introduction: The Best Complete Plato


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