I am a big fan of Socrates. He is wonderfully enigmatic, partly because Plato alters some of Socrates’s core philosophical stances from dialogue to dialogue. This does not mean that Plato is doing bad philosophy. On the contrary, the strange (and often ingenious) oppositions found in Plato’s dialogues are part of what makes them so effective. Take, for example, the so-called aporetic dialogues, which end in aporia, or “puzzlement.” One of these dialogues is the Euthyphro, in which Socrates and Euthyphro set out to determine the definition of piety, only to end up right where they started. At first glance, Plato’s approach to philosophical writing is quite foreign to the academic projects that a student might embark on today. However, I wonder whether a relative beginner at writing can learn something about what to do—and what not to do—from Plato.
I do not recommend basing the structure of your paper on the Euthyphro, because you would end up with a circular argument. However, one of the amazing things about Plato’s dialogues is that they encourage discussion—ideally, readers of the Euthyphro will be persuaded to find out for themselves what piety is. This is how we should respond to scholarly debates (or, should we say, “dialogues”) that we encounter in our own academic research. Socrates, ever-questioning, would want to determine precisely why two scholars don’t agree. Are they talking past each other? Did they begin with different premises? The fact that “published views of the matter conflict” (to quote a Writing Center handout) is a great motive, but if you don’t find the true point of conflict between the scholars, then your thesis will not fully address your motive. If I took Socrates and Euthyphro’s aporia as a motive for a paper, for example, merely offering my own definition of piety would do little to address the (possibly more interesting) question of why the dialogue ended in aporia in the first place.
In contrast to his aporetic dialogues, Plato’s later dialogues would receive high points for thesis, but slightly lower points for (scholarly) conversation and counterclaims. This version of Socrates no longer claims to know nothing: instead, he preaches a very specific—and Platonic—vision of the world. Conveniently, his interlocuteurs now have a rather high opinion of his abilities. Their main role in the discussion is to back up Socrates’s statements in no uncertain terms: “yes, by Zeus!”, “most certainly!”, and so on.
Unfortunately, a modern student whose writing was this one-sided would receive a resounding “no, by Zeus!” from his or her professor. Don’t get me wrong: Plato’s later dialogues are still works of genius. They remind us that not every motivating question has to be answered right away, and that theses can spur reflection on the part of readers even if they aren’t rigorously argued. At the same time, Plato is helpful for students who want to work within the lexicon. I would recommend learning from Plato’s visionary treatment of motive and thesis, while ensuring that all of your papers actually have both a motive and a thesis.
— Frances Mangina, ’22