CAIRN-INT.INFO : International Edition

1A dialogue in Plato is first of all, from a literary point of view, the account of a meeting and a discussion between philosophical and non-philosophical characters. Although dialogue in Plato belongs to no defined genre and is therefore impossible to classify, as stated by Aristotle, I nevertheless intend to explain its specificity, based not on a theory of genres, but on a theory of modes, which Book 3 of the Republic outlines, I intend to show how these narrative modes allow us to explain the particular narrative elements of the dialogues. After analyzing these modes as they are introduced in the Republic, I will examine the possibility of applying them to the dialogues themselves. Although Socrates considers only one type of narrator, it is necessary to take into account the range of narrators in the narrated dialogues. This is why the classification of the dialogues that I propose at the end of this study is based on modes and narrators.

The Lexis: Diegesis and Mimesis

2Socrates outlines a theory of narration, by introducing a framework for a general theory of modes (Republic, 392c-398b). The poetic lexis relates to the way of expressing oneself, and therefore essentially covers the formal aspect of discourse, as opposed to the logos (what is said). It can be divided into three modes of expression: (1) plain (haplè) diegesis, (2) mimetic diegesis (dia mimêseôs), and (3) the mixed mode (di’ amphotérôn), combining the first two. The typology of modes is basically to be understood in terms of whether the narrator is absent or present, and consequently, in terms of narration. It is important to remember that these narrative modes are not genres, because mode is broader than genre: comedy and tragedy are part of the wholly mimetic mode, while the epic genre and the other unspecified genres fall within the third mode. [1]

3Diegesis is the poetic telling of past, present, and future events (Republic, 392d). [2] The poetic telling of an event in the diegetic mode (haplè diègésis) involves describing the event, rather than having it played out by characters, as shown by Socrates in his transposition of an episode of The Iliad from the wholly imitative mode to the plain diegetic mode. Plain diegesis, or simple telling, is therefore a narration in which the action is described but not acted out: “Now, it is narration, is it not, both when he presents the several speeches and the matter between the speeches?” [3] (Republic, 393b). [4]

4This narrative mode without mimesis (aneu mimèseôs, 394b1) uses only reported or indirect speech, giving the account an objective quality. This quality is one of the essential defining elements of plain diegesis. The objectivity arises from the fact that the poet-narrator is not identified with his characters, and that he is not part of the story. Positioned outside the story, the poet-narrator speaks in his own name and not in that of the characters. [5] The simple account, with its demand for objectivity, requires that the narrator be effaced; according to G. Genette, it is plain description. [6] Conversely, as we will see, the wholly mimetic account (dia mimèseôs olê, 394c1) is an acting out as opposed to the plain diegetic mode (oti tautès au enantia gignetai, 394b4-5).

5It should first be understood that there are two distinct notions of mimesis in the Republic. The mimesis theorized in book 10 covers the general concept of reproduction, imitation, and simulation, whereas the mimesis introduced in book 3 is associated with mode, and corresponds to the notion of incarnation or “impersonation.” It involves the poet becoming the character in the story: [7] “Likening one’s self to another speech or bodily bearing [is] an imitation of him to whom one likens one’s self” (393c5-6).

6By taking on the voice and appearance of a person, the imitator acts as if he were this person. Thus, Homer imitates Chryses when he speaks as if he were he, giving a voice to his character and disappearing behind him. Imitation, understood here as the poet’s identification with one of his characters, leads to the use of the first person, rather than the third person (as in plain diegesis). The wholly mimetic mode involves the effacement of the narrator, giving center-stage to the characters and events, [8] as well as the disappearance of any description. It is a telling without narration, involving only what happens: “One removes the words of the poet between and leaves the alternation of speeches,” Socrates explains (394b6). This mode corresponds to the dramatic mode in which the account is no longer a reported conversation (plain diegesis), but a telling in direct speech. [9]

7The third mode identified is the mixed mode, which combines the first two. This mode is first mentioned in 392d (di’ amphoterôn), then upon the establishment of a mode-genre link (394b-c). In an account in the mixed mode, there is an alternation of narration and acted representation, of narrator and characters, and of direct and indirect speech. This mixed mode can be subdivided into two categories, which are combined or compound modes, [10] and which (as we will see) are distinguished according to the narrator’s degree of presence.

8These two modes, created from the combination (o kekramenos) of the wholly mimetic mode and the plain diegetic mode, are introduced in order to determine whether any event or any character can be expressed through the wholly mimetic mode, or whether certain events and characters must be expressed by using the plain diegetic mode: “Whether we are to suffer our poets to narrate as imitators or in part as imitators and in part not, and what sort of things in each case” (394d). [11]

9From the lexis of the account, that is, the narrative modes of telling, we move to the lexis of the speaker/narrator. Two categories of speaker/narrator are distinguished: the “good man” and the inferior “man of the opposite birth and breeding.” “There is a form of diction and narrative [lexis and diegesis] in which the really good man would narrate anything that he had to say” (396b). [12]

10The good man speaker, when narrating, can disappear behind a character, if the character himself is a good man. [13] However, if the good man character, as a result of unfortunate circumstances, falls from virtue, [14] the good man narrator will decrease the amount of mimesis in his narration (elattô de kai êtton, 396d1) to the advantage of plain diegesis. In order to represent a man who is below him, he uses imitation only for the good actions of this man, and when he lets his character speak, it is not without a degree of shame (396d6). There can be different degrees in the mixture of pure mimesis and plain diegesis, according to the morality of the character: the weaker this morality, the less imitation there will be in the mixture. The lexis of the good man narrator is therefore a mixture of pure mimesis and plain diegesis, but there is a only small amount of mimesis in a long account (en pollô logô, 396e7), which I consequently call a “diegetico-mimetic account.”

11Let us now examine the second category: that of the speaker/narrator who is inferior to the good man, and who is forced to imitate everything even if it is unworthy of himself (397a). [15] Socrates gives examples of the things imitated, including “claps of thunder, and the noise of wind […].” [16] The lexis of this type of narrator “will depend wholly on imitation in voice and gesture, or will contain but a little of plain narration [diegesis]” (397a1-2). I therefore call this a “mimetico-diegetic account” because it favors imitation over narration.

12After this new division, Socrates states that these are the two types of lexis that he wants to talk about (397b4). This raises the question as to which mode of lexis among those identified will be admitted in the city. Most commentators understand that the modes in question are the plain diegetic mode, the wholly mimetic mode (seen here as plain modes, or tôn akratôn, 397b1), and the mixed mode (di’ amphoterôn), which as we have seen is subdivided into the diegetico-mimetic and the mimetico-diegetic modes (o kekramenos, 397d3 and 6). However, Adeimantus’s response is intriguing: it is the plain (unmixed) mode, which imitates the good man, which should be admitted. Here, there is a degree of ambiguity, because the text does not make it clear (contrary to the assertions of most interpreters and translators) whether Adeimantus is speaking about the plain diegetic or the wholly mimetic mode: ton tou epieikoûs mimètèn akraton (d5). Instead, he seems to refer to the second division, because he mentions the good man, who is only introduced during the discussion of the second division, as both speaker and character. [17]

13We have seen that the lexis of the good man, the diegetico-mimetic mode, is concerned with the virtuous man who always acts virtuously, with the one who falls by bad luck, and with the bad man. The mode that imitates the good man is therefore the diegetico-mimetic mode in which the good man narrator disappears behind the good man character. Is it this mode that Adeimantus talks about? If so, he does not answer Socrates’s question, or he answers it badly. However, Socrates’s answer to Adeimantus might help us to understand. He asserts that the mixed mode is the opposite of that chosen by Adeimantus, and that it is also preferred by “boys and their tutors and the great mob” (397d). More importantly however he asserts that in the ideal city, “there is no twofold or manifold man among us, since every man does one thing” (397e1-2). When the poet imitates both the lexis of the good man and that of the man inferior to the good man, therefore becoming twofold, he uses a mode which combines the diegetico-mimetic mode and the mimetico-diegetic. Such an account will contain both characters who are good men and vile characters, to both of which the poet gives a voice. Moreover, Socrates says that the poet who uses the wholly mimetic mode will be driven out of the city, but that the poet who imitates the lexis of the good (the diegetico-mimetic mode, as we have shown) will be allowed to stay (398b2).

14Let us recall that before establishing the second division, Socrates states that it is necessary to decide whether to accept or reject pure imitation or partial imitation. Adeimantus therefore allows partial imitation, which is that which imitates the good man. As emerges from this analysis, we have six modes: the plain diegetic mode, the wholly imitative mode, the mixed mode (the first two modes used in alternation), two composite modes (the diegetico-mimetic mode and the mimetico-diegetic), and the mode created by the mixing of these two composites.

Proposal for a Classification of the Dialogues [18]

15Based on these six modes, I would like to propose a classification of the dialogues, keeping to the descriptive dimension of these modes and leaving aside the normative dimension of Socrates’s explanation, which is to be understood in the context of the ideal city. [19] However, this requires a clarification of how the narrative modal aspect of the dialogues can be understood based on the modes in the Republic. Stephen Halliwell observes that in establishing his typology, Socrates identifies the narrator with the poet. In the third person account (plain diegesis), the poet-narrator speaks in his own name and is not part of the story. This mode is the privileged and exclusive expression of the poet’s voice. [20] The two characteristics of plain diegesis are problematic to say the least, because they are not seen in any of Plato’s narrated dialogues. The narrator is never the author and the auctorial voice is peculiarly absent from the dialogues. Socrates does not consider the narrative procedure of distinguishing the author from the narrator, [21] leaving the definition of the plain diegetic mode incomplete. Socrates’s typology is focused on the distinction between the description of events and the incarnation of characters, and does not examine the types of narrator; in fact he considers only one. [22] In narrated dialogues, Plato makes subtle and varied use of the type of narrator, allowing us to compensate for the division which is absent from Socrates’s explanation.

16We can identify three major categories of narrator: (1) the narrator who is the author: (a) an account in the first person, and (b) in the third person (there is no dialogue exemplifying this type of narrator); (2) the primary narrator (distinct from the author): (2.1) he is a character in the story, (a) an account in the first person and (b) in the third person: (b’) he has witnessed the events he recounts, or (b”) he has not witnessed them, (2.2) he is outside of the story: an account in the third person; (3) the secondary (internal) narrator who tells a story which he has or has not authored (for example, Socrates or Protagoras). These categories of narrators belong to the plain diegetic mode, to the mixed mode, and to the two composite modes. This allows us to propose a definition for the plain diegetic mode: it is the mode used in an account of past, present, or future events (described/reported) through the voice of the narrator (whichever category he belongs to), and which differs from the dramatic account which is without mediation: the characters’ voices are not heard through the narrator’s voice. In light of these different types of narrators and modes, I will analyze the narrated dialogues in Plato. [23]

17The vast majority of Platonic dialogues show a discussion between Socrates and different interlocutors, and trace his intellectual and philosophical journey. The first person account is not the account of the writer Plato, but of one of his characters: Socrates, who is both narrator of the account and protagonist in the story. Strictly speaking, it is not therefore an autobiographical account in which the author is both narrator and character; [24] as staging the character of Socrates the dialogues are biographical fictions. The first person account introduces a philosophical discussion by a first-hand witness and a direct participant: Socrates. In the case of the third person account, the narrator is (1) a first-hand witness (a character in the story, who listens to or speaks with Socrates), or (2) a second- or third-hand witness.

18The first person accounts (Protagoras, Euthydemus, Lysis, Charmides, and Republic) recount episodes from different periods of Socrates’s intellectual life. [25] Having Socrates as the narrator, these accounts are in the appropriate narrative mode since the narrator is a good man, according to the Republic: the diegetico-mimetic mode. Two of these dialogues stage Socrates in conversation with Sophists (Protagoras and Euthydemus), and the other two stage him in conversation with young Athenians (Charmides and Lysis). The last dialogue stages him with various interlocutors: an immoralist Sophist, a man near death and his son, and two apprentice-philosophers. I will start by examining the Protagoras and Euthydemus, then more briefly Charmides, Lysis, and the Republic.

19The Protagoras begins with the wholly mimetic (dramatic) mode. We observe a meeting of two characters: Socrates and an anonymous friend. It continues in the diegetico-mimetic mode with Socrates’s account of his meeting with Protagoras. There is an alternation between the diegetico-mimetic mode and the wholly mimetic mode. Socrates’s account is composed of reported speeches [26] and “the matter between the speeches” (Republic, 393b9), that is, descriptions. Although the narrator does not report his words and those of his interlocutors in indirect speech (see 393e), thus maintaining the liveliness of the exchange, he uses diegetic formulae throughout his account: “He said,” “he answered,” etc. These diegetic formulae produce a distancing effect between the narrator and the characters, while avoiding the total effacement of the narrator, because they perform the function of introducing a citation. During citation in direct speech, the narrator’s voice disappears, but the account does not go into the plain mimetic mode, because it is still a citation. [27] The plain diegetic aspect of the account includes brief descriptions from the narrator, firstly of the location where the scene takes place and of the characters, secondly (during the account) of the narrators’ and characters’ emotional reactions. The Euthydemus displays the same mixture of modes as the Protagoras. Similarly, it starts in the wholly mimetic mode, then continues in the diegetico-mimetic mode. In both cases, speech is embedded within speech, producing a binary narrative structure. These two dialogues differ from those of the Lysis, Charmides and the Republic, which do not use the wholly mimetic mode. In these dialogues, Socrates gives a direct account of his meetings with his interlocutors, and of the ensuing discussion. Consequently, there is no mediation between the reader of the dialogue and the narrator, who seems to speak to the reader and not to a character as an addressee of the account. The account in the first person without the mediation of an addressee produces the illusion of an identification between the writer and the narrator. [28]

20The account in the third person (Parmenides, Phaedo, Symposium) offers two possible narrator statuses, which Plato exploited: (1) a character not in the story, and (2) a character in the story. The first is the status of the narrator in Parmenides, and the second the narrator in the Phaedo. The telling of Parmenides resembles a Russian doll: accounts within accounts. [29] Here, the plain mimetic mode is absent, and the account begins with the narrator, Cephalus, seeking to recount a discussion between Socrates, Parmenides, and Zeno. It is Pythodorus, Zeno’s disciple and a first-hand witness who told the story to Antiphon, who in turn told it to Cephalus. We therefore are hearing the story third-hand, in the diegetico-mimetic mode. However, the second part of the dialogue is in direct speech (transcribing the exchange between Parmenides and the young Aristotle). The move from the first to the second mode is engineered through a reminder of the two narrators: Pythodorus and Antiphon, which results in a doubling of speech verbs: “Antiphon said that Pythodorus told him that” (136e), then by a move from Parmenides accepting his interlocutors’ requests to make his way across such a “vast sea of words” (137a7), which is in direct speech. Although the narrator disappears behind his two characters (137c), the diegetic formula “Parmenides said,” which is the last words from the narrator, tells us that he is citing the speech, consequently keeping the account in the diegetico-mimetic mode, while favoring imitation. The account allows the addressee to concentrate on the argument, which is all that remains.

21In the Phaedo, which is also in the diegetico-mimetic mode, the narrator is part of the story. [30] Beginning in the wholly imitative mode (dialogue between Phaedo and Echecrates), the account switches to the diegetico-mimetic mode (Phaedo’s account). The dialogue opens with a question from Echecrates: was Phaedo present during Socrates’s last hours, or did he learn about what happened from someone else? The account that we will hear is that of a first-hand witness, and the result of the questions that Echecrates asks Phaedo (58c). Phaedo begins his account, but he is quickly interrupted by Echecrates, who wants to know who was present during Socrates’s last hours: this gives the writer the chance to state his possible absence. Phaedo’s account is the answer to Echecrates’ initial question: “What was said […]?” Moreover, it consists of an internal account (an intellectual autobiography), for which Socrates is the secondary narrator.

22In the narrative dialogues, Plato most frequently uses either an alternation between the mimetic mode and the diegetico-mimetic mode, or the diegetico-mimetic mode alone, which allows the liveliness of a narrated account to be maintained. However, although the practice of embedding accounts within accounts, with a possible change of modes, is dominant in the narrated dialogues, it is also seen in the dramatic dialogues, as we will see.

23The complex structure of embedded speeches allows us to identify two levels of discourse: primary and secondary. As we will see, this is a useful distinction for analyzing dialogues in the wholly mimetic mode. I will examine three of them: the Gorgias, the Theaetetus, and the Phaedrus. The first dialogue stages a discussion between Socrates and three successive interlocutors, talking respectively about three different subjects, united by the theme of rhetoric and the type of life it underpins.

24The wholly mimetic mode requires a command of rhythm and language, because the narrator imitates characters with highly different behaviors and speech (see Republic, 397c). Plato could not be faulted in the art of portraying his characters and of creating a subtle atmosphere, which in the Gorgias gradually darkens, reaching a climax with the entrance of Callicles. However, the dialogue presents accounts by Socrates in the diegetico-mimetic mode, and belongs to the secondary level of discourse. These accounts are integral parts of the drama, and constitute elements of the story. The transition from direct speech to indirect speech produces a distancing effect from the scene, and is a form of respiration.

25The transition from the wholly mimetic mode (primary level) to the diegetico-mimetic mode (secondary level) is also the move from a familiar world to a strange and surreal world. In this respect, the final account of the Gorgias is a model of the diegetico-mimetic mode. The narrator gives a description of the beyond, then allows one of the characters, Zeus, to speak (transition to direct discourse using diegetic formulae: “he said”). The Gorgias is therefore not in the wholly mimetic mode, but is a mixture with an alternation of modes from the plain mimetic to the diegetico-mimetic, returning to the wholly mimetic.

26The Theaetetus displays the particularity of a binary structure, without mixing modes: the two levels of discourse are in wholly mimetic mode. Rather than an oral transmission or a memorized and recited exchange (see Parmenides, 126c2), it is a record in a book of a dialogue read to Terpsion, the addressee of the account. [31] The orality of transmission is abandoned in favor of writing, which is even more remarkable given that Socrates is the composer of the tale for which Euclid is both the claimant and the unfaithful transcriber. His transcription is deprived of its narrator, because he has suppressed the diegetic formulae (“I said,” “he agreed”) from between the arguments (143c). [32] The initial account in the diegetico-mimetic mode therefore becomes a dramatic biography, where the autobiographical illusion of accounts in the first person is removed. [33] The first level of the discourse, the prologue, in the wholly mimetic mode, aims at the making of the account, and introduces the second level: the exchange between Theaetetus, Theodorus, and Socrates, in the wholly mimetic mode. Socrates’s account is therefore a dramatic account, embedded within another dramatic account. [34]

27Another dialogue, the Phaedrus, shows a character reading a written speech to his companion, but this time, it has been written by a character who is a writer by trade. The dialogue, which notably appears as a reflection on discourse, displays a particularly complex narrative structure with a succession of speeches: the first (of written composition) is followed by two oral, improvised speeches. The first part of the Phaedrus is made up of competing speeches on love, a little like the Symposium. However, these speeches are not accounts: they do not tell a story, and they therefore differ from Socrates’s account (beginning in 246a) on the supra-celestial life of the soul. Although Socrates initially does not claim that the story is his own, attributing it to Stesichorus, [35] diegetic formulae within the tale indicate that he makes it his own (see 252b1, 252b1). Moreover, at the end of the account, he attributes the story to Phaedrus and himself (257a1).

28The palinode thus displays a process of identification between the narrator and the author. [36] This identification is significant, as is Phaedrus’s comment admiring the ease with which Socrates improvises discourses (275b4-5) in a dialogue where he advocates orality and displays contempt for writing. In this palinode, Plato provides us with an example of an account in the plain diegetic mode: completely descriptive, with no narratorial intervention, and therefore no judgment about the events described. [37]

29The richness of Plato’s writings is undisputable. We can see that Plato uses all of the modes identified in book 3 of the Republic, except for the mimetico-diegetic mode (narrator inferior to the good man). [38] Nevertheless, three modes dominate: the plain mimetic mode, the diegetico-mimetic mode, and an alternating mix of the two, as well as (to a lesser extent) the plain diegetic mode (for example the palinode, and the myth of the cicadas). [39]


30Through this examination, I hope to have demonstrated that the narrative modes presented in book 3 of the Republic are relevant in analyzing the literariness of the Platonic dialogues. The effect of these modes on the reception of the dialogues and the way in which they influence our reading still need to be analyzed. The dramatic mode as it appears in the comic and tragic genres is condemnable. However, it could be considered that Plato in some ways meets the challenge indirectly proposed by his character Socrates in the Republic: that of a possible moral use of the dramatic mode. Plato stages immoral characters, but contrasts them against a moral character: Socrates, who attempts to refute their positions. Moreover, Plato emphasizes the hybristic behavior arising from their positions. After all, does he not show us a character unworthy of emulation, since his art consists in making this character appear repellent? [40] Some argue otherwise. However, can Plato’s skill not be compared to that which he gives to his character-narrator, Socrates, who portrays his Sophist interlocutors very convincingly but with little sympathy, thus guiding and controlling the reception of their words and our judgment of their lifestyles? Plato may not have succeeded in doing with the immoralist what he managed to do with the Sophist in the narrated dialogues: destroying the image of sophistry is undoubtedly easier than destroying that of immoralism. However, his goal may have been different: Plato may well be inviting us to question our sympathy, if we have any, for a Callicles, consequently encouraging us to question ourselves. This is undoubtedly one of the effects of dialogue in Plato: self-knowledge. [41]


  • [1]
    The dithyramb corresponds to the plain diegetic mode, but we will see that Plato uses this mode several times in the dialogues.
  • [2]
    Gérard Genette gives the following definition: it is “the representation of an event or a series of events, real or fictitious, through language, and more specifically written language.” “Frontières du récit,” in Communications, 8, L’analyse Structurale, (Paris: Seuil, 1981), 158 [back-translated from the French].
  • [3]
    All translations of Plato taken from “The Perseus Catalog,” Perseus Digital Library: Tufts University Medford & The University of Leipzig, accessed May 5, 2014,
  • [4]
    In this sense, Plato is never a narrator: he never speaks in his own name (393a). This issue is examined in more detail later.
  • [5]
    In this account, the pronoun “I” is excluded, and with it all subjectivity. As Emile Benveniste observes, in the account “there is no longer even a narrator. The events are described as if they occur as they appear on the horizon of the story. Nobody speaks here: the events seem to speak for themselves.” Emile Benveniste, Problèmes de linguistique générale (Paris: Gallimard, 1966), 241, cited in Genette, “Frontières du récit,” 166 [back translated from the French].
  • [6]
    Genette, “Frontières du récit,” 166.
  • [7]
    For this distinction, see in particular Stephen Halliwell, Aristotle’s Poetics (Chicago, IL: University of Chicago Press, 1998), 112-115. In this sense, an account in the diegetic mode is imitative, as the narrator relates fictional events (compare with Genette, “Frontières du récit,” 166.)
  • [8]
    It implies, as stated by Pierre Somville, “the representation of actions by characters who are really present.” Essai sur la Poétique d’Aristote (Paris: Vrin, 1975), 21.
  • [9]
    Tragedy is the perfect example of the mimetic mode. Thus, Sophocles does not narrate the misfortunes of Oedipus, because they are acted out and not described.
  • [10]
    I draw upon André Gaudreault, “Mimèsis et diègésis chez Platon,” Revue de Métaphysique et de Morale 1 (1989): 79-92.
  • [11]
    It is not insignificant that this question is posed and answered in the context of the education of guardians.
  • [12]
    This distinction is based on the idea that lexis and discourse are aligned with character (Republic, 400d).
  • [13]
    However, this is not the wholly mimetic mode, because the narration is not restricted to the characters alone.
  • [14]
    According to Plato, the perfectly accomplished good man cannot fall in the face of bad fortune: his virtue makes him immune to its blows. See Martha Nussbaum, The Fragility of Goodness (Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press, 2001), 3-4.
  • [15]
    The author of tragedies and comedies cannot be associated with the narrator inferior to the good man narrator, since the tragic and comic genres come under pure mimesis: compare with Chambry (see note 1 of the French translation).
  • [16]
    We should understand the use, for example, of onomatopoeia, the precise function of which is to produce such linguistic imitations, such as those seen in Aristophanes.
  • [17]
    Moreover, Socrates indicates that all poets and speakers in general use one of the two modes, or both at once (397c8-10). Yet a speaker rarely (if ever) uses the plain diegetic mode, and this mode is almost nonexistent in poetry, except in the dithyramb.
  • [18]
    In Antiquity, there were several attempts to classify the dialogues, which according to Diogenes Laertius were essentially based on two major categories: narration and drama (D.L. 3. 50). See Proclus, In Rem Publicam, 14.28). Moreover, Louis Kosman states that: “What the dialogues narratively present is a denial of mimesis, but what they constitute at the mimetic level is a valorization of mimesis, that mimesis which they themselves embody,” (Louis Kosman, “Silence and Imitation in the Platonic Dialogues,” in Methods of Interpreting Plato and his Dialogues (Oxford Studies in Ancient Philosophy, supplementary volume, 1992), ed. James C. Klagge and Nicholas D. Smith (Oxford, UK: Clarendon Press, 1992), 87).
  • [19]
    It is worth noting that Plato follows the prescriptions of Socrates for narrative accounts, because he primarily uses the diegetico-mimetic mode and therefore a good man narrator. In particular, this is because it is important, for the reception of a narrated account, to portray a reliable and trustworthy narrator character. The use of the wholly mimetic mode in a dialogue where the characters are not all good men, like Gorgias, breaks the rule set out in the Republic according to which the poet must imitate the lexis of the good man. Thus, in many dramatic dialogues, Plato allows himself this freedom from his character’s prescriptions (with which, it is crucial to understand, he may disagree). The dramatic mode presents dangers for the young soul in formation, because of a possible identification with immoral characters who are unworthy of imitation (as Socrates emphasizes before outlining his theory of modes). Socrates asserts that the content of the lexis has already been determined and concerns what it is morally appropriate to say or not say about gods, heroes, etc. (394c). Moreover, the response to the question of which modes are admitted requires a detour into what the guardian must imitate (emulate) from childhood, in order to shape his character. The imitation primarily concerns virtues, and he should not emulate vice for fear of enjoying it in real life (395d). Similarly, he must not imitate artisans, as this would lead to undesirable multiple expertise, and because he is not called upon to act in this way. Plato’s license must be understood in terms of reception. On the one hand, the reader of a Platonic dialogue is not a future guardian: Plato is not a poet in the ideal city, so he speaks to souls that have already been shaped, to men who had grown up in a democratic Athens, raised with the comic and dramatic genres with which he must compete. The questions concerning the use of specific modes in the dialogues (Why one mode and not another in a dialogue? Why a variety of modes in some dialogues?) relate to reception and not to narrativity. Unfortunately, it is not possible to answer these questions within the scope of this study.
  • [20]
    Stephen Halliwell, “The Theory and Practice of Narrative in Plato,” in Narratology and Interpretation: The Content of Narrative Form in Ancient Literature, eds. Jonas Grethlein and Antonios. Rengakos (Berlin/New York: Walter de Gruyter, 2009), 21. See also Louis A. Kosman, “Silence and Imitation in the Platonic Dialogues.”
  • [21]
    The context of the speech not only makes such a distinction useless, but it would also complicate Socrates’ earlier criticism of poetry concerning the content. By assimilating the narrator to the poet, the poet is held responsible for all that is said, and consequently for the immoral statements that, according to Socrates, are seen in the epic.
  • [22]
    This is shown by the second typology, which is exclusively seen in terms of degrees of imitation.
  • [23]
    It has been recognized that this category of dialogue is, in the words of Thesleff, “The culmination of Plato’s literary’s art.” Holger Thesleff, Studies in the Style of Plato (Helsinki: Acta Philosophica Fenica, Fasc. XX, 1967), 47.
  • [24]
    See Catherine Zuckert, Plato’s Philosophers: The Coherence of the Dialogues (Chicago, IL: University of Chicago Press, 2009). The author puts their life into an account, and therefore uses a first person narrator. In this sense, we cannot really speak of an embodiment of the narrator (a person cannot embody themselves): the narrator speaks for himself and tells of himself. But is it the plain diegetic mode in this case? Seemingly not: as it is non-fictional the autobiographical account cannot belong to the narrative modes.
  • [25]
    The dramatic date of the Protagoras is 433-32 B.C., followed by Charmides in 429, the Republic in 411, the Euthydemus in 407, and finally Lysis in 406. Here, I follow the dates given in Zuckert, Plato’s Philosophers, 9.
  • [26]
    These discourses include Protagoras’s account in the diegetico-mimetic mode. He is a secondary narrator here.
  • [27]
    Nevertheless, let us note that these formulae are sometimes omitted or, more precisely, implicit (for example 316b2). See André Gaudreault, From Plato to Lumière: Narration and Monstration in Literature and Cinema (Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 2009), 39. The narrator indicates that he acts as if he were disappearing, but he actually remains present. The telling therefore continues, because there is still mediation. His characters are not living beings, as observed by Gaudreault, From Plato to Lumière, 55. Compare Arlene. W. Saxonhouse, “The Socratic Narrative: A Democratic Reading of Plato’s Dialogues,” Political Theory 37, 6 (2009): 728-753.
  • [28]
    This illusion has in particular led some to say that Socrates was Plato’s spokesman.
  • [29]
    The same procedure is used in the Symposium, where the narrator is not part of the story and is a second-hand witness. For an analysis of this dialogue, see for example David M. Halperin, “Plato and the Erotic of Narrativity,” in Methods of Interpreting Plato and his Dialogues, Oxford Studies in Ancient Philosophy, supplementary volume (Oxford, UK: Clarendon Press, 1992), 93-129; and F. Gonzalez in this volume.
  • [30]
    See Diskin Clay, “Plato’s First Words,” Yale Classical Studies 29 (1992): 113-129.
  • [31]
    The Theaetetus poses the difficult question of writing, by showing Socrates composing an account. This is initially an oral composition which has not been composed in full, and it takes Euclid several attempts to obtain the whole exchange (see 143a). The question is perhaps not so much why Socrates, who fiercely opposes writing in the Phaedrus, agrees to Euclid’s request, but more what the receiver, Plato’s reader, is meant to make of this. Why does Plato tell us that Euclid made such a transformation? It is worth mentioning in passing that this transformation perhaps indicates Plato’s decision to favor the dramatic mode.
  • [32]
    It should be noted that here, once again, the morality of the characters imitated authorizes Euclid’s actions: Theodorus, Theaetetus, and Socrates are good men.
  • [33]
    It is not insignificant that Euclid is the author of Socratic dialogues: Crito, Aeschines, Alcibiades, and Erotikos.
  • [34]
    The apology of Protagoras in which Socrates embodies Protagoras is undeniably a short element, and cannot be said to constitute an account in its own right.
  • [35]
    Stesichorus, a sixth-century lyrical poet, composed Hymns with mythological themes. Socrates’ first discourse is attributed to Phaedrus. In both cases, he plays with the composer’s identity: the same man cannot express two opposing discourses on the same subject. This clears him of any duplicity and of practicing antology.
  • [36]
    In most of the dialogues, Socrates is an external narrator, and rarely the express composer of the tales.
  • [37]
    It is possible to apply Genette’s affirmation to Socrates’s account: “At this level of purity, the diction of the account is in some ways the absolute transitivity of the text, the perfect absence […] not only of the narrator, but even of narration itself, through the strict effacement of any reference to the instance of discourse that constitutes it” (Genette, “Frontières du récit,” 166) [back-translated from the French]. It is true that there are occasional exceptions, but these are minor, for example in 252b.
  • [38]
    Apollodorus, the narrator in The Symposium, is often disparaged by commentators. This may be an objection to considering him a good man narrator. Indeed, he does come across as a sort of parody of Socrates, but the description of him does not exclude defining him as a good man who has assimilated Socrates’s moral attitude.
  • [39]
    According to Gérard Genette, “This mode is a fictive, or at least purely ‘theoretical’ mode.” “Genres, ‘types,’ modes,” Poétique 32 (1977): 398.
  • [40]
    See Ruby Blondell, The Play of Character in Plato’s Dialogues (Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press, 2002), chap. 2.
  • [41]
    The question of the reception of the narrator and the narrative mode will be examined in another study. My thanks to Francisco Gonzalez for his careful reading and his judicious questions.

The literariness of Plato’s dialogues is seldom investigated. This paper focuses on two aspects of literariness: the narrative mode and narrators. In book 3 of The Republic, Socrates outlines a typology of narrative modes, which I delineate here. The explanation aims to demonstrate how this typology, in conjunction with a typology of narrators based on an examination of the narrators in the dialogues, can be applied to the dialogues. However, the modal aspect of a dialogue is complex insofar as a dialogue rarely possesses a unique mode. Embedded narratives in a dialogue often, but not always, lead Plato to employ numerous modes. I thus propose a taxonomy of the dialogues, grounded in narrative modes and narrators.


La littérarité des dialogues platoniciens est rarement l’objet d’une investigation propre. Cette étude se concentre sur deux aspects de cette littérarité : le mode narratif du récit et l’instance narrative. Au livre III de la République, Socrate esquisse une typologie des modes narratifs qui est ici examinée. Cet examen a pour but de montrer comment cette typologie jointe à une typologie du narrateur établie sur la base d’une analyse des narrateurs dans les dialogues peut être appliquée à l’ensemble des dialogues. L’aspect modal d’un dialogue est cependant complexe, car un dialogue présente rarement un seul mode narratif. L’enchâssement de récits conduit parfois Platon, mais pas toujours, à recourir à plusieurs modes. C’est à la lumière de cette double typologie qu’une classification des dialogues fondée sur instances et modes narratifs est proposée.


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Catherine Collobert
University of Ottawa
Uploaded on on 18/02/2015
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