Plato, in one of his dialogues, depicts Socrates, as a young man, meeting Parmenides, who is now an old man, and Zeno, tall and personable, in his middle forties. They engage in philosophical discussion. Although there is question whether such a meeting was chronologically possible, Plato seemed intent on establishing a connection between Parmenides, Zeno, and Socrates. Perhaps Plato bent historical accuracy to acknowledge the debt he felt to Socrates and Socrates felt to Zeno and Parmenides for their understanding of the dialectic, a means of refutation by contradiction and paradox.

Although Zeno may have been the inventor of the dialectic, Socrates was undoubtedly the one who popularized dialectic as a method. Since Socrates taught orally, his contributions come to us filtered through the opinions of others and it is difficult to know his exact teachings. The Socrates of Plato, for example, is much different than the Socrates depicted by Zenophon. Most historians agree, however, that Socrates did exist, that he brought into fashion a method for seeking the truth that has been a turning point in the growth of man’s knowledge, and that he called this method the dialectic. Through the writings of Plato, whose dialogues featured Socrates in the role of questioner, we have several definitions of this method. In the Craytlian Dialogue, Socrates asked,

“And him who knows how to ask and answer you would call a dialectician?” Hermogenes replied, “Yes that would be his name.”[1]

In this definition, given about the year 300 B.C., dialectic means simply questioning and answering by deliberate design. In the centuries that followed, in some schools this was all that was meant by the word dialectic.

In a more subtle use of the term dialectic, the questioner designed the questions in such a manner as to lead the person doing the answering from one opinion to its opposite opinion, from thesis to antithesis. The skill of a dialectician was measured by his dexterity at maneuvering his companion into denying what he had previously affirmed. This process, if repeated often, puts virtually all opinion in question and tends to encourage radical skepticism that can be seriously damaging to the morals of the young.

Plato addressed the problems created by endless questioning and contradicting in his educational plan in The Republic. Although he describes dialectic as the

“coping stone of the sciences”[2].

He is aware that the questioning spirit can be abused.

“Do you not remark how great is the evil which dialectic has introduced?”

and he goes on to explain,

“Now, when a man is in this state, and the questioning spirit asks what is fair or honourable, and he answers as the legislator has taught him, and then arguments many and diverse refute his words until he is driven into believing that nothing is honourable any more than dishonourable, or Just and good any more than the reverse, and so of all the notions which he most valued, do you think that he will still honour and obey them  as before? And when he ceases to think them honourable and natural as heretofore, and he fails to discover the true, can he be expected to pursue any life other than that which flatters his desires?  And from being a keeper of the law he is converted into a breaker of it. Now all this is very natural in students of philosophy such as I have described, and also, as I was just saying, most excusable. . .”[3]

Plato recognized that the dialectic often introduced an evil effect  on the young. Filled with the questioning spirit, the immature easily became cynical, rebellious, developed disgust with their elders, and fell into habits of dissipation. One of the charges against Socrates was “the corruption of youth”. Although his trial was political, it is not hard to imagine a number of distraught parents among those who cast their vote against Socrates.

Plato solves this problem by advising that the dialectic should not be introduced to the young, but should be postponed to the mature years. He says,

“Every care must be taken in introducing them [the young] to dialectic. There is a danger lest they should taste the dear delight too early for youngsters, as you may have observed, when they first get the taste in their mouths, argue for amusement, and are always contradicting and refuting others in imitation of those who refute them like puppy dogs they rejoice in pulling and tearing at all who come near them . . . And when they have made many conquests and received defeats at the hands of many, they violently and speedily get into a way of not believing anything which they believed before, and hence, not only they, but philosophy and all that relates to it is apt to have a bad name with the rest of the world. But when a man begins to get older, he will no longer be guilty of such insanity; he will imitate the dialectician who is seeking for truth, and not the eristic, who is contradicting for the sake of amusement: and the greater moderation of his character will increase instead of diminish the honour of the pursuit.”[4]

To Plato, the dialectic was the Questioning Spirit, but it was also more than that. As he grew older and his philosophy matured, Plato’s explanations of the dialectic became mystical and rhapsodic. To develop an understanding of this deeper and encompassing meaning of the Platonic dialectic requires thorough study of his total philosophy. There is no way adequately to condense it without distorting Plato’s meaning. I will quote a remarks from the Republic because Plato’s own words best explain the exalted position the dialectic held in his estimation.

“And when I speak of the other division of the intelligible, you will understand me to speak of that other sort of knowledge which reason herself attains by the power of dialectic, using the hypotheses not as first principles, but only as hypotheses: that is to say, as steps and points of departure into a world which is above hypothesis, in order that we may soar beyond them to the first principle of the whole and clinging to this and then to that which depends on this, by successive steps she descends again without the aid of any sensible object, from ideas, through ideas, and in ideas she ends.

And so with dialectic: when a person starts on the discovery of the absolute by the light of reason only, and without any assistance of sense, and perseveres until the pure intelligence he arrives at the perception of the absolute good, he at last finds himself at the end of the intellectual world, as in the case of sight at the end of the visible.

Exactly, he said.

Then this is the progress which you call dialectics?

True.

But the release of the prisoners from chains, and their translation from the shadows to the images and to the light, and the ascent from the underground den to the sun, while in his presence they are vainly trying to look on animals and plants and the light of the sun, but are able to perceive even with their weak eyes the images in the water (which are divine), and are the shadows of true existence... This power of elevating the highest principle in the soul to the contemplations of that which is best in existence, with which we may compare the raising of that faculty which is  the very light of the body to the sight of that which is brightest in the material and visible world this power if given, as I was saying, by all that study and pursuit of the arts which has been described. ...Say then what is the nature and what are the divisions of dialectic, and what are the paths which lead thither: for these paths will also lead to our final rest.

my best and you should behold not an image only but the absolute truth, according to my notion...

alone can reveal this, and only to one who is a disciple of the previous sciences...and assuredly no one will argue that there is any other method of comprehending any regular process all true existence of ascertaining what each thing is in its own nature.

Then Dialectic, and dialectic alone, goes directly to the first principle and is the only science which does away with hypothesis in order to make her ground secure  the eye of the soul, which is literally buried in an outlandish slough, is by her gentle aid lifted upwards  and she uses as handmaids and helpers in the work of conversion, the science which we have been discussing.”[5]

From the above statements, we can abstract several observations. First of all the dialectic was a method of seeking the truth through a dialogue where one person questioned and another answered. Often the questions were designed to lead the answerer from one opinion to the denial of that opinion. This led to what Plato called the questioning spirit which in turn led to a state of doubt. Socrates insisted that although he was ignorant, he was wiser than others because he knew he did not know. The questioning spirit led to this condition. But doubting was a new kind of knowing with a new kind of certainty and Plato went from here, beyond what Socrates had done, to a philosophy of absolute good and absolute truth that was virtually a religion. The dialectic was the progress of discovering the absolute by the light of reason only. By its gentle aid the soul was lifted upward. Plato calls the dialectic a “hymn”, a “strain which is of the intellect only”. The dialectic was a process that went in stages but always the aim was to rouse people to search after eternal truth and good and to “labour after eternal being” by the light of reason. Dialectic thus interpreted is a faith and, clearly, is a religion.

From this brief resume of Plato’s philosophy, we can list several definitions of dialectic:  (1) Dialectic is a method of seeking truth by means of questions and answers. (2) Dialectic is a method of questioning designed to lead the responder from an affirmed opinion to the denial of that opinion. (3) Dialectic is a “questioning spirit”. (4) Dialectic is a method of criticism. (5) Dialectic is a systematic method of doubting and contradicting. (6) Dialectic is a way to discover the absolute by the light of reason only. (7) Dialectic is a religion.

Although some claim that the first definition implies the following definitions, not all persons recognize this implication and, the result is, when the term dialectic was used, even in Plato’s time, it was often questionable which meaning was intended.