“The principal influence on the origin of dialogue as a genre was of course Socrates: his associates wanted to bear testimony to the personality and teachings of a man who refused to write anything himself and whose philosophic ideals – in theory, at any rate – were of cooperative dialectic. Yet tensions between dialogue and democracy are immediately apparent in Socrates’ activities. In Plato’s Protagoras, the character of Socrates insists on conversing by way of short question and answer; yet in the Gorgias, we are told that such a method (brachylogy) is impossible with a large audience and can only take place with a select few. So Socratic dialectic, which arguably could not have flourished outside a democratic context, is nevertheless a pursuit of the leisured elite.
When we consider Plato himself, the most brilliant practitioner of the dialogue genre, the tensions and ironies multiply. Quite apart from the general irony that all dialogues written by a single author are in a sense monologues, Plato was one of democracy’s most implacable critics, and one of the central reasons for his hostility was that the Athenian democracy had put Socrates to death – at least partly, it could be claimed, because of the way he did dialogue, interrogating self-appointed experts and deflating their pretensions to knowledge. Yet Book One of the Republic can itself be read as an implicit critique of the historical Socrates’ style of dialogue (and of course Plato’s works do not just consist of brief question and answer: there are plenty of longer speeches, including, with tongue doubtless in cheek, one in the Protagoras about the origins of brachylogy). Furthermore, to add an extra layer to the complexity, Plato’s own dialogues, including the Republic, would almost certainly not be permitted into the ‘ideally just’ (and certainly not democratic) state outlined in the Republic: they break many of the censorship rules laid down there. Plato’s dialogues, in other words, simultaneously arise from the culture of democratic Athens and offer a robust critique of that culture, and would be banned by the philosopher-rulers whom Plato (apparently) advocates instead.”
(from Angela Hobbs, “Too much talking in class”, review of The End of Dialogue in Antiquity, ed. Simon Goldhill, p. 17 in the 18 & 25 Dec 2009 TLS.)