Dialogues of Plato | Study Guide


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Dialogues of Plato | Apology | Summary



Socrates begins his defense by referring to longstanding accusations against him. He does not know how negatively they have affected the jury, and he implores them to listen to what he says, not how he says it. He will, after all, use the language he enlists in the marketplace, where most of his discussions have occurred. While he will not speak prettily, he will tell them the truth. Their responsibility is to determine whether what he and his accusers say is just or unjust.

Well before the current charges brought against him, the older generation had been saying similarly slanderous things, such as "Socrates investigates into things below and above the earth," and "Socrates makes the weaker argument appear the stronger." He vehemently denies that he is like the Sophists, not only because he has never received money for teaching but also because he has been concerned only with seeking the truth.

Furthermore, Socrates says, his accusers do not properly understand what virtue is. There is no such expert among them, so there is no reason for him to be brought before his fellow Athenians. However, he can explain how he gained the reputation he has.

It started when his friend Chaerephon went to the Delphic oracle and asked whether anyone was wiser than Socrates. The priestess declared that no one was wiser. Socrates tells the jury that this confused him. After all, he knew he was not wise, but he also knew the god could not lie.

Socrates endeavored to find someone wiser than he, to no avail. The politicians, who have the highest reputation for wisdom, think they are wise. However, this reputation and self-image are unfounded. The poets and craftsmen also think they are wise, but the poets are merely divinely inspired, and the craftsmen, while knowing how to make things, mistakenly believe they are experts in matters of "great importance."

Socrates tells the jury he decided he was "better off as I am." He is wise in that he does not think he knows what he does not. At that point, he decided it was his religious duty to continue questioning people who thought they were wise, so that he could help them recognize their ignorance. This did not win him any friends.

Socrates goes on to explain that those who witnessed his discussions could not adequately explain what he did and how he did it, so their accounts turned into the basis for the charges against him: he corrupts the youth, worships false gods, and does not worship the city gods.

At this point, Socrates turns to Meletus, who, he says, has frivolously brought these charges against him. Not only that, but he has been irresponsible in bringing together the jury. However, worst of all is that he does not truly care about the things he accuses Socrates of doing. To prove his point, he cross-examines Meletus.

The first two arguments resulting from the cross-examination concern the charge of corrupting the youth:

  1. The youth should be made as good as possible (24d).
  2. Everyone, with the sole exception of Socrates, makes the youth of Athens better citizens: the laws, the jury/judges, senators, and members of the assembly (24d–25).
  3. Horses are made better only by horsemen; i.e., those who are skilled in the art of horsemanship (25b).
  4. By analogy, the youth are made better only by those skilled in educating (25b).
  5. Not everyone is skilled in the art of horsemanship or education (25b).
  6. Therefore, these unskilled people can do harm/corrupt (25b).
  7. So, Socrates is not the only one who can/does corrupt the youth (25b).
  1. It is better to live amongst good citizens than bad ones (25c).
  2. Bad citizens are harmful to themselves and others, and good citizens are beneficial (to themselves and others) (25c).
  3. No one wants to be harmed, and everyone wants to be benefited (25d).
  4. Socrates corrupts the youth intentionally (25d).
  5. Socrates knows he will be harmed by those he corrupts (25e).
  6. Therefore, either Socrates does not corrupt the youth, or he does so unintentionally (26a).
  7. So, if the former is the case, Socrates ought to be acquitted of the charges. If the latter is the case, then Socrates should not be charged with corrupting the youth, but should be taken aside and instructed (26a).

Socrates's next two arguments concern the charges of impiety, which amount to a charge of atheism:

  1. Socrates is an atheist (and teaches the youth the same) (26b–c).
  2. Socrates worships false gods and introduces new divinities (and teaches the youth the same) (26c–e).
  3. Socrates both believes in the gods and doesn't believe in the gods (and teaches the youth the same) (27a).
  1. Everyone who believes in human activities believes in humans (27b).
  2. Everyone who believes in horses' activities believes in horses (27b).
  3. Everyone who believes in musical activities believes in musicians (27b).
  4. Analogously, everyone who believes in supernatural activities believes in supernatural beings (27c).
  5. Socrates does not believe in the state's gods (27c).
  6. Socrates teaches the youth about supernatural activities (27c).
  7. So, Socrates both believes in supernatural activities but not in supernatural beings (27d).
  8. But this contradicts the previous claim that everyone who believes in supernatural activities believes in supernatural beings (27d).
  9. So Socrates believes in supernatural beings (27d).

The cross-examination complete, Socrates declares he is not ashamed of his activities. To anyone who says his actions have brought him to this point, where he is in danger of dying, he says he would respond as follows: "You are wrong, Sir, if you think that a man worth anything at all should take thought of for danger in living or dying." Socrates argues there are more important matters than one's physical mortality, continuing: "He should look when he acts to one thing: whether what he does is just or unjust, the work of a good man or a bad one." One should fear being an unjust or bad man, not death. One does not, after all, know if death is something good, yet men fear it as if it is the greatest evil. Indeed, fearing death is a sort of pretense to wisdom.

What he does know, he says, is that it is evil to do wrong. This belief is so strong, he says, that he is not willing to compromise the good for an acquittal. If the jury were to offer to let him go on the condition he cease doing philosophy, he would refuse. Indeed, he will continue to exhort his fellow Athenians to care not for money or power, but for their soul. If he is sentenced to die, Athens will be harmed, not him. He has been like a gadfly to Athens, stinging and exhorting it to wake up.

Socrates goes on to explain that, from the time he was a child, he's had an inner, divine-like voice that has always stopped him from doing some things, although it has never encouraged him. This is why he has hardly participated in Athens's political life.

His choice has also been partly motivated by his desire for a just life, which militates against the sort of public life required by politics. When confronted with the choice between what is politically expedient and what is just, he has chosen the latter—even at the risk of prosecution or death. He gives examples of his similar behavior opposing the previous democratic government as well as the Thirty Tyrants, who ruled Athens in 404–03 BCE. There is no reason now why he should change. He won't, for example, cry and plead for his life; he won't trot out his children to cry for their father, or his friends to beg for his acquittal. If he is innocent, and he is, he should not have to resort to such tactics. Reason should win out.


Plato's Apology purports to be essentially a transcript of Socrates's defense speech. Some scholars argue that it is Plato's idealized version of Socrates, and as such, is a fiction. Other scholars argue that, if not in actual speech, in other important ways, the dialogue is an accurate representation of the historical event.

Socrates's trial was widely popular. Five hundred and one jurors appeared, a large number for a typical trial. These jurors were all Athenian citizens—male property owners, not judges. The trial would proceed in three phases: (1) a judgment about guilt; (2) if a guilty verdict is reached, proposals for penalties, one from the prosecution and one from the defendant; and (3) a judgment about which penalty to enforce. Each side had the time it takes for the water to run out of a water clock to make their case.

Long before his interest in human affairs, specifically the moral well-being of an individual's soul, Socrates was briefly engaged in astronomy and geology. Added to this, his method of doing philosophy brought him a reputation as something of a Sophist, someone who takes money for teaching people how to win arguments. However, Socrates is adamant that he is not a Sophist, and not only because he does not take money for teaching people. He also does not teach, but is instead concerned with the condition of people's souls. Indeed, he disavows wisdom, as his retelling of the oracle story shows. Moreover, the oracle story also provides evidence against the charges of impiety, at least one of which—that he does not worship Athens's gods—seems to derive from Socrates's mistaken reputation as a Sophist.

One of the most serious charges against the Sophists was that they valued language more than truth. In particular, rhetoricians such as Gorgias were accused of twisting words to mean whatever they wanted them to mean, regardless of the consequences. In fact, rhetoricians gave oral displays as a sort of advertisement for their courses. In one of the most infamous of these, Gorgias defended the most notorious sinner in all of Greek history, Helen of Troy. Therefore, Socrates's injunction to the jury that they listen to what he says and not how he says it is a subtle way of evading the charge of Sophism, ironically by employing a Sophistic strategy.

Socrates finds himself in a peculiar position. He is charged, among other things, with impiety. However, at the same time he claims that his entire enterprise has reflected a deep piety. He does not think he is wise—certainly, he does not think he has the sort of wisdom enjoyed only by the gods—but he also defers to the superiority of the oracle's pronouncement. (The oracle at Delphi was one of several priestess of the god Apollo.) Rather than attempt to simply reject it, he attempts to force clarification when he presents someone wiser than he. The problem is that he cannot find such a person. For although he is not wise, he also doesn't think he is. Everyone he examines thinks himself wiser than he really is. Consequently, his humility is a sort of wisdom. He knows his activities have generated a lot of animosity toward him, but he believes he is following his religious duty.

It is interesting to note that Socrates seeks wisdom first in that class of men who should most exhibit it, namely, the politicians. These, after all, are the ones who guide the city's social life, provide for its welfare, and protect it legislatively. If anyone should know what the good is, it should be the politicians. The poets are next in line. They should know what is good as guardians of the culture and values articulated in the works of Homer, the Iliad and the Odyssey, which influenced much of Greek culture. Nevertheless, they do not. The lowest social class—the craftsmen—are more like poets than politicians because they at least have know-how. In their case, they know how to make things, like harnesses, but they do not limit their claims to their craft. Each is effectively blinded to his own ignorance by a view of himself as an expert or someone otherwise knowledgeable about what's most important in life.

Socrates's cross-examination of Meletus provides an opportunity for the reader to witness an example of the Socratic method. More specifically, Socrates gets Meletus to agree to statements that are contradictory. Because both can't be true at the same time, Meletus is guilty of inconsistent beliefs, if not outright ignorance. Unfortunately, it is likely that Socrates's technique backfires. Members of the jury would likely have sympathized with Meletus and seen in him themselves, being made fools of by their children, who were learning Socrates's techniques in the streets.

In this section of the dialogue, Socrates makes several remarks worth noting. He mentions beliefs about death, to which he will return again. Here, it serves two purposes. First, it provides Socrates with an opportunity to reflect on prioritizing living a good life over all else, even death. Where many people are afraid to die or would be willing to compromise their principles in order to save their lives, Socrates is not. His commitment to being a good man is more important than death. Second, and related to the first point, is that fearing death betrays hubris (exaggerated pride) or a claim to knowledge that one cannot possibly have. Those who fear death do so without knowing what it is. It may be something good rather than something to fear.

Socrates's one knowledge claim—that it is shameful to do wrong—is rooted in his commitment to self-examination. Doing wrong, the reader will learn, is damaging to the soul. A damaged soul is an unhappy and unhealthy soul—perhaps also one that will not benefit in the afterlife, but surely one that will not do well while alive.

Socrates's remark about being Athens's gadfly is among the well-known images Plato uses to describe Socrates's method—and its discomfiting results. A gadfly, or horsefly, is considerably larger than the ordinary housefly. It latches onto those parts of a horse that cannot be reached by a swishing tail, biting mouth, or stamping hoof. Typically, a horse bitten by a horsefly will try to flee. Similarly, Socrates finds those beliefs in people that either cannot be justified or are inconsistent with other beliefs. Also similarly, those who are stung by Socrates tend to flee when they become uncomfortable.

Socrates mentions his daimon, or inner voice, both in the Euthyphro and here in the Apology. It not only is the likely source of the charge that he creates new divinities, but it also technically rescues him from the charge of atheism.

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