Dialogues of Plato | Study Guide


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Dialogues of Plato | Context


War and Instability in Athens

Plato was deeply influenced by the Peloponnesian War and its aftermath as well as by Socrates's execution. Plato had good reason to be wary of democracy as practiced at the time. Athens found itself in a fragile state after the punishing war that ended in its defeat. It was the democratic leaders' actions that contributed to the situation in Athens, and after the war, an oligarchical revolution took place. Some of Plato's relatives were members of the resulting Thirty Tyrants, who ruled Athens in 404–03 BCE. This government, in turn, sparked another revolt, and democracy was restored. A few years later, Socrates was charged with the corruption of youth and a lack of reverence for the gods, convicted, sentenced, and executed.

Plato's intellectual influences included Socrates as well as contemporary and pre-Socratic thinkers, such as Heraclitus, Parmenides, Zeno, and Pythagoras. Plato spent considerable time in direct or indirect conversation with them.

Ordering Plato's Dialogues

Plato's dialogues are literary and philosophical masterworks. Although there is no universal agreement about dating them, there are two standard approaches to their groupings: the order in which he wrote them; and the grouping that reflects Plato's emphasis on, respectively, Socrates's thinking and methodology, a transition to Plato's system, and Plato's mature style of philosophy. A third approach focuses exclusively on the order of the four dialogues that lead to, and include, Socrates's trial and execution. On this last ordering, there is universal agreement.

The differences in classifying Plato's dialogues are sometimes the result of style, length, and complexity. For example, some do not include the Protagoras and Gorgias in the so-called early dialogues because, although they reflect stylistic features of the early dialogues, they are considerably longer, and also more philosophically complex, than others in that grouping.

Chronological Ordering

  1. The following dialogues were written after Socrates's death, but approximately before 387, BCE, when Plato took his first trip to Sicily: Apology, Charmides, Crito, Euthydemus, Euthyphro, Gorgias, Hippias Major, Hippias Minor, Ion, Laches, Lysis, Protagoras, and Republic Book 1.
  2. The following dialogues were written probably between 387 and 384 BCE: Cratylus, Menexenus, and Meno.
  3. The following dialogues were written c. 380–60 BCE: Phaedo, Republic Books 2–10, and Symposium.
  4. The following dialogues were written probably between 360 and 355 BCE: Parmenides, Theaetetus, and Phaedrus.
  5. The following dialogues were written c. 355–47 BCE: Sophist, Statesman, Philebus, Timaeus, Critias, and Laws.

Early (Socrates's Thought and Method), Middle (Transitional Dialogues), and Late Dialogues (Plato's Thought)

  1. The early dialogues reflect a focus on Socrates's thought and methodology: Charmides, Crito, Euthydemus, Euthyphro, Gorgias, Hippias Major, Hippias Minor, Ion, Laches, Lysis, Protagoras, and Republic Book 1.
  2. The middle dialogues reflect a transition from Socrates's thought and methodology to Plato's system and style of philosophy: Phaedo, Cratylus, Symposium, Republic, and Phaedrus.
  3. The late dialogues reflect an emphasis on Plato's system and style of philosophy: Sophist, Statesman, Timaeus, Critias, Laws, and Philebus.

It is worth noting that some dialogues seem hard to place. Theaetetus and Parmenides, for example, seem to share features characteristic of the early dialogues, but scholars are unwilling to categorize them as such.

Order of Dialogues Leading up to and Including Socrates's Death

  1. Euthyphro: Socrates is on his way to court.
  2. Apology: Socrates gives his defense, is convicted, and sentenced to death.
  3. Crito: Socrates is in prison, awaiting his execution.
  4. Phaedo: Socrates's execution is carried out.

Stephanus Numbers

Most editions of Plato's dialogues include margin numbers, and when commentators refer to, or quote from, a dialogue, they enlist these numbers. For example, in the Phaedo, Socrates argues, "if the soul is immortal, it demands our care not only for that part of time which we call life, but for all time" (107c). These margin numbers allow readers with different editions of Plato's works, and so potentially different pagination, to locate specific places in the text. So, for example, the quote above appears on page 89 of the Edith Hamilton and Huntington Cairns edition (Princeton UP 1961), but it appears on page 187 of the Harold Tarrant edition (Penguin Press 2003). The margin number, 107c, allows readers of these two different texts to get to the same lines. This standardized pagination follows Renaissance printer Henri Estienne's edition of Plato's complete works. (Stephanus is the Latin for "Estienne.")

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