Dialogues of Plato | Study Guide


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Dialogues of Plato | Key Figure Analysis



Socrates, who did not write any texts, is known primarily through Plato's works, Xenophon's dialogues, and Aristophanes's plays. Through Plato, for example, readers learn that Socrates's father was Sophroniscus, a stonemason and sculptor, and his mother was Phaenarete, a midwife. While Socrates was not considered physically attractive—he was said to be snub-nosed, bulging-eyed, short, and fat, and he apparently walked with a waddle—he managed to marry and have children. His wife, Xanthippe, was said to be something of a shrew. Their children, according to Aristotle, did not amount to much. Socrates apparently served in the Athenian senate and distinguished himself in battle when he served in the Athenian army. However, he did not develop a career but instead devoted himself to philosophy. Socrates, interested in ethical concepts, is best known for his method of doing philosophy, what is now called the Socratic method. It involves dialectic, a particular type of dialogue in which question and answer leads to knowledge.


Plato's writings are the principal source through which modern readers know Socrates. That alone is a notable accomplishment, but Plato's influence stretches further. While Plato's early works primarily recount the teachings of Socrates, his later work reflects his own philosophy and touches on important topics like statecraft and the use of rhetoric. Plato was also the teacher of Aristotle (384–22 BCE), who would shape the field of philosophy and the future empire of Alexander the Great (356–23 BCE), who sought Aristotle's guidance.


When Euthyphro and Socrates meet, both are out of their element. They are to appear at court—Socrates to answer an indictment, and Euthyphro to prosecute his own father for the murder of one of Euthyphro's servants. It is Euthyphro's bold move that surprises Socrates. Not only that, but Euthyphro is so confident that he is correct, that he not only knows what holiness is but that its objective value means it applies to everyone—including his own father.


Crito's arguments in favor of Socrates's escape center largely around the social consequences of choosing not to do so. While Crito truly cares about his friend, he is concerned that those who do not know better will think he did not do enough to save Socrates. His concern about his reputation is understandable, even if not justifiable in Socrates's view. After all, Crito has the means to secure his friend's release, and most Athenians would welcome Socrates going into exile rather than submitting to execution.


Phaedo is a follower of Socrates who was present the day his master was executed. He provides the reader of the Phaedo dialogue with a context for Socrates's execution. In addition, as he recounts the conversation that took place on the day of Socrates's death, he offers a sort of eulogy for the quality of life Socrates insisted on living even to the moment of his death.


Meno is, in some ways, typical of Socrates's interlocutors: He thinks quite well of himself, particularly with respect to his knowledge of important concepts, such as virtue. While he seems ready to investigate concepts, he takes for granted that he already has a good idea of what to think about them. When he reaches an impasse, where he realizes he doesn't know how to investigate further, he presents the famous paradox of inquiry: One cannot search for what one already knows, since one already knows it; and one cannot search for what one doesn't know, since one won't be able to identify it when he comes across it.


Socrates criticizes Gorgias's position on the value of rhetoric, which he takes to be a significant skill, but morally neutral. Both Polus and Callicles pick up a defense and extension of Gorgias's position, which Socrates also rejects.

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