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Dialogues of Plato | Summary

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Summary

Euthyphro

Setting

Euthyphro, a theologian, is surprised to meet Socrates in front of the courthouse. Socrates tells him that he has come to the religious magistrate to answer an indictment against him for impiety, or a lack of reverence for the gods. Euthyphro is there to prosecute his father for murder.

Socrates expresses bewilderment over Euthyphro's action, particularly because it has been taken against the theologian's own father. Euthyphro insists his action is a requirement of piety, or holiness, and further claims to be an expert in such matters.

Upon hearing this, Socrates solicits Euthyphro's help. He reasons that Euthyphro, as an expert in religious matters, can instruct him. Socrates could then ask his accuser, Meletus, to drop the case. If Meletus agrees that Euthyphro "is wise about these things," he can assume Socrates will not be impious or disrespectful of the gods once properly instructed.

Definitions of Piety

Euthyphro agrees, and Socrates asks him to define piety. Euthyphro's first response is that piety is what he's doing, prosecuting the wrongdoer. He says the gods also punish wrongdoers. After Socrates criticizes the definition as a mere example, rather than a standard by which to measure, he asks for another definition.

Euthyphro declares that "what is dear to the gods is holy, and what is not dear to them is unholy." However, when pressed Euthyphro is not able to define "dearness" or "holiness," nor can he distinguish between cause and effect: that is, "is the holy loved by the gods because it is holy? Or is it holy because it is loved by the gods?"

Euthyphro's Confusion

Euthyphro expresses confusion over this question, and Socrates embarks on a series of questions that leave Euthyphro completely flummoxed: "I do not know how to tell you what I mean. Somehow everything I propose goes round in circles on us and will not stand still." He remains unable to define holiness.

Socrates proposes a new question by asking about the relation between the just and the holy: Is everything holy just? Euthyphro agrees, but he becomes confused by the converse, that is, whether everything just is holy. Once Euthyphro agrees that not everything just is holy, Socrates returns to the claim that everything holy is just to pursue what part of justice holiness is.

Euthyphro first claims holiness "is about ministering to the gods, and the remaining part of the just is about ministering to men." Socrates finds difficulty in this account: it leads one to conclude that ministering to the gods improves them, but this cannot be the case. The gods are not improved by humans. Euthyphro suggests that the ministering to the gods is a sort of "service," which pleases the gods. This means, then, that what the gods love is holy—contrary to the conclusion they drew earlier.

Socrates proposes that they begin the investigation again, this time from the beginning. Euthyphro begs off, saying he does not have time to continue the discussion. The dialogue ends with Socrates decrying Euthyphro's abandonment of their project to convince Meletus to withdraw the indictment.

Apology

Setting

Socrates addresses the jury, claiming his accusers have told falsehoods about him, but he will tell the truth. He asks the jury to give him some leeway in his manner of speech, because he has never been to court and is 70 years old. Instead, they should "look strictly to this one thing, whether or not I speak justly."

He distinguishes his "first" from his "later" accusers, the latter of which grew up hearing false accusations. Socrates tells the jury he will defend himself against these earlier accusations, on which the recent accusations rely: Socrates "inquires" into things below and above the earth, engages in sophistry or deceitful arguments, and teaches sophistic techniques to others.

In response to each, Socrates asserts there is no evidence. No one can testify that he engages in (what is now called) science. Moreover, he has never taken money for participating in the conversations that have brought him to Anytus and Meletus's attention. He declares he does not have the requisite knowledge to teach as the Sophists do.

His reputation, Socrates claims, comes from "a kind of wisdom." This he credits to an encounter his friend Chaerephon had some time ago. Chaerephon asked the oracle at Delphi, a priestess of Apollo, whether anyone was wiser than Socrates, and she responded none were wiser.

Socrates's Response to the Oracle

Socrates says the oracle's pronouncement, which he took to be a riddle, confused him. After all, he knew he wasn't wise. At the same time, he knew the god couldn't lie. So he decided to find someone wiser than he, so that he could go to the oracle to force an explanation.

He began by examining a politician who had "a reputation for wisdom," but found the man wanting. This man thought he was wise, and apparently others did too. But Socrates concluded he was not. Worse yet, Socrates tells the jury, the politician and those observing the exchange became angry when Socrates tried to show the man he was not wise. Socrates concluded that, although not wise, he was "wiser [than the politician] in this one respect: I do not think I know what I do not." With another man, supposedly wiser than the first, Socrates arrived at the same conclusion—and the hostility against him grew. The greater one's reputation for wisdom, the more "deficient" one was.

Socrates says that, after he examined the politicians, he moved on to the poets, and finally the craftsmen. The poets were not wise, only divinely inspired. Nevertheless, they "thought themselves the wisest of men in other matters." Meanwhile the craftsmen had a sort of practical wisdom but made the same error as the poets, thinking their excellence in their art made them wise in "things of great importance."

In this way, Socrates says, his reputation as a wise man grew. The mistake, Socrates says, is that those who observed Socrates concluded that he is "wise in the things in which I test others." This is a mistake, not only because his "tests" do not reveal that he has wisdom but also because "it is really the God who is wise." Socrates declares the meaning of the oracle to be a sort of admonition, that the God is saying, "he among you, Gentlemen, is wisest who, like Socrates, realizes that he is truly worth nothing in respect to wisdom." For this reason, Socrates says, he continues his activity of questioning others "on behalf of the God."

Socrates Cross-Examines Meletus

Socrates "helps the God" by showing those who think they are wise that, in fact, they are not. So devoted is he to his religious mission, Socrates declares, that he has given over his entire life to it. He lives in poverty, rather than attending to public or commercial affairs.

Socrates believes the anger at him has increased because a cadre of young men follow him around—particularly the rich ones with plenty of leisure time. They enjoy his discussions and try to imitate him. Worse yet, they tell those who ask that Socrates teaches the very things of which he now stands accused.

Socrates turns to cross-examine one of his accusers, Meletus. First, he lists the charges against him: corrupting the youth, not worshipping the city gods, and creating new divinities. During the cross-examination, Socrates leads Meletus into several contradictory conclusions. These, Socrates argues, are sufficient to show that the charges against him are bogus.

Finished with his cross-examination, Socrates says that he is not concerned with the outcome of the trial, for "a man worth anything ... should [not] take thought for danger in living or dying." Instead, he cares about "whether what he does is just or unjust, the work of a good man or a bad one." Moreover, fearing death is nothing other than thinking one is wise, that is, believing one knows what one does not know.

Socrates on His Commitment to Athens

Socrates goes on to claim that, even if he were told he could be set free on the condition he stop philosophizing, under the threat of execution, he would still not give it up. Saying his philosophizing is commanded by the gods, Socrates claims that he has done the highest service to the state. After all, rather than seek money and power, he has spent his time, in obedience to the god, reminding the men of Athens that their first responsibility is to care about the "excellence of the soul." His only teaching is that virtue comes before all else, and that all good things come from being virtuous. Moreover, if Socrates were killed, the people of Athens would be harmed more than he. They would never find another "gadfly" willing to devote his life to the good of his fellow Athenians.

His poverty, Socrates says, is further proof of his devotion. Had he been paid, his devotion could have been questioned. Why, Socrates wonders on behalf of the jury, did he not simply become a politician? His answer is that "a kind of voice" has prevented him. It is his own oracle, or internal voice, and that prevents him from doing wrong (although it never positively commands anything).

Socrates discusses his lifelong commitment to justice. He refused to participate in the unjust actions of the Thirty Tyrants, who took power when Athens was in a weakened condition after the Peloponnesian War (431–04 BCE war between two alliances led by Athens and Sparta, involving nearly all of the Greek civilizations). Had the oligarchy not been overthrown, he says, he would likely have been executed for his action. His commitment to justice, he argues, implies that he would not engage in corrupting the youth. Moreover, Socrates says, there are members of the court present who have not accused Socrates of anything. They will stand up for him and defend him against Meletus's lies.

However, at the same time he asserts that he will not beg for mercy by bringing his family in for sympathy. Doing so would be demeaning. Moreover, he says, "it does not seem to me to be just to beg, or to be acquitted by begging; it is rather just to teach and persuade."

Socrates's Response to Conviction

Socrates is found guilty, and Meletus has proposed the death penalty. Socrates now proposes his own punishment: to be cared for by the state for the rest of his life at the Prytaneum. He goes on to say that proposing a penalty would be an evil, and he does not deserve that.

Nor does he deserve exile, which might be proposed if he could stop philosophizing. He rejects this possibility because, as he says, "the unexamined life is not ... worth living." Instead, Socrates proposes a fine: 30 minae, secured by his friends, since he has no money of his own.

Socrates's Response to the Death Sentence

Having been condemned to death, Socrates says that he has been convicted because he did not do what the jury expected of him: "weeping and wailing." But he does not regret his approach. Death, in itself, is not an evil. For if it were, Socrates says, his inner voice would have stopped him from coming to court and from making the sort of defense he made.

There is hope that death is good, he continues, even though we don't know either way. For if death is simply like sleep, then it is a reprieve, while if there is another life, then there we find our final judgment about our lives and meet great minds of the ages.

Socrates's last request is that his sons be goaded into a life of virtue. With that, he says, "now [is] the hour of parting—I to die and you to live. Which of us goes to the better is unclear to all but the God."

Crito

Crito's Arguments

As Socrates sits in jail awaiting his execution, an old friend, Crito, comes to visit him. Crito tries to convince Socrates to escape, offering several reasons for his proposal.

First, he argues, he does not want to lose a dear friend, and he is concerned that "people who don't really know us will think I didn't care, because I could have saved you if only I'd been willing to spend the money."

Second, escape is not so difficult. Because people can be bribed to help get Socrates out of prison, Socrates shouldn't be afraid that his friends will get into trouble. Crito also says he has ample resources, and there are others who want to contribute to Socrates's escape.

Crito provides more reasons in support. After escaping, Socrates will be welcomed outside of Athens. Crito also claims Socrates has a duty to save his life if he can because not escaping fulfills his enemies' wishes. In addition, Socrates has a duty to raise his children, not leave them. Finally, Crito claims Socrates is choosing the easy way out if he stays in prison.

Socrates's Response to Crito's Arguments

Socrates rejects all of these reasons because none overcome the demand that he do what is right. Firstly, escaping would mean putting convenience before principle. Moreover, listening to "the many" may be a mistake because some opinions are to be valued and other opinions are not to be valued. Socrates is not interested in surviving, but in living well, which involves never intentionally doing wrong. Escaping would be doing wrong.

Socrates next considers what the Athenian laws might say if he were to escape. He supposes the laws to be in conversation with him, arguing their position against escape. The laws claim that Socrates will be disobeying them if he escapes, yet these are the same laws he has implicitly accepted by remaining in Athens. He should respect them as a child respects a parent. Not only that, but remaining in Athens will demonstrate proper respect.

Leaving Athens now, Socrates says, would help neither him nor his children. It would also not help those who arranged his escape. They could face prosecution, lose their property, and even lose their citizenship. Socrates would not be welcomed by another city with open arms. Instead, he would arrive with the reputation as one who corrupts the laws, and his children would lose the protection of the Athenian Laws.

Finally, when the Laws are disregarded for personal gain, they are undermined to the point of destruction. Moreover, if Socrates cannot persuade the Laws to change, he must obey them. Finally, it is not the Laws that do evil, but the men who apply them. Consequently, it is not the Laws that have condemned Socrates, but the men who (mis)applied them.

Socrates tells Crito that he will not be moved to escape. If Crito thinks he can change Socrates's mind, he is welcome to try. However, Crito agrees, having nothing more to say for his proposal. Socrates concludes the dialogue by saying, "Very well, Crito. Let us so act, since so the God leads."

Phaedo

Context

Sometime after Socrates's execution, Echecrates asks Phaedo, one of Socrates's followers who was present on the day of Socrates's execution, to tell him about Socrates's last hours. Phaedo readily obliges, happy to talk about his beloved friend.

Phaedo and some of Socrates's other friends had been regularly visiting him in prison while he awaited execution, which was to take place after the religious mission from Delos returned. Having heard of the ship's return, they agreed to spend Socrates's last day with him.

Philosophy as Preparation for Death

When Socrates's friends arrive at the prison, he is, as always, eager to engage in discussion. On this day, death is a particularly relevant topic, so the conversation turns first to the philosopher's life being a preparation for death.

This discussion leads to arguments involving the immortality of the soul. The argument implies that death comes from life and vice versa. The argument from recollection holds that knowledge is possible only if the soul lived before it was born. The next argument proceeds by distinguishing those things that are material, perishable, and visible from those things that are immaterial, imperishable, and invisible. Bodies belong to the first set, while the soul belongs to the second. Consequently, the soul is immortal.

Cebes and Simmias offer several objections to Socrates's arguments, which Socrates addresses. He then presents his fourth argument, in which he claims forms, objects of study that provide knowledge, are the best explanation of what there is and how we know it. Since the forms are the causes of all things, and things "imitate" or "participate" in the forms, it follows that the Form of the Soul is Life. Consequently, since a form cannot admit its opposite, the soul is immortal.

When it is time for Socrates to drink the hemlock, he prepares himself for death with a bath, bids his friends farewell, and drinks the poison.

Meno

Meno's First Definition of Virtue

Meno asks Socrates if virtue is teachable or if one can "acquire it through practice." Then he asks, if neither of these is correct, is virtue "present in men by nature of some other way?"

Socrates responds that he cannot answer the question because he does not know what virtue is and has not met anyone who does. Meno expresses surprise at Socrates's claim. Hadn't he met Gorgias during the great Sophist's visit to Athens?

Because Gorgias isn't here to speak for himself, Socrates proposes that Meno tell him what virtue is. After all, Meno's thinking isn't likely very different from Gorgias's on this matter.

Meno agrees and informs Socrates that there are several virtues appropriate to men, to women, and to children. There are also virtues for old men, free men, slaves, and "a great many other virtues, so that there is no perplexity in saying what virtue is." In short, according to Meno, virtue is specific "to each particular activity and time of life, and in relation to each particular function."

Socrates remarks that he seeks "one virtue," but Meno has provided "a whole swarm of them." Rather than naming the virtues, he wants a definition that reveals what is common to them all.

Meno's Second and Third Definitions of Virtue

So Meno makes a second attempt. Virtue, he asserts, "is nothing else but ability to rule mankind." Socrates points out several problems with this definition: it again divides virtue into the ruled and the rulers, and some people rule unjustly. Because Meno is unable to solve the problem, Socrates presents him with an example of the sort of definition he seeks, using figure as the term to be defined. There are lots of figures, but figure itself is "that in which a solid terminates." Meno objects that, if someone does not know what color is, they won't understand figure. So, Socrates proposes that "figure is the limit of a solid." However, Meno wants Socrates to define color itself. After a bit of protest, Socrates defines color in terms of figure, and Meno is pleased.

Meno now claims virtue is the "desire for beautiful things and ability to attain them." However, after some analysis they land at a rather circular definition. After all, since beautiful things are good, and everyone desires the good, the crucial part of the definition is what sort of ability is involved in securing that good. Justice, they agree, must be part of it. Unjustly attaining the good can't be virtuous. Unfortunately, because justice is a part of virtue, this means that virtue is getting the good with virtue.

Meno's Paradox

At this point, Meno expresses frustration. He compares Socrates to a stingray, paralyzing people into confusion with his words. He wonders how it is even possible to inquire into the nature of anything if one doesn't already know what that thing is. Even if one does find it, one won't know if this is the thing one seeks.

Socrates rejects the dilemma. He tells Meno that he has heard that the soul is immortal, is reborn many times, and consequently knows all things. Meno insists Socrates prove to him that "learning is recollection."

Recollection and the Servant Boy

Socrates turns to a boy and begins to ask him a series of geometry questions about a square drawn in the sand. The boy, who understands some basic geometrical relations, thinks he understands more than he does. As the examination proceeds, the boy realizes he's made an error but does not yet know exactly what it is.

Socrates claims the boy has not been harmed by this examination, but instead is now in a position to properly recollect. After all, he neither knows nor thinks he knows, so there's nothing to obstruct his progress. Through careful questioning, the boy recognizes the theorem Socrates wants him to grasp. Socrates then asks Meno whether or not the boy was taught, and Meno agrees he was not taught, but instead 'recovered knowledge' he already had.

Return to the Question of Virtue's Teachability

Meno proceeds to return to his original question, whether virtue can be taught. Socrates reiterates a preference for investigating the nature of virtue first, but gives in. He will proceed under a hypothesis about virtue: if it is knowledge, it can be taught.

Virtue is both knowledge and the desire for, and ability to acquire, beautiful and fine things. If everyone desires what they think is good, then the virtuous person knows what is good and how to achieve it. The ignorant person does not and so is apt to do wrong.

This analysis implies "good men are not good by nature." It needs, therefore, to be taught. However, it seems to Socrates there are no teachers of virtue around. Consequently, he thinks the claim that virtue is teachable is false.

Meno wonders if this is really true, so Socrates proposes asking Anytus, a well-to-do Athenian and friend of Meno, what he thinks. Perhaps, Socrates wonders, the Sophists teach virtue. Anytus finds this claim outrageous, saying Sophists are nothing but corrupting charlatans.

Virtue as Knowledge

When asked who could teach virtue, Anytus responds, "any Athenian gentlemen" can improve the youth. Socrates isn't convinced this is true because there are many such men whose sons are not as virtuous as they. Anytus, displeased with Socrates's criticism, departs, but not before warning him that he should be careful about what he says of people.

Socrates returns to the problem at hand: if virtue is knowledge, then it is teachable, but it has no teachers. Therefore, virtue is not knowledge. To resolve the problem, Socrates distinguishes between knowledge and right opinion. One can get by well enough with right opinion, but it is not the same as knowledge, which anchors opinion with reason. Knowledge guides action in a way that right opinion cannot. It would seem, then, that the lack of teachers of virtue is because of a lack of knowledge. Virtuous people have right opinions, but these cannot be taught to others precisely because they are not the same as knowledge. Socrates concludes that virtue is right opinion bestowed by a sort of divine inspiration.

Socrates reminds Meno that they will better understand how virtue comes about if they return to the question of what virtue is. He then asks Meno to tell Anytus about their conversation "so that his anger may be allayed. If you persuade him, you may also do some benefit to the Athenians."

Gorgias

Callicles, Socrates, and Chaerephon are somewhere in Athens. Socrates asks Callicles if his guest, the Sophist Gorgias, would be willing to converse with them. Callicles tells them that they've just missed one of Gorgias's exhibitions, but he could put on another. Socrates prefers discussion: "I wish to ask the man what the power of his art is, and what it is he professes and teaches."

Polus interjects that he'll answer on Gorgias's behalf, since the great man must be tired. They agree, but soon Gorgias steps in to answer for himself. This leads to Socrates distinguishing between rhetoric and art, where the former does not aim at knowledge, while the latter does. Moreover, rhetoric is ultimately dangerous to those who practice it because one can use it unjustly.

The discussion of justice and other terms of virtue leads to extended—and heated—exchange between Polus and Socrates and between Callicles and Socrates on whether it is better to commit than to suffer injustice and whether it is better for the one who commits injustice to submit to or evade punishment.

Socrates argues it is always better to suffer than commit injustice, and anyone who commits injustice should want to be punished in order to restore his soul to health. This view is met by both Polus and Callicles with a mixture of disbelief, scorn, and frustration. Nevertheless, Socrates reiterates his main points at the end of the dialogue through a myth. The soul's true nature cannot be hidden beneath the body; at death, it is laid bare. So, a beautiful body cannot cover a wicked soul; nor can an ugly one cover a soul that is virtuous.

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