Dialogues of Plato | Study Guide


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Dialogues of Plato | 10 Things You Didn't Know


The ancient Greek philosopher Plato, born between 428 and 423 BCE and thought to have died in 347 BCE, wrote numerous dialogues that have become the cornerstone of the entire Western philosophical tradition. His works, such as Euthyphro, Crito, Phaedo, and Protagoras—often named for the figures participating in the discussion—laid the framework that would influence philosophers for centuries to come. No figure was more important in these dialogues, however, than that of Socrates, Plato's friend and mentor.

Scholars still debate Plato's philosophical role in his dialogues and how much of the texts are actual transcriptions of conversation versus Plato's thought portrayed through banter. The dialogues analyze a wide range of topics, from religion to love and, in later volumes such as Apology, Socrates's imminent trial for impiety and "corruption of the youth." Plato's dialogues still form the basis of Western philosophical education, and they are often used as the definitive starting point for entry-level philosophy classes around the world.

1. Ancient writers claimed that Plato's father was actually the Greek god Apollo.

After Plato's death in 347 BCE, his reputation for philosophical prowess spread across Greece. With this reputation, many myths sprang up regarding his life—including the belief that he was, in fact, fathered by one of the gods of the Greek pantheon. Legend had it that Plato's father was Apollo, the god of the sun, music, poetry, and the arts. The myth also had him as the product of a virgin birth, a legend that developed centuries before the birth of Jesus Christ and the beginnings of Christianity.

2. Legends say that Socrates's first philosophical dialogues were with a shoemaker.

No voice appears more frequently in Plato's dialogues than that of his mentor, the famous philosopher Socrates. According to legend, Socrates's start as a philosopher was a far cry from the gatherings of statesmen and leaders that appear in the dialogues. Instead, he spent his youth bantering with a shoemaker named Simon. Many sources confirm Socrates's relationship with this "shoemaker-philosopher," and Socrates became so captivated by their philosophical discourses that he transcribed their conversations into a book. Although Plato likely never knew Simon, archaeologists have found proof that he was very likely a real person—the ruins of a shop with artifacts bearing the Greek word "Simonios" ("Simon's" or "belonging to Simon") were found near Socrates's childhood home.

3. A story claims that Protagoras was a wood carrier until a philosopher saw him carry wood with geometric precision.

Protagoras, who speaks at length in Plato's dialogue of the same name, was a renowned philosopher and mathematician. Like many of Plato's friends and colleagues, mythology developed around Protagoras's youth to explain his gifts for higher thought. The legend claims that Protagoras worked as a porter, carrying loads of wood for carpentry. However, when a philosopher named Democritus discovered that he loaded the wood on his back with perfect geometric precision, Democritus encouraged him to quit manual labor and to study philosophy and mathematics instead. Contemporary scholars find this tale extremely unlikely, however, since it is believed that Democritus was actually born 25 years after Protagoras.

4. Socrates's wife was reportedly quite difficult to live with.

Although Socrates facilitated the majority of Plato's dialogues—and mentored Plato—his life at home wasn't very pleasant. Socrates's first wife, Xanthippe, was a notoriously difficult, nagging woman. Xanthippe allegedly enjoyed pouring dirty water on Socrates for misbehaving and usually failed to give him any peace when he was home. The philosopher Aristotle, one of Socrates's most famous associates, once asked Socrates why he put up with these living conditions. Socrates explained that he enjoyed living with a "spirited woman" because it conditioned him to be able to put up with anyone else he'd meet.

5. The charges brought against Socrates in Plato's Apology stemmed from an offensive play written about the philosopher.

In Plato's Apology, Socrates addresses claims that he'd corrupted the youth of Athens—the very charges that led to his trial and death. These charges stemmed from a play written by an enemy of Socrates and Plato, the playwright Aristophanes. Aristophanes's play, Clouds, was a comedy portraying Socrates as a corrupt, selfish, and laughably incompetent man. It's entirely possible that the play was written out of jealousy—Aristophanes was reportedly quite envious of Socrates' popularity in Athens. Scholars debate how much influence Clouds had on Socrates's fate, but the work was cited in the philosopher's trial.

6. Hemlock, the plant used to kill Socrates, seems to have a bizarre effect on animals.

After Socrates's trial, he was sentenced to death in 399 BCE by drinking hemlock, a poisonous plant. Scientists have studied the plant's poisonous properties and have found that it has a strange effect on certain types of livestock. Hemlock is poisonous to most mammals, but, strangely, cattle and sheep often won't avoid the plant, even after consuming it and becoming ill. Researchers have noted that poisoned animals frequently continue to feed on hemlock, only worsening their symptoms and most often leading to death.

7. In Euthyphro, Socrates is left without a clear definition of piety—as he awaits trial for impiety.

In Plato's Euthyphro, Socrates and others attempt to formulate a definition of piety, or holiness. Throughout a long discussion, the attendees are unable to pin down a solid definition of the term. The situational irony here, of course, is that during Euthyphro, Socrates is awaiting a trial for impiety—a charge brought against him along with "corrupting the youth." Although Socrates does not leave with a clear definition of piety, he firmly rejects Euthyphro's proposal that the term refers to "what all the gods love."

8. Plato and many of his friends have been immortalized as craters on the moon.

In the same way that many of the planets in the solar system have been named for gods of the Greek pantheon under their Roman titles (such as Saturn, Neptune, and Mars), certain astronomic features now bear the names of famous Greek philosophers. A large crater on the north face of Earth's moon is named Plato in homage to the author of the dialogues. The Plato crater is more than 60 miles (100 km) wide and notably easy to see through a telescope for novice astronomers. The moon also features a crater named Protagoras after Plato's friend and titular figure in the dialogue Protagoras, and another is named for Archytas, who serves as the model for Plato's "philosopher king" in the Republic.

9. Comedians staged a rap battle portraying Socrates facing off against Confucius.

Ancient philosophers aren't often portrayed as musically inclined, but the comedy series "Epic Rap Battles of History" begs to differ. The skit, entitled "Eastern Philosophers vs. Western Philosophers," features Socrates, French writer Voltaire, and German philosopher Friedrich Nietzsche squaring off against Chinese philosophers Confucius, Lao Tzu, and Sun Tzu in a rap battle. Socrates gets the first lines, declaring:

I'm coming off the Acropolis to start some pandemonium / Don't bring limp raps to a pimp slap symposium / The mad gadfly, philosophy was my invention.

10. Some of the lines in Euthyphro make no sense in English.

Translating dense philosophical texts from ancient Greek hasn't always been easy—particularly in the case of Plato's Euthyphro. The trouble comes from an inability to distinguish between the active and passive voice throughout the dialogue—since Socrates is often speaking in the "middle voice" in reference to the soul, which doesn't have a counterpart in many contemporary languages.

According to ancient philosophy scholar Rachana Kamtekar, this linguistic pitfall "has reduced translators to babble and driven commentators to despair." It has also been responsible for translations of Socrates's lines that appear to be complete nonsense in English, due to the inability to distinguish between active and passive voices. For example, one line was mistranslated to read, "a thing carried is (1) carried because it is carried, but not (2) carried because it is carried." As a philosophical point, this makes no sense whatsoever.

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