Toward the end of The Apology, Socrates makes a statement that resonates even with those who have never read Plato: “I tell you that…examining both myself and others is really the very best thing that a man can do, and that life without this sort of examination is not worth living” (p. 63). The Apology, Euthyphro, Crito, and Phaedo, which depict Socrates’ activities just prior to his trial until his death, hold a central place among the works of Plato. They sum up the philosophical career of Socrates, protagonist of most of the Platonic dialogues. But this summing up does not imply the end of the examinations Socrates pursued. On the contrary, during his last days, Socrates rigorously continued the kind of inquiries he had pursued all his life, even at the risk of execution, and he enjoined his companions to continue them when he was gone.
In Euthyphro, Crito, and Phaedo, we come to know a cast of characters through the opinions they express in conversation with Socrates and one another. Each of these dialogues is an inquiry into a central problem. The Euthyphro examines what holiness is and how it can be recognized, the Crito is concerned with duty under law, and the Phaedo explores the nature of the human soul. The Apology shows Socrates speaking to the Athenian court, defending himself against charges of introducing new religious beliefs and misleading the younger generation. Although The Apology reads as essentially a monologue, Plato casts Socrates’ speech as an implied dialogue with his accusers, the assembly, and the larger community of the city. And because the charges call into question Socrates’ lifelong public career as a philosopher, The Apology is Plato’s most explicit defense of philosophical inquiry as essential to the well-being of society.
In a Platonic dialogue, no single character represents the author’s opinions. Instead, we encounter a series of conversations and speeches in which the characters affirm and deny one another’s statements while engaging in cross-examination. Every statement is subjected to ongoing inquiry; at its conclusion, a dialogue leaves the impression that more avenues for investigation have been opened than existed at the beginning. The character of Socrates, the most likely spokesman for Plato, is typically the sharpest questioner and often seems to have the upper hand. However, even when he presents fully formed theories, they are put forward only as hypotheses to be examined, not as doctrine. In fact, Socrates repeatedly insists that his only wisdom is in knowing what he does not know and in his willingness to join with others in the pursuit of truth. In addition, other characters with strong positions, such as the title character in the Euthyphro and Simmias in the Phaedo, present ideas that receive careful attention. And Crito, when he implores Socrates to accept the help of his friends and escape from prison, makes a strong argument that appeals to our emotions and common sense.
The dialogues are not philosophical treatises laying out Plato’s own position in explicit terms. Rather, they are dramatic representations of living philosophical investigations in which the collaborative activities of the characters help to clarify the problems under examination. An essential aspect of these investigations is that opinions are put forth by distinct individuals who have willful intentions, emotions, and physical bodies, as well as thoughts. No thought is expressed except by a character. No disembodied author’s voice guides us to a definitive point of view. Plato directs our attention to the real consequences that ideas have, which is especially poignant in Socrates’ response to his accuser Anytus in The Apology. Living in a disrupted society that had relied for its values on received dogma and exemplary myths, such as the Homeric stories of heroic lives, Socrates and Plato introduced the critical examination of these values through philosophical inquiry. It was, and always is, a brave undertaking. The dialogues invite us to enter into the conversations that Plato presents, as active participants and contemporaries of Socrates and his companions. By engaging in, and not maintaining a respectful distance from, the discussion of holiness in the Euthyphro, or the argument for the immortality of the soul in the Phaedo, or the sensible but discarded argument for expedient personal safety in the Crito, we begin to participate in the activity Socrates most recommends.
Plato was born in Athens, Greece, in about 427 B.C. His family had long been prominent in the civic life of Athens, and as a young man Plato anticipated a political career. But the violence and corruption he observed in Athenian politics following the destruction of the Athenian empire in the Peloponnesian War and the execution of his friend Socrates in 399 B.C. repelled Plato, and he put aside his political ambitions. His association with the followers of Socrates led Plato to found the Academy, a school dedicated to philosophical and scientific research that survived in Athens for more than nine hundred years. In 367 B.C., Plato was invited to Sicily to educate the young monarch Dionyisus II as a philosopher ruler, but the visit ended in political infighting and complete failure. Returning to Athens, Plato officiated at the Academy and devoted himself to teaching and writing until his death in approximately 347 B.C. One of Plato’s most accomplished students was Aristotle.
By initiating the critical examination of values, human institutions, and knowledge, Plato defined Western philosophy’s central problems. His dialogues immortalize Socrates, who left no writings of his own, and combine masterful literary art with philosophy that has profoundly influenced the course of Western intellectual history. Unlike the works of most ancient authors, virtually all of Plato’s known writings have survived intact.
The Gospel According to St. Matthew
Socrates’ trial and execution has certain parallels to the trial and crucifixion of Jesus Christ. Both men are falsely accused and condemned to death, both refuse to defend themselves, both willingly accept death, and both preach the immortality of the soul.
Robert Bolt, A Man for All Seasons: A Play in Two Acts (1962)
This play is about the conflict between King Henry VIII of England and Sir Thomas More, his lord chancellor, who was executed when he would not compromise on a matter of conscience.
Ralph Waldo Emerson, “Plato; or, The Philosopher” (1850)
In this rich appreciation of Plato’s philosophical achievement, Emerson emphasizes Plato’s work on the nature of the human soul, while at the same time offering Plato as the preeminent example of the philosophical mind.
John Stuart Mill, On Liberty (1859)
This treatise defends the value of rational free inquiry and its importance to the well-being of society.
Plato, The Republic
The aims of the Academy that Plato founded and its blueprint for a just society are laid out in The Republic. Books VII and VIII explore the role of the philosopher ruler. Book XI deals with the immortality of the soul and the rewards of virtue.
I. F. Stone, The Trial of Socrates (1988)
An independent journalist offers a contemporary and controversial reading of Socrates’ trial, invoking the larger question of how democratic societies should respond to “traitors in their midst.” Stone maintains that Socrates upheld the profoundly undemocratic Sparta and Crete as his favorite models of good government while he lived comfortably in Athens, where his role as a perpetual gadfly was better tolerated.
Henry David Thoreau, “Civil Disobedience” (1849)
Thoreau argues for the individual’s right and obligation to protest unjust laws.