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Great Dialogues Summary & Study Guide Description
Great Dialogues Summary & Study Guide includes comprehensive information and analysis to help you understand the book. This study guide contains the following sections:
Socratesappears in Ion, Meno, Symposium, The Republic, The Apology, Crito, Phae
Socrates is the main character in all of the dialogs included in this collection. He is, above all, a philosopher, and he seems to have no interest in any other pursuit. In several of the dialogs, he indicates that he has very few material possessions on account of his profession (he says this, for example, in "The Apology" and it is implied in "Phaedo"). His dedication to philosophy has also gotten him into a fair amount of trouble, as he indicates in "The Apology" that he would have been executed by a group of tyrants for not obeying their orders.
His dedication to philosophy is also the reason for his eventual execution. He is charged with corrupting the youth and denying the Athenian gods; both charges are directly related to this life as a philosopher. As many of the dialogs indicate, a group of young men have gathered around Socrates hoping to learn of his wisdom and of his philosophical method. As Socrates suggests at the end of "The Apology", these followers of his, after his death, will go on to cause the same "trouble" that he has. It is not improbable to think that they are already doing so and that this is precisely what his accusers refer to in charging him with corrupting the youth. Socrates also has unorthodox religious beliefs, which is presumably the substance of the second charge. In "The Republic," for example, he explicitly rejects many of the traditional myths about the gods and even bans them from the hypothetical society they are constructing.
Socrates credits the gods with his steadfast dedication to philosophy. In "The Apology," he claims that a friend of his asked the oracle at Delphi whether any man were wiser than Socrates and the oracle replied that there was none. Socrates, perplexed by this as he believed that he knew nothing, sought out all of the men with a reputation for wisdom and, one by one, discovered that their wisdom was nothing but an appearance. Socrates then understood that the wisdom which the oracle referred to was his admission that he knew nothing, which put him at an advantage over those who claimed to know much but really knew nothing. Socrates then re-interprets the message as mission to examine and judge whether anyone on earth really does have wisdom. In several other places, Socrates makes reference to a special relationship with the divine, as exemplified in the prophetic dream in "Crito" and the warnings and orders he claims to receive from the gods in "Phaedo."
To what extent the Socrates of Plato's dialogs is historical is unclear. In many of the dialogs, his role is more or less simply to question and answer and in such cases it is not unreasonable to think that he is being used as a character and is not necessarily meant to have actually said and done the things contained in the dialogs. However, in "Crito," "Phaedo," and "The Apology" Plato is clearly depicting Socrates at a specific point in his life and, whether or not Plato is embellishing or distorting the truth, the depiction is certainly meant to be of Socrates' actual life.
Cephalusappears in The Republic
Cephalus is an old, rich man in whose house "The Republic" takes place. He and Socrates engage briefly about the benefits and hardships of old age, and Cephalus suggests, to Socrates' delight, that old age is a blessing, since it frees a man from the uncontrollable passions of his youth. After this discussion, however, Cephalus leaves the room and does not return.
Polemarchusappears in The Republic
Polemarchus is Cephalus' father and a member of the audience for "The Republic." After Cephalus and Socrates have talked briefly, Polemarchus suggests that justice is doing good to one's friend and evil to one's enemy, a definition which Socrates quickly tears apart. Polemarchus' passivity in the argument is the reason for Thrasymachus' forceful entry into the conversation.
Thrasymachusappears in The Republic
Thrasymachus is a member of the discussion at Cephalus' house in "The Republic" and seems to be particularly averse to Socrates and his philosophical method, as is made clear by his rude attitude and the various insults he throws out. Thrasymachus, while debating Socrates, asks for payment before making his arguments (which he never receives) and this is perhaps to identify him with a despised group of philosophers named the Sophists, who Socrates condemns later in the same dialog as well as in the "Meno."
Thrasymachus enters into the conversation with an objection against Socrates' discussion of justice in the first chapter of "The Republic." Socrates has been arguing that justice is better than injustice, and Thrasymachus interjects by claiming that justice is simply a tool that the strong (namely, law-makers) use to exploit the weak (citizens). He goes further and claims that the unjust live better because they can exploit the just, who are too simple-minded to retaliate. Thrasymachus can then be taken to represent a kind of "might is right" view of justice, which Socrates dissects and ultimately refutes. Thrasymachus appears to stick around for the rest of the dialog, but stays, for the most part, silent.
Adeimantus and Glauconappears in The Republic
Adeimantus and Glaucon are two brothers who serve as Socrates' primary interlocutors during "The Republic." While much of their presence in the dialog consists of being "yes-men" to Socrates, they do, at various times, raise objections to points Socrates has made. Most notably, the pair raise what Socrates considers to be two very serious objections to his theory of justice at the beginning of Book II.
Menoappears in Meno
Meno is a professional philosopher who is Socrates' philosophical adversary in the dialog named after him. Meno is taken to represent the position of Gorgias, a Sophist. Meno attempts to define virtue by listing various virtues for people in various states of life, but Socrates finds this insufficient and proceeds to take Meno on an investigation of what virtue itself is.
Agathonappears in Symposium
Agathon is the host of the dinner party that is the setting for "Symposium." He chides the other speakers for not praising the god of love, but simply the benefits of love. Agathon appears to be attracted to Socrates.
Phaedrusappears in Symposium
Phaedrus is the first speaker in the "Symposium" and it is evidently due to him that Agathon chooses love as the topic for discussion. Phaedrus praises Love as one of the oldest gods and claims that love is a powerful force for giving a man courage, who would not want his beloved to think he is a coward.
Pausaniasappears in Symposium
Pausanias is a legal scholar who speaks second after Phaedrus in the "Symposium." Pausanias criticizes Phaedrus' speech for not distinguishing between the two types of love. The first and inferior type is that love which is equally for a woman or for a man. The second type, the best kind, is that love which is shared between an older man and a younger, but pubescent boy. These relationships, he claims, are beneficial to both and help in building virtue. In keeping with his profession, Pausanias provides a fairly detailed analysis of the legal status of such relationships in Athens.
Eryximachusappears in Symposium
Eryximachus is a doctor present in "The Symposium" who treats of the subject of love by making an analogy to his own trade. The body, he claims, has within it two loves, the love of health and the love of disease. The role of the doctor is to encourage the first and discourage the second and thus bring about health. This general pattern extends to other arts, too, where there is a duality of a good and bad love.
Aristophanesappears in Symposium
Aristophanes is a playwright present at Agathon's dinner party in the "Symposium" and, when it is his turn to deliver a speech, creates what he himself acknowledges is a ridiculous myth about the origin of love. According to this myth, humans were originally spheres who rolled around the earth but were split in half when they angered the gods. Love is the impulse which seeks out one's missing half.
Alcibiadesappears in Symposium
Alcibiades arrives late and drunk to the "Symposium" and has very little to say on the topic of love in general. However, he has much to say in praise of Socrates and evidently has a romantic interest in him which, to his frustration, is not returned.
Meletusappears in The Apology
Meletus is Socrates' chief accuser in "The Apology" and blames Socrates for corrupting the youth and denying the existence of any gods. He is the only other person to speak in the dialog, when Socrates is directly questioning him during his defense.
Ionappears in Ion
Ion is a famous and capable reciter of the Greek poet Homer whom Socrates encounters after he has just won a recital contest. Socrates argues to him that the reciting of poetry is not an art, but a gift from the gods.
This section contains 1,505 words
(approx. 6 pages at 300 words per page)