Note: There are no natural breaks in the text as Plato wrote it, so these notes on the text have been divided artificially, sections beginning or breaking off where a new theme or topic is introduced or dropped. These sections are demarcated according to the Stephanus numbers (the page numbers from the 1578 complete works edited by Henri Estienne ("Stephanus" in Latin)). For Plato, the Stephanus numbers are the standard page references, and most editions of Plato's work contain the Stephanus numbers along the margins.
The dialogue takes place in the small Peloponnesian town of Phlius, home to Echecrates. Echecrates is being visited by Phaedo, one of Socrates' admirers who was present at his death. Echecrates has heard the story of Socrates' trial (recounted in The Apology), but has also heard that there was a long delay between the trial and Socrates' execution. Phaedo points out that the day before the trial of Socrates, the Athenians had finished garlanding the ship to Delos. Every year, the Athenians send a ship to Delos to celebrate Theseus' victory over the minotaur in honor of the god Apollo, and during this time, no prisoners may be executed. As a result, Socrates was in prison for a good deal of time before the ship returned and he could be executed. Phaedo is the first of those who were present at Socrates' death to visit Phlius, and Echecrates urges him to recount what happened.
Phaedo remarks that at no point did he feel pity for Socrates because his mentor was so happy throughout. Instead he felt a strange mixture of pleasure and pain, as they engaged in their usual delightful philosophical discussions under such unhappy circumstances. There were a number of people present, visiting Socrates in his final hour, notably his old friend Crito and two Pythagoreans, Simmias and Cebes. Phaedo also remarks that Plato was ill, and therefore absent.
The men enter to find Socrates with his wife, Xanthippe and one of their sons. Xanthippe is hysterical, and Socrates asks Crito to take her outside.
Socrates has just had his legs removed from their fetters and remarks upon the pleasure of having them released from their bindings. Though pain and pleasure may seem opposites, he observes, and though we never experience both at the same time, they do seem intimately connected: rarely do we find one without the other. The pleasure at being released from his chains is directly related to the pain he experienced while still enchained.
Cebes then asks Socrates to explain why lately he has been composing poetry, something he never did in the past. Socrates answers that throughout his life, he had a recurring dream telling him to practice and cultivate the arts. Until recently, Socrates assumed this to be an exhortation to continue doing as he had been, since philosophy is the greatest of the arts. Having been sentenced to death, Socrates decided to begin composing poetry just in case this was the form of art the dream wanted him to practice--he would hardly want to leave this world without having obeyed his dream. Because he is no storyteller himself, Socrates has been writing poetry based on Aesop's fables.
The most important thing to gather from this prologue is the complex framing devices Plato establishes before telling his story. We might contrast the Phaedo with The Apology, where a direct transcript of Socrates' trial is given, and we are explicitly told that Plato was present at the trial. Here, on the other hand, we receive a second-hand account--Phaedo is telling the story to Echecrates long after the fact--and Plato's absence at Socrates' death is explicitly mentioned. A clear effort is being made to distance Plato, the author, from the story being narrated. One possible explanation could be that the Phaedo is a dialogue of Plato's middle period, and contains many of Plato's own doctrines. Plato does not want these doctrines to be associated with the historical Socrates, and so goes to some lengths to distance himself from the events narrated as if to suggest that he is by no means an authority on the factual events of Socrates' death. Instead, this is a fictitious account of Plato's idealized version of Socrates' last hours. This may also be a directive to read the dialogue philosophically: The author has distanced himself sufficiently from the events that we cannot be certain as to whether or not the tale itself is true; as a result, we will not be distracted from the actual philosophical arguments by questions of whether or not the account is plausible.
Simmias and Cebes are the primary interlocutors of the Phaedo, and neither are Athenians. Simmias is from Thebes, and Cebes from Phaedondas. Both would have been happy to welcome Socrates into their native towns had he chosen to escape prison (see the Crito). Both are also Pythagorean philosophers, as is Phaedo, a significant point in a dialogue that borrows so heavily from Pre-Socratic philosophy.
The Pythagoreans are followers of Pythagoras, the inventor of mathematics. Among their beliefs are the worship of numbers, the belief that proper combinations of numbers applied in music can create beautiful harmonies they call "the music of the spheres," and a belief in reincarnation--that after death, the soul migrates into another body and is reborn. It is important that the interlocutors for this dialogue are fellow philosophers rather than common people. The Phaedo is one of Plato's more philosophically substantial dialogues, and his choice of interlocutors suggests that he is addressing this work to fellow philosophers rather than to a general audience.
The introduction here of the relation between pleasure and pain is a prelude to further discussion. A main theme of the dialogue is the distinction between bodily sensations and the life of the mind, or soul. While apparent opposites, pleasure and pain are both physical sensations, and therefore are both to be equally despised by the serious philosopher.