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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.
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