The Republic (c. 380 BCE)

The Republic is one of the foundational works of Western philosophy. Set against the historical and political background of ancient Athens, the dialogue is a Socratic exploration of justice, the nature of the soul, and the ideal state. The dialogue unfolds into a systematic investigation of the concept of justice, delving into the structure of the ideal state (Kallipolis) and the nature of the philosopher-king. The famous Allegory of the Cave is presented, illustrating the journey from ignorance to enlightenment. The Republic reflects the socio-political concerns of ancient Athens, addressing issues of justice, governance, and the role of individuals within the state.

The Apology (c. 399 BCE)

The Apology is one of Plato’s best known and most studied dialogues, probably written shortly after the 399 BCE trial and death of Socrates. It presents a dramatic account of Socrates’s defense during his trial in Athens. The dialogue takes its name from the Greek word apologia, meaning “defense” or “justification.” Set against the historical and political backdrop of ancient Athens, the work captures the trial and subsequent condemnation of Socrates, a prominent philosopher, for impiety and allegedly corrupting the youth. In The Apology, Socrates coolly and steadfastly defends his way of life as unassailably just—and certainly does not apologize for it. The dialogue is less concerned with asserting specific philosophical doctrines than it is with creating a portrait of the ideal philosopher.

The ApologyCritoEuthyphro, and Phaedo comprise the quartet of  Plato’s works that are sometimes collectively called The Trial and Death of Socrates.

Crito (c. 399 BCE)

Crito is a dialogue written by Plato that depicts Socrates in prison a month after his trial and conviction, which Plato had described in The Apology. A difficulty Plato faced in composing the dialogue was justifying Socrates' decision to stay in prison rather than to escape after his wrongful condemnation. To do so, Plato had to draw a distinction between the just Laws, which Socrates must obey by staying in prison, and the unjust behavior of Socrates' accusers. The distinguished reputation of Crito rests largely on the idea of the social contract that Socrates introduces. It is the first suggestion in Western civilization that a legal system exists because of a kind of contract between the individual and the state, and this idea has had a tremendous impact on the modern world.

Euthyphro (c. 380 BCE)

Euthyphro was written by Plato and published around 380 BCE. It presents us with Socrates, shortly before his trial on charges of impiety, engaging the likely fictional character or Euthyphro on the topic of holiness. Rather than focusing on positive doctrines or ideas, the dialogue is characterized by the use of Socratic irony as Socrates attempts to teach others to recognize their own ignorance.

Phaedo (c. 360 BCE)

Even though it was written in 360 BCE, decades after Socrates’s death in 399 BCE, in Phaedo, Plato gives us a moving account of his final hours. It is told from the perspective of Phaedo of Elis, who unlike Plato, was present. This philosophically dense dialouge contains an extended discussion of the Theory of Forms, four arguments for the immortality of the soul, and strong arguments in favor of the philosophical life. It also contains Plato's compelling myth about the fate of the soul after death.

Charmides (c. 380 BCE)

Charmides is a philosophical dialogue mostly focused on the subject of self-knowledge that was written by Plato around 380 BCE. Like other early Platonic dialogues, it focuses on the philosophy of Socrates, Plato’s teacher. Criticized by some scholars as being inferior to other Platonic dialogues in the sophistication of its arguments, it nonetheless offers us an early glimpse into ideas that later dialogues, including The Republic, would later explicate more thoroughly and convincingly.

Gorgias (c. 380 BCE)

Gorgias is a Socratic dialogue that was composed in Plato’s early period, around 380 BCE. It is focused on defining virtue and its attainment in keeping with Plato’s overarching philosophical project of defining noble and proper human existence. The work’s detailed study of virtue exists in the form of a mostly friendly (though at times scathing) conversation between Socrates and four fellow citizens with Socrates probing into the nature of rhetoric, art, power, temperance, justice, and good versus evil. While Gorgias depicts a fictitious interaction, the words spoken by Socrates in it should be taken as indicative of the actual Socratic framework and presentation, in addition to serving as an expression of Plato’s own positions.

Laches (c. 380 BCE)

Laches is a Socratic dialogue that was composed in Plato’s early period, around 380 BCE. While it is ostensibly concerned with defining the virtue of courage, in the end it serves to deliver a familiar lesson of all Socratic dialogues: that even wise people (including Socrates himself) ultimately have no knowledge. Throughout Laches, two distinguished generals—Laches and Nicias—take turns attempting to define the nature of courage while Socrates mediates and responds. Socrates refutes each of their arguments and proves that none of them can define courage. In the end, Socrates suggests that they all go back to school.

Lysis (c. 380 BCE)

Lysis is a Socratic dialogue by that was composed in Plato’s early period, around 380 BCE. It is one of the least studied of Plato’s works for a few reasons—including that it doesn’t offer a clear example of the Socratic elenchus. No high ideals are offered for Socrates to dismantle, and his interlocutors serve little purpose other than to agree with him. Also, Lysis doesn’t show either Socrates or Plato moving clearly toward a cohesive philosophy. On another level, the purely philosophical aims of Lysis are compromised by the situation in which they unfold: Socrates is demonstrating how to woo a beloved young man. Nonetheless, we can see Plato working with some important notions, particularly in the areas of identity (likeness), harmony (with oneself and with others), and good and evil.

Protagora (c. 385 BCE)

Protagoras is one of Plato’s earliest Socratic dialogues and was probably written around 385 BCE. It describes philosophy’s equivalent to a heavyweight boxing match: Socrates’s encounter with Protagoras, the most famous Sophist of Ancient Greece. Protagoras also gives us what is likely the best exposition of a central doctrine of Socratic philosophy, which is that virtue is knowledge, and evil is just another name for ignorance. This helps us understand the huge importance Socrates and Plato granted to the subject of education. If virtue is knowledge, then education (the instruction of youth) is, in a very real sense, the creation or destruction of virtuous souls.

Protagoras is something of an anomaly among the dialogues in that it is set before Plato’s own birth at a period in which Socrates is still a young man.

The Symposium (c. 370 BCE)

The Symposium is a dialogue that was written around 370 BCE. In it, a man tells a story he heard from another man about a symposium (which translates to “drinks party”) at which Socrates, Aristophanes, and other eminent Athenians were invited to make speeches in praise of the god of Love. Plato’s further retelling of this repeated tale puts us among the famous and famously loquacious partygoers who try to verbally outdo each other. It is useful to keep in mind that the word philosopher literally means “lover of wisdom.” In The Symposium, Plato presents the love of wisdom as the highest form of love and philosophy as a refinement of our sexual urges that leads us to desire wisdom over sex.

Selected Works of Plato

The SparkNotes guide entitled Selected Works of Plato offers one-section Summary & Analysis discussions of five works of Plato that are all discussed in greater depth in separate guides.These briefer treatments discuss The ApologyMenoPhaedoThe Symposium, and his most famous work, The Republic.