Plato, Socrates, and the Dialogues
Most of the Socratic dialogues referred to today are those of Plato. Platonic dialogues defined the literary genre subsequent philosophers used. Plato wrote approximately 35 dialogues, in most of which Socrates is the main character. Strictly speaking, the term refers to works in which Socrates is a character. As a genre, however, other texts are included; Plato’s Laws and Xenophon’s Hiero are Socratic dialogues in which a wise man other than Socrates leads the discussion (the Athenian Stranger and Simonides, respectively). The protagonist of each dialogue, both in Plato’s and Xenophon’s work, usually is Socrates who by means of a kind of interrogation tries to find out more about the other person’s understanding of moral issues. In the dialogues Socrates presents himself as a simple man who confesses that he has little knowledge. With this ironic approach he manages to confuse the other who boasts that he is an expert in the domain they discuss. The outcome of the dialogue is that Socrates demonstrates that the other person’s views are inconsistent. In this way Socrates tries to show the way to real wisdom. One of his most famous statements in that regard is “The unexamined life is not worth living.” This philosophical questioning is known as the Socratic method. In some dialogues Plato’s main character is not Socrates but someone from outside of Athens. In Xenophon’s Hiero a certain Simonides plays this role when Socrates is not the protagonist. Generally, the works which are most often assigned to Plato’s early years are all considered to be Socratic dialogues Many of his Middle dialogues and later dialogues incorporate Socrates’ character and are often included here as well. However, this interpretation of the corpus is not universally accepted.The time that Plato began to write his works and the date of composition of his last work are not known and what adds to the complexity is that even the ancient sources do not know the order of the works or the dialogues.