Plato (427–347 BC)

DOI: 10.4324/9780415249126-A088-1
Version: v1,  Published online: 1998
Retrieved September 24, 2020, from

6. Early works

There is widespread scholarly agreement that the following are among Plato’s earliest writings: Apology, Crito, Ion, Hippias Minor, Laches and Charmides. Apology, as we have noted, best fits into the context of the decade following Socrates’ death, and so does Crito, which explores the question why he did not try to escape from the condemned cell; the others are all short treatments of questions to do with virtue and knowledge, or in the case of Ion, with expertise (technē), and all are relatively simple in literary structure. The brief Euthyphro and the much longer Protagoras and Gorgias (with which Menexenus is often associated) are usually seen as having many affinities with these, and so are put at least fairly early, although here anticipations of the style or content of the mature middle-period dialogues have also been detected. The connections in thought between Lysis, Euthydemus and Hippias Major and middle-period Plato may be argued to be stronger still, even though there remain clear similarities with the dialogues generally accepted as early. We do not know whether Plato wrote or published anything before Socrates’ death; Menexenus cannot be earlier than 386 bc, Ion might be datable to around 394–391 bc, but otherwise we can only guess.

All those listed above fall under the commonly used description ’Socratic dialogues’, because they are seen as preoccupied with the thought of the historical Socrates as Plato understood him, in contrast with writings of the middle period, where ’Socrates’ often seems to become a vehicle for exploring a more wide-ranging set of ideas (see Socrates §2). In the Socratic dialogues discussion is confined almost exclusively to ethical questions, or problems about the scope and credentials of expertise: metaphysics and epistemology and speculation about the nature and powers of the soul are for the most part notable by their absence. Use of the elenchus is prominent in them as it is not, for example, in Republic (apart from book I, sometimes regarded as an early work subsequently reused as a preface to the main body of the dialogue). The hypothesis that philosophizing in this style was the hallmark of the historical Socrates is broadly consistent with what we are given to understand about him by Xenophon, Aristotle and Plato’s Apology – which is usually thought to be particularly authoritative evidence, whether or not it is a faithful representation of what Socrates really said at his trial.

How historical the historical Socrates of the hypothesis actually is we shall never know. The conjecture that many of the Socratic dialogues are early works is likewise only a guess, which gets no secure support from stylometric evidence. None the less the story of Plato’s literary and philosophical development to which it points makes such excellent sense that it has effectively driven all rival theories from the field. The placing of individual dialogues within that story remains a matter for controversy; and doubts persist over how far interpretation of Plato is illuminated or obstructed by acceptance of any developmental pattern. With these provisos, the account which follows assumes the existence of a group of early Socratic dialogues in the sense explained.

The convenience of the description ’Socratic dialogues’ should not generate the expectation of a single literary or philosophical enterprise in these writings. It conceals considerable variety, for example as between works devoted to articulating and defending the philosophical life and works which problematize Socratic thought as much as they exhibit its attractions. This distinction is not an exhaustive one, but provides useful categories for thinking about some of the key productions of Plato’s early period.

Citing this article:
Schofield, Malcolm. Early works. Plato (427–347 BC), 1998, doi:10.4324/9780415249126-A088-1. Routledge Encyclopedia of Philosophy, Taylor and Francis,
Copyright © 1998-2020 Routledge.

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