Mapping the Platonic Dialogues

Attempts to successfully map the Platonic/Socratic dialogues as a whole have been too numerous to count. Should the apocryphal dialogues be included? Should the dialogues be organized by thematic relationships? Should they be organized according to historic periods in Socrates’s life?

The first and most memorable organization of Plato’s dialogues was conducted by Thrasyllus, a Roman thinker and astrologer who served in the court of Tiberius. He put the dialogues into a series of nine tetralogies (below) which include the apocryphal dialogues:

1st tetralogy
Euthyphro, Apology, Crito, Phaedo
2nd tetralogy
Cratylus, Theatetus, The Sophist, The Statesman
3nd tetralogy
Parmenides, Philebus, Symposium, Phaedrus
4th tetralogy
Alcibiades, Alcibiades II, Hipparchus, (Rival) Lovers
5th tetralogy
Theages, Charmides, Laches, Lysis
6th tetralogy
Euthydemus, Protagoras, Gorgias, Meno
7th tetralogy
Hippias A, Hippias B, Ion, Menexenus
8th tetralogy
Clitophon, Republic, Timaeus, Critias
9th tetralogy
Minos, Laws, Epinomis, Letters

Note that in Thrasyllus’s organization, the dialogues begin with the Euthyphro, in which Socrates questions Euthyphro about his knowledge of the gods, shortly before he leaves to present his apologia to the city. In other words, it begins with Socrates’s downfall at the hands of the city.

Some dialogues continue in the same context as others – the Euthyphro happens just before the Apology, which is followed by the Crito which takes place while Socrates is in prison, and it concludes with the Phaedo, Socrates’s death. Additionally, the Theaetetus, the Sophist, and the Statesman all follow from one another chronologically. The same can be said of the Republic, the Timaeus, and the Critias. The context of these sets of the dialogues provide us with a nearly full account of Socrates – engaging publicly with the young student of an old geometer (Theaetetus et al), then privately conversing with a group of men late into the night in the Piraeus about the ideal city in speech, and continuing throughout the following day in discussion about the city in motion and the likely story of the origins of the cosmos (Republic et al), and finally we receive an account of Socrates’s accusations, trial, defense, conviction, and subsequent death (Euthyphro et al). Many of the extent dialogues provide vague clues as to where they fall in the chronology of Socrates’s life, such as the Parmenides which takes place when Socrates was a much younger man.

Yet, certain dialogues share a natural affinity, if not an obvious chronological affinity, such as the Phaedrus and the Symposium, which both touch on the question of love. The Republic and the Laws share a natural affinity as the city in speech is dangerously born in the Republic, while the Laws seeks to actually found a new city. Additionally, the Minos (now considered apocryphal) is a natural introduction to the Laws. The Protagoras, Gorgias, Euthydemus, and the Meno all show Socrates engaging with a rival sophist, some in rather bombastic confrontations. One might say only two dialogues portray Socrates outside the city proper – the Phaedrus and the Republic. The Laws is the only dialogue not to feature Socrates (instead of Socrates we meet the Athenian Stranger – a character Aristotle interpreted as Socrates, while Cicero thought he was a stand-in for Plato).

Yet another approach to exploring the dialogues might be to seek the most ‘historically accurate’ dialogues – in other words, which ones showcase Plato as present, and therefore capable of offering the most full picture of Socrates. We know Plato is absent and possibly ill (per Phaedo) in the Phaedo, and yet he is present and mentioned by name in the Apology. Other dialogues like the Symposium and the Theaetetus have many layers of reiterating, and thus can perhaps not entirely be trustworthy accounts of Socrates, while the Republic is narrated directly by Socrates the following day, perhaps to Critias. It is Socrates’s apologia. Here, the division between narrated and performed dialogues plays a key role – some dialogues happen in the midst of action (in which Plato is the narrator), while others are framed and recounted by a narrator (in which Plato obfuscates his personal authority behind a layer of confusion). These latter dialogues are worth paying attention to, as Plato has revealed something deeper about himself in his dialogues while seeming to deliberately confuse readers as to his authorship.

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