These five works are a great intro to Plato, showing off his more literary side. Through Plato we learn of Socrates (469BC- 399BC) and the modes of philosophical inquiry Plato experimented with.
Ion – Ion is a performer of epic poetry who insists he is the expert on Homer, Plato goes to show him as stupid, which proves that memorizing Homer does not create wisdom. So then, what is the source of poetic wisdom or knowledge?
Protagoras – Protagoras bills himself as a teacher for hire. Teacher of what? Virtue. But can this be taught? Socrates proves it cannot. How is knowledge gained and imparted? Socrates drags a reluctant Protagoras into a dialectical back and forth.
Surely knowledge is the food of the soul; and we must take care that the sophist does not cheat us when he praises the goods he is hawking, like the wholesalers and retailers who sell the food for the body… Those traveling salesmen of knowledge praises them all alike; though I wouldn’t be surprised if some were really unaware which articles of their merchandise are good for the soul, and which bad.
Phaedrus– inquiry into rhetoric, is it possible for truth to exist in a speech or writing meant to persuade? The three speeches are regarding the act of a lover with his beloved; is it better to love a lover than a non-lover? Socrates hears Lysias’ speech (by way of Phaedrus), then covers his head and mockingly makes another more eloquent speech, then atones to the gods by making a proper speech wherein love is adored as Eros and Aphrodite. The art of a speech is to know the truth, start at the beginning, define each truth, divide the truth until it cannot be divided any more, then recap the speech saying what was said.
Symposium– everyone makes speeches in honor of Love at Agathon’s dinner party. At the beginning, they decide to abstain from alcohol since some of them were still feeling the effects of the prior night’s festivities. (“It was agreed that drinking was not to dominate the evening’s activities, but that they were all to drink only so much as they pleased.”) Coercive toasting was banned, as was the flute-girl. Phaedrus’s speech names Love as the oldest of the gods, points out that dying for one’s beloved was the highest of honors and the gods reward such sacrifice with rebirth. Pausanias’s speech distinguishes heavenly love from lustful common love. “Those inspired by this (heavenly) Love turn to the male, delighting in the more valiant and intelligent nature.” (Bullshit sexism from the Greeks should be expected.) This type of love strives toward betterment of individuals and cities. Eryximachus takes Aristophanes’ place due to hiccups, giving him a recommendation to hold his breath, if that fails then gargle with water, then force a sneeze. (The sneeze finally cures them). Aristophanes claims we used to be two halves, male/male, male/female, female/female, and were split apart in punishment for insolence to the gods, forever seeking to heal ourselves by coupling with others. Agathon says Love is the youngest of the gods, and tender, living in soft places in the body, the most beautiful and best in himself and causing that in others. Socrates puts the smackdown, proving that Love cannot be a god (you desire what you lack, and the gods are beautiful thus they don’t lack beauty, Love is beauty); Love is a demigod, intermediate between the divine and mortal. Socrates’ wisdom is derived from Diotima, an instructress in Love (e.g. prostitute). Love is love of the everlasting possession of the good. The life one should live is in contemplation of absolute beauty. After the speeches, a very drunk Alcibiades crashes the party and exposes information about Socrates, how Alcibiades tried to seduce the older man and failed, how that is the reverse of how things should be, how Socrates always manages to lure people into seducing him, how he values no possessions, is able to drink and eat as little or much as he wants, his valor in battle, the day (and night) he stood in one spot thinking about something for 24 hours.
Apology– Socrates’ defense in his trial accused of corrupting youth. He shows the invalidity of the argument (how can he be both atheist and teaching the wrong gods?) and the apathy of the prosecutor for the sacredness of youths’ minds. He explains that he’s been trying to prove that he isn’t the wisest man in the world by questioning others in an attempt to find someone wiser, but that most people pretend wisdom. “A life without examination is no life for a human being.” Once convicted, he pleads against the death penalty but rather for 30 lbs of silver as a fine that his friends will pay. Upon getting the death sentence, he praises it, saying death is welcome either as a pleasant night’s dream or a reunion with great past heroes he can question.