Many are the college students who have read the Platonic discourses collected in this volume. Along with The Republic, these dialogues form the most basic core of Platonic philosophy and are required reading for anyone interested in the art of philosophy.
In the Euthyphro dialogue, Socrates is on his way to court to answer the charges of Meletus that he creates his own gods and does not believe in the gods of society. On his way, he meets Euthyphro, a lawyer-priest of some sort who tells Socrates that he is prosecuting his own father for the murder of a slave (a slave who had himself committed murder). Socrates compels the learned Euthyphro to explain to him the truth about what is pious and what impious; if he can tell the court what he has learned from the knowledgeable Euthyphro, he will have no trouble countering Meletus' charges. Euthyphro tries to define what is pious as that which is pleasing to the gods, but Socrates shows him that his definition is really just an effect of piety, and Euthyphro bows out of the circular conversation without ever giving Socrates a satisfactory definition of true piety.
In The Apology, Socrates defends himself from both the recent charges of Meletus for impiety as well as the host of charges long leveled at him as being a corrupter of the youth. He cites a pronouncement of the Delphic oracle that he is the wisest of all men and explains how he has spent his life trying to vindicate the god's pronouncement by seeking out the wisest men in society and testing them. The wisest men, he says, turn out to be not wise at all. He himself knows he is not wise, while the supposedly wise think they are wise when they are not, and he has concluded that the gods believe that the wisest man is the man who knows how much he does not know. The fact that he shows men that they are not in fact wise has admittedly made Socrates unpopular and turned the minds of many citizens against him. He bravely says he will continue philosophizing if he is acquitted because the god himself compels him to do so. In fact, he says society benefits from what he is doing (namely, trying to make men more virtuous), and he defends himself by saying that society itself will be harmed by his execution. Of course, claiming that he is actually a gift of the god for Athens is a hard way to win over a jury already biased against him. Upon his conviction, he willingly accepts the death sentence imposed upon him, but he, somewhat oddly, warns his fellow citizens that there are younger men ready to come out and question individuals in the same manner as he has done.
In the Crito, Socrates convinces his friend Crito that it is just and right for him to accede to the punishment of death returned by the Athenian jury. He feels that he has been wronged by men but not the laws or society, and to escape from prison and run away would make of him the very type of man the jury wrongly concluded him to be. It is an exceedingly elegant and brave discourse.
Meno is one of Plato's early and, to my mind, least successful, Socratic dialogues. The conversation centers, naturally enough, on virtue and whether or not it is teachable. Meno's definitions of virtue are woefully inadequate, by and large, and deserving of Socrates' typical arrogance. At one point, Meno says that one cannot learn about what one does not know. To counter this argument, Socrates, arguing that the soul is eternal and that learning is in fact recollection, sets about showing how a slave "remembers" the answers to geometrical questions Socrates puts to him. Later, when Meno agrees with the notion that virtue is knowledge and can be taught, Socrates counters the point by saying he has yet to find anyone who truly practices virtue and is thus qualified to teach it. In the end, Socrates concludes that virtue cannot be taught and is in fact a gift of the gods.
The Phaedo is a third-person account of the philosophical discussion between Socrates and his friends on the day of his death. Socrates accepts his fate most amicably, arguing that death is the means by which to achieve the aims of true philosophy, for only by escaping the evil of the body can the soul truly acquire wisdom. Socrates renews his argument that learning is in fact recollection, supposedly proving that the soul exists before birth. He also argues that everything comes from its opposite; if death comes from life, then life must come from death. The proofs he offers for his belief that the soul is eternal do not strike me as very convincing. In many ways, the Phaedo is a precursor to much of the philosophy of The Republic, in which the concepts of the eternal soul and the invisible Forms mentioned here are threshed out much more satisfactorily.