Bill R. Moore
This magnificent compilation has four Plato writings: "Euthyphro," "Apology," "Crito," and "Phaedo." Though apparently early works and not as complex or philosophically influential as later ones, they are immensely important in portraying Socrates' trial and death. They are our clearest picture of the historical Socrates and would be invaluable for this alone. Indeed, I have read hundreds - perhaps thousands - of books, and this is one of my ten or so favorites, mostly because of how moving the depiction of the great man's last days is. The story of Socrates' Apology and last moments is part of world literature's very fabric, an immortal part of Western cultural heritage. Anyone who wants to learn about Socrates should start here. However, the works have great value even aside from this; a few have indeed questioned their historical veracity. This does not affect their philosophical, literary, and political worth, which is of the highest, making the book doubly essential.
"Euthyphro" is the least important work philosophically and probably not meant as historical, but it is still worthwhile. It examines the important "What is piety?" question and, like many Platonic dialogues, does not have anything like a definite conclusion. Some find this aspect frustrating, and it is certainly beguiling, but those who have experience with it come to love it. Like Socrates, Plato is after all too intelligent to give hard and fast answers; in all likelihood, he knows there are not any. What he does is far more important - lead us to think for ourselves and come to our own conclusions if we can. "Euthyphro" is a good, if relatively minor, example. It also introduces what philosophers call the Euthyphro Problem; here it is "Are good things good because they are loved by the gods, or are they loved by the gods because they are good?," but it has been restated in innumerable forms. This is in some ways an unrepresentative dialogue and thus an unfortunate one to begin the book, because it seems to prove the stereotype that philosophy obsesses over inane, probably unanswerable questions of no practical use. The Euthyphro Problem seems truly asinine as given - or, in our post-postmodern world, simply irrelevant. However, we can begin to see its importance when we replace "good" and "loved by the gods" with whatever seems most pressing. Such is after all the kind of thing Plato wanted; we are not supposed to read in narrow literal terms but use him as a starting point for our path to wisdom. This is an instructive example of how Plato has been immensely influential far beyond his apparent significance.
"Apology" is Plato's least philosophical and most unrepresentative work but arguably his most important and is among many readers' favorites, including mine. The book's title is misleading in that this is prose rather than dialogue; it purports to be Socrates' self-defense at his trial. It is historically priceless if so, as it gives his last public statements and some background about his life and the lead up to the trial. Even if not, it is of immense worth as a passionate, sound defense of individualism and free speech; its timeless evocation of these all-important concepts is forever associated with Socrates and the main reason he has been immortalized. The work also piercingly examines the often vast law/conscience gap and is thus an early higher law document. Finally, it is a sort of mini-dialogue in itself touching on and in several ways tying up classic Socrates/Plato themes like the nature of piety and goodness, responsibility toward the gods and the state, interpersonal relations, and life vs. death issues. It sums up Socrates and perhaps Plato better than any other work.
"Crito" is a possibly partly historical account of the title character visiting Socrates in jail to inform him that he is able to escape via bribe; Socrates famously says that he accepts his sentence and argues down contrary pleas. This gives incredible potential insight into Socrates, in many ways telling us more about his character and thought than a full biography ever could. Again, though, it transcends this philosophically and otherwise and is particularly relevant politically. It also examines the law/conscience gap and gives further background on Socrates but is notable above all as a very early example of the social contract theory of government. This is an astonishing example of how advanced Plato was, as the theory is generally considered to have been founded by Thomas Hobbes nearly a millennium later. Even more amazingly, it is put forth more clearly and persuasively here than perhaps anywhere else, making the dialogue essential for anyone interested in political theory.
"Phaedo" ostensibly details Socrates' last moments, including his last look at his wife and child, his last dialogue, his last words to friends, and his actual death. A large part of Socrates' image comes from this, and its potential historical value is inconceivable, though its historicity can easily be doubted since the work itself strongly suggests that Plato was not there. Even so, it is likely accurate in regard to the things that really matter and certainly a fine account of how it very well could have been. It is extremely moving; shot through with pathos, it is one of the most affecting things I have ever read. One can surely not read it without being overcome by emotion; I can hardly even think of it without misty eyes. Anyone who respects and admires this central Western civilization figure will be profoundly touched; his famous last words seem comic out of context but are very much otherwise here, telling us much about Socrates and moving us yet further. This would be one of the greatest works of all-time if it had no other aspect, but it is also a fine dialogue appropriately dealing mostly with death. Plato examines perennial questions like the soul's immortality and metempsychosis very thoroughly and thought-provokingly, and the conclusion - unsurprisingly, given the circumstances - has uncharacteristic certainty. It may not convince our cynical, empiricist, science-loving, twentieth century-surviving age, but the argument is certainly well-made and in many ways admirable. The dialogue touches on other important subjects also and is generally seen as the culmination of Plato's early, Socrates-centered thought.
It is important to realize that these four works were not originally published together, but the trial and death connection means they are often collected. There are many such editions, but this is the least expensive and probably the most widely available, making it ideal for most; it also has extra value in that many versions lack "Euthyphro."
The ever-important translation issue must also be kept in mind. It goes without saying that anyone who cares about intellectual issues, especially applied ones, must know Plato, as should anyone who wants to be even basically well-read. However, this is far easier said than done for most; he is so different from what now passes for literature, to say nothing of pop culture, that he is virtually inaccessible to general readers. Yet the importance of persevering cannot be overemphasized; the payoff is well worth the effort. As nearly always in such cases, reading him becomes far easier after the initial difficulty; no attentive reader will ever think Plato easy reading, but he is utterly absorbing once we get used to his style. He has a near-poetic beauty that all agree has never even been remotely approached in philosophy, and such mesmerizing prose is rare in any genre. His dialogues are an incredible form at once intellectually and aesthetically pleasing - an inspired combination that has perhaps never been bettered; many have appropriated it, but none have matched it. All this means that picking the right translation is probably more important with Plato than any other writer. For the average reader, the more recent, the better is generally true, though older translations like Jowett's and Rouse's are still very accessible. The important thing is to read Plato in some form, and those who happen on a translation that does not work for them should keep trying until their mind opens in a truly new way - and once done, it will never close again.