Seminars in early Platonic dialogues

About the Seminars

I have been leading hour-long, weekly, seminars on the early Platonic dialogues, since January 2021; the courses are four weeks each.

I alternate the courses I offer: 1 or 2 plus 3 or 4 and so on. There no reason why you can’t start with 2 and move on to 1.

In October, we’re doing the odd-numbered ones. For reference, this is what each four-part series includes.

For beginners: Series 1 and Series 2

1: Euthyphro (on piety), Ion (on poetic inspiration), Lysis (on friendship), and Laches (on courage).

2: Apology (on Socrates' mission), the Crito (on political obligation), Charmides (on temperance), and Hippias Minor (on voluntary wrongdoing).

For those who've done either or both of the above: Series 3 and 4

3: Hippias Major (on beauty), Meno (on virtue), Euthydemus (on the eristic method), and Clitophon, Theages, & Alcibiades (different takes on the Socratic method).

4: Protagoras (virtue and its teachability) and Gorgias (oratory and justice), each divided into two parts.

In addition, I am straying into what are usually regarded as 'middle' dialogues, for those who've been through the beginners and intermediate stages.

5: Phaedo (the afterlife) and Phaedrus (love and the nature of the soul), each divided into two parts.

6: Symposium (on love) and Parmenides (on the Forms), each divided into two parts.

The size of the groups is between two and five, plus me. 

All these dialogues are available in English translation online. Apart from about 500 words background written by me (more for the more advanced ones) I do not propose any reading for participants apart from the dialogues themselves, which should be studied as intensively as time allows.

Taking turns, one member of the seminar gives a brief (five-minute) presentation of the argument of the dialogue, to initiate discussion.

More about my motivation for offering these seminars is here.

About me

I have been teaching various Philosophy papers in Oxford University for twenty years. I have a particular interest in Aristotle and have published in Philosophy of Religion and Ethics. The early dialogues of Plato are something of a hobby of mine.

Who could benefit from the seminars?

All that is required is an interest in exploring concepts with clarity and precision. I don't recommend it to anyone under 16.

We use Zoom, and participants have been based in various parts of the USA, Chile, and South Africa, as well as the UK.

If you are looking at this and wondering if it's going to make any sense to you, go and read Euthyphro  or the Apology and ask yourself if you'd like to talk about it with others.


A fee of £150 is payable in advance for the four seminars.

I'll happily accept £75 from the unwaged, students, seminarians, etc..

There is a 20% discount for anyone who has participated in an earlier series. This reduces the full fee to £120 and the concessionary rate to £60.

I'll give a full refund to anyone not satisfied with the first seminar.


The next set will start at time to be confirmed.

The precise timing will be a matter of negotiation among those who sign up.

If you are interested, email joseph.shaw99 AT (replace AT with @)

About the Dialogues

Socrates died, aged 70, in 399 BC; Plato died in 348. Plato's works were composed between those two dates; the earliest ones perhaps pretty soon after 399 BC.

The boundaries between 'early', 'middle', and 'later' works of Plato are somewhat disputed, as is the authenticity of some of the dialogues attributed to Plato, and there seem to be exceptions to most generalisations one can make about them. However for practical purposes one can point to a group of 'early dialogues' (in which Socrates discusses something with one or more others) which have a number of features in common.

Socrates. The early dialogues are 'early' in the sense that they appear to have been written before Plato developed some of his well-known ideas, such as the Theory of Forms. Some of the themes found in them are associated with the historical Socrates, Plato's teacher, by other ancient writers (such as Aristotle and Xenophon), whereas the complex Platonic theories of later dialogues, though frequently presented by a character called 'Socrates', are not.

They are also often set late in Socrates' life: immediately before, during, and after the trial at which he was condemned to death, for example. (The 'middle' and later dialogues are sometimes set at earlier times.) In some cases (obviously, in the Apology) Plato seems to be setting out to show what Socrates was really like, and what kind of things he said, to defend him against his critics after his execution. Xenophon, another of Socrates' pupils, wrote his Memoria with the same purpose in mind.

Length, subject-matter, interlocutors. They vary in length but tend to be short: some are just a few pages long. They usually focus on just one concept, usually a virtue (piety, courage, friendship), but also morally-charged concepts such as beauty and poetic inspiration. Socrates holds his discussions with all sorts of people: a theologian, a professional Homeric reciter (rhapsode), generals, various Athenian gentlemen, a number of young boys, and so on. Eventually professional philosophers, or Sophists, appear in the discussions, but these tend to make for longer and more technical discussions, as we move in the direction of the 'middle' dialogues. 

The early ones tend to be investigations more of what ordinary people (or experts in fields other than philosophy) think about ordinary concepts. This was a task Socrates tells us in the Apology he felt he had been set by Apollo through the Delphic Oracle, which had told a friend of Socrates that Socrates was the wisest man in the world. He set out to show that this was true, if only because, unlike other people, he acknowledged his ignorance.

The Socratic project. In the Euthyphro Socrates says he wants a definition of piety (to hosion) by which he can determine whether actions are pious or not (it would be a model, paradeigma). This will be the 'form' of piety, revealing its nature (ousia). Socrates seems to be demanding a set of necessary and sufficient conditions, but he wants more than a verbal definition: he wants to understand the thing. 

Socrates often professes his ignorance of the concept at issue, but he is able to distinguish genuine instances of it from non-genuine ones. (The paradox that one could not recognise what one is looking for if one had absolutely no idea about it is explored in the Meno.) The Socratic project is one of deepening our knowledge, and making it more explicit.

Artfulness. Many of the dialogues are presented as chance conversations, but the early dialogues are artful literary compositions. Not only is the structure of the argument very carefully considered, to create or resolve philosophical problems, but the identity and characterisation of the interlocutors can play a significant role, and the framing of the dialogue (the setting, whether or not the dialogue is being recalled by another character, and so on) can also give us hints about the contents. The early dialogues are truly dramatic, as Socrates' interlocutors reveal their character in their replies, and their personalities and concerns push them in one direction or another. Again, in some cases the later history of characters in the dialogues, which would have been well-known to the first readers of these works, reflects back on what they say in the dialogue.

Aporetic structure. The dialogues concern a puzzle: in Greek, aporia. Generally speaking they end with Socrates' lamenting the fact that the discussion has not been able to resolve the puzzle, leading to these being called 'aporetic dialogues'. For this reason they are sometimes seen as not proposing any positive theories at all. However, Plato and Socrates certainly had their own thoughts about the topics discussed, and given the high degree of artfulness at work in the dialogues, it would be surprising if they gave no hints to the reader about where the truth lies.