Authors: Plato

  • Last updated on December 10, 2021

Last reviewed: June 2018

Greek philosopher

428 BCE

Athens, Greece

347 BCE

Athens, Greece

Biography

Born in Athens in 427 b.c.e. and named Aristocles, the famous philosopher whose nickname, Plato, means “broad forehead” was the son of Ariston and Perictione, Athenian aristocrats. The family of Ariston traced its descent to Codrus, presumably the last king of Athens, and Perictione was a descendant of Solon, the Athenian lawgiver. Plato probably enjoyed a comfortable boyhood as the youngest member of a wealthy family. He had two brothers, Glaucon and Adeimantus, and a sister, Potone.

Plato

(Library of Congress)

When Plato was still a child his father died, and his mother then married Pyrilampes, an active supporter of the policies of Pericles. His uncle, Charmides, and another relation, Critias, were also involved in the political life of the time and were prominent in the oligarchy that came into power at the end of the Peloponnesian War in 404 b.c.e. Under these circumstances it was natural for Plato to regard political life as one of the duties of the conscientious citizen and the philosophy of politics as one of the scholar’s noblest pursuits.

From his boyhood Plato was acquainted with Socrates, and his friendship with the elderly philosopher convinced him that the search for truth, which the Greeks called “philosophy” (“the love of wisdom”), was essential to any effective political life. Plato’s early ambition to be a statesman was encouraged by Charmides and his friends, but when Plato observed that the thirty rulers of Athens, among them his relatives and associates, were even more vicious in their governmental practices than their predecessors, and, furthermore, that they were attempting to involve Socrates in the illegal arrest of a fellow citizen, he began to have qualms about a career in politics. His misgivings were confirmed when the leaders of the democracy that followed the oligarchy charged Socrates with impiety and corrupting the youth of Athens; Socrates was brought to trial, condemned, and executed. Plato decided that until philosophers became kings, or kings became philosophers, there was no practical value to be gained if an honest man entered political life.

In all probability, Plato was more than once engaged in active military service. He possibly entered service when he was eighteen and may have spent five years in the cavalry during the last years of the Peloponnesian War. He may also have served in 395 b.c.e., when Athens was once more at war. After the death of Socrates in 399, Plato went to Megara with some other friends of Socrates and visited Euclides, a distinguished philosopher who had been present at Socrates’ death. He may have traveled further, but he soon returned to Athens and began his own writing.

When Plato was about forty years old, he made a trip to Italy and Sicily, where he was dismayed by the luxurious, sensual life customary among the wealthy. He made friends with Archytas, the virtual ruler of Tarentum, in Italy. Archytas was not only a strong and respected leader but also an eminent mathematician, and he and Plato discussed many of the interesting features of Pythagoreanism, with which Plato had first become fascinated in Athens. In Sicily Plato visited Syracuse, where he became acquainted with Dionysius, the tyrant of the city, and with Dion, the brother-in-law of Dionysius. Dion, then about twenty years old, was inspired by Plato’s ideas about the proper kind of state and resolved to embody the kind of noble political leadership that Plato sketched out for him. While inspiring Dion, however, Plato was irritating Dionysius, who had little interest in philosophy. According to some sources, Plato was seized by a Spartan envoy who shipped him off to Aegina, where he was offered for sale as a slave but was saved by Anniceris, a friend from Cyrene who ransomed him.

When he returned to Athens about 387 b.c.e., Plato founded a school in which scientific and political studies would be undertaken by young men actually engaged in the task of acquiring knowledge. The school was located outside the city gates, where Plato owned a house and garden. Because the place was known as the Academy, the school acquired that name, and for forty years Plato devoted most of his time to the school. The dialogues for which he is famous were composed, in great part, at the Academy and in connection with its activities. Among the young men who became his pupils were Dion, who followed Plato to Athens, Aristotle, who joined the school when he was eighteen, and others who were either princes or destined to become important political figures.

In 367 b.c.e. Dionysius of Syracuse died, and his power, which by that time extended over Hellenic Sicily and Italy, passed to his son, Dionysius II. Through the influence of Dion, who was the new ruler’s uncle, Plato was invited to Syracuse to teach philosophy to the young Dionysius, and he reluctantly accepted. Instruction was practically impossible, however, because of suspicion and intrigue at court, and four months after Plato’s arrival Dion was banished on the grounds that he was plotting against the ruler. When the war with Carthage broke out, Plato left Sicily, promising to return when peace was established if Dion should be allowed to return to Syracuse.

In 361 b.c.e. Plato returned to Sicily at the urging of Dion, still under banishment. When Dionysius continued to refuse to allow Dion’s return and made matters worse by confiscating his property, Plato protested. He was made a virtual prisoner and was in danger from Dionysius’s bodyguards; finally he was released through the intervention of his friend Archytas of Tarentum. He returned to Athens in the summer of 360. For the next thirteen years Plato taught and wrote at the Academy, composing the later dialogues, among them the Laws. He died in 347 and was buried on the grounds of the Academy.

Plato is famous for the intellectually lively portrait of Socrates that he presented in his earlier dialogues and for his theory of Ideas—eternal, changeless forms of things by reference to which knowledge is possible. In his Republic he set forth his ideas of the ideal state, one founded on conceptions of law and justice.

Author Works Nonfiction: Although Plato’s individual works cannot be dated with exactness, there is consensus among scholars as to a four-part division into early, middle, later, and last periods. Early period works (399-390 b.c.e.) are: Prōtagoras (Protagoras, 1804) Iōn (Ion, 1804) Gorgias (English translation, 1804) Lachēs (Laches, 1804) Charmidēs (Charmides, 1804) Euthyphrōn (Euthyphro, 1804) Lysis (English translation, 1804) Hippias Elattōn (Hippias Minor, 1761) Hippias Meizōn (Hippias Major, 1759) Apologia Sōkratous (Apology, 1675) Kritōn (Crito, 1804). Middle period works (388-368 b.c.e.) are: Cratylos (Cratylus, 1793) Symposion (Symposium, 1701) Politeia (Republic, 1701) Phaedros (Phaedrus, 1792) Menōn (Meno, 1769) Euthydēmos (Euthydemus, 1804) Menexenos (Menexenus, 1804) Phaedōn (Phaedo, 1675) Parmenidēs (Parmenides, 1804) Theaetētos (Theaetetus, 1804). Later period works (365-361 b.c.e.) are: Sophistēs (Sophist, 1804) Politikos (Statesman, 1804). Last period works (360-347 b.c.e.) are: Nomoi (Laws, 1804) Philēbos (Philebus, 1779) Timaeos (Timeaus, 1793) Critias (English translation, 1793) Bibliography Cropsey, Joseph. Plato’s World: Man’s Place in the Cosmos. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1995. Discusses Plato’s views on human nature, with attention to his political theories. Gonzalez, Francisco, ed. The Third Way: New Directions in Platonic Studies. Lanham, Md.: Rowman and Littlefield, 1995. A helpful sampling of late twentieth century research on Plato, his continuing significance, and trends of interpretation in Platonic studies. Irwin, Terrence. Plato’s Ethics. New York: Oxford University Press, 1995. A thorough study of Plato’s moral philosophy, including its political implications. Kahn, Charles H. Plato and the Socratic Dialogue: The Philosophical Use of a Literary Form. New York: Cambridge University Press, 1996. A study of Plato’s use of the dialogue form as a means for exploring and developing key philosophical positions and dispositions. Kraut, Richard, ed. The Cambridge Companion to Plato. Cambridge, England: Cambridge University Press, 1992. Eminent Plato scholars analyze and assess key Platonic dialogues and issues in Plato’s thought. Moravcsik, J. M. E. Plato and Platonism: Plato’s Conception of Appearance and Reality in Ontology, Epistemology, and Ethics and Its Modern Echoes. Cambridge, Mass.: Blackwell, 1992. A scholarly study of Plato’s key distinction between appearance and reality and the continuing impact of that distinction. Pappas, Nikolas, ed. Routledge Philosophy Guidebook to Plato and the “Republic.” New York: Routledge, 1995. Helpful articles that clarify key Platonic concepts and theories. Rutherford, R. B. The Art of Plato: Ten Essays in Platonic Interpretation. Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 1995. Well-informed essays on key elements of Plato’s theories. Sayers, Sean. Plato’s “Republic”: An Introduction. Edinburgh: Edinburgh University Press, 2000. An accessible commentary on the works of the philosopher. Tarrant, Harold. Plato’s First Interpreters. Ithaca, N.Y.: Cornell University Press, 2000. An examination of the earliest debates about Plato’s ideas. Tuana, Nancy, ed. Feminist Interpretations of Plato. University Park: Pennsylvania State University, 1994. Scholarly essays evaluate Plato’s understanding of gender issues and appraise his philosophy from the perspectives of feminist theory. Williams, Bernard A. O. Plato. New York: Routledge, 1999. An excellent biographical introduction to the thoughts of the philosopher, clearly presented. Includes bibliography.

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