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Plato (428/427 or 424/423 – 348/347 BC) was a philosopher and mathematician in Classical Greece, and the founder of the Academy in Athens, the first institution of higher learning in the Western world. He is widely considered the most pivotal figure in the development of philosophy, especially the Western tradition. Unlike nearly all of his philosophical contemporaries, Plato’s entire œuvre is believed to have survived intact for over 2,400 years.
Along with his teacher, Socrates, and his most famous student, Aristotle, Plato laid the very foundations of Western philosophy and science. Alfred North Whitehead once noted: “the safest general characterization of the European philosophical tradition is that it consists of a series of footnotes to Plato.” In addition to being a foundational figure for Western science, philosophy, and mathematics, Plato has also often been cited as one of the founders of Western religion and spirituality, particularly Christianity, which Friedrich Nietzsche, amongst other scholars, called “Platonism for the people”. Plato’s influence on Christian thought is often thought to be mediated by his major influence on Saint Augustine of Hippo, one of the most important philosophers and theologians in the history of Christianity.
Plato was the innovator of the dialogue and dialectic forms in philosophy, which originate with him. Plato appears to have been the founder of Western political philosophy, with his Republic, and Laws among other dialogues, providing some of the earliest extant treatments of political questions from a philosophical perspective. Plato’s own most decisive philosophical influences are usually thought to have been Socrates, Parmenides, Heraclitus and Pythagoras, although few of his predecessors’ works remain extant and much of what we know about these figures today derives from Plato himself.
Little can be known about Plato’s early life and education, due to a lack of surviving accounts. The philosopher came from one of the wealthiest and most politically active families in Athens. Ancient sources describe him as a bright though modest boy who excelled in his studies. His father contributed all which was necessary to give to his son a good education, and, therefore, Plato must have been instructed in grammar, music, gymnastics and philosophy by some of the most distinguished teachers of his era.
Birth and family
The exact time and place of Plato’s birth are not known, but it is certain that he belonged to an aristocratic and influential family. Based on ancient sources, most modern scholars believe that he was born in Athens or Aegina between 429 and 423 BCE. His father was Ariston. According to a disputed tradition, reported by Diogenes Laertius, Ariston traced his descent from the king of Athens, Codrus, and the king of Messenia, Melanthus. Plato’s mother was Perictione, whose family boasted of a relationship with the famous Athenian lawmaker and lyric poet Solon. Perictione was sister of Charmides and niece of Critias, both prominent figures of the Thirty Tyrants, the brief oligarchic regime, which followed on the collapse of Athens at the end of the Peloponnesian War (404–403 BCE). Besides Plato himself, Ariston and Perictione had three other children; these were two sons, Adeimantus and Glaucon, and a daughter Potone, the mother of Speusippus (the nephew and successor of Plato as head of his philosophical Academy). The brothers Adeimantus and Glaucon are mentioned in the Republic as sons of Ariston, and presumably brothers of Plato, but some have argued they were uncles. But in a scenario in the Memorabilia, Xenophon confused the issue by presenting a Glaucon much younger than Plato.
The traditional date of Plato’s birth (428/427) is based on a dubious interpretation of Diogenes Laertius, who says, “When [Socrates] was gone, [Plato] joined Cratylus the Heracleitean and Hermogenes, who philosophized in the manner of Parmenides. Then, at twenty-eight, Hermodorus says, [Plato] went to Euclides in Megara.” As Debra Nails argues, “The text itself gives no reason to infer that Plato left immediately for Megara and implies the very opposite.” In his Seventh Letter, Plato notes that his coming of age coincided with the taking of power by the Thirty, remarking, “But a youth under the age of twenty made himself a laughingstock if he attempted to enter the political arena.” Thus, Nails dates Plato’s birth to 424/423.
According to Diogenes Laërtius, the philosopher was named Aristocles (Ἀριστοκλῆς) after his grandfather. It was common in Athenian society for boys to be named after grandfathers (or fathers). But there is only one inscriptional record of an Aristocles, an early Archon of Athens in 605/4 BCE. There is no record of a line from Aristocles to Plato’s father, Ariston. However, if Plato was not named after an ancestor named Plato (there is no record of one), then the origin of his renaming as Plato becomes a conundrum.
The sources of Diogenes account for this fact by claiming that his wrestling coach, Ariston of Argos, dubbed him Platon, meaning “broad,” on account of his robust figure or that Plato derived his name from the breadth (πλατύτης, platytēs) of his eloquence, or else because he was very wide (πλατύς, platýs) across the forehead.
Apuleius informs us that Speusippus praised Plato’s quickness of mind and modesty as a boy, and the “first fruits of his youth infused with hard work and love of study”. Plato must have been instructed in grammar, music, and gymnastics by the most distinguished teachers of his time. Dicaearchus went so far as to say that Plato wrestled at the Isthmian games. Plato had also attended courses of philosophy; before meeting Socrates, he first became acquainted with Cratylus (a disciple of Heraclitus, a prominent pre-Socratic Greek philosopher) and the Heraclitean doctrines. W. A. Borody argues that an Athenian openness towards a wider range of sexuality may have contributed to the Athenian philosophers’ openness towards a wider range of thought, a cultural situation Borody describes as “polymorphously discursive.”
Although Socrates influenced Plato directly as related in the dialogues, the influence of Pythagoras upon Plato also appears to have significant discussion in the philosophical literature. Pythagoras, or in a broader sense, the Pythagoreans, allegedly exercised an important influence on the work of Plato. According to R. M. Hare, this influence consists of three points: (1) The platonic Republic might be related to the idea of “a tightly organized community of like-minded thinkers”, like the one established by Pythagoras in Croton. (2) There is evidence that Plato possibly took from Pythagoras the idea that mathematics and, generally speaking, abstract thinking is a secure basis for philosophical thinking as well as “for substantial theses in science and morals”. (3) Plato and Pythagoras shared a “mystical approach to the soul and its place in the material world”. It is probable that both were influenced by Orphism.
Aristotle claimed that the philosophy of Plato closely followed the teachings of the Pythagoreans, and Cicero repeats this claim: Platonem ferunt didicisse Pythagorea omnia (“They say Plato learned all things Pythagorean”). Bertrand Russell, in his A History of Western Philosophy, contended that the influence of Pythagoras on Plato and others was so great that he should be considered the most influential of all Western philosophers.
The precise relationship between Plato and Socrates remains an area of contention among scholars. Plato makes it clear in his Apology of Socrates, that he was a devoted young follower of Socrates. In that dialogue, Socrates is presented as mentioning Plato by name as one of those youths close enough to him to have been corrupted, if he were in fact guilty of corrupting the youth, and questioning why their fathers and brothers did not step forward to testify against him if he was indeed guilty of such a crime (33d-34a). Later, Plato is mentioned along with Crito, Critobolus, and Apollodorus as offering to pay a fine of 30 minas on Socrates’ behalf, in lieu of the death penalty proposed by Meletus (38b). In the Phaedo, the title character lists those who were in attendance at the prison on Socrates’ last day, explaining Plato’s absence by saying, “Plato was ill.” (Phaedo 59b)
Plato never speaks in his own voice in his dialogues. In the Second Letter, it says, “no writing of Plato exists or ever will exist, but those now said to be his are those of a Socrates become beautiful and new” (341c); if the Letter is Plato’s, the final qualification seems to call into question the dialogues’ historical fidelity. In any case, Xenophon and Aristophanes seem to present a somewhat different portrait of Socrates from the one Plato paints. Some have called attention to the problem of taking Plato’s Socrates to be his mouthpiece, given Socrates’ reputation for irony and the dramatic nature of the dialogue form.
Aristotle attributes a different doctrine with respect to the Ideas to Plato and Socrates (Metaphysics 987b1–11). Putting it in a nutshell, Aristotle merely suggests that Socrates’ idea of forms can be discovered through investigation of the natural world, unlike Plato’s Forms that exist beyond and outside the ordinary range of human understanding.
Plato may have traveled in Italy, Sicily, Egypt and Cyrene, Libya. Said to have returned to Athens at the age of forty, Plato founded one of the earliest known organized schools in Western Civilization on a plot of land in the Grove of Hecademus or Academus. The Academy was a large enclosure of ground about six stadia outside of Athens proper. One story is that the name of the Academy comes from the ancient hero, Academus. Another story is that the name came from a supposed a former owner, a citizen of Athens also named Academus. Yet another account is that it was named after a member of the army of Castor and Pollux, an Arcadian named Echedemus. The Academy operated until it was destroyed by Lucius Cornelius Sulla in 84 BCE. Neoplatonists revived the Academy in the early 5th century, and it operated until AD 529, when it was closed by Justinian I of Byzantium, who saw it as a threat to the propagation of Christianity. Many intellectuals were schooled in the Academy, the most prominent one being Aristotle.
Throughout his later life, Plato became entangled with the politics of the city of Syracuse. According to Diogenes Laertius, Plato initially visited Syracuse while it was under the rule of Dionysius. During this first trip Dionysius’s brother-in-law, Dion of Syracuse, became one of Plato’s disciples, but the tyrant himself turned against Plato. Plato almost faced death, but he was sold into slavery. Then Anniceris bought Plato’s freedom for twenty minas, and sent him home. After Dionysius’s death, according to Plato’s Seventh Letter, Dion requested Plato return to Syracuse to tutor Dionysius II and guide him to become a philosopher king. Dionysius II seemed to accept Plato’s teachings, but he became suspicious of Dion, his uncle. Dionysius expelled Dion and kept Plato against his will. Eventually Plato left Syracuse. Dion would return to overthrow Dionysius and ruled Syracuse for a short time before being usurped by Calippus, a fellow disciple of Plato.
A variety of sources have given accounts of Plato’s death. One story, based on a mutilated manuscript, suggests Plato died in his bed, whilst a young Thracian girl played the flute to him. Another tradition suggests Plato died at a wedding feast. The account is based on Diogenes Laertius’s reference to an account by Hermippus, a third-century Alexandrian. According to Tertullian, Plato simply died in his sleep.
For a long time, Plato’s unwritten doctrine had been controversial. Many modern books on Plato seem to diminish its importance; nevertheless, the first important witness who mentions its existence is Aristotle, who in his Physics (209 b) writes: “It is true, indeed, that the account he gives there [i.e. in Timaeus] of the participant is different from what he says in his so-called unwritten teachings (ἄγραφα δόγματα).” The term “ἄγραφα δόγματα” literally means unwritten doctrines and it stands for the most fundamental metaphysical teaching of Plato, which he disclosed only orally, and some say only to his most trusted fellows, and which he may have kept secret from the public. The importance of the unwritten doctrines does not seem to have been seriously questioned before the 19th century.
A reason for not revealing it to everyone is partially discussed in Phaedrus (276 c) where Plato criticizes the written transmission of knowledge as faulty, favoring instead the spoken logos: “he who has knowledge of the just and the good and beautiful … will not, when in earnest, write them in ink, sowing them through a pen with words, which cannot defend themselves by argument and cannot teach the truth effectually.” The same argument is repeated in Plato’s Seventh Letter (344 c): “every serious man in dealing with really serious subjects carefully avoids writing.” In the same letter he writes (341 c): “I can certainly declare concerning all these writers who claim to know the subjects that I seriously study … there does not exist, nor will there ever exist, any treatise of mine dealing therewith.” Such secrecy is necessary in order not “to expose them to unseemly and degrading treatment” (344 d).
Apuleius, De Dogmate Platonis, I.
Aristophanes, The Wasps.
Cicero, De Divinatione, I.
Harvard University Press publishes the hardbound series Loeb Classical Library, containing Plato’s works in Greek, with English translations on facing pages.
Cooper, John M. & Hutchinson, D. S. (Eds.) (1997). Plato: Complete Works. Hackett Publishing Company, Inc.
Jowett, Benjamin (1892). [The Dialogues of Plato. Translated into English with analyses and introductions by B. Jowett.], Oxford Clarendon Press, UK, Xenophon, Memorabilia.
Kraut, Richard (Ed.) (1993). The Cambridge Companion to Plato. Cambridge University Press.
Dillon, John (2003). The Heirs of Plato: A Study of the Old Academy. Oxford University Press.
Dodds, E. R. (2004) . The Greeks and the Irrational. University of California Press.
Dorter, Kenneth (2006). The Transformation of Plato’s Republic. Lexington Books.