BORN: 427 BCE, Athens, Greece DIED: 347 BCE, Athens, Greece NATIONALITY: Greek GENRE: Nonfiction MAJOR WORKS: Republic (c. 360 BCE) Phaedrus (c. 370 BCE) Symposium (385 BCE) Euthyphro (399 BCE) Apology (c. 399 BCE)
Plato stands at the center of philosophical thought in the ancient world. He was the first person to approach philosophical issues systematically, but it was the genius with which he treated those issues that made his thought so influential. Virtually every philosopher in antiquity who lived after Plato offered a response to what he had written. Moreover, Plato’s influence was hardly limited to the ancient world. His thought was studied throughout the Middle Ages and the Renaissance and continues to be crucial to an understanding of philosophical issues. Although the accuracy of his doctrines has always been the subject of vigorous debate, no one can deny Plato’s pervasive influence on the history of Western philosophy.
Works in Biographical and Historical Context
Early Life Plato was born in Athens, the son of Ariston and Perictione, both of Athenian aristocratic ancestry. He lived at a time when ancient Greece was considered the most powerful empire in the known world; the Greek Empire consisted of many city-states, such as Athens and Sparta. Athens was one of the most important regions of ancient Greece, functioning as a center of both political power and cultural advancement. Plato lived his whole life in Athens but did
travel to Sicily and southern Italy on several occasions, and one story says he traveled to Egypt. Little is known of his early years, but he was given the finest education Athens had to offer its noble families.
The Influence of Socrates Plato’s acquaintance with Socrates altered the course of his life. The compelling power that Socrates’ methods and arguments had over the minds of the youth of Athens gripped Plato as firmly as it did so many others, and he became a close associate of Socrates.
The end of the Peloponnesian War (404 BCE), which resulted in Athens being taken over by Sparta and its allies, left Plato in a difficult position. His uncle Critias was the leader of the Thirty Tyrants, a group that had been appointed to power by the victorious Spartans. One way of manifesting their power was to indict as many Athenians as possible for treason. As documented in Plato’s Apology, Socrates was ordered to arrest a man and take him from Salamis to Athens for execution. When the great teacher refused, his life was in jeopardy, and he was probably saved only by the overthrow of the Thirty and the reestablishment of democracy. Plato had been repelled by the purpose and methods of the Thirty and welcomed the restoration of democracy to Athens.
Four years later, when Socrates was tried and sentenced to death, Plato was present at the trial, as evidenced by the Apology. Although Plato was not present when the hemlock (a fatal poison) was administered to his master, he describes the scene in vivid and touching detail in the Phaedo. Disgusted by what had transpired, Plato turned away from contemporary Athenian politics and never took an active part in government, although he did, through friends, try to influence the course of politics in the Sicilian city of Syracuse.
Journeys Plato and several of his friends left Athens after Socrates’ death and sojourned with Euclides in Megara. Highly productive during this time, Plato wrote Apology, Crito, and Gorgias. Socrates is the main
character in all of these dialogues, and various abstractions are discussed, including courage, piety, and friendship. The Apology and Crito stand apart from other works of Plato’s in that they deal with historical events: Socrates’ trial and the period between his conviction and execution.
During his first trip to southern Italy and Syracuse in 388–387 BCE, Plato made the acquaintance of Dion of Syracuse and his infamous brother-in-law, Dionysius I, ruler of Syracuse. Dionysius was at the height of his power and prestige in Sicily for having freed the Greeks there from the threat of Carthaginian rule. Plato became better friends with Dion, however, and Dionysius, it appears, was jealous of the relationship between Plato and Dion. On Plato’s return journey to Athens, Diony-sius’s crew deposited him on the island of Aegina, which at that time was engaged in a minor war with Athens. Plato would most likely have been sold as a prisoner of war had he not been ransomed by Anniceris of Cyrene, one of his many admirers.
Return to Athens After his return to Athens, Plato began to teach in the Gymnasium Academe and soon acquired property nearby. There he founded his famous Academy, which survived until philosophical schools were closed by the Christian emperor Justinian in the early sixth century CE. At the center of the Academy stood a shrine to the Muses, and at least one modern scholar suggests that the Academy may have been a type of religious brotherhood.
The Republic Socrates is again the main character in Plato’s Republic, although this work is less a dialogue than a long discussion by Socrates of justice and what it means to the individual and the city-state. The great utopian state is described only as an analogy for the soul in order for men to understand better how the soul might achieve the kind of balance and harmony necessary for the rational element to control it. Just as there are three elements to the soul—the rational, the less rational, and the impulsive irrational—so are there three classes in the state: the rulers, the guardians, and the workers. No matter what their class, all citizens receive an education appropriate to their abilities. The rulers are not a hereditary clan or wealthy upper class, but are those who have emerged from the population as a whole as the most intellectually gifted. The guardians serve society by keeping order and by handling the practical matters of government, including fighting wars, while the workers perform the labor necessary to keep the state running smoothly.
The wisdom, courage, and moderation cultivated by the rulers, guardians, and workers ideally produce justice in society. Only when the three work in harmony, with intelligence and wisdom clearly in control, does the individual or state achieve the happiness and fulfillment of which it is capable. The Republic ends with the great myth of Er, in which the wanderings of the soul through births and rebirths are recounted. According to Plato, one may be freed from the cycle after a time through lives of greater and greater spiritual and intellectual purity.
Death Plato’s second trip to Syracuse took place in 367 BCE after the death of Dionysius I, but Plato and Dion’s efforts to influence the development of Dionysius II along the lines laid down in the Republic did not succeed, and Plato returned to Athens. Plato’s third and final voyage to Syracuse was made some time before 357 BCE, and he was no more successful in his attempts to influence the young Dionysius than he had been earlier. Dion fared no better and was exiled by the young tyrant, while Plato was held in semi-captivity. Plato’s ‘‘Seventh Letter’’, the only one in the collection of thirteen letters considered authentic—perhaps even from the hand of Plato himself—recounts his role in the events surrounding the death of Dion, who returned to Syracuse and overthrew Dionysius in 357 BCE. The ‘‘Seventh Letter’’ is of even more interest because of Plato’s statement that the deepest truths may not be communicated.
Although the date is not exactly known, Apollodorus’s Chronology (late second century BCE) recorded Plato’s death as 347 BCE at the age of eighty-one. When Plato died, he was succeeded at the head of the Academy, not by Aristotle, who had been a student and then a teacher at the Academy for about twenty years, but by his nephew, Speusippus. As noted above, the Academy continued for centuries after Plato’s death.
Works in Literary Context
Plato was a student of philosophy, and his literary output reflects this role. His works fuse the arguments of Heraclitus, Socrates, and the Pythagoreans (those who followed the mathematician Pythagoras). Whatever other influences have been claimed, there can be little doubt that it was Socrates who had the most profound impact on Plato.
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