PLATO (429–347 B.C.E.)
Greek philosopher and mathematician, one of the most influential thinkers of Western philosophy.
- Wrote over 30 philosophical dialogues and letters, including Timaeus, The Laws, and his famous Republic.
- Established theories about reality and human knowledge that formed one of the cornerstones of Western philosophical thought.
- Creator of the “allegory of the cave,” a famous philosophical argument in favor of education that is still taught today.
- Founder of the first Academy in Athens, from which the terms “academy” and “academic” have been passed down.
Given that Plato lived in ancient Greece, it’s not surprising that there’s still much we don’t know about his life outside of his writing. According to letters he supposedly wrote, Plato was born under the name Aristocles during the Peloponnesian War sometime around 429 B.C to an aristocratic family. After his father died, and his mother remarried, young Aristocles received the nickname “Platon,” meaning broad, due to his wide shoulders and burly build.
The young Plato received a nobleman’s education and devoted his time and energy to political study and poetry. In time he became acquainted with the great philosopher Socrates, whose teachings would profoundly influence Plato’s life and career. Enamored with Socrates’ teachings, Plato became the man’s devoted student, and when Socrates was put on trial for “corruption of youth,” it was Plato who transcribed Socrates’ defense speech (Apology). Even after Socrates’ execution in 399 B.C, the questions he raised about virtue continued to expand through Plato.
The end of the Peloponnesian War saw a devastated Athens reformed under the Thirty Tyrants, of which Plato’s uncles were prominent figures. Plato himself briefly joined the Tyrants before democracy was restored again. Although Plato was glad for the regime change, certain events including Socrates’ execution left him deeply disillusioned with Athenian politics. Plato fled Athens and embarked on a journey across the ancient world, visiting Egypt, southern Italy, and Sicily. It was during this journey that he began to produce his most prolific writings.
THE THREE PERIODS
Plato’s bibliography has been divided into three major periods. The first of these took place during his flight from Athens, and the works from this period are known as the Socratic Dialogues. Socrates features as the central character of each dialogue, expositing the same views that he and Plato had shared when he was alive. These dialogues are believed to be the sole remaining records of Socrates’ teachings.
The Socratic Dialogues period came to an end in 387 B.C. when Plato finally returned to Athens after eleven years abroad. On an area of land that had previously belonged to an Athenian named Academos, Plato founded his Academy: a school dedicated to enlightening and training future statesmen in the hopes that they would live up to the standards that Plato and Socrates before him had believed in. The Academy was the first school of its kind and lasted for over a thousand years, laying the bedrock for modern Western academia.
The founding of the Academy marks the beginning of Plato’s second period, where he began to break away from solely recording Socrates’ teachings in order to develop his own views. Although Socrates remained the speaker in many of Plato’s dialogues, the content of the works began to reflect Plato’s growing beliefs about politics, justice, and morality. His most famous work, Republic, was written during this period. The goal of Republic was to define the meaning of the word “justice,” and to examine the individual man’s relationship to greater society. Plato’s idea of the “perfect society” had a significant impact on the development of Western political theory.
Plato was never quite able to rid himself of his political streak: he made several trips to Syracuse to act as the tutor of the city’s young ruler, Dionysus II. Plato dreamed of educating Dionysus to be a kind and just ruler, but this was not to be. He developed a friendship with the ruler’s uncle, Dion, of whom Dionysus was jealous. As a result, Dion was expelled from the city while Plato was imprisoned and held in Syracuse against his will before finally being allowed to leave. His later attempts to reconcile Dion and Dionysus also ended in failure.
Plato remained in Athens for the rest of his life before eventually dying; the exact circumstances of his death are still up for dispute. He was buried at the Academy he had founded—however, his grave has yet to be discovered by modern archeological digs.