The Greek philosopher Plato (428-347 B.C.) founded the Academy, one of the great philosophical schools of antiquity. His thought had enormous impact on the development of Western philosophy.
Plato was born in Athens, the son of Ariston and Perictione, both of Athenian aristocratic ancestry. He lived his whole life in Athens although he traveled 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 the scions of its noble families, and he devoted his considerable talents to politics and the writing of tragedy and other forms of poetry. His acquaintance with Socrates altered the course of his life. The compelling power which Socrates's 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 B.C.) left Plato in an irreconcilable position. His uncle, Critias, was the leader of the Thirty Tyrants who were installed in power by the victorious Spartans. One means of perpetuating themselves in power was to implicate as many Athenians as possible in their atrocious acts. Thus Socrates, as we learn in Plato's Apology, was ordered to arrest a man and bring him to Athens from Salamis 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 the democracy.
Plato was repelled by the aims and methods of the Thirty and welcomed the restoration of the democracy, but his mistrust of the whimsical demos was deepened some 4 years later when Socrates was tried on trumped up charges and sentenced to death. Plato was present at the trial, as we learn in the Apology, but was not present when the hemlock was administered to his master, although he describes the scene in vivid and touching detail in the Phaedo. He then turned in disgust from contemporary Athenian politics and never took an active part in government, although through friends he did try to influence the course of political life in the Sicilian city of Syracuse.
Plato and several of his friends withdrew from Athens for a short time after Socrates's death and remained with Euclides in Megara. His productive years were punctuated by three voyages to Sicily, and his literary output, all of which has survived, may conveniently be discussed within the framework of those voyages.
The first trip, to southern Italy and Syracuse, took place in 388-387 B.C., when Plato made the acquaintance of Archytas of Tarentum, the Pythagorean, and Dion of Syracuse and his infamous brother-in-law, Dionysius I, ruler of that city. Dionysius was then at the height of his power and prestige in Sicily for having freed the Greeks there from the threat of Carthaginian overlordship. Plato became better friends with Dion, however, and Dionysius's rather callous treatment of his Athenian guest may be ascribed to the jealously which that close friendship aroused. On Plato's return journey to Athens, Dionysius's crew deposited him on the island of Aegina, which at that time was engaged in a minor war with Athens, and Plato might have been sold as a prisoner of war had he not been ransomed by Anniceris of Cyrene, one of his many admirers.
On his return to Athens, Plato began to teach in the Gymnasium Academe and soon afterward acquired property nearby and founded his famous Academy, which survived until the philosophical schools were closed by the Christian emperor Justinian in the early 6th century A.D. 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. Plato had begun to write the dialogues, which came to be the hallmark of his philosophical exposition, some years before the founding of the Academy. To this early period, before the first trip to Sicily, belong the Laches, Charmides, Euthyphro, Lysis, Protagoras, Hippias Minor, Ion, Hippias Major, Apology, Crito, and Gorgias. Socrates is the main character in these dialogues, and various abstractions are discussed and defined. The Laches deals with courage, Charmides with sophrosyne (common sense), Euthyphro with piety, Lysis with friendship, Protagoras with the teaching of arete (virtue), and so on. The Apology and Crito stand somewhat apart from the other works of this group in that they deal with historical events, Socrates's trial and the period between his conviction and execution. The unifying element in all of these works is the figure of Socrates and his rather negative function in revealing the fallacies in the conventional treatment of the topics discussed.
Plato's own great contributions begin to appear in the second group of writings, which date from the period between his first and second voyages to Sicily. To this second group belong the Meno, Cratylus, Euthydemus, Menexenus, Symposium, Phaedo, Republic, Phaedrus, Parmenides, and Theaetetus. Development of ideas in the earlier dialogues is discernible in these works. The Meno carries on the question of the teachability of virtue first dealt with in Protagoras and introduces the doctrine of anamnesis (recollection), which plays an important role in Plato's view of the human's ability to learn the truth. Since the soul is immortal and has at an earlier stage contemplated the Forms, or Ideas, which are the eternal and changeless truths of the universe, humans do not learn, but remember.
The impetus for learning or remembering the truth is revealed in the Symposium, where the ascent from corporeal reality to eternal and incorporeal truth is described. The scene is a dinner party at the house of the tragic poet Agathon, and each guest contributes a short speech on the god Eros. Socrates, however, cuts through the Sophistic arguments of his friends and praises Eros not as a separate and independent god but as an intermediary between gods and men. It is Eros who causes men to seek beauty, although for a time the unenlightened lover may think that what he is really seeking is the corporeal body of his beloved. Ultimately, however, one progresses from love of the body to love of the beauty which the body represents, and so forth, until one realizes that the ultimate goal sought is contemplation of beauty itself and of the Forms. The Forms are the true reality and impart their essence in some way to ephemeral, corporeal objects, and man may come to know this true reality through rigorous discipline of mind and body, and Plato went so far as to draw up a rough outline for a utopian state in his Republic.
Socrates is again the main character in the 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 analogue to the soul in order 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 there are three classes in the state, the rulers, the guardians, and the workers. The rulers are not a hereditary clan or self-perpetuating upper class but are made up of those who have emerged from the population as a whole as the most gifted intellectually. 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 whole running smoothly. Thus the most rational elements of the city-state guide it and see that all in it are given an education commensurate with their abilities.
The wisdom, courage, and moderation cultivated by the rulers, guardians, and workers ideally produce the justice in society which those virtues produce in the individual soul when they are cultivated by the three elements of that soul. Only when the three work in harmony, with intelligence 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. One may be freed from the cycle after a time through lives of greater and greater spiritual and intellectual purity.
Plato's second trip to Syracuse took place in 367 B.C. after the death of Dionysius I, but his and Dion's efforts to influence the development of Dionysius II along the lines laid down in the Republic for the philosopher-king did not succeed, and he returned to Athens.
Plato's final group of works, written after 367, consists of the Sophist, the Statesman, Philebus, Timaeus, Critias, and the Laws. The Sophist, takes up the metaphysical question of being and not-being, while the Statesman concludes that the best type of city-state would be the one in which the expert is given absolute authority with no hindrance to his rule from laws or constitution. The Timaeus discusses the rationality inherent in the universe which confirms Plato's scheme, while the Laws, Plato's last work, once again takes up the question of the best framework in which society might function for the betterment of its citizens. Here great stress is laid on an almost mystical approach to the great truth of the rational universe.
Plato's third and final voyage to Syracuse was made some time before 357 B.C., 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, and Plato was held in semicaptivity before being released. Plato's Seventh Letter, the only one in the collection of 13 considered accurate, perhaps even from the hand of Plato himself, recounts his role in the events surrounding the death of Dion, who in 357 B.C. entered Syracuse and overthrew Dionysius. It is of more interest, however, for Plato's statement that the deepest truths may not be communicated.
Plato died in 347 B.C., the founder of an important philosophical school, which existed for almost 1, 000 years, and the most brilliant of Socrates's many pupils and followers. His system attracted many followers in the centuries after his death and resurfaced as Neoplatonism, the great rival of early Christianity.
Further Reading on Plato
A readable translation of the Platonic corpus may be found in the edition by Benjamin Jowett, The Dialogues of Plato (1953), which contains analyses. Special treatments may be found in J. Burnett, Greek Philosophy (1914); A.E. Taylor, Plato: The Man and His Work (1927); and Paul Shorey, What Plato Said (1933).