Plato (c. 428-427 BC ?€? 348-347 BC) is widely considered as one of the greatest thinkers of all times and is along his mentor Socrates and his student Aristotle regarded as one of the founders of Western science and philosophy. His thought is preserved in 26 dialogues which profoundly influenced the Western view of the world. Plato is also renowned as the founder of the Academy in Athens, the first higher education institution in the Western world.
Diogenes Laertius, a biographer of ancient Greek philosophers reports that Plato’s real name was Aristocles, just like his grandfather’s. According to Laertius, the ancient Greek philosopher came to be known as Plato after his wrestling coach dubbed him Platon, allegedly for his robust figure as the Greek word “platon” translates into “broad”. According to later sources, Plato’s name is related to the broadness of his eloquence or the width across his forehead. Modern scholars, however, believe that the story about Plato’s name is a legend, arguing that Plato was a very common name in his time.
Plato’s exact date and place of birth remain uncertain but he is thought to be born in Athens or the island of Aegina (17 miles south from Athens) sometime between 429 and 423. The celebrated ancient Greek philosopher was born into an influential aristocratic family. His father Ariston was according to the legend a descendant of Cordus, a semi-mythical king of Athens who ruled in the 11th century BC, while his mother was Perictione whose family was related to the renowned Athenian statesman, lawmaker and poet Solon. Plato’s mother was also Charmides’s sister and Critias’s niece. Both were notable figures during the so-called Thirty Tyrants, a pro-Spartan oligarchic regime that rose to power after the Athenian defeat in the Peloponnesian War in 404 BC.
Plato grew up two brothers, Adeimantus and Glaucon, sister Potone and half-brother Antiphon. After the death of Plato’s father, his mother married her uncle Pyrilampes whom she bore her fifth child. Plato’s father is thought to have died while Plato was a child but the date of his death remains unknown.
As a member of aristocracy, Plato was educated by the best teachers in Athens. He was initially a follower of Cratylus who introduced him to Heraclitean philosophy but he later became Socrates’s pupil and declared himself as his devoted follower in the dialogue ‘Apology of Socrates’.
Relationship between Plato and Socrates isn’t fully understood but in the ‘Apology’, Socrates mentions Plato as one of the youths he was accused to have corrupted, asking why their fathers and brothers didn’t testify against him if the accusations were true. Later, Plato is also mentioned as one of Socrates’s students who offered to pay a fine in behalf of their tutor to save him from death penalty.
After Socrates’s execution in 399 BC, Plato left Athens. He is thought to travel around Greece, Italy, Sicily, the ancient Greek colony of Cyrene (in present-day Libya) and Egypt. He returned to Athens in 387 BC at the age of 40 and founded the Academy, the first known higher education institution in the Western world. Plato’s Academy operated until 84 BC when it was destroyed by Roman general and later dictator Lucius Cornelius Sulla. In the early 5th century AD, the Academy was reopened by the Neoplatonists but it was permanently closed by Byzantine Emperor Justinian I in 529. He saw it as a threat to Christianity despite the fact that the latter borrowed much from its founder’s philosophy.
During his later life, Plato became involved in politics of the city of Syracuse in Sicily which was at the time a Greek colony. Diogenes Laertius reports that Plato first visited the city during the reign of the tyrant Dionysius the Elder (c. 432-367 BC) and impressed the tyrant’s brother-in-law Dion who became his follower. The tyrant, however, eventually turned against the philosopher and sold him into slavery. He nearly died in Cyrene before he was bought freedom and sent home by an admirer. However, Plato was asked to return to Syracuse after Dionysius’s death by Dion to become tutor to his nephew and the new king Dionysius II. The latter is thought to accept his teachings but the king distrusted Dion whom he had expelled from Syracuse. Plato was kept against his will by Dionysius II but he was eventually allowed to leave.
Circumstances surrounding Plato’s death remain uncertain. There are several accounts of his death, however, almost every account offers a different explanation. According to one account, he died in his bed while a young girl played on a flute, according to the second, he died on a celebration of a wedding and according to the third, he simply died in sleep.
Works and Influence
Although both life and works of Plato are surrounded by a number of legends and myths and despite the fact that many accounts are dubious, the influence of his thought on science and religion is perhaps greater than of any other individual. Directly or indirectly (mainly through Aristotle), Plato’s view of the world dominated until the scientific revolution in the 17th century, while his arguments to prove that God exists and that human soul is immortal found their way into Christian theology.
Plato’s works encompass 26 dialogues which are traditionally divided into early, middle and late period. Some of the most notable works of early period include:
Apology of Socrates
Of middle period dialogues, the most prominent are:
Most important late period dialogues include:
Plato is also attributed 13 letters of which is best known the so-called Seventh Letter. However, authenticity of many is disputed which is also the case with some dialogues that are traditionally associated with Plato.