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The Ancient Greek Philosopher Plato: His Life and Works

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My writing interests are general, with expertise in science, history, biographies, and “how-to” topics. I have written over sixty books.

Plato

Plato

The man known as Plato, with a name that was really his nickname, was one of the three great ancient Greek philosophers—Socrates, Plato, and Aristotle—who together laid the foundation of Western philosophy and culture. Plato built upon the life and teachings of his mentor Socrates to develop a profound and detailed system of philosophy. His work was carried on by his brightest student, Aristotle, who expanded on Plato’s work into the natural philosophy of the physical world. Much of what we know of the life of Plato, which is sparse, comes from his own writings; unfortunately, Plato wrote very little about his own life in his dialogues. Another source of information comes from Aristotle, who spent 20 years studying at Plato’s Academy. In the third century CE, the historian Diogenes Laërtius completed a ten-volume book on the biographies of the ancient Greek philosophers, which included one book just on Plato. Though a detailed biography of Plato is not practical, he did leave us many volumes of his work that have been absorbed and pondered by generations of thinkers for over two thousand years.

Plato’s Early Years

Plato was born around 428/427 BCE in Athens to Ariston and Perictione, both of whom were from distinguished Greek families. When Plato was young, his father died, and his mother remarried. His new stepfather, Pyrilampes, was active politically during the period when Pericles was one of the leading Athenian statesmen. As a youth, Plato entertained the idea of getting into politics; however, his two opportunities didn’t pan out. Following nearly three decades of the Peloponnesian War, in 404 BCE the defeated Athenians came under control of the victorious Spartans. With the backing of Sparta, an interim dictatorship of wealthy Athenians came into power, known as the Thirty. The leader of the group was Critias, a relative of Plato, and his uncle Charmides was also a member. Through his family connections Plato could have found his entry into politics at this point; instead, he was outraged by the brutal tactics of the men and refused to join with them. The citizens of Athens revolted against the Thirty Tyrants, as they were called by the Athenians, and with the blessing of Sparta, a form of democratic government was restored to the city and the surrounding countryside. With the death of Socrates, Plato refused to join the democratic leaders since they had falsely accused his old mentor, Socrates, and had him executed. Socrates had been viewed by the new democratic government as a dangerous dissident and was dealt with harshly. Out of fear and disgust, Plato left the city in 399 BCE to visit his friend Euclides in Megara. There he began to write his dialogues in defense of Socrates.

Map of ancient Greece with “stars” on Plato’s locations.

Map of ancient Greece with “stars” on Plato’s locations.

Dionysius I of Syracuse

Around 388 BCE, Plato traveled to the city of Syracuse on the southern tip of Italy, where he visited the court of Dionysius I, the Greek tyrant of Syracuse. There Plato met the ruler’s brother-in-law Dion, who became a believer in the teachings of Plato. The ruler was known to have learned men in his court, but he was also known to treat them rather arbitrarily. Plato’s time with the despot did not go well as the visit ended with Plato facing the reality of being sold into slavery. Luckily for him, a friend came to his rescue and paid his ransom. While in what is now southern Italy, Plato visited the Pythagorean mathematician and statesman Archytas of Tarentum, who was interested in the theory of numbers, geometry, and music theory. Archytas was concerned with the foundations of the sciences and their interconnections. Plato’s introduction into mathematics apparently had a profound effect on him as he realized the importance mathematics plays in the understanding of many different fields.

The Academy

Plato founded a school for higher learning he called the Academy. This first school was founded around 387 BCE in a public garden northwest of the city of Athens. The garden belonged to a man named Akademos, who was a local hero of the Trojan War. In the fifth century BCE the house and the garden became property of Cimon, who not only improved the property with walks and fountains, but also opened it up to the public. Here is where Socrates was known to haunt, and Plato taught philosophy. Plato encouraged his students to study a wide variety of topics at the Academy, including mathematic, ethics, astronomy, government, and more. The school survived under various headmasters after Plato’s death until the Roman emperor Justinian abolished the school in 529 CE.

Dionysius II of Syracuse

After the death of Dionysius I in 367 BCE, Dion wanted to bring Plato to Syracuse to tutor his brother-in law’s successor and son, Dionysius II. Plato, at age 60, was reluctant to travel to Syracuse to educate the young ruler based on his past bad experience; however, he finally accepted the offer at the insistence of Dion and Archytas of Tarentum. The plan was to educate the young ruler in philosophy and science so he could rule his kingdom and check the aggression of the rival Carthaginians against Sicily. Plato hoped to make Dionysius II into the philosopher-king—a powerful politician with philosophical training—that could create a perfect society as described in Plato’s dialogue The Republic. Dionysius II liked the idea of being a philosopher-king, but he enjoyed drunken parties and sex even more. Dion and the couriers encouraged Dionysus to embrace the teaching of Plato and renounce tyranny, with little success.

Internal strife broke out in the royal court of Dionysius when he learned that Dion was secretly talking to the Carthaginians. If Dionysius did nothing, Dion along with his Carthaginian conspirators might force a coup and gain power; if he killed Dion it would surely have negative consequences for himself and his kingdom. He chose a third option, exile for Dion and confiscation of his property. Plato remained in Syracuse under the tyrant’s orders, but Plato kept urging him to forfeit his ill-gotten gains and seek a virtuous life. Dionysius grew irritated with Plato’s constant haranguing and had him removed from the palace to the barracks of the solders. In 360 BCE, Plato was able to leave Syracuse and return to Athens. During his remaining days, Plato continued to write and teach at the Academy, dying at about age 80 in 348/347 BCE.

The Works of Plato

Plato is somewhat of an anomaly among the ancient Greek philosophers as nearly all of his writings have survived. As a result, scholars over the centuries have had volumes of complete works to study and analyze. In this short article, I can only touch upon the most influential of his works. Plato was undoubtedly influenced by Socrates in his youth, as Socrates roamed the streets of ancient Athens with Plato as one of his followers. The followers of Socrates listened and observed as the philosopher engaged in discourse with the people of Athens. In his writings, Plato adopted a conversational style, or dialogue, as a method to express the concepts and ideas he was trying to convey to the reader. The main questioner in most of the dialogues is Socrates, who employs a dialectic method that involves questions and evoking answers from those he is in conversation with. In the 42 known works of Plato, 35 of which are believed to be authentic, Plato never presents himself as a participant in the dialogues, nor is there any suggestion he heard any of the dialogues firsthand from the mouth of Socrates.

Meno as an Example of a Socratic Dialogue

Plato’s Meno is an example of a work written as a Socratic dialogue. In Meno, the main character other than Socrates was Menon, who is visiting Athens. The young, handsome, and well born Menon was a student of a prominent sophist (teacher) and was well versed on the subject of virtue, or so he thought. In the dialogue of Meno, Socrates asks Menon whether virtue is teachable, but first the two men must come to an understanding of what is virtue. The book opens with:

MENON: Can you tell me, Socrates—can virtue be taught? Or if not, does it come by practice? Or does it come neither by practice nor by teaching, but do people get it by nature, or in some other way?

SOCRATES: My dear Menon…At least, if you do ask anyone here a question like that, all you will get is laughter and—“My good man, you must think I am inspired! Virtue? Can it be taught? Or how does it come? Do I know that? So far from knowing whether it can be taught or can’t be taught, I don’t know even the least little thing about virtue, I don’t even know what virtue is!”

MENON: Not I. But look here, Socrates, don’t you really know what virtue is? Are we to give that report of you in Larissa?

SOCRATES: Just so, my friend, and more—I never met anyone who did, so far as I know.

Later in the dialogue the speaker Anytos is introduced, a wealthy Athenian that participates in the discussion of virtue. Near the end of Meno, Socrates poses another question, called “The Value Problem of Knowledge,” which questions the higher value of knowledge over true belief.

The Theory of Forms

A doctrine that is central to Platonism is his theory of Forms, or theory of Ideas as it also called, which is presented in many of the dialogues. As an example, take the question, “What is justice?” To answer this question, one could simply make a list of individual actions that make a person just or find the common nature of all just acts, which makes us recognize an act of justice. This common nature giving them their identity is the Form or idea of justice, which can only be perceived in the mind by reason since it is not a tangible object. According to Plato, there are at least two separate worlds, the first being the physical world we perceive through our senses, which is constantly in a state of change; the second world is that of the Forms, which are understood though pure reason. Another example of the Form is taken from geometry, that of a triangle. We recognize a triangle because all triangles share the Form of triangularity; that is, three adjoining line segments and the angles between the segments adds to 180 degrees. It is the Form which constitutes the real identity of each thing. The Forms are unchanging and the same for each observer. Taking the example of the triangle, no matter who looks at triangle they still recognize it as a triangle. The Forms are a logically connected system, meaning each Form includes some other Forms and excludes others. The Form of “hot” excludes the Form of “cold.” Continuing this line of thought, the Form of “fire” necessarily includes that of “hot,” thus “fire” must exclude “cold” also. This relationship holds for specific things that share the Forms, such as that an individual flame cannot survive cold water. This formal system of interrelationship has implications in science and technology by allowing generalizations to be drawn from specific examples.

Six types of triangles are elements of the Form of Triangularity.

Six types of triangles are elements of the Form of Triangularity.

Plato’s The Republic

The Republic is Plato’s longest and best known work, written around 375 BCE. The dialogue is separated into ten books, but this division probably did not come about as a natural break in the text; rather, it a result of the length of the scrolls upon which the original Greek text was written. The work is in dialogue format with Socrates conversing with a variety of Athenians and foreigners on the meaning of justice and aspects of a more perfect society and its governance. The two central questions of the dialogue are: “What is justice?” and “Is the just person happier than the unjust?” Plato contends that justice occurs when the three components of the soul—reason, appetite, and spirit—each perform their appointed tasks. In the more general case of society, justice occurs when its members perform the role of their allotted tasks. Harmony occurs in the individual when the rational part of the soul is in command; in a society, harmony occurs when philosophers are the rulers, and they have a clear understanding of justice. In The Republic, Plato divides individuals into three types. The first being the philosopher, who is a seeker of wisdom; the second the carnal man, a seeker of pleasure leading to the gratification of the appetite or passion; and the third is a man of action who is motivated by sprit or will.

Plato’s Ideal State

In The Republic, Plato goes into detail of his vision of an ideal or just state. To build this society he proposes dividing the population into three classes that correspond to the three parts of man’s soul and accordingly the three lives. Thus, a tripartite class structure consists of the statesman or guardians who rule the state, corresponding to the rational soul; the producers, who are farmers, artisans, and laborers who provide for the material needs, which corresponds to the appetite or passion soul; and the auxiliaries, who form the protective element or the police and military, composed of those individuals with a “spirit” part of the soul. Division into three classes of citizens would not be made at birth; rather, the distinction would be made during the education process to determine the dominant part of the person’s soul. A state built upon those principles would be just because each of the groups executes its own function in harmony with the others.

Diagram of Plato’s Ideal Society

Diagram of Plato’s Ideal Society

The Family Structure in the Ideal Society

Plato argues through the character of Socrates that the traditional notion of the family should be done away with. Instead, men should have women and children in a shared manner; this would allow a man not to have love for a particular woman or child but to have love for all the women and children of the community. Even mothers would not take care of their own children primarily; rather, while a mother was able to produce breast milk, she could feed any of the other children who needed a mother’s milk. In book V of The Republic, Plato describes the process of communal rearing of children, “As children are born, officials appointed for the purpose—be they men or women or both, since our offices are open to both women and men—will take them. Yes. The children of good parents they will take to a rearing pen in the care of nurses living apart in a certain section of the city; the children of inferior parents, or any child of the others born defective, they will hide, as is fitting, in a secret and unknown place. Yes, he said, if the breed of the guardians is to remain pure.”

Education in the Ideal Society

In the Ideal State the guardians and the auxiliaries are given education first in music and literature and then in gymnastics. To keep the two groups strong, their education is censored so that any poetry must not attribute ignoble acts to the gods; only poetry that nourishes the virtue of the students is allowed. Music would be limited for the guardians, and modes of music with soft or feminine sounds would be banned. The flute would be forbidden since certain poetic meters, according to Socrates, are associated with vice. In addition to the study of literature and music, the two upper classes would be taught mathematics and astronomy. The educational process would take many years with the first 10 devoted to the arts and sciences and the last five years in study of the “dialectic.” At the end of their education, the guardians and the auxiliaries would be able to govern and protect the Ideal State. When their education is complete, they can have only one job, that which is suited to the nature of their soul. Plato would allow women to be educated like men in the guardian class. As a precaution against greed and tyranny, the two upper classes were to have their property in common, only allowing the ownership of a few personal items.

What Plato describes as his Ideal State is what we now call aristocratic communism and as history has shown, this model of society always ends poorly. Before one becomes too critical of Plato, you must remember it was his ideal of “a model laid up in heaven” society.

Dialectic

In book VI of The Republic, Plato refers to the “dialectic,” a method by which one can arrive at the ultimate truth of things through a process of pure rational argument, without the use of perception of the senses. In The Republic, Plato writes: “Understand also that by the other section of the intelligible I mean that which reason itself grasps by the power of dialectic. It does not consider its hypotheses as first principles, but as hypotheses in the true sense of stepping stones and starting points, in order to reach that which is beyond hypotheses, the first principle of all that exists. Having reached this and keeping hold of what follows from it, it does come down to a conclusion without making use of anything visible at all, but proceeding by means of Forms and through Forms to its conclusions which are Forms.” Plato compares the different kinds of knowing: knowledge can come from hearsay; it may be a technical knowledge, knowing only the how and not the why; it may be hypothetical knowledge, where a general law can explain many situations; but knowledge must be compared and tested against various theories, finally choosing only the best one.

The Influence of Platonism in History

It is hardly possible to overestimate the influence of Plato’s work on Western thought. Plato’s philosophical ideas continued to grow and develop long after his death through the work of his students at the Academy. Until the 13th century much of the medieval intellectual thought had its basis in the works of Plato. Theologians such as St. Augustine were inspired by the philosopher’s work, resulting in a Platonic thread woven into the fabric of Christian theology. The Renaissance saw a new enthusiasm for Plato as exemplified by the opening of a Platonic academy in Florence, Italy. After the 13th century, the works of Plato’s star student, Aristotle, were rediscovered and began to dominate philosophy. At the University of Cambridge during the 17th century, the Platonists played a significant role in the development of British philosophy. Platonism made its way to New England and inspired the Transcendentalist writers of Ralph Waldo Emerson and Henry David Thoreau. The philosopher’s work was not limited to Western culture; in Syriac, Arabic, and Armenian versions, Plato’s work played an important part in the history of philosophy.

References

Concise Dictionary of Scientific Biography. New York: Charles Scribner’s Sons, 1981.

Grube, G.M.A. (Translator). Plato’s Republic. Indianapolis: Hackett Publishing Company, 1974.

Morris, Ian and Barry B. Powell. The Greeks: History, Culture, and Society. Second Edition. Prentice Hall, 2010.

Taylor, A.E. Plato: The Man and His Work. Mineola: Dover Publications, Inc., 2001.

The Encyclopedia Americana, International Edition. New York: Americana Corporation, 1968.

The New Encyclopedia Britannica. Chicago: Encyclopedia Britannica, Inc., 1994.

Warner, Rex. The Greek Philosophers. New York: New American Library, 1986.

This content is accurate and true to the best of the author’s knowledge and is not meant to substitute for formal and individualized advice from a qualified professional.

Comments

Doug West (author) from Missouri on April 01, 2021:

Thanks for the comment. I can image Plato would find our times very strange. He lived in a world where slavery, prostitution, and pedophilia were common place. Our world isn't perfect, by any means, however, I prefer this time to his.

Mary Norton from Ontario, Canada on April 01, 2021:

I have studied Plato's philosophy in university but not really the other aspects of his life. This is very enlightening. I wonder how Socrates, Aristotle and Plato would look at our society today.

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