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published: 1/20/05
updated: 12/19/13

Plato (427-347 BCE)




"The safest general characterization of the European philosophical tradition is that it consists of a series of footnotes to Plato."
-- Alfred North Whitehead, Process and Reality, 1929

Plato was "one of the most dazzling writers in the Western literary tradition and one of the most penetrating, wide-ranging, and influential authors in the history of philosophy." {1} With Socrates and Aristotle, Plato laid the philosophical foundations of western culture. He is especially noted for his excellent Dialogues, his founding of the famed Academy in Athens, andhis doctrine of the Forms.

Life of Plato

Plato was born in Athens to a noble family in 427 BCE. Both of his parents, Ariston and Perictione, were from some of the most distinguished families in Athens. Plato's father probably died while the former was a young boy; Perictione took her uncle, a prominent supporter of Pericles, as her second husband. It was probably in his house that Plato was raised. Some of Perictione's relatives were friends of Socrates, thus Plato probably knew the great philosopher from boyhood.





Plato was likely intended for a political career, but he became increasingly disgusted with the failings of Athenian politics. By the age of 20, Plato had become a student of Socrates. After Socrates' execution in 399, Plato withdrew from Athens and public life. He and some fellow pupils took refuge for a time in Megara with Eucleides, founder of the Megarian school of philosophy.

Especially during the years 390-388, Plato traveled widely throughout Greece and beyond. He may have gone to Egypt and Cyrene; it is much more likely he traveled to south Italy and Sicily. If the Seventh Letter is genuinely his, Plato said that he traveled to Italy at the age of 40 and was disgusted by the sensuality of life there.

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Returning to Athens around 387 (the date is not known for certain), Plato founded the famous Academy. Its name derives from the location of his school on the outskirts of the city near the grove sacred to Academus. It was devoted to the systematic exploration of philosophical and scientific inquiry, and Plato presided over it for the rest of his life. The Academy endured for centuries until it was closed by the Emperor Justinian in 529 CE.

In 367, at the age of 60, Plato was asked to instruct the youthful Dionysus II, ruler of Syracuse, about the "philosopher-king" Plato had described in the Republic. Plato found a kindred spirit in Dion, the leader at Dionysus' court who had invited him, but had little success with the king. Dionysus was threatened by the stronger Dion, and in 366, both Dion and Plato were forced out of Syracuse. In 361, Plato journeyed to Sicily in a somewhat risky attempt to reconcile Dionysus and Dion, again to no avail. Dion captured Syracuse by a coup de main in 357, but he was murdered in 354.

Apart from this venture, Plato seems to have spent the last 40 years of his life at the Academy. He died in 347 BCE.

Plato's Works: The Dialogues

Except for a small collection of letters, Plato's surviving writings are entirely in the form of dialogues. Some, like the Timaeus and Laws, are in the form of a lengthy speech by a single character, but such speeches still occur in a conversational setting. Why did Plato choose this form of writing? Richard Kraut of Northwestern University suggests the following considerations as possibilities:

  • The use of character and conversation allowed Plato to awaken the interest of his readers and therefore to reach a wider audience;
  • The dialogue form allows Plato's evident interest in pedagogical questions (how is it possible to learn? what is the best way to learn? from what sort of person can we learn? what sort of person is in a position to learn?) to be pursued not only in the content of his compositions but also in their form; and
  • Plato evidently enjoys creating a sense of puzzlement among his readers, and the dialogue form is uniquely suited to this goal. {1}

Chronology of Plato's dialogues continues to keep scholars busy. There is no contemporary record of their dates or arrangement, so internal evidence (development of ideas, general historical setting) must be relied upon. Plato's dialogues, in their approximate order of composition, are these:

  1. The Socratic Dialogues. This group of dialogues deals with the common theme of virtue and whether or not it can be taught. It includes the Gorgias, Meno, Euthyphro, Apology and Crito. The last three are centered on the trial and execution of Socrates. The Euthyphro deals with correct behavior towards the gods, the Apology is about Socrates' activity as a teacher, and the Crito focuses on the duty of loyalty to the state.
  2. Phaedo, which deals with the immortality of the soul.
  3. Symposium, which discusses eros, true beauty and the life of contemplation.
  4. Protagoras, on the nature of the good, the nature of virtue, and the association of knowledge with goodness.
  5. Republic, perhaps Plato's greatest work, which is on the nature of right conduct and the ideal political state. It includes Plato's description of the ideal city-state as led by the philosopher-king and the famous allegory of the cave, in which humans see only the shadows of real things (the Forms) and mistake the shadows for the things themselves.
  6. Phaedrus, about persuasion and eros and how they related to perception of the Forms.
  7. Theatetus, on the nature of knowledge.
  8. Parmenides, on the relationship between opposites such as likeness and unlikeness, the one and the many, expounded by the Eleatic philosophers.
  9. Sophistes and Politicus (Statesman), the former on metaphysics and the latter on politics.
  10. Philebus, on pleasure and the good life. The conclusion is that the goodness of something lies in the unity of beauty, symmetry and truth.
  11. Timaeus, a monologue on cosmology and science.
  12. Laws, a speech of the "Athenian Stranger" on politics. This is the longest of the dialogues.



References

  1. Kraut, Richard, "Plato." Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy, Summer 2004 ed. <http://plato.stanford.edu/entries/plato/>.
  2. "Plato." Encyclopædia Britannica Premium Service. 24 Jan. 2005 <http://www.britannica.com/eb/article?tocId=9108556>.
  3. "Plato." The Oxford Dictionary of the Christian Church, 3rd. ed. (Oxford UP, 1997), pp. 1299-1300.

Related Articles

  • Aristotle - Plato's student and an important Greek philosopher in his own right
  • Plotinus - founder of Neoplatonism
  • St. Augustine - Christian theologian strongly influenced by Neoplatonism

Online Resources on Plato

Books on Plato

Plato's Works

Guides to Plato

  • Bobonich, Christopher. Plato's Utopia Recast: His Later Ethics and Politics. Oxford UP, 2002.
  • Brandwood, Leonard. The Chronology of Plato's Dialogues. Cambridge UP, 1990.
  • Crombie, I.M. An Examination of Plato's Doctrines, 2 vol. (1962–63; reissued 1979)
  • Field, G.C. The Philosophy of Plato. 1949; 2nd ed., 1969.
  • Field, G.C. Plato and His Contemporaries: A Study in Fourth-Century Life and Thought (1930, reprinted 1975).
  • Fine, Gail, ed. Plato 1: Metaphysics and Epistemology. Oxford UP. 1999.
  • Fine, Gail, ed. Plato 2: Ethics, Politics, Religion, and the Soul. Oxford UP. 1999.
  • Grube, G.M.A. Plato's Thought (1935, reprinted 1980)
  • Guthrie, W.K.C.. A History of Greek Philosophy. Vols. 4 and 5. Cambridge UP, 1975, 1978.
  • Irwin, Terence. Plato's Ethics. Oxford UP, 1995.
  • Kraut, Richard, ed. The Cambridge Companion to Plato. Cambridge UP, 1992.
  • McCabe, Mary Margaret. Plato's Individuals. Princeton UP, 1994.
  • Nails, Debra. The People of Plato: A Prosopography of Plato and Other Socratics. Hackett, 2002. (An encyclopedia of information about the characters in all of the dialogues.)
  • Riginos, Alice Swift. Platonica: The Anecdotes Concerning the Life and Writings of Plato (1976)
  • Rowe, Christopher & Malcolm Schofield, eds. Greek and Roman Political Thought. Cambridge UP, 2000. (Contains 7 introductory essays by 7 hands on Socratic and Platonic political thought.)
  • Silverman, Allan. The Dialectic of Essence: A Study of Plato's Metaphysics. Princeton UP, 2002.
  • Vlastos, Gregory. Studies in Greek Philosophy, Vol. 2: Socrates, Plato, and Their Tradition. Ed. by Daniel W. Graham. Princeton UP, 1995.
  • White, Nicholas P. Plato on Knowledge and Reality. Hackett, 1976.

Plato and Religion

  • Allen, R.E.(ed.), Studies in Plato's Metaphysics (1965, reprinted 1968)
  • V. Goldschmidt. La Religion de Platon. 1949.
  • Solmsen, Friedrich. Plato's Theology. New York, 1942.
  • H.J. Kramer. Ursprung der Geistmetaphysik: Untersuchungen zur Geschichte des Platonismus zwischen Platon und Plotin. Amsterdam, 1964.
  • O. Reverdin. La Religion de la cite platonicienne. 1945.
  • Ross, W.D. Plato's Theory of Ideas (1951, reissued 1976).