Among those who were influenced by the life and teachings of Socrates, no one has done more to perpetuate his memory than Plato, who has long been recognized as one of the greatest philosophers of ancient Greece and one of the most profound thinkers of all time. Plato was too young to have been one of Socrates' most intimate friends. It was not until the last seven or eight years of Socrates' life that Plato came under his influence, but those years made a lasting impression on his life and determined to a large extent the future course of his life. In his later years, Plato is reported to have said, "I thank God that I was born Greek and not barbarian, free and not slave, male and not female, but above all that I was born in the age of Socrates."
Owing to the fact that he was ill at the time, Plato was not present when a group of Socrates' friends came to the prison for their last visit with him. However, he had been so deeply impressed by the moral quality of Socrates' teachings and his devotion to the cause of truth and justice that he determined to perpetuate his memory by writing a series of biographical dialogs in which his true character would be brought to light. Even after Plato's own thought had matured, he continued to make Socrates the protagonist of his dialogs. The result has been such a blending of views that in several instances it is difficult, if not impossible, to tell where the actual historical Socrates leaves off and Plato's own thought begins.
Plato was born in the city of Athens in the year 427 B.C. He died in the year 347 B.C. He came from an aristocratic family that for a long time had been identified with leadership in Athens. His father, Ariston, was a descendant of King Codrus, and his mother, whose name was Perictione, claimed to have been descended from the famous lawgiver Solon. As a boy, he was named Aristocles, but because of his broad shoulders and forehead he was called Plato, and it is by this name that he has become known to posterity. During his youth, he gained distinction as an athlete and was also recognized for his extraordinary mental abilities. In addition to his achievements along these lines, his social standing and connections would have made him an outstanding individual in any career he might have entered.
He lived during a critical period of Greek history. His youth saw the decline and fall of Athenian power but not of Athenian genius. His early education began under the supervision of private tutors who were well known for their professional skills. Under their guidance, he received instruction in the elementary disciplines, such as gymnastics, music, reading, writing, and the study of numbers. After reaching the age of eighteen or thereabouts, he spent two years in military training, which placed considerable emphasis on physical exercises and the proper care of the body. This training was followed by a more advanced period of study in which he gained familiarity with several of the more prominent schools of Greek philosophy, which gave to him an opportunity to become acquainted with many of the Sophists, who were the recognized professional teachers of that time. Finally, Plato spent about seven or eight years as a pupil of Socrates. This experience influenced him, not only to devote the rest of his life to philosophy, but to carry on his career in the spirit and under the guidance of his beloved teacher.
Because Socrates had been put to death under the auspices of the Athenian government, Plato believed that it would not be safe for him to remain in the city and thus expose himself to the same kind of treatment. It was well known that Plato had been one of Socrates' followers and that he was most sympathetic toward the ideas that his teacher had proclaimed. So long as these ideas were regarded as harmful to the state, anyone who subscribed to them would be in danger. For this reason, Plato left the city of Athens for a time and journeyed to a number of different places, where he hoped to become better acquainted with the leaders of a number of philosophical movements. At first he went to Megara, where he carried on conversations with Euclid, the famous mathematician. Later, he made extensive journeys to Egypt, Cyrene, Crete, and southern Italy. These excursions gave him an opportunity to become better acquainted with the leaders of each of the schools founded, respectively, by Pythagoras, Heraclitus, and the Eleatic philosophers.
When Plato was approximately forty years of age, he undertook an experiment in government. From his early youth he had been interested in political affairs. From his associations with Socrates and from his own observations, he had arrived at certain convictions concerning the proper qualifications for those whose duty it was to govern the state. He believed that only those persons who possessed intellectual as well as moral qualities should be entrusted with the power to rule over others. Eventually, the opportunity came to him to put his philosophy into practice. At Syracuse, on the coast of the island of Sicily, a friend and pupil by the name of Dion urged him to undertake the education of Dionysius, the tyrant of Syracuse. Dionysius appeared to be willing to take instruction from Plato, which would make it possible for Plato's theory of government to be tried out under actual conditions. The experiment was not a success, for Dionysius was not an apt pupil, and when Plato rebuked him for his stupidity, the tyrant retaliated by having Plato put in chains and sentenced to death. Dion used his influence to get the sentence changed. The result was that Plato's life was spared but at the price of being made a slave. Soon afterward Anniceris, a member of the Cyrenaic school of philosophy, came to Syracuse and purchased Plato's freedom, thus allowing him to return to Athens.
After returning to Athens, Plato established his school, an institution that came to be known as the Academy. It continued for a period of more than eight centuries as a center for the study and evaluation of Platonic philosophy. With the establishment of the Academy, Plato devoted most of his time to teaching and the writing of dialogs. Fortunately, these dialogs have been preserved, and they constitute the chief source of the information we have concerning the various aspects of his philosophy.
According to the accounts given of Plato's life, on two more occasions his career as a teacher and writer was interrupted by further attempts to reconstruct the government of Syracuse. After the death of Dionysius, he was urged again by Dion to undertake the education of the younger Dionysius, who now ruled in the place formerly held by his father. Again the experiment failed to achieve the desired results. Reluctantly, Plato decided to give it up, and he returned to Athens convinced that the education of people in powerful positions cannot be accomplished without their cooperation. We are told that he later made a third and final attempt to apply his political philosophy at Syracuse but with results similar to the ones he had experienced before. This time he was saved from the wrath of Dionysius by the good offices of his friend Archytas of Tarentum. Returning to Athens, he devoted the rest of his life to teaching and writing. He died in 347 B.C. According to one account, his death occurred peacefully while he was attending a wedding feast at the home of a friend.
Plato used the dialog form of writing as the most effective means of presenting his philosophical views. There were several reasons for doing this. In the first place, it was not his intention to answer specific questions or to propose final and dogmatic solutions to any of the problems that were being discussed. He preferred instead to do something that would stimulate original thinking on the part of the reader. Second, this manner of presentation enabled him to present contrasting points of view as they would be likely to occur in a series of conversations taking place among individuals having different points of view. This would help to prepare the way for any reader of the dialogs to arrive at his own conclusion, after giving some consideration to each of the views that had been presented. Finally, by using the conversational method, it would be possible to illustrate the way in which current issues of the day were related to one another, which is one of the reasons why no one of Plato's dialogs is devoted exclusively to the discussion of a single topic. He wanted to make it clear that in order to understand any particular subject, you must see how it is related to other subjects and to the field of knowledge as a whole.
As a general rule, Plato did not mention his own name as the author of a particular point of view. However, in many of the dialogs, we are fairly safe in assuming that what Plato himself believed about the topic under discussion is contained in the speeches attributed to Socrates. Several of the other characters used in the dialogs were well-known Sophists. The statements attributed to them constitute one of the main sources for our information about the Sophistic movement in ancient Greece.
Plato wrote more than thirty dialogs, all of which have been preserved, either in their original form or as they have been edited and translated by competent scholars who have specialized in the area of Greek philosophy. There is no way of knowing the exact order in which the dialogs were written, nor is there any complete agreement on this point among historians of philosophy. It is, however, generally assumed that the earlier ones have to do primarily with the field of ethics. In these dialogs, Socrates is presented as an inquirer concerning the precise meaning of specific virtues. The Sophists with whom he is holding conversation profess to have a complete understanding of the virtues in question, and they do not hesitate to make statements concerning their meanings and contents. Socrates claims that he is ignorant of these matters, but he begins to question the Sophists about the statements they have made. The purpose of this questioning is to bring to light some of the implications involved in what they have said and thus to show the inadequacies of their professed wisdom. This is usually done by revealing the self-contradictory character of their statements or in what respects they are not in harmony with known facts. Without presenting any final answer to the questions that have been raised, Socrates advises his listeners to continue the search for a better understanding of the virtues and their relation to the good life.
Plato's philosophy as a whole covers a wide range of subjects, which are treated at considerable length in various parts of different dialogs. No one of the dialogs is devoted exclusively to the treatment of a single topic, for the questions that arise in connection with any one of them are necessarily related to different areas of experience, and Plato wanted the discussions in the dialogs to correspond as nearly as possible to the situations that occur in human life. Nevertheless, it is possible in certain instances to indicate the theme that is the predominant one in a particular dialog. For example, Plato's theory of knowledge is the chief subject matter found in the Meno and again in the Theaetetus. His theory of Ideas, which is implicit in all of the dialogs, is subjected to a critical examination in the Parmenides. His cosmology, along with a theory of creation, is given special treatment in the Timaeus. His philosophy concerning the place of pleasure in the good life is set forth in the Philebus. The best known and the most widely used of Plato's dialogs is The Republic. Its chief purpose was to set forth the author's theory of government, but in relation to this topic there are discussions of nearly all of the more important aspects of his philosophical position. The Republic has often been considered to be the greatest of the dialogs although there are many commentators who would not agree. It represents what Plato regarded as the ideal toward which actual states should strive. In a later and considerably longer dialog called The Laws, he proposed a less idealistic but more practical alternative for the organization of state governments.