Plato Biography


Plato's World

Plato is often referred to as a Greek, and indeed his native language was Greek, and he was born in the part of Europe that is today the country of Greece. In Plato's time, however, there was no such country. Instead, on the peninsula and islands of today's Greece, there were a number of city-states (walled cities and the outlying rural areas and villages that each could defend) that were governed independently of each other, although groups of them were formed into alliances, variously strong or weak, and were governed in vastly different ways, according to the history of each. In Plato's day, the greatest of the city-states (if greatness may be defined by level of learning, art and architecture, music, and general quality of life) was Athens. Plato was an Athenian.

If Athens represented a degree of humanistic civilization that had not been seen before in European and Mediterranean culture — and strong arguments can be made that it did — still it was in many ways different from what we today are likely to think of as an enlightened culture. During its relatively brief period of democracy, Athens was governed by its citizens. However, women were not citizens of Athens, nor were slaves. Boys were educated (even some slaves were educated); girls, of course, were not. Most Athenian citizens were literate, but books (handwritten scrolls) were few. Medical knowledge and sanitation were advanced — compared to conditions, for example, in the Europe of the middle ages — but the life span of most people was relatively short. Travel was possible, but was very slow; navigational instruments were relatively primitive, so that ships were forced to sail close to islands and coastlines, and travelers on land (most of whom went by foot) were in constant danger of attack by robbers, for the mountainous country between walled cities was wild and lawless.

Plato's Early Life

Plato was born in 428 or 427 b.c. Both his mother and father were members of wealthy and politically powerful families in Athens, which was at the time of Plato's birth embroiled in a political upheaval involving the city-states of Athens and Sparta and their allies. This political unrest had recently manifested itself (431 b.c.) in the outbreak of armed hostilities and the commencement of a disastrous civil war, the Peloponnesian War (431-404 b.c.). This war shattered the Athenian Empire, practically destroyed the governments of all the Greek city-states, and resulted in anarchy (a kind of mob-rule) in 404-403 b.c.

Thus Plato grew to young adulthood surrounded by the strife of civil war, and he witnessed several revolutions in Athens: He saw a government of democrats (the rule of the many) replaced by an oligarchy (the rule of the chosen few), which was then again replaced by the democrats. Plato tells us in a letter he wrote when he was 60 that, in his youth, he had hoped to become actively involved in politics, chiefly because he thought it was his social responsibility, but also because many of Plato's friends and relatives had invited him to help them to govern the Athenians and to share in the exercise of political power. But the young Plato decided to defer his political allegiance until he could observe his friends and relatives in action. Once the young Plato had seen the various political factions conducting what seemed to him nothing more than self-serving policies, motivated by simple greed and an appetite for absolute power over the people — rather than exercising government for the people and their welfare — Plato was disappointed, shocked by the violence he saw done to the people, and finally disgusted with all the parties involved.

Plato's Growth as a Philosopher

It was after his introduction to the common corruption of the Athenian political world that Plato began to have second thoughts about his place in such a world; it was during this time that Plato began seriously to consider how the interests and well-being of a people could best be served by the citizens who govern them. And it was at this time in his growth as a thinker that a singular event occurred: Plato witnessed a series of politically motivated maneuvers and fabrications brought against his old friend and teacher, Socrates. Plato saw very clearly that the charges brought against Socrates were unjust; it is plain that Plato feared for the outcome of those charges. How, Plato wondered, could justice be achieved for Socrates; indeed, how might justice be achieved for every citizen of the state? It is this interest in the possibility of achieving justice for every citizen that serves as the major argument in the Republic, an interest which threads through every political dialogue that Plato wrote.

It is plain that Plato must have known and listened to Socrates during Plato's childhood and young adulthood (Plato's relatives, Critias and Charmides, were friends of Socrates). When Plato was 27 or 28, his friends and relatives who had invited him to join them in governing the Athenians tried to get even with some of their political enemies whom they had overthrown in their latest revolution. They tried, Plato tells us, to enlist the aid of old Socrates in helping them to arrest one of their political adversaries and to carry him off and execute him. Apparently the attempt to involve Socrates in this travesty of justice and subsequent murder in the name of the state was in order to lend the name of the great philosopher as a party to their illegal activity and to force him to share in their guilt. Socrates refused, and his refusal to ally himself with corrupt politicians was remarked and noted. But even when the political power bases shifted and a new revolution ensued, Plato was tempted to involve himself in politics, whereupon he saw the same system of political pay-backs and corruptions practiced by the "new" leaders of the state. And Socrates' steadfast refusal to deal with corrupt politicians, no matter their party affiliation, had not gone unnoticed.

Socrates is one of the most singular men in history: He was a great teacher, but he never was employed as a teacher, never took money for the things he taught. He never wrote anything so far as we know; all we know of what he taught was recorded by his "students," the young men of Athens whom he met on various street corners in Athens, youngsters (like Plato) whom he engaged in conversations. For Socrates was a true philosopher, a lover of learning and of truth.

As we have seen, Socrates refused to ally himself for any reason with people whom he felt clearly to be culpable of unjust acts. And Socrates would not cease asking questions of those same people: What is your understanding of justice? If you are wise, how do you know you are wise? If you are a leader of the state, where precisely are you leading the state? If you are in a position of authority, what are your credentials for that authority? In short, Socrates by his own precepts and example must have encouraged the youth of Athens, including Plato, to question authority wherever that authority might reside. In the turbulent Athens of his day, this led to Socrates' downfall.

Socrates, known as the gadfly of Athens because of his persistent questions about the authenticity of many "truths," was in 399 b.c. brought to trial and charged with not believing in the gods and with corrupting the youth of Athens. Socrates had made too many enemies in high places. At a time when the young Plato was still considering becoming a politician, his dear friend and dearest teacher was put to death by politicians. The story of Socrates' trial and death is told in Plato's dialogues, the Apology and the Phaedo.

Thus it is that Plato apparently decided that he had had enough of politics. He resolved to spend his time in the study of philosophy, like his teacher, Socrates, because Plato believed that a just and uncorrupted state (as a political reality) could not be formed until citizens arrived at an understanding of what constitutes justice and the good life as concepts. Plato resolved to dedicate his life to the study of philosophy.

After the death of Socrates, Plato left Athens and, according to Hermodorus, one of Plato's students, he spent the next few years traveling in Greece, Egypt, and Italy. Again, the letter that Plato wrote when he was 60 (The Seventh Letter) tells us that he went to Italy and Sicily when he was 40, but the gluttony and sexual debauchery he found there disgusted him. He did make a new friend there, Dion, the brother-in-law of Dionysius I of Syracuse (in Sicily).

Plato's Academy

In 387 or 386 b.c., Plato returned to Athens and founded the Academy, which was intended to serve as a school for future leaders of state. Plato apparently planned the curriculum of the Academy (primarily courses in philosophy, science, and law) to provide for the training of the ideal philosopher-rulers he had described in the Republic; we may see the Academy as being the first university. The Academy rapidly became the intellectual center of Greek life. According to Aristotle, who studied with Plato for almost 20 years, Plato lectured without notes, probably engaging his students in conversations after the fashion of his own mentor, Socrates. As the fame of the Academy grew, it attracted many brilliant thinkers to join its faculty, and we are told that Plato sent many of those faculty to help various city-states and colonies to form legislative bodies.

Plato's Later Years

In 367 b.c., when he was 60 years old and at the height of his fame as head of the Academy, Plato heard from his friend Dion of Syracuse, who invited Plato to come and teach the young Dionysius II, who had recently become King of Syracuse. Plato accepted the invitation because he still retained his old wish to become actively involved in politics, to be a man of action as well as a "mere man of words." But Dion soon got into trouble because of political intrigues in Syracuse, and he was banished from the country. Plato again returned to Athens, only to return to Syracuse again in 361 b.c. to help Dionysius II rule fairly and equitably, put the kingdom under a rule of law, and eschew the temptations of tyranny. Plato failed in this endeavor, and he soon found himself in personal danger. After escaping Syracuse, Plato returned home to Athens; he never again meddled directly in political affairs, although several members of his faculty did actively aid Dion's military expedition against Syracuse (Sicily) in 357 b.c., an expedition that overthrew the tyranny there.

By this time, Plato had completed most of the writings for which we remember him, but late in his life, he was still intrigued by the problem of how to accomplish a legislative body that might serve to put into action the ideas and the ideals he had conversed about in such works as the Republic. Aristotle, who became a student at the Academy in 367 b.c., tells us that Plato and his students were conversing about the problem of "laws," a recorded system for governing a given state, when Plato died in 348 or 347 b.c.