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Meet Plato

"Plato," by Mitch Francis

“Plato,” by Mitch Francis

Plato in Raphael’s 1509 painting, The School of Athens

Plato in Raphael’s 1509 painting, The School of Athens


Plato has staying power. Although he lived from 427—347 BCE, he is still rightly considered one of the greatest philosophers ever. According to the great English philosopher and mathematician, Alfred North Whitehead — one of the twentieth century’s great philosophers in his own right —
The safest general characterization of the European philosophical tradition is that it consists of a series of footnotes to Plato. (Process and Reality. Free Press, 1979. 39.)
And Plato is a supreme systematizer: his work harmonizes into one whole his philosophies of education, ethics, politics, love, and psychology; his theories of knowledge, including theories of perception and the sciences; his theory of art; and his theory of reality. It is thus fitting that ‘Plato’ is a nickname derived from the Greek word for ‘broad’ (platos): some sources suggest he received it from his wrestling teacher on account of his broad, robust build; others attribute it to his reputation for breadth as a stylist in music and drama. His given name — almost forgotten by history — was ‘Aristocles’.*

* The account of Plato’s life given by the third century CE biographer, Diogenes Laërtius, is full of such tid-bits. This one is found in Volume I, Book 3 (devoted to Plato), section 5 of his Lives of the Eminent Philosophers, herein abbreviated, D.L. I.3.5.

Not to cast too much doubt on the details, but it’s worth putting sources under scrutiny: Diogenes Laërtius is not only separated from Plato by over half a millennium; his reliability is considered spotty (Oxford Reference). Still, there are parts of his material that are confirmed in Plato’s own Seventh Letter, generally agreed to be authentic. Your task: Find balance between skepticism and naïveté!

Early Life

D.L. I.3.4.
D.L. I.3.5.

By adolescence, Plato’s competences were diverse: He was not only a fairly serious wrestler, but a painter, poet, and playwright with a budding interest in politics. Through his influential family, he was connected to both the antidemocratic faction that controlled Athens from 404-403 BCE (which history knows as the reign of the pro-Spartan “Thirty Tyrants”), and to that associated with the great Pericles (c. 495-429 BCE), under whose leadership the arts and democracy flourished in Athens.

§D.L. I.3.5.

As important as the Periclean and family influences on him were, around the age of twenty in 507 BCE, there came a day when everything changed, and he “consigned his poems to the flames, with the words”:§

Come hither, O fire-god, Plato now has need of thee.

That day, the day after he’d first heard Socrates speak, he decisively dropped the tragic play on which he had been working, and presented himself as Socrates’ disciple. During the period before Socrates’ death — less than decade — Plato singled himself out as the Star Student and Heir Apparent.

Misadventures of an Optimist

¥D.L. I.3.18-23.

Around 398 BCE, after Socrates’ execution, when Plato was in his late 20s, his travels took him to Italy, Sicily, and Egypt. Around 40 years of age, he “enjoyed” the first of three stays in the Sicilian city of Syracuse.¥ During the first of these, Plato tutored his disciple Dion, who was brother-in-law to the King Dionysius I. Although Dionysius enjoyed the company of learned men, he had little tolerance for learning: Plato’s teaching on tyranny enraged Dionysius, who — when he cooled down — decided to sell the philosopher into slavery rather than execute him. (We will encounter Plato’s incendiary analysis of the tyrant in The Republic.)

Thanks to manoeuvring on the part of his supporters, Plato found his way back to Athens in 387 BCE. At that point, he acquired a sacred grove northwest of the city, in which the mythic hero, Akademos, is said to be buried. It is there that he opened his school, The Academy, from which we derive the English word, ‘academic’, and its cognates. It remained an important center of intellectual activity for about 900 years.

Plato tells us of second and third adventures in Syracuse in his Seventh Letter, addressed to the friends of Dion. In 367 BCE, about the time Aristotle began study at The Academy, Dion summoned Plato back to Syracuse: the tyrant was dead and young Dionysus II required instruction. Despite hesitance, Plato sighed, cracked his knuckles, and agreed to try his hand at molding this lump of hot, adolescent Play-Doh into an enlightened ruler. Just months into his stay, Dionysius and Dion fell out, Dionysius exiled Dion and was himself distracted by war while Plato endured a period under house arrest before returning to Athens. But Plato had another round in him. About half a decade later, in 361 BCE, he accepted Dionysius’ plea that he return. This time, it ended quickly with Plato’s final escape from Syracuse, and retirement to The Academy, where he spent the last 13 years of his life in relative calm.


Next to Socrates, the prime influence on Plato’s thought, he studied and drew upon the work of Heraclitus, the Pythagoreans, and Parmenides.
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