World Literature

Plato

 

BORN: 427BCE, Athens, Greece

DIED: 347BCE, Athens, Greece

NATIONALITY: Greek

GENRE: Nonfiction

MAJOR WORKS:

Republic (c. 360 BCE)

Phaedrus (c. 370 BCE)

Symposium (385 BCE)

Euthyphro (399 BCE)

Apology (c. 399 BCE)

 

 

Plato. Mansell / Time Life Pictures / Getty Images

 

Overview

Plato stands at the center of philosophical thought in the ancient world. He was the first person to approach philosophical issues systematically, but it was the genius with which he treated those issues that made his thought so influential. Virtually every philosopher in antiquity who lived after Plato offered a response to what he had written. Moreover, Plato’s influence was hardly limited to the ancient world. His thought was studied throughout the Middle Ages and the Renaissance and continues to be crucial to an understanding of philosophical issues. Although the accuracy of his doctrines has always been the subject of vigorous debate, no one can deny Plato’s pervasive influence on the history of Western philosophy.

 

Works in Biographical and Historical Context

Early Life. Plato was born in Athens, the son of Ariston and Perictione, both of Athenian aristocratic ancestry. He lived at a time when ancient Greece was considered the most powerful empire in the known world; the Greek Empire consisted of many city-states, such as Athens and Sparta. Athens was one of the most important regions of ancient Greece, functioning as a center of both political power and cultural advancement. Plato lived his whole life in Athens but did travel to Sicily and southern Italy on several occasions, and one story says he traveled to Egypt. Little is known of his early years, but he was given the finest education Athens had to offer its noble families.

The Influence of Socrates. Plato’s acquaintance with Socrates altered the course of his life. The compelling power that Socrates’ methods and arguments had over the minds of the youth of Athens gripped Plato as firmly as it did so many others, and he became a close associate of Socrates.

The end of the Peloponnesian War (404 BCE), which resulted in Athens being taken over by Sparta and its allies, left Plato in a difficult position. His uncle Critias was the leader of the Thirty Tyrants, a group that had been appointed to power by the victorious Spartans. One way of manifesting their power was to indict as many Athenians as possible for treason. As documented in Plato’s Apology, Socrates was ordered to arrest a man and take him from Salamis to Athens for execution. When the great teacher refused, his life was in jeopardy, and he was probably saved only by the overthrow of the Thirty and the reestablishment of democracy. Plato had been repelled by the purpose and methods of the Thirty and welcomed the restoration of democracy to Athens.

Four years later, when Socrates was tried and sentenced to death, Plato was present at the trial, as evidenced by the Apology. Although Plato was not present when the hemlock (a fatal poison) was administered to his master, he describes the scene in vivid and touching detail in the Phaedo. Disgusted by what had transpired, Plato turned away from contemporary Athenian politics and never took an active part in government, although he did, through friends, try to influence the course of politics in the Sicilian city of Syracuse.

Journeys. Plato and several of his friends left Athens after Socrates’ death and sojourned with Euclides in Megara. Highly productive during this time, Plato wrote Apology, Crito, and Gorgias. Socrates is the main character in all of these dialogues, and various abstractions are discussed, including courage, piety, and friendship. The Apology and Crito stand apart from other works of Plato’s in that they deal with historical events: Socrates’ trial and the period between his conviction and execution.

During his first trip to southern Italy and Syracuse in 388-387 BCE, Plato made the acquaintance of Dion of Syracuse and his infamous brother-in-law, Dionysius I, ruler of Syracuse. Dionysius was at the height of his power and prestige in Sicily for having freed the Greeks there from the threat of Carthaginian rule. Plato became better friends with Dion, however, and Dionysius, it appears, was jealous of the relationship between Plato and Dion. On Plato’s return journey to Athens, Dionysius’s crew deposited him on the island of Aegina, which at that time was engaged in a minor war with Athens. Plato would most likely have been sold as a prisoner of war had he not been ransomed by Anniceris of Cyrene, one of his many admirers.

Return to Athens. After his return to Athens, Plato began to teach in the Gymnasium Academe and soon acquired property nearby. There he founded his famous Academy, which survived until philosophical schools were closed by the Christian emperor Justinian in the early sixth century CE. At the center of the Academy stood a shrine to the Muses, and at least one modern scholar suggests that the Academy may have been a type of religious brotherhood.

The Republic. Socrates is again the main character in Plato’s Republic, although this work is less a dialogue than a long discussion by Socrates of justice and what it means to the individual and the city-state. The great utopian state is described only as an analogy for the soul in order for men to understand better how the soul might achieve the kind of balance and harmony necessary for the rational element to control it. Just as there are three elements to the soul—the rational, the less rational, and the impulsive irrational—so are there three classes in the state: the rulers, the guardians, and the workers. No matter what their class, all citizens receive an education appropriate to their abilities. The rulers are not a hereditary clan or wealthy upper class, but are those who have emerged from the population as a whole as the most intellectually gifted. The guardians serve society by keeping order and by handling the practical matters of government, including fighting wars, while the workers perform the labor necessary to keep the state running smoothly.

The wisdom, courage, and moderation cultivated by the rulers, guardians, and workers ideally produce justice in society. Only when the three work in harmony, with intelligence and wisdom clearly in control, does the individual or state achieve the happiness and fulfillment of which it is capable. The Republic ends with the great myth of Er, in which the wanderings of the soul through births and rebirths are recounted. According to Plato, one may be freed from the cycle after a time through lives of greater and greater spiritual and intellectual purity.

Death. Plato’s second trip to Syracuse took place in 367 BCE after the death of Dionysius I, but Plato and Dion’s efforts to influence the development of Dionysius II along the lines laid down in the Republic did not succeed, and Plato returned to Athens. Plato’s third and final voyage to Syracuse was made some time before 357 BCE, and he was no more successful in his attempts to influence the young Dionysius than he had been earlier. Dion fared no better and was exiled by the young tyrant, while Plato was held in semi-captivity. Plato’s ‘‘Seventh Letter’’, the only one in the collection of thirteen letters considered authentic—perhaps even from the hand of Plato himself—recounts his role in the events surrounding the death of Dion, who returned to Syracuse and overthrew Dionysius in 357 BCE. The ‘‘Seventh Letter’’ is of even more interest because of Plato’s statement that the deepest truths may not be communicated.

Although the date is not exactly known, Apollodorus’s Chronology (late second century BCE) recorded Plato’s death as 347 BCE at the age of eighty-one. When Plato died, he was succeeded at the head of the Academy, not by Aristotle, who had been a student and then a teacher at the Academy for about twenty years, but by his nephew, Speusippus. As noted above, the Academy continued for centuries after Plato’s death.

 

LITERARY AND HISTORICAL CONTEMPORARIES

Plato's famous contemporaries include:

Socrates (470-399 BCE): In addition to being Plato's mentor, Socrates is widely considered the father of Western philosophy.

Aristotle (384-322 BCE): Aristotle was Plato's favorite student, and for many centuries after Aristotle's death, Aristotle's legacy was so great that he was known simply as The Philosopher.

Aristophanes (456-c. 386 BCE): Aristophanes was an Athenian comic dramatist who wrote Lysistrata, a play about government by women.

Alexander of Macedonia (also known as Alexander the Great) (356-323 BCE): Alexander was a Macedonian king who, in his brief thirty-three-year life, vastly increased the size of his kingdom and built a lasting reputation as a conqueror.

Democritus (460-370 BCE): Although little is known about Democritus, his most important theory was that all matter is composed of what he called ''atoms.''

Dionysius I (432-367 BCE): This ruler conquered a number of cities and states, including Syracuse, which he turned into a Greek colony.

 

COMMON HUMAN EXPERIENCE

While Plato's Republic covers a number of topics, the text outlines an idealized manifestation of both an individual and the surrounding government. As such, it reads as a manual or guidebook. Other artists have taken on the task of delineating the proper structure of government and the individuals who run it. Here are a few of the results:

The Prince (1532), a treatise by Niccolo Machiavelli. This work describes the role of a country's leader, based on Machiavelli's belief that a country must be stable above all else, even if a leader must behave ruthlessly to achieve that stability.

Utopia (1516), a treatise by Thomas More. The word utopia means ''no-place,'' and so underscores the impractical nature of the fictional island culture More describes.

The Leviathan (1651), a treatise by Thomas Hobbes. This text describes Hobbes's ''social contract theory''—the mutual obligation of individuals to help other individuals and how these obligations become the foundations of societies.

 

Works in Literary Context

Plato was a student of philosophy, and his literary output reflects this role. His works fuse the arguments of Heraclitus, Socrates, and the Pythagoreans (those who followed the mathematician Pythagoras). Whatever other influences have been claimed, there can be little doubt that it was Socrates who had the most profound impact on Plato.

Socrates. Plato chooses Socrates as the main character in most of his works, a clear reflection of Plato’s reverence for the man he regarded as his true master. In the ‘‘Seventh Letter,’’ Plato deemed Socrates ‘‘the most just man alive’’ during the reign of the Thirty Tyrants in Athens. Diogenes reports that the interest was mutual: he tells the story of Socrates’ dream of a swan sitting on his knees, which all at once sprouted feathers and flew away after crying out a loud, sweet call. The next day, Plato was introduced to Socrates as a pupil, and Socrates believed the young man was the swan in his dream.

It is the relationship that Plato had with Socrates, in fact, that has been memorialized in Plato’s dialogues, his largest contribution to literature. In form, these dialogues are merely representations of conversations held between two or more people. In content, they demonstrate and record the philosophies Socrates taught his pupils. Indeed, Plato’s dialogues have been staples of education ever since their rediscovery in the late medieval period. However, the objectivity of Plato’s representation of Socrates’ character and philosophy has come into question through the years.

Diogenes reports in his Lives that there was a rivalry or animosity between Plato and several fellow philosophers and literary figures, especially other ‘‘Socratics,’’ including Xenophon, Antisthenes, Aristippus, and Aeschines. It is certain that each of these men also wrote ‘‘Socratic dialogues,’’ though only those of Xenophon and Plato exist in complete form. It is important to note that the Socratic dialogues written by others deviate significantly from Plato’s in their philosophies and their portraits of Socrates.

Legacy. The Academy continued for centuries after Plato’s death, though its members deviated from Platonic teachings in several striking ways. Within a century (c. 276 BCE) the school had become a center for the philosophy of the Skeptics under Archesilaus. Revivals of some versions of Platonism were undertaken both at the Academy itself under Antiochus of Ascalon (c. 87 BCE) and elsewhere; for example, ‘‘Middle Platonism’’ developed at the same time in Athens and Alexandria (which included Plutarch). So-called Neoplatonism began with Plotinus in Rome and continued until Justinian closed the pagan schools in 529 CE. In many ways, Neoplatonism continued to provide a significant source of ideas for later medieval thinkers.

Plato’s influence, though transformed and reshaped by the Middle Platonists and Neoplatonists, can be found later in the conceptions of temporal order and eternity in Augustine and Boethius, and in other ideas among the medieval rationalists, especially Anselm. The Platonic conception of knowledge as derived from and secured by innate and infallible cognitive capacities—which make contact with a truth or reality that is independent of the human senses—continued after the Enlightenment in the philosophies of what have come to be known as the Continental Rationalists, most notably Rene Descartes, Benedict (Baruch) de Spinoza, and Gottfried Wilhelm Leibniz. It echoes even later in the transcendentalism of Immanuel Kant, the British idealist Francis Herbert Bradley, and, later still, in the American transcendentalists, most notably Ralph Waldo Emerson.

 

Works in Critical Context

In considering the work of Plato, it is first important to note that Socrates, his illustrious teacher, wrote no text in which he outlined his teachings. Consequently, what scholars know about Socrates can be gleaned only from those who wrote about his work. This fact, along with Plato’s repeated use of Socrates as his main character, has led to several seemingly irresolvable scholarly disputes. Does the character Socrates actually speak for Plato himself, who articulates his own thoughts through Socrates? Or does Plato seek only to represent the philosophy of Socrates by recounting the conversations of Socrates? Plato’s student Aristotle often wrote as if he believed that the Socrates whom Plato employs is expressing Plato’s own philosophy. Never a speaking character in his own dialogues, Plato speaks for himself only in the ‘‘Letters’’, and the authenticity of these is disputed. It has been argued, in fact, that readers should never assume that Plato is presenting dogmatic pronouncements; instead, he is using the dialogue form simply to offer arguments for consideration. This issue is an important one for scholars because Socrates is largely considered the father of philosophy as we know it.

What Is Plato, What Is Socrates? Although a decisive resolution of the many debates about Plato’s relationship with Socrates is not likely to be achieved, certain points of view seem well enough supported to be agreed upon by scholars in general. Perhaps the most important point concerns the dating of the dialogues. Partly because of the strategies used for dating the pieces, some separation of the Platonic and Socratic philosophies has been made on the supposition that Plato became more the master of his own philosophical thinking and less influenced by Socrates as he matured.

Several approaches to ordering the dialogues chronologically have been attempted. In antiquity, the orderings were thematic at best and included many works whose authenticity is now disputed or unanimously rejected. Historical evidence for ordering the works chronologically is relatively slight. Aristotle, Diogenes, and Olympiodorus of Alexandria all report that the Laws was written after the Republic. Beyond this, scholars must speculate about the chronology of the dialogues based on the slight evidence contained within each of Plato’s works.

Despite the lack of direct evidence, modern scholars have found sufficient differences in the philosophies articulated in the dialogues to group them into different periods: early—those works written prior to Plato’s first trip to Sicily in 387; middle—the dialogues from about 387 BCE to 380 BCE, considered to be early transitional; and late—transitional dialogues beginning about 360 BCE to 355 BCE. In his influential study Socrates: Ironist and Moral Philosopher, Gregory Vlastos finds ten significant differences between the Socrates in the dialogues of the early period and the Socrates in the dialogues of the middle period. Arguments of this sort have generally found favor among scholars who are inclined to find the differences in Plato’s characterizations significant in terms of his movement away from the philosophical methods and preoccupations of the historical Socrates, which these scholars assume to have been represented more or less accurately in Plato’s earlier works. Still, each of these differences between the Socrates of the early and middle dialogues will no doubt continue to be hotly debated. Interestingly, the division of the dialogues into groups on the basis of their contents has more recently received support from what is known as stylometry—the careful measure of certain stylistic features of the writings themselves.

While the early, middle, and late groupings are accepted by many scholars, serious debate continues about the exact placement of each dialogue within these groups and even about the merits of the different methods employed to group them at all. Furthermore, a great many other dialogues and some thirteen letters have also been attributed to Plato over the years, but none of these other writings has been regarded by a consensus as authentic. Many were presumed to be so in antiquity and have only relatively recently been removed from the canon. These disputed works are known as the dubia. Still other dialogues, called the spuria, were attributed to Plato but suspected to be fraudulent even in antiquity.

The majority view among scholars on this issue is that the early Platonic dialogues contain a certain highly coherent set of philosophical positions, so it makes sense to think of this philosophy on its own terms, distinct from the philosophy found in the middle-period dialogues. Scholars often call the philosophy in the early dialogues ‘‘Socratic philosophy’’ and the philosophy of the middle dialogues ‘‘Platonic philosophy.’’ This strategy partly permits an easy shorthand for the distinction between the two philosophies and partly reflects an acknowledgment that the philosophy of Plato’s early dialogues is the most interesting and plausible candidate for the philosophy of the historical Socrates. Indeed, if the philosophy of Plato’s Socrates is not the philosophy of the historically real Socrates, then the philosophy of the historical Socrates must be associated with the views attributed to him by other Socratic authors, whose work seems ordinary compared with that of Plato, or the philosophy of the historical Socrates must be considered lost. Any serious philosophical interest in Socrates, then, is to be found in the philosophy of Plato’s Socrates in the early dialogues.

Continued Critical Use of Plato’s Dialogues. Despite the continued debate about the nature of Plato’s writings, they continue to be read in philosophy, justice, and history courses alike because the works pose philosophical problems and questions that remain intricate enough to challenge those who think critically about serious issues. Plato’s Socrates asks many of what are considered the quintessential questions of philosophy. He asks them in ways that are readily understood, and Plato has him ask those questions in dramatic settings that make them even more compelling. In short, whether Plato has accurately represented the historical Socrates or not, the dialogues as a starting point for further conversations about important and unresolved issues of justice, piety, science, mathematics, and politics ensure Plato’s continued relevance as a leader of philosophical and intellectual awareness.

 

Responses to Literature

1. Read book seven of Plato’s Republic. This portion of the Republic contains the ‘‘Allegory of the Cave,’’ which describes the necessity of seeing the world in a new way, of opening one’s mind up to the truth that hides behind the illusions of this world. Describe your feelings in response to this text. Do you feel optimistic or pessimistic about the world when you conclude the ‘‘Allegory’’? Do you believe that the world is a kind of illusion that hides other, more profound truths? Why or why not?

2. Research the word utopia. What do you think an ideal world would be like? Describe some of this ideal world’s key features—for instance, what would this world’s art, government, and religion be like? Describe the fashion and sports of this world.

3. Plato’s dialogues are famous for their representations of the so-called Socratic method: Socrates’s unique style of argument—his way of asking his ‘‘opponent’’ many questions, cleverly establishing definitions of terms, and then guiding his opponent into making his points for him. Choose a controversial issue and write your own Socratic dialogue, in the style of Plato, in which one character plays the Socrates role and argues his point by asking questions of the other.

 

BIBLIOGRAPHY

Books

Annas, Julia. An Introduction to Plato’s “Republic”. Oxford: Clarendon, 1981.

Brandwood, Leonard. The Chronology of Plato’s Dialogues. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1990.

Brickhouse, Thomas C., and Nicholas D. Smith. Socrates on Trial. New York: Oxford University Press, 1994.

Hackforth, R. E. Plato’s Examination of Pleasure. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1945.

Morrow, Glenn. Plato’s Cretan City: An Historical Interpretation of the Laws. Princeton, N. J.: Princeton University Press, 1960.

Robinson, Richard. Socrates: Philosophy in Plato’s Early Dialogues. London: Routledge & Kegan Paul, 1979.

Shorey, Paul. The Unity of Plato’s Thought. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1960.

Stalley, R. F. An Introduction to Plato’s ‘‘Laws’’. Oxford: Blackwell, 1983.

Vlastos, Gregory. Plato’s Earlier Dialectic. Oxford: Clarendona, 1953.

________. Socrates: Ironist and Moral Philosopher. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1991.