The Life and Work of Plato
As a citizen of Athens, Plato’s life was a product of a society dominated by war outside of the state and the direct practice of democracy within it. Above and beyond these influences, however, one must turn to Plato’s mentor Socrates (469–399 B.C.) to understand Plato’s thought.
Socrates was the self-appointed gadfly of Athens. Avoiding the Assembly in favor of more private audiences, he questioned and occasionally ridiculed the assumptions upon which Athenians built their beliefs. While this won Socrates many young followers, it also earned him numerous enemies. This led to his being brought to trial on charges of impiety and corrupting the youth of Athens in 399 B.C.. His defense, recorded in Plato’s Apology, failed to sway the jury in his favor, and he was condemned to death. While he could have escaped, Socrates chose death.
Socrates’ death was the major formative event in Plato’s youth, turning him away from politics and toward philosophy. His early writings, primarily records of the words of Socrates (Tredennick, 1969), displayed Socrates’ famed teaching method of conducting informal question-and-answer sessions with small groups of men. As Plato progressed, he continued to use Socrates as the main character in his dialogues, although the thoughts he expressed became Plato’s own.
After spending more than a decade away from Athens after Socrates’ death, Plato eventually returned to found the Academy. There he attempted to turn aspiring politicians into “philosophic statesmen” (Cornford, in Lee, 1974). He also attempted to turn kings toward philosophy, both through correspondence and personal visits to their courts (Lee, 1974). Plato died in Athens in 347 B.C., leaving behind the unfinished manuscript to The Laws.