One of the most profound thinkers of Western civilization, Plato (PLAYT-oh) is the only author from Greek antiquity whose writings survive whole and intact. Though very critical of writing, Plato perhaps exemplifies the greatest command of Greek prose from antiquity. A collection of thirty-five dialogues and thirteen letters has been handed down under his name, though the authorship of some has been contested. Follower of Cratylus and Socrates and teacher of Aristotle, Plato was the first writer to bring together the chief components of philosophy: metaphysics, epistemology, ethics, and political theory.
Plato’s family was prominent and of ancient nobility. His ancestors included Solon and Pisistratus. Plato’s stepfather Pyrilampes was an intimate of Pericles, and his relatives included Charmides and Critias, both of whom served in the regime of the Thirty Tyrants. As a young man, Plato was a wrestler and playwright. He considered pursuing a public life, but the Peloponnesian War (431-404 b.c.e.), which ended in Athens’ defeat and the oligarchy of 404 b.c.e., followed by a civil war and then a radical democracy, compelled Plato to withdraw from political affairs. He shunned public life altogether after his mentor Socrates was put to death by Athens in 399 b.c.e. Plato subsequently founded the first European institute of higher learning: the Academy.
Plato’s writing and instruction continued for fifty years. Pythagoras, Empedocles, Anaxagoras, Heraclitus of Ephesus, Parmenides, and especially Socrates were influential in Plato’s development. The solutions Plato crafted for the problems uncovered by those earlier thinkers were unparalleled. Plato also strongly opposed the relativistic teachings of the Sophists, and he viewed philosophy as the intellectual successor to Homer and the poets. Though Plato himself never engaged in public affairs, he did travel to Sicily on three occasions and tutored the young ruler Dionysius I the Elder of Syracuse. Plato died attending a wedding celebration, leaving his largest work, the...
(The entire section is 850 words.)