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Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1029

Born in Athens in 427 b.c.e. and named Aristocles, the famous philosopher whose nickname, Plato (PLAY-toh), means “broad forehead” was the son of Ariston and Perictione, Athenian aristocrats. The family of Ariston traced its descent to Codrus, presumably the last king of Athens, and Perictione was a descendant of Solon, the Athenian lawgiver. Plato probably enjoyed a comfortable boyhood as the youngest member of a wealthy family. He had two brothers, Glaucon and Adeimantus, and a sister, Potone.{$S[A]Aristocles;Plato}

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When Plato was still a child his father died, and his mother then married Pyrilampes, an active supporter of the policies of Pericles. His uncle, Charmides, and another relation, Critias, were also involved in the political life of the time and were prominent in the oligarchy that came into power at the end of the Peloponnesian War in 404 b.c.e. Under these circumstances it was natural for Plato to regard political life as one of the duties of the conscientious citizen and the philosophy of politics as one of the scholar’s noblest pursuits.

From his boyhood Plato was acquainted with Socrates, and his friendship with the elderly philosopher convinced him that the search for truth, which the Greeks called “philosophy” (“the love of wisdom”), was essential to any effective political life. Plato’s early ambition to be a statesman was encouraged by Charmides and his friends, but when Plato observed that the thirty rulers of Athens, among them his relatives and associates, were even more vicious in their governmental practices than their predecessors, and, furthermore, that they were attempting to involve Socrates in the illegal arrest of a fellow citizen, he began to have qualms about a career in politics. His misgivings were confirmed when the leaders of the democracy that followed the oligarchy charged Socrates with impiety and corrupting the youth of Athens; Socrates was brought to trial, condemned, and executed. Plato decided that until philosophers became kings, or kings became philosophers, there was no practical value to be gained if an honest man entered political life.

In all probability, Plato was more than once engaged in active military service. He possibly entered service when he was eighteen and may have spent five years in the cavalry during the last years of the Peloponnesian War. He may also have served in 395 b.c.e., when Athens was once more at war. After the death of Socrates in 399, Plato went to Megara with some other friends of Socrates and visited Euclides, a distinguished philosopher who had been present at Socrates’ death. He may have traveled further, but he soon returned to Athens and began his own writing.

When Plato was about forty years old, he made a trip to Italy and Sicily, where he was dismayed by the luxurious, sensual life customary among the wealthy. He made friends with Archytas, the virtual ruler of Tarentum, in Italy. Archytas was not only a strong and respected leader but also an eminent mathematician, and he and Plato discussed many of the interesting features of Pythagoreanism, with which Plato had first become fascinated in Athens. In Sicily Plato visited Syracuse, where he became acquainted with Dionysius, the tyrant of the city, and with Dion, the brother-in-law of Dionysius. Dion, then about twenty years old, was inspired by Plato’s ideas about the proper kind of state and resolved to embody the kind of noble political leadership that Plato sketched out for him. While inspiring Dion, however, Plato was irritating Dionysius, who had little interest in philosophy. According to some sources, Plato was seized by a Spartan envoy who shipped him off to Aegina, where he was offered for sale as a slave but was saved by Anniceris, a friend from Cyrene who ransomed him.

When he returned to Athens about 387 b.c.e. , Plato...

(The entire section contains 1029 words.)

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