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 Nomoi (360-347 b.c.e.; Laws, 1804), unfinished.
Plato crafted dramas: dialogues that feature his mentor Socrates (in all of the dialogues save two) engaged in conversations with a large number of leading intellectuals and prominent historical figures from the previous generation. These dialogues differ widely and are open to a variety of interpretations. Uncovering Plato’s philosophy is an exceedingly difficult task because he does not present ideas in his own name, compelling readers to contemplate philosophical problems for themselves.
Plato’s impact cannot be quantified. His writings affected the entire intellectual development of Western civilization. Though Plato did not leave a well-rounded, dogmatic philosophical system and controversies exist on how to present Plato’s thought, he serves as the father for all forms of philosophical idealism and dualism. Plato also is considered the inspiration for Platonism: a series of specific philosophical views, which Plato’s companions and followers at the Academy initiated from Plato’s dialogues and oral discussions. The movement produced over time an ever-changing but seemingly continuous philosophic dogma well into Roman times, and it claimed Plato as the founder.
Cropsey, Joseph. Plato’s World: Man’s Place in the Cosmos. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1995. Discusses Plato’s views on human nature, with attention to his political theories.
Gonzalez, Francisco, ed. The Third Way: New Directions in Platonic Studies. Lanham, Md.: Rowman and Littlefield, 1995. A helpful sampling of late twentieth century research on Plato, his continuing significance, and trends of interpretation in Platonic studies.
Irwin, Terrence. Plato’s Ethics. New York: Oxford University Press, 1995. A thorough study of Plato’s moral philosophy, including its political implications.
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