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Plato

(Historic Lives: The Ancient World, Prehistory-476)

Article abstract: Greek philosopher{$I[g]Greece;Plato} Plato used the dialogue structure in order to pose fundamental questions about knowledge, reality, society, and human nature—questions that are still alive today. He developed his own positive philosophy, Platonism, in answer to these questions, a philosophy that has been one of the most influential thought-systems in the Western tradition.

Early Life

Plato (PLAY-toh) was originally named Aristocles but may have acquired the nickname Plato (“broad” or “wide” in Greek) on account of his broad shoulders. Both of Plato’s parents were from distinguished aristocratic families. Plato himself, because of family connections and expectations as well as personal interest, looked forward to a life of political leadership.

Besides being born into an illustrious family, Plato was born into an illustrious city. He was born in the wake of Athens’s Golden Age, the period that had witnessed Athens’s emergence as the strongest Greek power (particularly through its leadership in repelling the invasions of Greece by the Persians), the birth of classical Athenian architecture, drama, and arts, and a florescence of Athenian cultural, intellectual, and political life. By the time of Plato’s youth, however, the military and cultural flowers that had bloomed in Athens had already begun to fade. A few years before Plato’s birth, Athens and Sparta—its rival for Greek supremacy—had engaged their forces and those of their allies in the Peloponnesian War.

This long, painful, and costly war of Greek against Greek lasted until Plato was twenty-three. Thus, he grew up witnessing the decline of Athens as the Greek military and cultural center. During these formative years, he observed numerous instances of cruelty, betrayal, and deceit as some unscrupulous Greeks attempted to make the best of things for themselves at the expense of other people (supposedly their friends) and in clear violation of values that Plato thought sacred.

It was also at an early age, probably in adolescence, that Plato began to hear Socrates, who engaged a variety of people in Athens in philosophical discussion of important questions. It could fairly be said that Plato fell under the spell (or at least the influence) of Socrates.

When, as a consequence of losing the Peloponnesian War to Sparta, an oligarchy was set up in Athens in place of the former democracy, Plato had the opportunity to join those in power, but he refused. Those in power, who later became known as the “Thirty Tyrants,” soon proved to be ruthless rulers; they even attempted to implicate Socrates in their treachery, although Socrates would have no part in it.

A democratic government was soon restored, but it was under this democracy that Socrates was brought to trial, condemned to death, and executed. This was the last straw for Plato. He never lost his belief in the great importance of political action, but he had become convinced that such action must be informed by a philosophical vision of the highest truth. He continued to hold back from political life, devoting himself instead to developing the kind of training and instruction that every wise person—and political people especially, because they act on a great social stage—must pursue. Plato maintained that people would not be able to eliminate evil and social injustice from their communities until rulers became philosophers (lovers of wisdom)—or until philosophers became rulers.

Life’s Work

In his twenties and thirties, Plato traveled widely, becoming aware of intellectual traditions and social and political conditions in various areas of the Mediterranean region. During these years, he also began work on his earliest, and most “Socratic,” dialogues.

When he was about forty years old, Plato founded the Academy, a complex of higher education and a center of communal living located approximately one mile from Athens proper. Plato’s Academy was highly successful. One famous pupil...

(The entire section is 5,140 words.)