What do we know for sure about Plato's life?

Although Plato (427—347 b.c.e.) is perhaps the most influential and highly revered philosopher in the Western tradition, and thousands of philosophical careers have been based on his ideas, little is known about his life, with certainty. This is partly because there was a convention in Plato's time that philosophers writing about their contemporaries not mention them by name. Nevertheless, there is agreement on some broad facts about Plato's life. Plato, for instance, was present at Socrates' trial and began his own philosophical works about 15 or 20 years later. Plato was the scion of a politically well-placed, rich aristocratic family who were anti-democrats. At first, Plato envisioned a political career for himself, but after the democrats gained power and Socrates was sentenced to death, he prudently avoided politics.

Plato served in military campaigns in the war against Sparta and was probably in the cavalry. In the 380s b.c.e., he traveled to Egypt and Syracuse in Sicily. Plato went to Syracuse three times as guest of the tyrant Dionysius the Elder, and then of his son Dionysius the Younger. Both father and son were thought to be interested in Plato's ideas about government, but the results of Plato's involvement in Sicilian statecraft are usually referred to as "disastrous." Plato never married, and when he died at the age of 81 he was relatively poor.

A Roman statue of Plato. The Romans admired the Greeks and adapted much Greek culture to their own (iStock).

A Roman statue of Plato. The Romans admired the Greeks and adapted much Greek culture to their own (iStock).

What was Plato's Academy?

Sometime between the early 380's and 367 b.c.e., Plato founded The Academy in Athens, where he lived. Plato's Academy provided higher education to sons of the aristocracy. It was different from Isocrates' (c. 436—c. 393 b.c.e.) school, which formalized the teachings of the Sophists in politics and rhetoric for the practical aim of training lawyers. Plato's students, on the other hand, were taught mathematics, astronomy, and philosophy. Aristotle entered the Academy when he was 17, and in his early twenties added the subject of rhetoric to the curriculum.

Plato's academy was probably co-founded by Theatetus (417-369 b.c.e., after whom Plato named a dialogue) and Eudoxus (c. 408-c. 347 b.c.e.), astronomer and mathematician. Lectures were given to seated students who took notes. There were probably never more than 100 students in attendance at a time, and it is not certain that Plato himself lectured there.

What was Plato's metaphysical theory of forms?

Plato's major contribution to philosophy was his metaphysical theory of forms. Plato's forms were divine objects, known by the mind through thought. The practice of such thought was believed to provide the best life. The forms, like the primary substance of the Pre-Socratics, were responsible for all of the things experienced by human beings and for the very existence and qualities of human beings, animals, natural objects, and man-made objects. Indeed, the entire world of existence was held to be made up of copies of the forms. Even ideas, such as beauty, truth, and justice, had forms. Although to Plato it was viewing the mind's representations of the forms, not the actual forms themselves, that mattered. The forms were unchanging, perfect, and divine. Everything that humans could think, perceive, or imagine, and the existing objects of thoughts and perceptions, were but imperfect copies of the forms.

What were Plato's dialogues?

Plato's surviving written works span a period of about 50 years. He wrote in the form of elegant, dramatic, and poetic dialogues, which scholars usually divide into different periods. The Apology, Charmides, Crito, Eupyphro, Hippias Minor, Ion, Laches, and Protagoras (taken alphabetically) are considered his "early" works. The middle works are the Phaedo, Symposium, Republic, and Phaedrus (believed to have been written in that order), and these were followed by later works of the Sophist, Statesman, and Philebus. Plato's Timaeus may fall somewhere either in the middle or late writings. His Letters, numbered I through XIII, were written toward the end of his life. Only Letters III, VII, VIII, and XIII are unquestionably genuine, as is his will.

There were no printing presses in Plato's day and no book stores or libraries in Athens at the time he wrote. His dialogues probably reached their audiences through oral performances, and it is likely that Plato himself enacted the role of Socrates.

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