Plato (423 BC – 348 BC) was a Classical Greek philosopher, mathematician, student of Socrates, writer of philosophical dialogues, and founder of the Academy in Athens – the first institution of higher learning in the Western world. Along with his mentor, Socrates and his student, Aristotle, Plato helped to lay the foundations of Western philosophy and science. Plato influenced a whole range of subjects from philosophy to maths, logic and ethics.
“The safest general characterization of the European philosophical tradition is that it consists of a series of footnotes to Plato.”
Alfred North Whitehead
Early life of Plato
The early life of Plato is only partially recorded, but he was born in 428/427 BCE to an aristocratic family in Athens. His father’s side claimed descent from the god Poseidon and the last kings of Athens. Some sources suggest that his real name was Aristocles, and that ‘Plato’ was a nickname given to him later in life. Plato roughly translates as the ‘broad’ It may have been a reflection of the breadth of interests that Plato considered.
He was given a good education, and he soon impressed those around him with his speed of learning and clarity of thought. He was also drawn to the philosopher Socrates. Socrates was a great and independent thinker who gathered a group of young men to talk and discuss philosophy. Plato was deeply impressed by the personality, spirit and philosophic detachment of his mentor Socrates. As Plato writes:
“Oh dear Pan and all the other Gods of this place, grant that I may be beautiful inside. Let all my external possessions be in friendly harmony with what is within. May I consider the wise man rich. As for gold, let me have as much as a moderate man could bear and carry with him.”
– Plato, “Phaedrus” – a prayer of Socrates, as portrayed in the dialogue.
Plato was deeply hurt after Socrates’ trial in 399 BC where he was condemned for ‘corrupting the youth of Athens’ and sentenced to death – being forced to drink hemlock. After the death of Socrates, Plato left Athens, disgusted with the mob-mentality of Athenian democracy. He travelled widely around the Meditteranean region, visiting Greece, Italy and Egypt. He came into contact with followers of Pythagoras and he was influenced by some of their philosophic ideas.
Relationship with Socrates
Socrates appears in most of Plato’s writings, and it is clear that Socrates and his Socratic dialogues had a big influence on Plato’s own writing and style of teaching.
It is only through Plato, that we get a clear idea of Socrates’ philosophy and way of life. In ‘Apology of Socrates‘, Plato writes an account of Socrates defending himself in a trial which ultimately led to his own death. It presents Socrates as a model philosopher, calmly putting the ideals of justice above any personal desire.
“It would be better for me … that multitudes of men should disagree with me rather than that I, being one, should be out of harmony with myself.”
Plato (Words spoken by Socrates,) “The Gorgias”
However, Plato was not merely transcribing the words of Socrates; he was also using his own interpretations and ideas to those which he learned from him.
In the 380s, Plato returned to Athens where he founded “The Academy” a school of learning, philosophy and research. It was a pioneer of future universities and became a magnet for the leading minds of the time. The polymath Aristotle spent 20 years at Plato’s Academy and further heightened its reputation. It was at the Academy that Plato wrote his great works and taught a range of students.
Plato’s Central Doctrines
Plato wrote on a whole range of topics, but it is his ethics and general philosophy which seemed to be his biggest interest. Plato was fundamentally a rationalist who felt the role of philosophy was to help people to live a good life. He sought to make sense of the world through reason and empiricism and he used this basic approach to a range of different topics. On metaphysics, he saw a distinction between the body (corporeal world) and the soul. To Plato, the soul could become captive to the material desires of the body, and to gain lasting happiness, the higher-wisdom of the soul and mind should be in control of a man’s lower passions.
“The inexperienced in wisdom and virtue, ever occupied with feasting and such, are carried downward, and there, as is fitting, they wander their whole life long, neither ever looking upward to the truth above them nor rising toward it, nor tasting pure and lasting pleasures.”
– Plato, “The Republic”
Plato also saw a distinction between the imperfection of the material world and the highest ideals which transcend material imperfections. Plato felt that someone of a ‘philosophic mind’ could differentiate between outward limitations and the highest ideals of beauty, truth, unity and justice. It is a philosophy which hints at the limitations of the material and the mental world and encourages an aspiration to higher ideals.
“I only wish that wisdom were the kind of thing that flowed … from the vessel that was full to the one that was empty.”
– Plato, “The Symposium”
He also mentions that the life we live is based on previous choices in either this incarnation or previous incarnations. Plato’s philosophy was also heavily influenced by Pythagoras, especially his religious views on transmigration.
In Politics, Plato developed the idea of a ‘Philosopher King’ someone who would be a wisdom lover and develop the necessary qualities to rule over his people with wisdom and justice. This may have partly been a reaction to the demographic democracy he saw in Athens and a hesitation to rely on the ‘wisdom of the crowds,’ that prevailed in Athens at the time. He made the analogy that the philosopher-king was like a ship’s captain or doctor. Someone who knows best what his patient needs.
“Until philosophers rule as kings or those who are now called kings and leading men genuinely and adequately philosophise, that is, until political power and philosophy entirely coincide, while the many natures who at present pursue either one exclusively are forcibly prevented from doing so, cities will have no rest from evils,… nor, I think, will the human race.” (Republic 473c-d)
To guard against philosopher-kings becoming tyrants, Plato also stated that they should be subject to the rule of law that limits the ruler’s actions
Style of Teaching
Plato didn’t write treatises and lectures, but wrote in an indirect way, encouraging the reader to ask questions and think for himself. Inspired by Socrates, he makes use of informal conversation and humorous anecdote. Like his teacher Socrates, Plato was happy to play the role of observer rather than a preacher. There is also signs of development and changes in thought, though some of this is due to uncertainty over whether letters ascribed to Plato, were actually written by him.
Plato and Aristotle
Aristotle didn’t agree with many conclusions of his teacher. For example, Aristotle felt the soul was an intrinsic part of the body. However, although Aristotle disagreed with Plato in some regards, he revered him as a supreme authority and person. His esteem for Plato was so great that he felt it would be “Blasphemy in the extreme even to praise him.” After Plato’s death, Aristotle started his own school – The Lyceum.
Death of Plato
There are conflicting reports on the death of Plato. But, he died between the ages of 81 and 84, and so was long-lived by ancient standards.
“Be kind, for everyone you meet is fighting a harder battle.”
“Every heart sings a song, incomplete, until another heart whispers back. Those who wish to sing always find a song. At the touch of a lover, everyone becomes a poet.”
“We can easily forgive a child who is afraid of the dark; the real tragedy of life is when men are afraid of the light.”
“One of the penalties of refusing to participate in politics is that you end up being governed by your inferiors.”
“I am the wisest man alive, for I know one thing, and that is that I know nothing.”
― Plato, The Republic
“There are three classes of men; lovers of wisdom, lovers of honor, and lovers of gain.”
Plato: Complete Works
Plato: Complete Works at Amazon
Great Thinkers – Influential and insightful thinkers, who have made significant contributions in fields of science, philosophy, literature and the humanities.
Famous Philosophers – Some of the world’s greatest philosophers, including Socrates, Plato, Descartes, Kant, Spinoza and David Hume.
Ancient Greeks (8th Century BCE to 1 CE) Famous people of the classical Greek period. Poets, statesmen and the fore-runners of democracy. Includes Plato, Aristotle, Socrates and Hippocrates.