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Plato was born, the son of Ariston and Perictione, in about 428 BC, the year after the death of the great statesman Pericles. His family, on both sides, was among the most distinguished in Athens. Ariston is said to have claimed descent from the god Poseidon through Codrus, the last king of Athens; on the mother's side, the family was related to the early Greek lawmaker Solon. Nothing is known about Plato's father's death. It is assumed that he died when Plato was a boy. Perictione apparently married as her second husband her uncle Pyrilampes, a prominent supporter of Pericles; and Plato was probably brought up chiefly in his house. Critias and Charmides, leaders among the extremists of the oligarchic terror of 404, were, respectively, cousin and brother of Perictione; both were friends of Socrates, and through them Plato must have known the philosopher from boyhood.
His own early ambitions --like those of most young men of his class-- were probably political. A conservative faction urged him to enter public life under its auspices, but he wisely held back. He was soon repelled by its members' violent acts. After the fall of the oligarchy, he hoped for better things from the restored democracy. Eventually, however, he became convinced that there was no place for a man of conscience in Athenian politics. In 399 BC the democracy condemned Socrates to death, and Plato and other Socratic men took temporary refuge at Megara with Eucleides, founder of the Megarian school of philosophy. The next few years are said to have been spent in extensive travels in Greece, in Egypt, and in Italy. Plato himself states that he visited Italy and Sicily at the age of 40 and was disgusted by the gross sensuality of life there but found a kindred spirit in Dion, brother-in-law of Dionysius I, the ruler of Syracuse.
The Academy and Sicily
In about 387 Plato founded the Academy as an institute for the systematic pursuit of philosophical and scientific teaching and research. He presided over it for the rest of his life. The Academy's interests were not limited to philosophy in a narrow sense but also extended to the sciences: there is evidence that Plato encouraged research in such diverse disciplines as mathematics and rhetoric. He himself lectured (on at least one occasion he gave a celebrated public lecture "On the Good"), and he set problems for his pupils to solve. The Academy was not the only such "school" in Athens--there are traces of tension between the Academy and the rival school of Isocrates.
The one outstanding event in Plato's later life was his intervention in Syracusan politics. On the death of Dionysius I in 367, Dion conceived the idea of bringing Plato to Syracuse as tutor to his brother-in-law's successor, Dionysius II, whose education had been neglected. Plato was not optimistic about the results; but because both Dion and Archytas of Tarentum, a philosopher-statesman, thought the prospect promising, he felt bound to risk the adventure. The plan was to train Dionysius II in science and philosophy and so to fit him for the position of a constitutional king who might hold Carthaginian encroachment on Sicily at bay. The scheme was crushed by Dionysius' natural jealousy of the stronger Dion, whom he drove into virtual banishment. Plato later paid a second and longer visit to Syracuse in 361-360, still in the hope of effecting an accommodation; but he failed, not without some personal danger. Dion then captured Syracuse by a coup de main in 357, but he was murdered in 354. Plato himself died in 348/347.
Of Plato's character and personality little is known, and little can be inferred from his writings. But it is worth recording that Aristotle, his most able pupil, described Plato as a man "whom it is blasphemy in the base even to praise," meaning that Plato was so noble a character that bad men should not even speak about him.
To his readers through the ages Plato has been important primarily as one of the greatest of philosophical writers; but to himself the foundation and organization of the Academy must have appeared to be his chief work. The Seventh Letter contrasts the impact of written works with that of the contact of living minds as a vehicle of philosophy, and it passes a comparatively unfavorable verdict on written works. Plato puts a similar verdict into the mouth of Socrates in the Phaedrus. He perhaps intended his dialogues in the main to interest an educated outside world in the more serious and arduous labors of his school.
All of the most important mathematical work of the 4th century was done by friends or pupils of Plato. The first students of conic sections, and possibly Theaetetus, the creator of solid geometry, were members of the Academy. Eudoxus of Cnidus --author of the doctrine of proportion expounded in Euclid's Elements, inventor of the method of finding the areas and volumes of curvilinear figures by exhaustion, and propounder of the astronomical scheme of concentric spheres adopted and altered by Aristotle-- removed his school from Cyzicus to Athens for the purpose of cooperating with Plato; and during one of Plato's absences he seems to have acted as the head of the Academy. Archytas, the inventor of mechanical science, was a friend and correspondent of Plato.
Nor were other sciences neglected. Speusippus, Plato's nephew and successor, was a voluminous writer on natural history; and Aristotle's biological works have been shown to belong largely to the early period in his career immediately after Plato's death. The comic poets found matter for mirth in the attention of the school to botanical classification. The Academy was particularly active in jurisprudence and practical legislation, as Plutarch testifies.
Plato sent Aristonymus to the Arcadians, Phormion to Elis, Menedemus to Pyrrha. Eudoxus and Aristotle wrote laws for Cnidus and Stagirus. Alexander asked Xenocrates for advice about kingship; the man who was sent to Alexander by the Asiatic Greeks and did most to incite him to his war on the barbarians was Delios of Ephesus, an associate of Plato.
The Academy survived Plato's death. Though its interest in science waned and its philosophical orientation changed, it remained for two and a half centuries a focus of intellectual life. Its creation as a permanent society for the prosecution of both humane and exact sciences has been regarded --with pardonable exaggeration-- as the first establishment of a university.
The most important formative influence to which the young Plato was exposed was Socrates. It does not appear, however, that Plato belonged as a "disciple" to the circle of Socrates' intimates. The Seventh Letter speaks of Socrates not as a "master" but as an older "friend," for whose character Plato had a profound respect; and he has recorded his own absence (through indisposition) from the death scene of the Phaedo. It may well be that his own vocation to philosophy dawned on him only afterward, as he reflected on the treatment of Socrates by the democratic leaders. Plato owed to Socrates his commitment to philosophy, his rational method, and his concern for ethical questions. Among other philosophical influences the most significant were those of Heracleitus and his followers, who disparaged the phenomenal world as an arena of constant change and flux, and of the Pythagoreans, with whose metaphysical and mystical notions Plato had great sympathy.
Plato had family connections with Pyrilampes, a Periclean politician, and with Critias, who became one of the most unscrupulous of the Thirty Tyrants who briefly ruled Athens after the collapse of the democracy.
Plato's early experiences covered the disastrous years of the Deceleian War, the shattering of the Athenian empire, and the fierce civil strife of oligarchs and democrats in the year of anarchy, 404-403. He was too young to have known anything by experience of the imperial democracy of Pericles and Cleon or of the tide of the Sophistic movement. It is certainly not from memory that he depicted Protagoras, the earliest avowed professional Sophist, or Alcibiades, a brilliant but unreliable Athenian politician and military commander. No doubt these early experiences helped to form the political views that were later expounded in the dialogues.
General features of the dialogues
The canon and text of Plato was apparently fixed at about the turn of the Christian Era. By reckoning the Letters as one item, the list contained 36 works, arranged in nine tetralogies. None of Plato's works has been lost, and there is a general agreement among modern scholars that a number of small items --Alcibiades I, Alcibiades II, Theages, Erastae, Clitopho, Hipparchus, and Minos-- are spurious. Most scholars also believe that the Epinomis, an appendix to the Laws, was written by the mathematician Philippus of Opus. The Hippias Major and the Menexenus are regarded as doubtful by some, though Aristotle seems to have regarded them as Platonic. Most of the 13 Letters are certainly later forgeries. About the authenticity of the Seventh Letter, which is by far the most important from the biographical and the philosophical points of view, there exists a long and unsettled controversy.
Order of composition
Plato's literary career extended over the greater part of a long life. The Apology was probably written in the early 380s. The Laws, on the other hand, was the work of an old man, and the state of its text bears out the tradition that Plato never lived to give it its final revision. Since there is no evidence that Plato began his career with a fully developed system, and since there is every reason to believe that his thoughts changed, the order in which the various dialogues were written takes on importance. Only through it can the development of Plato's thought be adequately charted. Unfortunately, Plato himself has given few clues to the order: he linked the Sophist and the Statesman with the Theaetetus externally as continuations of the conversation reported in that dialogue. Similarly, he seems to have linked the Timaeus with the Republic. And Aristotle noted that the Laws was written after the Republic.
Modern scholars, by the use of stylistic criteria, have argued that the Sophist, Statesman, Philebus, Timaeus (with its fragmentary sequel Critias), and Laws form a distinct linguistic group, belonging to the later years of Plato's life. The whole group must be later than the Sophist, which professes to be a sequel to the Theaetetus. Since the Theaetetus commemorates the death of the eminent mathematician after whom it is named (probably in 369 BC), it may be ascribed to c. 368, the eve of Plato's departure for Syracuse.
The earlier group of dialogues is generally believed to have ended with the Theaetetus and the closely related Parmenides. Apart from this, perhaps all that can be said with certainty is that the great dialogues, Symposium, Phaedo, and Republic (and perhaps also Protagoras), in which Plato's dramatic power was at its highest, mark the culmination of this first period of literary activity. The later dialogues are often thought to lack the dramatic and literary merits of the earlier but to compensate for this by an increased subtlety and maturity of judgment.
Persons of the dialogues
One difficulty that initially besets the modern student is that created by the dramatic form of Plato's writings. Since Plato never introduced himself into his own dialogues, he is not formally committed to anything asserted in them. The speakers who are formally bound by the utterances of the dialogues are their characters, of whom Socrates is usually the protagonist. Since all of these are real historical persons, it is reasonable to wonder whether Plato is reporting their opinions or putting his own views into their mouths, and, more generally, to ask what was his purpose in writing dialogues.
Some scholars have suggested that Plato allowed himself to develop freely in a dialogue any view that interested him for the moment without pledging himself to its truth. Thus Plato can make Socrates advocate hedonistic utilitarianism in the Protagoras and denounce it in the Gorgias. Others argue that some of Plato's characters, notably Socrates and Timaeus, are "mouthpieces" through whom he inculcates tenets of his own without concern for dramatic or historical propriety. Thus it has often been held that the theory of Ideas, the doctrine of recollection, and the notion of the tripartite soul were originated by Plato after the death of Socrates and consciously fathered on the older philosopher.
Thought of the earlier and later dialogues
There are undeniable differences in thought between the dialogues that are later than the Theaetetus and those that are earlier. But there are no serious discrepancies of doctrine between individual dialogues of the same period. Plato perhaps announced his own personal convictions on certain doctrines in the second group of dialogues by a striking dramatic device. In the Sophist and Statesman the leading part is taken by a visitor from Elea and in the Laws by an Athenian. These are the only anonymous, indeed almost certainly the only imaginary, personages of any moment in the whole of Plato's writings. It seems likely, therefore, that these two characters were left anonymous so that the writer could be free to use them as mouthpieces for his own teaching. Plato thus took on himself the responsibility for the logic and epistemology of the Sophist and of the Statesman and for the ethics and the educational and political theory of the Statesman and of the Laws.
Doctrine of Forms
There is a philosophical doctrine running through the earlier dialogues that has as its three main features the theory of knowledge as recollection, the conception of the tripartite soul, and, most importantly, the theory of Forms. The theory that knowledge is recollection rests on the belief that the soul is not only eternal but also preexistent. The conception of the tripartite soul holds that the soul consists of reason, appetite, and spirit (or will). Each part serves a purpose and has validity, but reason is the soul's noblest part; in order for man to achieve harmony, appetite and spirit must be subjected to the firm control of reason. The theory of Forms has as its foundation the assumption that beyond the world of physical things there is a higher, spiritual realm of Forms, or Ideas, such as the Form of Beauty or Justice. This realm of Forms, moreover, has a hierarchical order, the highest level being that of the Form of the Good. Whereas the physical world, perceived with the senses, is in constant flux and knowledge derived from it restricted and variable, the realm of Forms, apprehensible only by the mind, is eternal and changeless. Each Form is the pattern of a particular category of things in this world; thus there are Forms of man, stone, shape, color, beauty, and justice. Yet the things of this world are only imperfect copies of these perfect Forms.
In the Phaedo Socrates is made to describe the theory of Ideas as something quite familiar that he has for years constantly canvassed with his friends. In the dialogues of the second period, however, these tenets are less prominent, and the most important of them all, the theory of Forms, is in the Parmenides subjected to a searching set of criticisms. The question thus arises as to whether Plato himself had two distinct philosophies, an earlier and a later, or whether the main object of the first group of dialogues was to preserve the memory of Socrates, the philosophy there expounded being, in the main, that of Socrates --coloured, no doubt, but not consciously distorted, in its passage through the mind of Plato. On the second view, Plato had no distinctive Platonic philosophy until a late period in his life.
Socrates and Plato
It may be significant that the only dialogue later than the Theaetetus in which Socrates takes a leading part is the Philebus, the one work of the second group that deals primarily with the ethical problems on which the thought of Socrates had concentrated. This is usually explained by supposing that Plato was unwilling to make Socrates the exponent of doctrines that he knew to be his own property. It would, however, be hard to understand such misgivings if Plato had already been employing Socrates in that very capacity for years. It is notable, too, that Aristotle, who apparently knew nothing of an earlier and a later version of Platonism, attributed to Plato a doctrine that is quite unlike anything to be found in the first group of dialogues. It was also the view of Neoplatonic scholars that the theory of Ideas of the great earlier dialogues really originated with Socrates; and the fact that they did not find it necessary to argue the point may show that this had been the standing tradition of the Academy.
Few modern scholars, however, support this view. The differences between the early and late periods are not as great as they have sometimes been represented: although Plato's thought developed from the early to the late dialogues, it underwent no sudden dislocation. The ideas of the early period may have been inspired by Socrates, but they were Plato's own --for example, the theory of Forms could not have arisen with Socrates. Plato nevertheless attributed it to him because he saw it as the theoretical basis of what Socrates did teach.
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