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Plato | Biography

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Historical Influence on Plato

Born in 428 BCE during the Peloponnesian War (431–04 BCE war between two alliances led by Athens and Sparta, involving nearly all the Greek city-states) to an aristocratic family, Plato was expected to have a political career. However, deeply influenced both by the war and its aftermath, along with the death of his mentor, Socrates, Plato chose philosophy. He founded the first European university, the Academy, which trained statesmen and pursued scientific inquiry. It lasted almost a thousand years, until the Byzantine emperor Justinian I closed it in 529 CE.

The continuous operation of the Academy is a testament to its success. So also was the fact that it drew men from across Greece who would later return to civic life in their home cities. It also served as a major source of jurisprudential (related to the philosophy of law) influence, both in the Hellenic era (the period from the first Athenian democracy, 507 BCE, to the death of Alexander the Great in 323 BCE) and as Roman law was being developed. The Academy was a major center of mathematical and astronomical research.

Socrates's Influence on Plato

Most contemporary students associate Plato's name not only with the founding of the Academy but also with Socrates. The teachings of Socrates, the father of Western philosophy, are known primarily through their exposition in the dozens of literary dialogues attributed to Plato. In these, his most famous writings, Plato offers fictionalized accounts of his mentor engaged in conversation, dispute, and speechmaking before his fellow Athenians. Although there were several notable Greek philosophers before Socrates (known as the pre-Socratics), only fragments of their works have survived. Thus, Plato's writings serve as the cornerstone of the Greek philosophical canon.

Unlike his teacher, who was of common birth, Plato was born into an aristocratic Athenian family. His ancestors included Solon (c. 630–c. 560 BCE), the Athenian sage and statesman best known for systematizing the legal code of Athens and pushing the city toward true democracy. Like several other upper-class Athenians of his generation, Plato became acquainted with Socrates during his youth and continued to associate with him until Socrates's execution in 399 BCE. His whereabouts in the years immediately after Socrates's death are largely unknown. Nonetheless, in later life Plato was best known as the founder of the Academy. His students and assistants there included Aristotle (384–22 BCE), the preeminent Greek philosopher of the next generation. Just as Plato is the best available authority on Socrates, Aristotle offers valuable information on Plato's life, a topic for which few other contemporary sources are available.

Plato's Lasting Influence

Apart from three voyages to Sicily and a brief and unexplained disappearance after Socrates's death, Plato lived in Athens his whole life. He died in 347 BCE, but through the influence of his Academy, he has influenced philosophers and statesmen throughout history. By the European Middle Ages (from the fall of the Roman Empire in the 5th century CE to the Renaissance), Plato's works were largely lost, apart from a few copies of individual dialogues in Latin translation. He was essentially rediscovered in the late 15th century, when Italian humanist Marsilio Ficino (1433–99) produced a Latin edition of his known writings. Equally important to scholars is the so-called Stephanus edition of 1578, which contains Greek text and Latin translation side by side. Modern translations are generally based on Stephanus's Greek, and Plato scholarship worldwide uses Stephanus's page numbers as a common reference scheme.

Since the Renaissance rediscovery of his works, Plato's dialogues have circulated in an ever-widening variety of editions and translations, and his thoughts on knowledge, beauty, justice, and a myriad other subjects have woven their way deep into Western philosophical culture. These selected dialogues, with their meditations on the virtuous life and the philosopher's preparation for death, are not exceptions.

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