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Plato | Biography


Born in 428 or 427 BCE, Plato is regarded as the first major writer in the Greek philosophical tradition. 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 Presocratics), their works have survived only in fragmentary form. 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 Athens's legal code and pushing the city toward 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. In later life, however, Plato was best known as the founder of the Academy, an Athenian school of philosophy and natural science. His students and assistants there included Aristotle (384–322 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.

Traditionally, Plato's works have been divided into three major periods: the early, the middle, and the late. In the early dialogues (c. 399–c. 387 BCE), of which the Apology and the Charmides are among the best-known, Plato introduces the basic building blocks of his philosophy, attempting to define such concepts as knowledge, virtue, and justice. The Symposium, it is now generally agreed, is a product of Plato's middle period (c. 380–c. 360 BCE), making it roughly contemporary with the Phaedo, a dialogue centrally concerned with the immortality of the soul, and the Republic, which outlines the conditions for an ideal society. The later dialogues (c. 355–347 BCE) are often practical and policy-oriented, at least by comparison with those of previous periods. The unfinished Laws, for example, offers detailed, pragmatic guidance on the founding of a city-state, an issue that the Republic treats much more abstractly.

Apart from two voyages to Sicily, Plato remained in Athens for the rest of his life. He died in 347 BCE, but his influence lived on through the Academy and the dozens of philosophers it had hosted through the years. By the European Middle Ages, however, 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 produced a Latin edition of his known writings (known in English as the Complete Works of Plato, 1484). 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 rediscovery of his works in the Renaissance, Plato's dialogues have circulated in an ever-widening variety of editions and translations, and his thoughts on beauty, justice, and myriad other subjects have woven their way deep into Western philosophical culture. The Symposium, with its meditations on love and the virtuous life, is no exception.
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