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Plato | Biography

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Early Life

Plato was born in Athens, Greece, c. 429 BCE, to Ariston and Periktione, parents who boasted a long and distinguished lineage. As young men Plato and his older brothers, Glaucon and Adeimantus, were part of the circle that gathered around Socrates, a philosopher (meaning "lover of wisdom") who steadily acquired a reputation as one of the most distinctive teachers in Athens.

According to his Seventh Letter—the authenticity of which has been debatable—Plato originally intended to enter politics and become a statesman but was gradually deterred by contemporary clashes in the political arena.

Turbulence and Change in Athens

The late fifth century BCE in Athens, coinciding with Plato's formative years, was a time of extraordinary turmoil. During Plato's childhood and adolescence, beginning in 431 BCE, Athens and its city-state allies waged a lengthy war against Sparta. The Peloponnesian War lasted for 27 years and ended in a humiliating defeat for Athens.

In addition to the protracted war, Athenians witnessed a significant shift in education. This was the age of the Sophists, a new class of paid, professional teachers who claimed to instruct students according to a systematic curriculum spanning a broad range of subjects.

Plato and Socrates

Plato's dialogues show he believed Socrates to have been distinctly different from the Sophists. For instance, as a philosopher who searched for wisdom and truth, Socrates would be the last person to settle for rhetorical strength over authentic reason and truth. However, it seems likely that, despite his considerable differences with the Sophists, Socrates ran the risk of being lumped with them in the popular imagination. Take, for example, the satirical portrait of Socrates as an eccentric, pedantic Sophist in Aristophanes's Clouds, produced in 423 BCE.

In 399 BCE Socrates was put on trial for impiety. He was charged with disrespecting the city's traditional gods and introducing new ones and also for corrupting the youth of Athens. Plato was careful to record his mentor's harrowing ordeal. In the Apology Plato reported Socrates's own defense of his life, his beliefs, and his teaching. In the dialogues Phaedo and Crito, Plato offers glimpses of Socrates's final days in prison and of his death. His punishment was to drink a lethal dose of poison hemlock.

Plato's Middle Years

The trial and execution of Socrates certainly marked a turning point in Plato's lifetime. Over the 15 years that followed, he seems to have made at least two significant decisions. Although modern knowledge of the details is sketchy, the decisions can be characterized generally as follows:

  • Having spent all his youth and early middle years in Athens, Plato began to travel abroad—most likely to Egypt and certainly to southern Italy and Sicily. Here he made important friendships, including ones with Dion, who was closely related to the tyrant-ruler of Syracuse, and Archytas of Tarentum, a follower of the philosopher Pythagoras (c. 580–550 BCE). Over time Dion would encourage Plato to put the theory of the philosopher-king into practice, using the rulership of Syracuse as a testing ground. The experiment proved to be a dismal failure.
  • Around 385 BCE, Plato founded his own school, the Academy, located on the outskirts of Athens. Although Plato's goal seems to have been to prepare students for public service, the curriculum of the Academy was focused primarily on philosophy and science—notably mathematics and astronomy. The Academy has been called the forerunner of the modern university. Over the front entrance an inscription is said to have read: "Let no one enter who is ignorant of geometry." The Academy is thought to have existed for nearly a millennium. It was finally closed down by the Byzantine emperor Justinian in 529 CE. Plato's most distinguished student at the school was certainly the philosopher Aristotle (384–322 BCE). After Plato's death Aristotle was not chosen as his successor but went on instead to found his own school, the Lyceum.

Death and Legacy

The dating of Plato's works remains controversial. He spent the last 13 years of his life with the Academy, where he was buried after his death in 347 BCE. He is still one of the world's best-known and widely read philosophers.

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