Plato was a classical Greek philosopher and mathematician, more so known as the student of Socrates and writer of philosophical dialogues. He founded the Academy in Athens, the first institution of higher learning in the Western world. Along with his teacher Socrates and his student, Aristotle, he led the foundation of Western philosophy and science. His sophistication as a writer was evident from his important work, “Socratic Dialogues” which includes thirty-six dialogues and thirteen letters assigned to Socrates. His dialogues have been used to teach a wide range of subjects, including philosophy, logic, ethics, rhetoric, and mathematics.
Plato Childhood and Early Life
The exact location and time of Plato’s birth are still unknown but it is believed that he belonged to an aristocratic and influential family. Based on some ancient sources, he is believed to be born in Athens around 428/427 BC. His father, Ariston was a descent from the king of Athens, Codrus, and the king of Messenia, Melanthus. His mother Perictione was the sister of Charmides and niece of Critias, both prominent figures of the Thirty Tyrants. According to his notes, Plato had three siblings, two brothers, Adeimantus and Glaucon, and a sister Potone. As per popular sources, his father is believed to have died when Plato was very young. Eventually, his mother married Pyrilampes, an ambassador to the Persian court several times. He was also the friend of Pericles, the leader of the democratic faction in Athens. Antiphon was his half-brother, son of his mother and Pyrilampes. Plato grew up in the household of six children which included a stepbrother, a sister, two brothers and a half-brother.
According to Diogenes, Plato was named after his grandfather Aristocles. Later his wrestling coach dubbed him, “Platon” based on his broad and strong figure. Diogenes said that Plato derived his name either from the breadth of his eloquence or because of the wide width of his forehead. Plato received the common Athenian education, both physical and mental. He was taught grammar, music, painting, and gymnastics by the most distinguished teachers in the Athens. According to Dicaearchus, Plato wrestled at the Isthmian games and performed well. It was even said that he went for a public contest at the Pythian Games. He also attended courses of philosophy. In his youth, Plato took the profession of poetry. At first he wrote dithyrambs and then turned into writing lyric poems and tragedies. Later when he met Socrates, he burnt his poems and turned to philosophy.
Socrates and Plato
The actual relationship between Socrates and Plato is still an area of debate. From Apology of Socrates, we can derive that Plato was the most devoted young follower of Socrates. In the dialogues, he is mentioned along with Crito, Critobolus, and Apollodorus as offering to pay a fine of 30 minas on Socrates' behalf, in lieu of the death penalty proposed by Meletus. From the dialogue, Phaedo, we learn that there was a list of people present in the prison on Socrates' last day, but Plato was absent as he was ill. One of the characteristics of his dialogues was that Plato himself never spoke in his dialogues. The Second Letter famously declares, “no writing of Plato exists or ever will exist, but those now said to be his are those of a Socrates become beautiful and new”. Historians like Xenophon and Aristophanes present a different image of Socrates unlike the one shown by Plato.
According to the Seventh Letter, Plato thought of making a career in public affairs. He was even invited by the Thirty Tyrants to join the administration. (Critias and Charmides, who were close relatives of Plato and also among the leaders of Tyrants, must have helped him to get the invitation). Plato waited and hoped that the new leadership of the city would return to justice but was repelled by the ruthless acts of regime. He was highly disappointed when the Thirty tried to implicate Socrates in their seizure of the Democratic General, Leon of Salamis for summary execution. In 403 BC, the democracy was restored when the democrat forces re-grouped in exile and defeated the forces of the Thirty at the Battle of Munychia. Critias and Charmides both were killed in the battle. In 401 BC the democratic forces raided Eleusis and killed the remaining oligarchic supporters. After the removal of the Thirty from the regime, Plato thought of moving towards politics but Socrates' condemnation to death made him to drop his plan. Plato and other Socratic men had to take temporary refuge at Megara with Euclid in 399 BC.
Plato traveled to Italy, Sicily, Egypt and Cyrene and returned Athens at the age of forty. On his return to the city, he founded one of the earliest known organized schools in Western Civilization, The Academy, on a plot of land in the Grove of Hecademus or Academus. Many prominent intellectual people schooled in The Academy including Aristotle. Plato always remained entangled with the politics of the city of Syracuse. According to Diogenes, Plato first visited Syracuse under the rule of Dionysus. In his first trip Dionysus's brother-in-law, Dion of Syracuse became one of his disciples, but the Dionysus himself turned against Plato. Plato was sold into slavery and was nearly dead in Cyrene, a city at war with Athens, before an admirer rescued him and sent him home. When Dionysus died, Dion requested Plato to return to Syracuse and tutor Dionysus II, and guide him to become a philosopher king. At first Dionysus accepted his teachings but later he became suspicious of his uncle, Dion. As a result, Dion was expelled and Plato was kept against his will. Eventually, Plato left Syracuse. Dion returned and overthrew Dionysus and ruled for a short time until finally being taken over by Calippus, a fellow disciple of Plato.
In his philosophy, Plato has often discussed the father-son relationship and the "question" of whether a father's interest in his son affects the outcome of his son. In ancient Athens, a boy was socially located by his family identity, and Plato often referred to his characters in terms of their paternal and fraternal relationships. In his dialogues, Socrates often mocked men who spent exorbitant money on tutors and trainers for their sons. He advocated that good character is a gift from the Gods. In several dialogues, Socrates said that knowledge is a matter of recollection, and not of learning, observation, or study. He often argued that knowledge is not empirical, and comes from divine insight. In some middle period dialogues namely Phaedo, Republic and Phaedrus, Plato can be seen advocating the belief in the immortality of the soul. In some dialogues he had delivered long speeches imagining the afterlife.
Scholars had coined the term, “Platonism”, for the intellectual consequences of denying the reality of the material world. In dialogues like Republic, Socrates reversed the common man's intuition about what is knowable and what is real. Socrates’s idea of the reality that it is unavailable to those who use their senses differentiated him from common man. He said that those who see with their eyes are blind; this idea was elaborated in his paradoxical analogy, allegory of the cave. According to his views, physical objects and physical events are “shadows” of their ideal or perfect forms and exist till they discover the perfect versions of themselves. The allegory of the cave, which is believed to represent Plato's own epistemology and metaphysics, is closely connected to his political ideology which states that only the people who have climbed out of the cave and cast their eyes on a vision of goodness are fit to rule.
Plato’s philosophical views had many social implications, particularly on the idea of an ideal state or government. According to his views described in the Republic, he believed that the world could be divided as per the parts of the body (abdomen, chest and head) and soul (appetite, spirit and reason). While the abdomen defines the productive class such as the laborers, carpenters, plumbers, masons, merchants, farmers, ranchers which correspond to the appetite part of the soul, the warriors or the guardians form the chest part of the body (spirit part of the soul). The rulers or the philosopher’s kings on the other hand are the governing body and should form the head of the body and reason part of the soul. Another interesting argument made by Plato was when he asked people to choose between bad democracy and being ruled by a bad tyrant. According to him, it is better to be ruled by a bad tyrant, than be a bad democracy, since in the latter all people become responsible for the misdeeds rather than one.