Plato was born in Athens (or in Egina, according to others, following Favorinus), probably in 428 or 427 B.C. of a family belonging to the Athenian aristocracy, who claimed to be a descendant of Solon by direct line.
His real name was Aristotle, although it seems he was called Plato because of the width of his back, as Diogenes Laertius says in his”Life of the illustrious philosophers”, an anecdote that has been called into question.
Plato’s parents were Ariston and Perictione, who had two other sons, Adimanto and Glaucon, who will both appear as Socrates’ interlocutors in the Republic, and a daughter, Potone.
At the death of his father, Plato as a child, his mother remarried Pyrilampa, a friend of Pericles’, at the expense of Plato’s, so it is assumed that Plato could have received a teaching proper to the democratic traditions of the Pericles regime.
In any case, Plato received the education proper to a well-placed young Athenian, necessary to devote himself fully to political life, as befits someone in his position.
According to Diogenes Laertius, he wrote poems and tragedies, although we cannot say for sure. He was also a disciple of the Heraclitean Cratilo, a news that cannot be confirmed either.
Plato’s political vocation is confirmed by his own declarations in the well-known letter VII.
Its realization was frustrated by the participation of two of his relatives, Carmides and Crítias. In the tyranny imposed by Sparta after the Peloponnesian war.
Known as the Thirty Tyrants, it exercised a violent and fierce repression against the leaders of democracy.
However, his political interest will never leave him and will be reflected in one of his greatest works, the Republic.
The influence of Socrates
In the year 407, at the age of twenty, he met Socrates, being admired by the personality and the speech of Socrates.
An admiration that will accompany him all his life and will mark Plato’s philosophical future. It seems unlikely that Plato had a very intense relationship with the one he considered his master.
If we understand the term relationship in its most personal sense, it is true that it was understood in its most theoretical sense, and of an intensity that borders on dependence.
But there are also contradictory positions on their relationship with Socrates.
The fact that he was not present at the death of Socrates led one to believe that he did not belong to the inner circle of Socrates’ friends.
However, it appears that it was offered as a guarantee of the fine that the House would presumably impose on Socrates before he changed his decision to the death penalty.
In 399, after Socrates’ death, Plato left Athens and settled in Megaera, where the philosopher Euclid resided, who had founded a Socratic school in that city.
Later it seems that he made trips through Egypt and was in Cyrene, (both news, although probable, difficult to contrast, Plato never mentioned to such trips, so it is also likely that after a brief stay in Megaera returned to Athens).
It was later in Italy where he met Arquitas de Tarento, who ran a Pythagorean society, and with whom he became friends.
Invited to the court of Dionysus I, in Syracuse, he befriended Dion, who was Dionysus’s brother-in-law, and with whom he conceived the idea of implementing certain political ideas on good government that required Dionysus’ collaboration.
Apparently, the conditions of the court were not the best for undertaking such projects, with Dionysus exercising as a tyrant of Syracuse.
Irritated by Plato’s frankness, according to tradition, he held him prisoner or had him sold into slavery in Egina, then enemy of Athens, finally rescued by a fellow citizen who returned him free to Athens.
Once in Athens, in the year 388-387, he founded the Academy, a name he received for being near the sanctuary dedicated to the hero Academos.
A kind of”university” where all kinds of sciences were studied, such as mathematics (of the importance Plato’s attached to mathematical studies).
Legend has it that the frontispiece of the Academy reads:”Let no one enter here who does not know mathematics”), astronomy, or physics, in addition to other philosophical knowledge.
With an organization similar to that of the Pythagorean schools, which may have involved a certain secret, or mystical, the character of some of the doctrines taught there.
The Academy will continue its activity uninterruptedly throughout the centuries, going through different ideological phases, until Justinian decrees its closure in the year 529 of our era.
In the year 369, he set out on a second journey to Syracuse, invited by Dion, this time to the court of Dionysus II, son of Dionysus I.
The objective of taking charge of his education; but the results were no better than with his father; after some difficulties (he was apparently in a semi-prison situation) he manages to leave Syracuse and return to Athens.
Dion also had to take refuge in Athens, having fallen out with Dionysius I, where he continued his friendship with Plato.
A few years later, in 361, at the request of Dionysus II, he made a third trip to Syracuse. Failing as on previous occasions, he returned to Athens in the year 360 where he continued his activities at the Academy.
He was progressively won over by disappointment and pessimism, which is reflected in his latest works, until his death in 348-347.
Plato chooses dialogue as a way of expressing his thoughts; perhaps as a tribute to his master Socrates, whom he otherwise makes his interlocutor of practically all of them.
His work can be divided into several periods, according to different criteria, is one of the most accepted classifications the chronological one:
1. Youth dialogues (28 to 38 years old) (399-389)
The youth dialogues are dominated by Socratic themes, and in them, Plato remains faithful to what Socrates taught. The trips to Megaera, Cyrene, Egypt, and Italy are from this period.
- Apology of Socrates (the famous Socratic portrait of the young Plato)
- Critón (Socrates in prison on civic problems)
- Laques (The Value)
- Lisis (Friendship)
- Carmides (Temperance)
- Eutyphron (The Mercy)
- Ion (Poetry as a divine gift)
Protagoras (Is Virtue Teachable?) (There is a bilingual Greek/Spanish version of this work on the Internet, in the pages of the Project Philosophy in Spanish, (filosofia.org), but you will need to install the Greek font in order to see it correctly: you will find it in the page of Plato’s biography and works, from the same site.)
2. Transition Dialogues (38 to 41 years old) (389-385)
In this period Plato pours into his dialogues some opinions that we cannot consider strictly Socratic.
Beginning to introduce elements of his own harvest, some of which already point to the theory of Ideas.
At this time took place the first trip to Syracuse (Sicily) to the court of Dionysus first and friendship with Dionysius. The object of the journey fails, being sold by Dionysus as a slave in Egina and rescued by a fellow citizen.
- Gorgias (On rhetoric and politics)
- Cricket (On the meaning of words)
- Greater and Lesser Hippies (On the beauty of the former, and on the truth of the latter)
- Eutidemo (On the sophist eroticism)
- Menon (Is virtue teachable?)
- Menecene (parody of funeral prayers)
3. Maturity Dialogues (41 to 56 years old) (386-370)
In these works, we already find Plato’s thought in all its dimension. The influence of Socrates is minimal, and the thought he expresses in the dialogues strictly responds to Plato’s thought.
Its activity is mainly focused on the Academy in Athens.
- Phaedon (On the immortality of the soul, the last day of Socrates in prison)
- Banquet (About love)
- Republic (On politics and other issues: metaphysical, gnoseological, etc.)
- Phaedrus (On love, beauty and the destiny of the soul)
4. Critical and old-age dialogues (56-80 years) (370-347)
a) (369-362, from 56 to 63 years old): Critical review of the theory of Ideas and some of its consequences, even if this does not mean that they are abandoned.
Second (369) and third (361) trip to Italy to the court of Dionysus II, who soon rejected his education.
- Parmenides (Critique of the theory of ideas)
- Teeteto (About knowledge)
- Sophist (Language, rhetoric and knowledge)
- Politician (On politics and philosophy)
b) (361-347, from 64 to 78 years of age): Plato’s pessimism is growing, if we consider the content of his last works, which already in the critical phase seemed to lean towards the predominance of the mystic-religious and pythagorean elements of his thought.
- Filebo (The pleasure and the good)
- Timeo (Cosmology)
- Critias (Description of ancient Athens, Atlantis myth…)
- The Laws (The ideal city, pessimistic review of the Republic)
- Letter VII (in this letter Plato presents his well-known and brief autobiography)
Plato’s best (and worst) ideas
Few individuals have influenced the world and many of today’s thinkers like Plato. He created the first Western university and was the teacher to Ancient Greece’s greatest minds, including Aristotle.