Plato (427–347 BC)

DOI: 10.4324/9780415249126-A088-2
Version: v2,  Published online: 2002
Retrieved February 20, 2019, from

1. Life

Evidence about Plato’s life is prima facie plentiful. As well as several ancient biographies, notably that contained in book III of Diogenes LaertiusLives of the Philosophers, we possess a collection of thirteen letters which purport to have been written by Plato. Unfortunately the biographies present what has been aptly characterized as ’a medley of anecdotes, reverential, malicious, or frivolous, but always piquant’. As for the letters, no scholar thinks them all authentic, and some judge that none is.

From the biographies it is safe enough to accept some salient points. Plato was born of an aristocratic Athenian family. He was brother to Glaucon and Adimantus, Socrates’ main interlocutors in the Republic; his relatives included Critias and Charmides, members of the bloody junta which seized power in Athens at the end of the Peloponnesian War. He became one of the followers of Socrates, after whose execution he withdrew with others among them to the neighbouring city of Megara. His travels included a visit to the court of Dionysius in Sicily. On returning from Sicily to Athens he began teaching in a gymnasium outside the city, called the Academy.

The Seventh Letter, longest and most interesting of the collection of letters, gives a good deal of probably trustworthy information, whether or not it was written by Plato himself. It begins with an account of his growing disenchantment with Athenian politics in early manhood and of his decision against a political career. This is prefatory to a sketch of the visit to Dionysius in Syracuse, which is followed by an elaborate self-justifying explanation of why and how, despite his decision, Plato later became entangled in political intrigue in Sicily, once the young Dionysius II had succeeded to his father’s throne. There were two separate visits to the younger Dionysius: one (c.366 bc) is represented as undertaken at the behest of Dion, nephew of Dionysius I, in the hope of converting him into a philosopher- ruler; the other (c.360 bc) was according to the author an attempt to mediate between Dionysius and Dion, now in exile and out of favour. Both ventures were humiliating failures.

Of more interest for the history of philosophy is Plato’s activity in the Academy. We should not conceive, as scholars once did, that he established a formal philosophical school, with its own property and institutional structures. Although he acquired a house and garden in the vicinity, where communal meals were probably taken, much of his philosophical teaching and conversation may well have been conducted in the public space of the gymnasium itself. Some sense of the Academy’s distinctive style may be gleaned from evidence of the contemporaneous writings of the philosophical associates he attracted, notably his nephew Speusippus, Xenocrates, Aristotle and the mathematician Eudoxus. Discussion of Plato’s metaphysical ideas figured prominently in these; but orthodoxy was not expected, to judge from their philosophical disagreements with him and with each other. Aristotle’s early Topics suggests that an important role was played by formal disputation about philosophical theses.

From the educational programme of the Republic one might have guessed that Plato would have attached importance to the teaching of mathematics as a preparation for philosophy, but we have better evidence for his encouraging research in it. While he was not an original mathematician himself, good sources tell us that he formulated problems for others to solve: for example, what uniform motions will account for the apparent behaviour of the planets. Otherwise there is little reliable information on what was taught in the Academy: not much can be inferred from the burlesque of comic playwrights. Since almost certainly no fees were charged, most of those who came to listen to Plato (from all over the Greek world) must have been aristocrats. Some are known to have entered politics or to have advised princes, particularly on constitutional reform. But the Academy had no political mission of its own. Indeed the rhetorician Isocrates, head of a rival school and admittedly not an unbiased witness, dismissed the abstract disciplines favoured by the Academy for their uselessness in the real world.

Citing this article:
Schofield, Malcolm. Life. Plato (427–347 BC), 2002, doi:10.4324/9780415249126-A088-2. Routledge Encyclopedia of Philosophy, Taylor and Francis,
Copyright © 1998-2019 Routledge.

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