Category: Persons

Plato (life and work)

Plato (428-347 BCE) fashioned his intellectual outlook in Socrates' circle. He chose to write philosophical dialogues with Socrates featuring as the main protagonist to vindicate his mentor's memory. In 387 BCE he founded the Academy. The theory of Ideas forms the foundation of his entire philosophy. Plato is in essence the thinker who instituted the field of philosophy, set its limits and determined its future course.

Plato's formation

Plato was born in Athens in 428 BCE and reached maturity in the context of the troubled period during the last years of the Peloponnesian war. He came from one of the most renowned and ancient families of Athens with a felt presence in its political affairs on the side of the supporters of oligarchy. The rise and fall of Critias, his mother's cousin and leader of the Thirty Tyrants, must have been a determining experience for him. Critias, much like Charmides and Alcibiades, belonged in Plato's closed social milieu.

It is reasonable to assume that Plato must have seen the move made by the Thirty Tyrants to establish an oligarchic regime, while ascribing Athens' defeat in the Peloponnesian war to the city's inner decline, in a favourable light. Yet, the brutal violence that the authoritarian regime subsequently imposed convinced Plato that no political system can prevail on the basis of sheer coercion. Nevertheless, Plato never acceded to the egalitarian logic of direct democracy which, to his mind, barred the virtuous citizens' access to power and brought demagogues to the fore. His negative view of democracy was consolidated when he saw the leaders of the democratic restoration (that followed upon the fall of the Thirty Tyrants) bring Socrates to court and lead him to his ultimate death (in 399 BCE).

Plato's disappointment with democracy and the extant oligarchy could have led him to a form of political abstinence. Yet, he tried to relate political theory and praxis as is testified by his failed trips to Sicily. His determinative decision to found the Academy bears additional witness to his orientation.

"either philosophers become kings in our states or those whom we now call our kings and rulers take to the pursuit of philosophy seriously and adequately, and there is a conjunction of these two things, political power and philosophic intelligence ... there can be no cessation of troubles for our states, nor, I fancy, for the human race either. Nor, until this happens, will this constitution which we have been expounding in theory ever be put into practice within the limits of possibility and see the light of the sun." (The State 473c,d. (Plato. Plato in Twelve Volumes, Vols. 5 & 6 transl. Paul Shorey. Cambridge, MA, Harvard University Press; London, William Heinemann Ltd. 1969)

Plato went to Syracuse three times invited by the city's tyrants (leaders). He hoped that in that particular area of Hellenism that was infused with a still alive Pythagorean tradition he could achieve what he had envisioned as the essential intertwinement of power and knowledge. His hopes were brutally crushed all three times, and it is even claimed that after his first trip in 388 he was sold as slave and only marginally, and accidentally, saved in the end.

The foundation of the Academy

The negative experience of the first trip to Sicily forced Plato to seek an alternative solution to his political-philosophical dilemmas. If the vision of a comprehensive transformation of society seemed impossible, then there could at least exist a small scale ideal state within Athens itself; a niche of resistance against the prevailing ethos. The idea of founding the Academy was born this way in 387 BCE. The Academy came to life as an innovative institution. One has to visualise it as an enclosed organisation of like-minders, who came to the decision to live a common life devoted to philosophy and scientific knowledge. In a way, the Academy served as the first academic institution of the antiquity, a self-enclosed school of philosophy. It was organised on the basis of an hierarchical structure with a leader ("scholarch") in charge, specialised researchers, instructors and students, regular and trainee members. Its intellectual ideal, the pursuit of truth, undergirded its projects and gave the members of the Platonic Academy a sense of co-belonging. To Plato himself, however, knowledge had value only to the extent that it could lead to moral improvement and social harmony. The dominant feature of the Academy, consequently, was the commonality of life patterns concerning its members, the common pursuits and constructive dialogue through which the younger generations of students would find their way.

Some of the most creative minds of the era gathered around the Academy: Theaetetus the mathematician, the astronomers Eudoxus, Kallipos and Herakleides, the philosophers Speusippus, Xenocrates, Phillipus and, of course, Aristotle, who spent twenty years as a member of the Academy. Plato's creativity found a congenial environment in the Academy until his death in 347 BCE. Given his predilection for the oral practice of philosophy, we assume that he devoted the greatest part of his activity to the instruction and moral-intellectual formation of his students. It has been suggested that the most complex and significant philosophical issues that were taught and debated among the inner circle of the most advanced students were never registered in written form so that their meaning would stay intact and undiluted from contact with the outside world. What is certain is that all of Plato's mature dialogues were written, read and debated within the Academy.

The foundation of the Platonic Academy constitutes a turning point for the history of ancient Greek philosophy. Its operation has rendered inconceivable the model of a solitary practice of philosophy. At the end of the 4th century and a few years after Plato's demise, the paradigm of philosophical schools became the norm. In Athens three other important schools of philosophy came to existence, namely Aristotle's Lyceum, the Stoa and the Garden of Epicurus. And all this without taking into account the multiple circles of the Socratic philosophers, who never formed distinctly or strictly organised groups. It is the history of conflicting philosophical schools that comes to be the dominant element in all historical accounts of ancient Greek philosophy from this point on.

Plato's philosophy - influences

Plato's philosophy constitutes the first systematic effort to interpret fully human nature and agency. Plato is the thinker who circumscribed and distinguished philosophy from all other approaches to reality, that is, poetry, religion, politics. In essence, Plato instituted philosophy and determined its future course.

As is natural, Platonic philosophy integrates elements from previous thinkers. Aristotle mentions that in his youth Plato came in contact through Cratylus with Heraclitus' doctrines (Metaphysics A987a32). From the latter he may have kept the notion that the sensible realm is in such a state of flux that no certainty can be established from it. On the other hand, in Parmenides' immutable Being he found the model of his own conception of the Ideas, which form the only source of intellectual certainty exactly because they are self-existent, immutable and accessible to the pure intellect. He was also influenced by the Pythagoreans both with regard to the issue of the immortality of the soul and the determining importance of mathematics for philosophy. In fact, it is widely held that towards the end of his life Plato and his disciples succumbed to the allure of Pythagorean principles.

But none of the above influences can compare with the Socratic impact. Plato's thought gradually reached philosophical perfection through Socrates' circle and impact. Following Socrates, Plato perceives philosophy as cultivation and refinement of the soul and art of proper living in the confines of the city, while identifying virtue with knowledge. He follows Socrates and the Sophists in their anthropocentric turn of philosophy and progressively determines a mode of problem examination that relies on dialogue, the exchange and thorough examination of arguments and the systematic ranking of concepts and values. Platonic dialectics comes to integrate the Socratic one. He even shares with Socrates the preference for orality. And if Socrates chose not to leave any written works behind, Plato resorted to a form of written discourse, the philosophical dialogue, which sought to preserve all the advantages of oral communication since Platonic philosophy is mostly a form of instruction and seeks to inseminate the disciple's soul with the mentor's reason (Phaedrus 276a-277a).

Plato wrote around thirty dialogues, which have all been preserved in immaculate condition -an exceptional event in the history of ancient philosophy. Experts in the field draw a distinction between the mature ones and the early phase Socratic dialogues while discerning a third subsequent stage during which Plato reviews and reconstructs his earlier work.

Plato's theory of Ideas constitutes his most significant contribution to philosophy. Human beings attain to the Ideas through a rigorous education programme, yet find in their effort an unexpected ally in the moving force of love. Plato's ideal state is an extensive organised academic institution where wisdom reigns supreme ensuring this way that the valiant citizens can accede to the Ideas. It is on the latter that Plato depends for his comprehensive interpretation of reality. The Ideas are the foundation of his ontology to the extent that Ideas only, and not sensible beings, partake of a genuine hypostasis. Only the intellectual grasp of the Ideas, and especially the highest Idea and principle of all, that of the Good [Agathon], can ground genuine and definitive knowledge. Finally, the Ideas are firm moral values unaffected by the environment and the historic conjuncture, which can determine moral behaviour.

The theory of Ideas formed the basis of the academic tradition in the field of philosophy. Plato's disciples, and most of all Aristotle, submitted it to criticism, and arguably it was never taken to be an inflexible dogma, not even by Plato himself. In his later work, but also in his so called unwritten doctrines, Plato sought to bridge the gap between sensible beings and the Ideas by introducing new ontological distinctions, approaching the proper human life in terms of a mixture of practical wisdom [phronesis] and pleasure [hedone] (in Philebus) and laying the foundations of an extraordinary teleological interpretation of the natural world (in Timaeus).

Author: Vassilis Kalfas
  • Fine, G. ed. The Oxford Handbook of Plato. Oxford, 2008.
  • Kraut, R. ed. The Cambridge Companion to Plato. Cambridge, 1992.
  • Kraut, R. "Plato." Zalta, E.N ed. Stanford Encyclopeidia of Philosophy 2013.
  • Nails, D. Τhe People of Plato: A Prosopography of Plato and Other Socratics. Ινδιανάπολις, 2002.
  • Nightingale, A.W. Genres in Dialogue: Plato and the Construction of Philosophy. Καίμπριτζ, 1993.
  • Thesleff, H. "Plato’s Life." Press, G. ed. The Continuum Companion to Plato. Λονδίνο, Νεά Υόρκη: London, 2012.
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