Category: Persons

Ancient biographies of Plato

Six extensive biographies of Plato survive from antiquity. These are our main sources of information about the philosopher’s life.

 Various ancient sources transmit information about Plato’s life, starting from the Platonic dialogues themselves: Plato’s Seventh Epistle includes crucial biographical facts, although its authenticity has been disputed; Aristotle refers to several incidents, mainly regarding Plato’s philosophical activity; later writers, such as Cicero, Plutarch, and Stobaeus tell stories about the philosopher’s life. These texts are not biographies in the strict sense of the word. The first proper biographies of Plato were written by his disciples. These were the primary sources for the surviving biographies of Plato. Regarding ancient biography, one should always keep in mind that it is a literary genre aiming at sketching the biographee’s personality rather than researching or documenting the information delivered. As a result, the fictitious dimension of ancient biography often makes it very difficult if not impossible to distinguish between literary imagination and historical facts. These features characterize Plato’s ancient biographies and confirm the philosopher’s early idealization. The basic structure of Plato’s biographies presents the following common elements:

1. Birth and origin of Plato

2. Education

3. Youth

4. Meeting Socrates and commitment to philosophy

5. Travels to Sicily

6. Other voyages, commonly including Egypt

7. Establishment of the Academy and philosophical activity

8. Death of the philosopher and public funeral Most biographies also add the names (or even biographies) of Plato’s successors in the Academy.

The surviving biographies of Plato

1) Philodemus’ Index Academicorum (PHerc. 1021, 164) These are the only surviving papyri containing Plato’s biography as well as the history of the Academy. They both belong to the Epicurean philosopher Philodemus (1st c. BCE), and they are part of his work on the history of the philosophical schools of antiquity. The composition of this biography is not Philodemus’ original work. The writer copies and processes earlier, mainly Hellenistic, sources. The biography is followed by the history of the Academy, organized in successions of teachers to disciples.

2) Apuleius’ De Platone et dogmate eius 1.1-4 The second earliest biography of Plato that survives comes from Lucius Apuleius of Madauros (2nd c. CE). It is also the only surviving biography of Plato written in Latin. Apuleius’ work, On Plato and His Doctrines, starts with the philosopher’s biography and continues with a summary of his philosophical beliefs. Being a novelist and a Platonist, Apuleius presents a strong tendency to enrichen his sort biography of Plato with literary elements and fictional accounts. He is fascinated by such stories as the philosopher’s divine origin and Socrates’ prophetic dream before his meeting with Plato. In general, Apuleius’ attitude is especially favorable towards Plato.

3) Diogenes LaertiusLives and Opinions of Eminent Philosophers, 3.1-47

4) Olympiodorus, Commentary on Plato's Alcibiades I, 2.14-3.2 Three centuries intervened between Diogenes Laertius’ work and the next surviving biography of Plato. The latter is found in the introduction of a commentary on Plato’s First Alcibiades attributed to Olympiodorus (6th c. CE). The writer justifies his choice of introducing his commentary with Plato’s biography by supporting its educational value. His emphasis on the educational character of Platonic philosophy recurs in Plato’s biography itself, where the philosopher’s educational experiences are presented in detail.

5) Anonymous’ Prolegomena to Platonic Philosophy The Prolegomena represent the kind of instructional handbooks of Platonic philosophy, which were popular in late antiquity. Towards the end of the work, it is explicitly stated that it has been written as an introductory lecture to Platonic philosophy. The writer remains unknown. It is probable that he belonged to the 6th c. CE Alexandrian school. Apart from the philosopher’s biography, the anonymous author focuses on the dialogical character of Plato’s works as well as his method of philosophical instruction. The structure of this biography deviates from the standard: the writer reorganizes his material in order to defend more strongly Plato’s connection to Apollo’s cult. The anonymous author constructs five different arguments to support Plato’s characterization as “Apollonian”.

6) Suda, Plato Suda, a Byzantine encyclopedic dictionary of the 10th century, is a massive work that includes more than thirty thousand entries. As a composition based on earlier numerous sources, it preserves valuable information about the history of the ancient world. Given the enormous volume of information that it transmits, Suda inevitably betrays a rough and rather uncritical treatment of earlier material. Suda delivers two entries on Plato (P1707 and 1709). The former presents a short biography of Plato, apparently depended on Diogenes Laertius’ work and followed by a list of names of Plato’s successors in the Academy. The second entry refers to Platonic doctrines, primarily derived from Plato’s Laws and Phaedo. There is nothing new about Plato’s life in these entries, apart from the false information that Plato lived in poverty and possessed only the garden of the Academy.

Author: Spyros Benetatos
  • Moreschini, C. Apuleio e il Platonismo. Florence, 1987.
  • Boas, G. "Fact and Legend in the Biography of Plato." The Philosophical Review 57 (1948)
  • Alder, A. ed. Suda RE IVA.7. Stuttgard, 1931.
  • Westerink, L.G. ed. Olympiodorus: Commentary on the first Alcibiades of Plato. Άμστερνταμ, 1956.
  • Riginos, A.S. Platonica. The Anecdotes Concerning the Life and Writings of Plato. leiden, 1976.
  • Hägg, T. The Art of Biography in Antiquity. New York, 2012.
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