Plato was born in 428/7 or 424/3 BC1 to a scion of the Athenian aristocracy. His father, Ariston, was an alleged descendent of the Neleid dynasty which ruled Athens for two generations prior to the abolition of the monarchy & insitution of the perpetual archonship in the 11th century BC who held a cleruchy (landholding) on the island of Aegina, settled by Athenians in 431 BC after the expulsion of the natives. Plato's mother was Perictione, a descendent of the archon Dropides, a relation & confidant of the great Athenian statesman Solon, and a niece to Critias, who emerged as a leading light among the Thirty Tyrants imposed by the Spartans in 404 BC following Athens' defeat in the Peloponnesian Wars. Her brother was Charmides, a ward & protégé of Critias, who was also active during this brief oligarchic period. Plato's two older brothers, Glaucon & Adeimantusa, had been praised for their part in a battle near Megara, either in 424 or more likely 4092 which saw one of the last Athenian land victories of the conflict. In addition, a sister, Potone, was the mother of Speusippus, Plato's eventual successor as scholarch. Diogenes Laërtius [Lives of the Eminent Philosophers 3.4]3 suggests that Plato's given name was Aristocles.
Various legends became attached to Plato's birth & infancy. Apuleius4, best known for his novel The Golden Ass, recorded a tradition which stated that he was born on the anniversary of Leto's appearance on Delos and was conceived through Perictione's receipt of a divine vision. Furthermore, Leto's son Apollo intervened to stymie Ariston's attempts to force himself upon Perictione. Ariston died shortly after Plato's birth and Perictione married her mother's brother Pyrilampes, a former associate of the strategos Pericles, giving him a son, Antiphon.
Plato was the subject of one extant ancient biography, written by Diogenes3. From it, it appears as though the young Plato have been afforded both an extensive physical and mental education, studying under one Dionysius and learning the art of wrestling from an Argive, also called Ariston, possibly competing in the discipline at the Isthmian Games. As a young man, he dabbled with poetry, with Diogenes citing an example dedicated to a certain Archeanassa of Colophon, described ("absurdly" in the opinion of contemporary philosopher Roger Scruton5) as Plato's mistress, though destroyed all of his work after encountering Socratesb, following his mentor into philosophy. Another possible female love of Plato was a certain Xanthippe (a namesake of Socrates' wife), whilst male favourites included his Syracusan associate Dion [Lives 3.30], as well as Alexis, Phaedrus [3.31] & Agathon [3.32]. Plato later contemplated a career in politics at the time that Athens was under the rule of the Thirty Tyrants, as he himself suggests in his Seventh Letter6 [324c-d]: -
The existing constitution being generally condemned, a revolution took place, and fifty-one men came to the front as rulers of the revolutionary government, namely eleven in the city and ten in the Peiraeus-each of these bodies being in charge of the market and municipal matters - while thirty were appointed rulers with full powers over public affairs as a whole. Some of these were relatives and acquaintances of mine, and they at once invited me to share in their doings, as something to which I had a claim. The effect on me was not surprising in the case of a young man. I considered that they would, of course, so manage the State as to bring men out of a bad way of life into a good one. So I watched them very closely to see what they would do.
He quickly becomes disturbed by the carnage wrought by the tyrants and decides against further involvement in political life [324d-325a]: -
And seeing, as I did, that in quite a short time they made the former government seem by comparison something precious as gold - for among other things they tried to send a friend of mine, the aged Socrates, whom I should scarcely scruple to describe as the most upright man of that day, with some other persons to carry off one of the citizens by force to execution, in order that, whether he wished it, or not, he might share the guilt of their conduct; but he would not obey them, risking all consequences in preference to becoming a partner in their iniquitous deeds-seeing all these things and others of the same kind on a considerable scale, I disapproved of their proceedings, and withdrew from any connection with the abuses of the time.
The tyrants were eventually ousted by another revolution, and Socrates was executed in 399 BC. Subsequently, having fallen in with Cratylus the Heraclitean and Hermogenes, a follower of Parmenides, in the wake of Socrates' death, Plato left Athens, reputedly at the age of 28, at first to go to Megara, where many of Socrates' former followers had settled at the home of the philosopher Euclides. It was around this time that Plato began writing his wide-ranging body of philosophical works, known as the Dialogues, the earliest of which heavily focus on Socrates as a protagonist. One of the most significant is the Apology, written shortly after Socrates' death.
After Megara, Plato is said [3.6-7] to have ventured to Cyrene & Italy, visiting the mathematician Theodorus in Africa and two Pythagoreans, Philolaus & Eurytus. Diogenes3 mentions a journey to Egypt to consult "those who interpreted the will of the gods," though this tradition is problematic.
Plato returned to Athens in about 387 BC, founding the Akademia or Academy at a site which included a sacred grove of olive trees, which developed into the one of the ancient world's premier philosophical schools, and surviving for just over three centuries until its initial destruction by Lucius Cornelius Sulla in 86 BC. Among Plato's students at the Academy was Aristotle, who went on to become a polymathic scholar with a wide range of interests, whose influence rivals that of Plato himself. Notably, female students were admitted to the Academy: Axiothea of Phlius & Lasthaenia of Mantinea7, the former at least customarily wearing men's garb [Diogenes3 3.46], and the latter, described by Athenaeus of Naucratis8 [Deipnosophists 7.10] as "the Arcadian courtesan," becoming Speusippus' lover.
As a speaker, Plato is described as somewhat soft-voiced, which is contrasted to his stocky frame: a Timon, as noted by Diogenes3 [3.7], calls him "a big fish, but a sweet-voiced speaker, musical in prose as the cicada who, perched on the trees of Hecademus, pours forth a strain as delicate as a lily."
Plato's thinking continued to be influential, and the Academy was refounded in the early 5th century AD by the Neoplatonists. The new Academy was closed by the emperor Justinian in 529. Plato's philosophy would go on to influence Western9 10 and, to some extent, Islamic thinkers11 12 of the Middle Ages and beyond. In particular, the cosmogony outlined in the Timaeus influenced Christian thinkers, in particular those of the disparate group of sects today known by the shorthand term Gnostics13 c.
Plato's later career took in a number of further journeys to Sicily, where he had come into contact with members of the Pythagorean school, who followed " built upon the teachings of the 6th century Samian philosopher & mystic Pythagoras. Pythagorean ideas, particularly in the field of mathematics, would prove a major influence on Plato's later work, including the Timaeus14. Probably through the Pythagoreans, Plato was also exposed to ideas derived from Orphism15. His efforts to influence the political life of the Greek city of Syracuse in Sicily will be dealt with elsewhere. His journeys to Sicily would have placed Plato in close proximity to the sphere of influence of the Carthaginians, rivals of the Greeks. It is highly likely that Plato drew on material of Carthaginian origin when describing the mysterious west in the dialogues.
He eventually died at an advanced age (usually estimated as his eighties), in around 348/347 BC. According to one tradition, his death took place on his 81st birthday, having apparently fulfilled his earlier desire to initiate contact with the magi. Upon his death, Phillip S. Horky16 relates: "the magoi sacrificed to Plato because he had completed the perfect number nine times nine," and later asks "why would members of the early Academy wish to emphasize the encounter between Plato on his deathbed and visiting 'barbaric' practitioners of wisdom from the east?" Horky concludes that these traditions originated with Plato's student & secretary Philip of Opus and discusses convergences between Platonic & Zoroastrian philosophy.
aTranslator Benjamin Jowett, in his Introduction to Plato's Republic, notes that Xenophon portrays Glaucon as Plato's junior in his Memorabilia [3.6] - [link]. ▲
bDiogenes [3.5] recounts the story of Socrates' dream of a swan the evening before this fateful meeting, after which he announced that the swan represented Plato. ▲
cIt is worth noting, however, that Plato differs from classic Gnosticism in his depiction of the demiurge the creator of the universe and a force for - and source of all - good, whereas, for the Gnostics, the term denotes the evil creator of the material universe, normally identified with the GOD of the Old Testament. ▲
1Nails, Debra (2002). The People of Plato: A Prosopography of Plato & Other Socratics, s.v. "Ariston" & "Plato" [link] ▲
2Lampert, Laurence (2010). How Philosophy Became Socratic: A Study of Plato's "Protagoras," "Charmides," and "Republic" [link] ▲
3Diogenes Laërtius (early 3rd century AD), translated by Hicks, Robert Drew (1925). Lives of the Eminent Philosophers [link] ▲
4Apuleius (late 2nd century AD). De Dogmate Platonis [link] ▲
5Scruton, Roger (2014). The Soul of the World [link] ▲
6Plato (c.360 BC), translated by Harward, John (1928). The Seventh & Eighth Platonic Epistles, s.v. "Seventh Letter" [link] ▲
7Reeve, C.D.C. (2001). Women in the Academy [link] ▲
8Athenaeus (3rd century AD), translated by Yonge, C.D. (1854). The Deipnosophists, or Banquet of the Learned of Athenæus [link] ▲
9McKitterick, Rosamond (1992). Knowledge of Plato's Timaeus in the Ninth Century, in Jeauneau, Édouard & Westra, Haijo Jan (1992). From Athens to Chartres: Neoplatonism & Medieval Thought - Studies in Honour of Édouard Jeauneau [link] ▲
10Murray, K. Sarah Jane (2008). From Plato to Lancelot: A Preface to Chrétien de Troyes [link] ▲
11Glassé, Cyril & Smith, Huston (2003). The New Encyclopedia of Islam, s.v. "Philosophy" [link] ▲
12Huff, Toby E. (2003). The Rise of Early Modern Science: Islam, China & the West [link] ▲
13Novotný, František & Fábryová, Jana (1977). The Posthumous Life of Plato [link] ▲
14Horky, Phillip Sidney (2013). Plato & Pythagoreanism [link] ▲
15McGahey, Robert (1994). The Orphic Moment: Shaman to Poet-Thinker in Plato, Nietzsche, & Mallarme [link] ▲
16Horky, Phillip Sidney (2009). Persian Cosmos & Greek Philosophy: Plato's Associates & the Zoroastrian Magoi, in Inwood, Brad [ed.] (2009). Oxford Studies in Ancient Philosophy [link] ▲
fig1Anonymous, copied from Silanion (4th century BC). Plato [source] ▲
fig2Collage of artwork of Anne Bonny - [source] - & Mary Read - [source] - from Assassin's Creed IV: Black Flag. Assassin's Creed IV: Black Flag was created by Patrice Désilets, Jade Raymond & Corey May and is the property of Ubisoft. ▲
fig3Patrick Stewart as Jean-Luc Picard from Star Trek: The Next Generation. Star Trek: The Next Generation is the property of CBS & Paramount Pictures. [source] ▲
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