The life and work of Plato
through surviving written sources.
through surviving written sources.
This article, our first in the English language, is a presentation of Plato's biography, through the combination of biographical information about his life and activity available in surviving sources. Much of this work is a synthesis of other scholars' research, articles, publications and texts. We made sure to verify all information as to ensure their validity, in order to attain the most faithful account of history, eliminating any ambiguities, or discontinuities, in the facts provided.
The research of the present study focused on tracking the surviving historical sources that included information about the life and actions of the great philosopher. Although Plato is one of the most popular, and widely read philosophers, the details of his life's work still remain a matter of speculation. This article is an endeavor to clarify any obscurity, regardless of its original cause.
References to Plato in ancient sources
There are details of Plato's life in a number of ancient sources, starting from the Platonic dialogues, where several passages contain accounts on the history of his family tree. Important information is found in the seventh Platonic Epistle, although its authenticity is still being disputed by some. Aristotle's references mostly describe Plato's philosophical activity, while posterior writers such as Cicero, Plutarch, Athineus, Stobaeus, etc. mention incidents from the life of the philosopher. However, these reports cannot be described as biographies strictly speaking.
Plato's first biographies were written by his own students, including Speusippus, Xenocrates, Philippos Opuntius. Here are the main surviving sources of Plato's biographies, listed in chronological order:
- Philodemus, Academicorum philosophorum index Herculanensis, 1st c. B.C.E
- Apuleius, De Platone et eius dogmate, 2nd c. A.C.E.
- Diogenes Laërtius, Lives of Eminent Philosophers, 3rd c. A.C.E.
- Olympiodorus the Younger, Life of Plato, 6th c. A.C.E.
- Anonymous, Prolegomena to Platonic Philosophy, 6th c. A.C.E.
- Souda Dictionary, two references for Plato, 10th c. A.C.E.
The Early Formation of Plato's Myth
The poetic character of ancient biography often makes it impossible to distinguish between literary fantasy and historical reality; a feature which also characterizes the surviving written sources on Plato. For example, in all the ancient texts, with the exception of Philodemus, the beginning of which is lost, the philosopher's birth appears to be miraculous (parthenogenesis), occurring due to the intervention of god Apollo. The ancient biographers of Plato even describe the last dream Plato had before he died. These elements, more or less, exist in every ancient platonic biography. That indicates the philosopher's early exemplification.
The depiction of Plato's life events resembles other works referring to important people who had partaken in the ancient mysteries, for example, Apollonius of Tyana (by Philostratus) and Pythagoras (by Iamblichus and Porphyry). These biographies are written in an allegoric fashion, where one of the symbolisms is the "miraculous birth" referring to "mystical spiritual birth" during the ceremony of initiation. The cave of birth, also mentioned in the story of Christ's birth, is the cave of initiation. Similarly miraculous were the births of Buddha, Hercules, Zoroaster, Lao Che, and others.
Diogenes Laërtius refers to a story about how Plato was conceived that holds great esoteric meaning, according to the above. Supposedly, his mother, Perictione, who was very beautiful, was not in fact impregnated by her husband, but was already pregnant when Apollo presented himself to Ariston and prohibited him from seeing his wife until the birth of the philosopher. According to the Delians, that day coincided with the birth of Apollo himself. Thus he was associated with the protector god of the Muses, and was considered to be Apollo's herald, much like Pythagoras, for which Porphyrios mentions: “Απόλλωνος αυτόν ιστορείν και Πυθαϊδος τω γόνω, λόγω δε Μνησάρχου φησίν Απολλώνιος”, which means “Pythagoras was a true descendant of Apollo, son of Mnesarhus in name only”. Interestingly enough, the legend also states that Alexander the Great was in fact conceived during the mysteries of Samothrace and that he was the descendant of Amun-Ra. All these occasions of "divine incarnations" in Hellenic territory and tradition, are similar to accounts we find in various countries and cultures. The aforementioned report of Diogenes Laërtius concerning Plato's birth is one of many indications that Plato was considered a divine envoy even from his time.
The basic structure of Plato's biographies
The basic common elements in Plato's biographies include the following:
1. Apollo's intervention in Plato's conception, and aristocratic origin.
2. Education: gymnastics, grammar, music.
3. Youth: engaging in poetry (and / or painting).
4. The acquaintance and tutelage of Socrates.
5. His departure from Athens after Socrates was sentenced to death.
6. Plato's three trips to Sicily; accounts on his relationship with the tyrant of Syracuse, his friendship with Dion, and his return to Aegina as a slave.
7. Other trips, which typically include Egypt.
8. The establishment of the Academy and references to his philosophical activity.
9. Plato's death, and burial near the Academy.
So let's begin to unravel the life of this great Greek philosopher.
Origin, birth and first years
Date of birth: May 9, 427*
Place: Athens or Aegina
As delivered by Apollodorus in his chronicles (FGrH 244 F 37), he was born on the anniversary of Apollo's birthday, on the 7th of the month Thargelion (Attic calendar) of the first year of the 88th Olympiad, ie on May 9, 427. The place of birth was Athens, or Aegina (“καὶ ἐγεννήθη κατά τινας ἐν Αἰγίνῃ—ἐν τῇ Φειδιάδου οἰκίᾳ τοῦ Θάλητος,” which means “he was born, according to some, in Aegina, in the house of Phidiades, the son of Thales” according to Diogenes Laërtius).
Parents: Ariston and Perictione
Brothers: Adeimantus, Glaucon, Potone, Antiphon
Plato came from a wealthy aristocratic Athenian family. His father, Ariston, descended from the line of king Kodros, while his mother, Periktione, descended from Solon. She was also sister to Harmides as well as Critia's niece, who were both members of the Thirty tyrants (pro-spartan) oligarchy, circa 404 BCE. He had two older brothers, Adeimandus and Glaucus, and a sister, Potone, who was the mother of Speusippus. His first name was Aristocles, but later he was named Plato because of his broad chest and a wide forehead. Apparently, Ariston died when Plato was still a child. Perictione then married her uncle, Pyrilampes, an Athenian politician and a personal friend of Pericles. Together they acquired another child, Plato's youngest brother, Antiphon.
Plato's relationship with Apollo
As mentioned earlier, Plato had a special connection with god Apollo. The legend says that when his mother was pregnant with him, Apollo appeared to Ariston in a dream, ordering him to stay away from Perictione until the birth of her child. Another legend states that when Plato was an infant, his mother went to mount Hymettus to sacrifice in honor of Apollo and the Nymphs. At some point, Perictione sat down to rest. During that time bees came along and left some honey on the baby's lips, which was thought to be a sign of the sweetness of his future words.
Education – Adolescence
According to Diogenes Laërtius “He was taught letters in the school of Dionysius, who is mentioned by him in the Rivals. And he learnt gymnastics under Ariston, the Argive wrestler. And from him he received the name of Plato on account of his robust figure in place of his original name which was Aristocles, after his grandfather, as Alexander informs us in his Successions of Philosophers. But others affirm that he got the name Plato from the breadth of his style, or from the breadth of his forehead, as suggested by Neanthes. Others again affirm that he wrestled in the Isthmian Games—this is stated by Dicaearchus in his first book, The Life of Greece”
and the ancient text:
“Καὶ ἐπαιδεύθη μὲν γράμματα παρὰ Διονυσίῳ, οὗ καὶ μνημονεύει ἐν τοῖς Ἀντερασταῖς. ἐγυμνάσατο δὲ παρὰ Ἀρίστωνι τῷ Ἀργείῳ παλαιστῇ· ἀφ᾿ οὗ καὶ Πλάτων διὰ τὴν εὐεξίαν μετωνομάσθη, πρότερον Ἀριστοκλῆς ἀπὸ τοῦ πάππου καλούμενος [ὄνομα], καθά φησιν Ἀλέξανδρος ἐν Διαδοχαῖς (FGrH273 F 88). ἔνιοι δὲ διὰ τὴν πλατύτητα τῆς ἑρμηνείας οὕτως
ὀνομασθῆναι· ἢ ὅτι πλατὺς ἦν τὸ μέτωπον, ὥς φησι Νεάνθης (FGrH 84 F 21). εἰσὶ δ' οἳ καὶ παλαῖσαί φασιν αὐτὸν Ἰσθμοῖ, καθὰ καὶ Δικαίαρχος ἐν πρώτῳ Περὶ βίων (Wehrli i, fg. 40)"
Since he was an athlete, he received all the required training of the time. Moreover, he served in the army fighting in the campaigns of Tanagra, Corinth and Delio, where he was commended for his heroism. Prior to his engagement with philosophy, he wrote poetry, tragedies, dithyrambs and comedies. Biographers say the philosopher was destined for a political or tragic poet, but philosophy won him over when he heard Socrates having a conversation one day. Tradition has it that ever since that day he burned up all his poems, and followed Socrates as a loyal and devoted friend.
Plato is said to have become a novice to the sixty-year-old Socrates around 408-406, when he was about 18 to 20 years old. However, as Taylor (Alfred Edward Taylor, 22.12.1869 - 3.12.1945) points out, Plato himself writes that Socrates was acquainted with his uncle Harmides, and his grandfather, Critias. It seems likely that young Plato had met Socrates earlier, probably in some social gathering, so when he reached the age of 18 to 20 years old, he officially joined Socrates party of friends, as Socrates himself said that he is not a teacher nor did he have students.
The night before meeting Plato, Socrates biographers claim that he saw a dream in which a small swan without wings came into his arms, whereupon his wings grew back in an instant and he flew away while singing a very pleasant melody. When Socrates met Plato the next day, he remembered the dream and told the attendees that the swan in his dream was Plato. Like the little swan, Plato was young and untrained when presented to Socrates, but next to the great philosopher, Plato would be able to fly on his own. The swan was one of the sacred birds of god Apollo, to which the young student was closely associated.
The tutelage of Socrates
His interaction with Socrates changed him definitively and irrevocably. He held a banquet for his friends, to figuratively bid them farewell, and then he burned all of his poems in a pyre. This relationship is thought to be one of the most important in the history of philosophy. Plato's gratitude and appreciation for his teacher is shown through the clear depiction of Socrates personality in platonic dialogues.
No matter how they came to meet, we know for a fact that Plato remained a loyal friend to Socrates for about nine years, until Socrates death in 399 B.C.E.
Plato's references to himself in the dialogues
In his dialogues he mentions himself only two times. The first is in Apology, where Plato is referred to as one of the friends who prompted Socrates to address the jury and suggest to pay a fine of thirty mines, instead of one, with their personal guarantee for the whole amount; the second is in the dialogue Phaedon, where it is mentioned that he was absent due to illness.
Plato reached adulthood in the turbulent period of the last years of the Peloponnesian War (431 to 404 B.C.E.). His family was one of the oldest, well known Athenian families, with a special role in political affairs, always siding with the oligarchs. For young Plato, the rise and fall of his mother's brother, Critias, leader of the Thirty tyrants, must have been quite shocking. Kritias, much like Harmides and Alcibiades, belonged to Socrates's closest friends. It is reasonable to assume that Plato would originally favor the Thirty Tyrant movement in 404 B.C.E., which promoted the establishment of an oligarchic regime, and attributed the Athenian defeat in the Peloponnesian war to the degeneration of Athenian democracy. The brutal violence imposed by the authoritarian regime persuaded Plato that no functional political system can be based on coercion. On the other hand, Plato could not accept the equalizing logic of direct democracy, which, in his opinion, removed worthy citizens from power and brought demagogues to the fore. His negative opinion on democracy was established when he saw the leaders of the restoration, after the fall of the Thirty Tyrants, to bring Socrates to trial in 399 B.C.E. and sentence him to death. Frustrated by both democracy and oligarchy of his time, Plato would be led to political abstinence, if he hadn't tried to connect theory with practice. His failed travels to Sicily, and his decisive decision to establish the Academy in later years are some proof of his attempts to make that connection.
“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, while the motley horde of the natures who at present pursue either apart from the other are compulsorily excluded, there can be no cessation of troubles, dear Glaucon, 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” Plato, Republic, 473cd
The Meta-Socratic Era, 388-399 B.C.E.
The travels of Plato // Megara, Cyrene and Italy
After the death of Socrates, Plato remained in Athens for about three years. Then, he resorted to Megara, close to his classmate Euclid and other socratic philosophers. Then, he moved to Cyrene, to mathematician Theodorus, and thence to Italy to meet with Philolaus and Eurytus of Croton, both Pythagorians. Thus, he broadened his horizons by receiving influences from the main philosophical schools of his age. Still, these journeys were far from easy, considering the limitations of that time. But he had a very determined nature. It is reported that he paid a fortune just to obtain three Pythagorean books.
The travels of Plato // Egypt
After extended studies, he mulled over the various concepts and frames of reference. Τhen, he went to Egypt, following the example of some many others. The wisdom and ancient knowledge held by Egyptian priesthood is clearly noted by Plutarch, and other sources. Wise and esteemed men from all over Greece, like Thales, Eudoxus of Cnidus, even Agesilaus of Sparta, visited Egypt to consult with the priests on various matters. Plato is believed to have remained in Egypt for quite some time, along with Eudoxus of Cnidus. De genio Socratis [577 5f - 578 6d]. In other accounts we see Lycurgus (Lycurgus, Plutarch), Pythagoras (Iamblichus, Life of Pythagoras / Porphyry Phil.,Vita Pythagorae) and Solon (Plato, Timaeus) visit Egypt as well.
Plutarch also mentions in De genio Socratis that Simmias, Plato and Ellopion of Peparethus were educated in Memphis. Their mentor was called Chonuphis. Diogenis Laertius also adds Euripides to the people who went to Egypt along with Plato. He specifically notes that they visited the prophets, as he called the egyptian priests, who were also shamanic healers and they treated Euripides' ailment with sea water. That's why the latter writes in Iphigeneia in Taurus: "All man's pollutions doth the salt sea cleanse” [The tragedies of Euripides translated R. Potter, pg.436]
The Egyptian priesthood seems to be an organized group of wise men and healers, who, like the ancient Brahmans, held governmental authority and used a system inherited, as Plato himself wrote, from initiates of the mysterious island of Atlantis. They supposedly held knowledge in every scientific field. The roots of Plato's versatile knowledge were probably very profound, since the centers of the Mysteries of the time were in relation to each other.
To complete his search Plato allegedly wanted to go to Babylonia to meet the Magi as well, but he was unable to do so. Eventually, he returned to Athens, mature enough to devote himself to the writing of his early works.
First trip to Syracuse, 388 B.C.E.
In the courtyard of Dionysios I
It was 388 B.C.E. and Plato was around forty years old when we was called to visit the court of Dionysios I. He quickly befriended the tyrant's wife brother, Dion, who accepted his ideas enthusiastically and became Plato's devoted student. They bonded to such an extend that Plato believed he had found a valuable collaborator in spreading their common political views. However, his contact with the tyrant Dionysios was barren, since the latter, influenced by his advisors, did not adopt Plato's suggestions for a shift towards virtue and philosophy.
Plato's sentence and his sale as a slave
In fact, he did quite the opposite. His advisors had such an effect on him, that Dionysios came to believe that Plato was planning to overthrow him and for that he condemned him to death. Dion intervened, and finally the tyrant decided to sell Plato as a slave. That way the philosopher found himself in Aegina. Diogenius Laertius, drawing on Favorinus Pantodape Historia (miscellaneous history), reports that Charmandrus, an Aeginetan, had passed the law prescribing death for Athenians, and that he was the one who pressed the death penalty against Plato in accordance with his law. Opposing versions of the outcome of Charmandrus' charge against Plato are reported by Diogenius Laertius. The first was that he was acquitted when someone recognised him to be a philosopher. The other was that when Plato was brought before the Aeginetan ecclesia he maintained silence, being prepared to accept whatever resulted. The outcome was that the assempbly voted him the sentence of servitude rather than death. Diogenius Laertius also reports that during his sale he was recognized by one of his acquaintances, charioteer Anniceris, who bought and freed him, for the amount of twenty (20) mines.
Establishment and operation of the Academy, 387 B.C.E. – 367 B.C.E.
Acquisition of Academian grounds
The negative experience of his first journey to Sicily made Plato look for an alternative solution. Since the vision of the overall political and social reform seemed improbable, he would try to create this ideal state, this core of resistance to the prevailing morals, in a smaller scale within the city of Athens. Plato, after his liberation, managed to gather the money to pay back his liberator, but the latter refused. Olympiodorus and Philoponus attribute to Anniceris a noble statement to the effect that the honor of rescuing Plato was greater than that of winning the Olympic games. Thus, Plato decided to invest that amount to a good cause. He bought a small estate near Ekadimia's gymnasium and founded his school there, which was named after the surrounding area. It seems that he had to pay ten (10) extra mines than the ransom money, since, according to Plutarch, the plot was worth thirty (30) mines or (30 x 100) 3,000 drachmas.
The institution of the Academy
The Academy was a true innovation. We could imagine it as an exclusive organization of like-minded people who had all decided to live a life devoted to philosophy and scientific knowledge. It was in some way the first university of antiquity, a private philosophy school. It's structure was hierarchical, led by a scholar, skilled researchers, teachers and students, regular members and probates. The philosophical ideal and the search for truth, was the glue that held the members of the Platonic Academy together. For Plato, however, enlightenment had value only if it led to the moral improvement of individuals as well as the bliss of society as a whole. The key element of the Academy was the communal way of life, the common quest of its members, including the originative dialogues, through which the young generation of students found its way.
Plato's role as a Scholar
Plato's role it the Academy was purely regulatory and augmenting. His teaching, unlike the Sophists and according to Socrates' example, was unpaid. He gave his students the absolute freedom to take initiative, and to examine themselves and others. He did not try to appear as all-knowing, nor did he demand from his students to memorize his works. Plato was equal with his students in the debates. The teacher was simply considered to be the first among equals. According to an authentic testimony (Acad. Index, pp. 15-16, Mekler), the philosopher and director of the Academy “acted as an architect and posed the problems”
Female students in the Academy
It is worth mentioning that women were also studying at the Academy. For example:
- Lasthenia of Arcadia,
- Axiothea of Phlius and
- Arete of Cyrene, daughter of Aristippus.
The Academic circle
The Academy has, therefore, rallied some of the most creative minds of the 4th century:
- the mathematician Theaetetus
- the astronomers Eudoxus of Cnidus, Kallippus and Heraclides Ponticus,
- the philosophers Speusippus, Xenocrates, Philip and
- from 367 B.C.E. onwards, Aristotle, who spent 20 years in the Academy.
In this creative environment, Plato's energetic power came out. Given his preference for the oral exercise of philosophy, we assume that most of his activity was devoted to the culture and preparation of his students. It is said that the most challenging and central issues of Platonic philosophy, were the subject of analysis and discussion in a close circle of advanced students, but never took a written form so their notions could never be betrayed. They are the so-called unwritten doctrines.
The unwritten doctrines
The term “unwritten doctrines” originated from Aristotle's Natural Philosophy, who made the distinction between what Plato had written in Timaeus and what he had taught in the unwritten doctrines. So, Plato did not record everything he conveyed orally in his lessons. These lessons of ontology were secret and only the Platonians participated, according to the Pythagorean model. Similarly, Plato in Phaedrus rejected the written discourse and supported oral communication of philosophical ideas. In the Seventh Epistle he declared that he had never written any manuscripts about the essence of beings.
The custody of the Academy
However, it is certain that all of Plato's dialogues written in his mature years were written, read and discussed within the Academy. The establishment of the Platonic Academy was a turning point for the history of ancient Greek philosophy. Since then, the solitary practice of philosophy is absurd.
Second trip to Syracuse, 367 B.C.E.
In the courtyard of Dionysios II
Dionysius I died in 367 B.C.E. And his successor was his young son, Dionysius II, who was originally under the influence and guidance of Dion. Dion believed that, with the proper education, Dionysius would eventually evolve in accordance with the Platonic model of the philosopher-king. Dionysius II, at the instigation of Dion, invited Plato to Syracuse. Plato initially hesitated; he was worried that his precarious plan would fail. However, he decided that he had to make the efford to bring his political vision to bear, so he decided to visit Sicily for the second time at the age of sixty years old.
“Wherefore as I pondered the matter and was in doubt whether I should make the journey and take his advice, or what, I ultimately inclined to the view that if we were ever to attempt to realize our theories concerning laws and government, now was the time to undertake it (…) I set out from home,—not in the spirit which some have supposed, but dreading self-reproach most of all, lest haply I should seem to myself to be utterly and absolutely nothing more than a mere voice and never to undertake willingly any action” [Plato. Plato in Twelve Volumes, Vol. 7 translated by R.G. Bury. Cambridge, MA, Harvard University Press; London, William Heinemann Ltd. 1966]
Once Dion's political opponents realized the danger they would face if Plato's political vision came to be, they tried to undermine the relationship between Dionysius II and the two philosophers. They accussed Dion and Plato of planning to overthrow him. Dionysius II ended his studies abruptly, condemned Dion for conspiracy, and sent him into exile while he arrested Plato and kept him in the Syracuse acropolis. Plato was so deeply disappointed by that turn of events, and especially with Dionysus II demeanor, that wanted to stop his political activity and leave Sicily. With the intervention of Pythagorean Archytas, Dionysius II allowed Plato's return to Athens.
Return and organization of the Academy, 367 B.C.E – 360 B.C.E.
After Plato's second failure to inaugurate his political vision in Sicily, he took Dion to the Academy. In him he recognized the incarnation of his ideal, the future philosopher-king. The Academy systematically worked on legislation in order to help both with rational and ethical organization of cities.
"Plato left in his writings excellent discourses concerning the laws, government, and policy of a commonweal; and yet he imprinted much better in the hearts and minds of his disciples and familiars, which caused Sicily to be delivered by Dion, and Thrace to be set at liberty by Pytho"
"But Plato sent of his disciples and friends, Aristonymus to the Arcadians, to set in order their commonweal, Phormio to the Eleans, and Menedemus to the Pyrrhaeans. Eudoxus gave laws to the Cnidians, and Aristotle to the Stagirites, who were both of them the intimates of Plato. [Plutarch, Moralia, Πρὸς Κωλώτην ὑπὲρ τῶν ἄλλων φιλοσόφων, 1126c-d, translation from: Plutarch. Plutarch's Morals. Translated from the Greek by several hands. Corrected and revised by. William W. Goodwin, PH. D. Boston. Little, Brown, and Company. Cambridge. Press Of John Wilson and son. 1874-5]
Plato created an educational counterweight to Isocrates' rhetoric school. Above all, he proliferated philosophy that he considered to be superior to rhetoric. He could not accept that the great rhetoric teacher was using the crown jewel of all sciences for his rhetorical devices. There is no doubt that the among the goals of the Academy was the approach of ultimate truth through the collective efforts of its members in the dialectical method. In addition, graduates of the school, and potential political and spiritual leaders of Hellenism in general, transferred their enlightened ideas far and wide. They were the philosophers of the Cave allegory, whose mission was to bring to light into the bundles of ignorance. The only possibility for society to change its face was through the awareness of the truth.
Third trip to Syracuse, 360 B.C.E.
Second time in the courtyard of Dionysios II
Seven years after his last trip to Syracuse, Dionysius II invited Plato back again, but not Dion. He insisted on reconnecting with the Athenian philosopher, claiming he had become a supporter of philosophy, and was in need of Plato's theoretical guidance. At the same time, he declared that only if Plato accepted his invitation, he would in turn take care of Dion's outstanding financial issues. Dion urged Plato to adhere to Dionysus II request, but he kept reusing under the pretext of his advanced age (68) which prohibited another journey. Finally, for the sake of Dion and in the hope that Dionysius II would keep his promises, Plato dared to go on a third trip to Syracuse around 360 B.C.E.
The disappointing development of the third trip
The third trip was not a success. Dionysius refused to transfer the property of Dion himself. Plato protested, and decided to leave Syracuse. Dionysius tried to talk him out of it, proposing various compromises. Eventually, he sold Dion's assets and suggested to send half of the the proceeds to Dion. Plato was offended, and determined to leave, but Dionysius accused him of attempting to hinder his political procession; he expelled Plato from his courtyard and captured him again. He was able to escape and return to Athens with the help of Archytas and other familiars from Taranto, who were able to provide him with a ship.
Dion's invasion in Syracuse and his death
Upon his return, Plato met Dion in Olympia, where he was preparing an invasion in Syracuse in order to dethrone Dionysius. Plato refused to participate in the campaign. The aspiring Sicilian leader actually traveled to various Greek cities, seeking allies and gathering significant military forces. The invasion of Syracuse took place (357 B.C.E.), the tyrant was overthrown, and Dion ascended to the throne, but failed to realize Plato's plans. One, named Callippus, killed Dion (354) and ascended himself to the Sicilian throne. He ruled briefly before being ousted from power himself. Afterwards he commanded a band of mercenaries, who later killed him with the same sword that he used to kill Dion.
Plato's later years, 360 - 348 B.C.E.
His dedication to the Academy
Plato envisioned that if philosophy and power had co-existed in one person, the whole world would be able to witness that bliss comes through wisdom and virtue. The abrogation of his expectations and the utter failure of his third attempt in Sicily discouraged Plato from further political activity. Therefore, in the last years of his life, the philosopher dedicated himself exclusively in his teaching and the writing of his dialogues.
Plato's swan dream
Plato's biographers report that Plato, shortly before dying, saw in a dream that he was a swan that was leaping from one tree to another, all the while avoiding the hunters who were trying to catch him. Simmias suggested that the hunters represented those who try, but fail, to understand Plato's teaching.
The death of Plato
As a character he was humble, did not sleep much, did not eat meat and devoted his life to the education of others. We imagine him dying peacefully, having lived a full life, around the age of 80, in his Academy, among loving students and friends in the first year of the 108th Olympiad, that is, 347. The swan flew for the last time from this world.
Tradition has it that Plato died on his birthday at the age of 81 years old. Seneca wrote that: “Plato was an example of one who protracted his years by moderation and care, despite the vicissitudes of his life. The result of this moderation was that he died on his birthday, having completed exactly 81 years. A sacrifice was made to him by some Magi who were by chance there in Athens, as he was thought to have completed a perfect human cycle; the sacred number nine times nine (81)" [Platonica, Alice Swift Riginos, Brill Archive, 1976]
On his grave, they had incribed:
Φοῖβος ἔφυσε βροτοῖς Ἀσκληπιὸν ἠδὲ Πλάτωνα,
τὸν μὲν ἵνα ψυχήν, τὸν δ' ἵνα σῶμα σάοι.
That means that:
Apollo fathered both Asclepius and Plato,
one to heal souls and the other to heal bodies.
Influences of Plato
Heraclitus (Panda Rhei) and Parmenides (Being)
Of course, Plato's philosophy incorporates elements from earlier thinkers. Aristotle states that young Plato became familiar with the Heraclitean philosophy through Cratylus. (Metaphysics A 987a32). But if he kept something from Heraclitus, it was the negative conclusion that the visible world is really so deceptive that we cannot give any credit to it. On the other hand, Parmenides' theory of Being provided him with tools to elaborate on his own conception of Ideas, which are the only source of cognitive certainty, precisely because they are autonomous, stable and accessible to pure intellect.
Pythagoras (Soul and Mathematics)
Plato was also influenced by the Pythagoreans, regarding to the immortality of the soul, the reincarnation doctrine, and the great philosophical importance of mathematics. It is a widespread belief that at the end of his life Plato, as well as his close disciples, had adopted the Pythagorean way. Still, Socrates was by far the most influential person in Plato's life.
Socrates and eu prattein (acting well)
Plato was philosophically educated within the Socratic circle. He saw philosophy as a cultivation of the soul, as the art of living in the city, and he also identified virtue with knowledge. He followed Socrates, as well as the Sophists, in a time of a philosophical turning point towards humanism, and gradually formed a method of examining the philosophical problems that relies upon:
- analysis and examination the arguments,
- a hierarchic system for concepts and values
The Platonic dialogues integrate the Socratic dialectical method (known as maieutics, method of elenchus, or elenctic method). Both philosophers preferred giving lectures to written instructions. Socrates chose not to write anything at all, but Plato resorted to a type of written discourse that preserved all the advantages of verbal exchange, since he believed the cultivation of the student's soul was possible through the teacher's eloquence (λόγος). [Phaedros, 276a-277a]
Founder of philosophy
Plato's philosophical method is the first systematic attempt to fully interpret human nature and actions. Plato was the one who delineated philosophy from the other cognitive approaches to reality (poetry, religion, politics). In essence, he laid the foundations for philosophy as we know it, and determined its future course.
The theory of Ideas
Plato's main contribution to philosophy was the theory of Ideas. One may reach the Ideal realm through a strict training program; an unexpected ally for this transition is the driving force of eros. Plato's Ideal Republic is a vast, well organized training system, where wisdom is considered the highest authority, thus ensuring the conscious connection of all capable citizens to the Ideas, the backbone of Plato's overall interpretation of reality. Ideas are the foundation of his ontology, for they alone have Hypostasis, unlike the world we perceive through our senses. Only by consciously perceiving the Ideal realm, and especially the Form of the Good “the idea of the good” (ἡ τοῦ ἀγαθοῦ ἰδέα) is absolute knowledge.
Ultimately, Ideas are constant ethical values, independent from environment or time, that can ensure the moral behavior of people. The theory of Ideas was the basis of the academic tradition in philosophy. It was criticized by Plato's disciples, especially by Aristotle, and it seems that it was never considered a rigid doctrine by Plato himself. In his later work, as well as in the so-called unwritten doctrines (άγραφα δόγματα), Plato tried to narrow the gap between the senses and Ideas by introducing new ontological distinctions; in Philebus, it is suggested that the virtuous human life should be about balance between wisdom and pleasure, while in Timaeus, an original and impressive teleological interpretation of the natural world is established.
phrases with Italic style are from this article:
Complete works that survive today
Plato's writings are considered to have survived intact, a unique fact in the history of ancient Greek literature. The standard editions of the Platonic Corpus that we currently use, reproduce a canonical arrangement of presentation of the Platonic dialogues. This arrangement, which is also preserved in the oldest extant manuscripts, follows the ancient canonical ordering into tetralogies, that is in groups of four dialogues. ()
The theatrical classification of the Tetralogies - The arrangement of the Platonic Corpus in antiquity
Who was the first to divide Plato’s dialogues into tetralogies remains an open question. According to a later testimony, Plato published (some of) his dialogues on the basis of the model of the theatrical tetralogies that were presented in ancient theater contests (three tragedies and one satyr play). It is likely that the first attempt to arrange the platonic work occurred in the context of Academic activity, by Plato's successors.
Aristophanes of Byzantium and Tetralogies
It seems, however, that the first systematic attempt to arrange the Platonic Corpus was the work of the Alexandrian philologist Aristophanes of Byzantium (3rd century BC). Aristophanes attempted to arrange the Platonic dialogues into trilogies, that is into groups of three dialogues, but for unknown reasons he never completed this task.
The tetralogic classification of Thrasyllus
The final arrangement of the Platonic dialogues into tetralogies was rather the product of a multiple process which involved, among other things, the edition of the entire Platonic corpus. Among the people that appear in the sources as involved in this process of arrangement, the name of Thrasyllus (1st century B.C.-1st century A.D.) as the inventor of the tetralogies is the one that occurs more often.
We know that Thrasyllus was the personal astrologist of emperor Tiberius. He was a mathematician with a special interest in Pythagorean and Platonic philosophy. He wrote at least two introductory philosophical textbooks, on Plato and Democritus respectively: Prolegomena to the reading of Plato’s dialogues (Τὰ πρὸ τῆς ἀναγνώσεως τῶν Πλάτωνος διαλόγων) and Prolegomena to the reading of Democritus’ books (Τὰ πρὸ τῆς ἀναγνώσεως τῶν Δημοκρίτου βιβλίων). In these he included the division of the works of these two philosophers into tetralogies and he may have added a second title in accordance to the topic of each dialogue. It is possible that his was a more systematic treatment based on an earlier source.
Thrasyllus' attestation included:
title, usually the name of the main character of each dialogue, second title, suggesting the content of the work, characterization (ethical, rational e.t.c.)
In the Canon of Corpus Platonicum we find:
- 34 Dialogues,
- the Apology of Socrates,
- 13 Letters (epistles),
- 11 "spurious" works,
- Plato's will,
- 23 definitions and
- 184 epigramms.
- 23 definitions and
- 184 epigramms.
The arrangement, of Plato’s dialogues, in nine tetralogies is the following:
Writings of doubted authenticity
From the above arrangement of Plato’s dialogues the works of doubted authenticity are:
The whole 4th Tetralogy
Alcibiades II, Maieutic
Rival lovers, Ethical
From the 5th Tetralogy:
From the 8th tetralogy:
From the 9th Tetralogy
Other spurious works, commonly called Notheuomenoi or Notha are not included in the above arrangement. The following eleven works of doubted authenticity are still included in the Corpus Platonicum by some publishers today.
- On Justice,
- On Virtue,
- Erostrofos (or Aristippos) (on soul)
These works were characterized as spurious by earlier scholars, a term which is incorrect, and quite misleading. They are works of unknown authors, but most likely, they are the work of Plato's students and surely not spurious.
Plato did not have disciples, or students, much like Socrates. He was addressing fellow theorists and friends. Tradition has it that he was the first among equals. He thought that actions speak louder than words. He introduced eu prattein, meaning acting well, as the “official” greeting among the Academic circle, and he used that as an opening phrase for all his epistles.
Eu Prattein (Acting Well)
The most commonly used greeting of the time was χαίρειν, which translates as “Be happy”. “Eu Prattein” was an innovation that Plato introduced in his letters, consciously disregarding the common practice. He explains his reasoning in letters addressed to Dionysius II and Gorgias. Eu Prattein is not just a wish to be happy, but the wish to be happy in doing the right thing, and living a virtuous life.
We close this article with the same saying hoping that we all walk to that path.
eu prattein our fellow readers.
* The exact date of Plato's birthday converted with the Grigorian calendar, was calculated by Theseus Kokkinos, Survey Engineer and co-founder of our team Geomythiki (ΓΕΩΜΥΘΙΚΗ).
This article is a translation of a Greek one, under the same title, in our blog, edited by Dimitrios Theodossopoulos.
The translation, editing and the source referencing for the English version was made by Elpiniki Stavrianopoulou which our team thanks a lot.
- Plato, The Man And His Work, by Taylor, A.E.
- The People of Plato, Debra Nails
- The books on Plato and Aristotle of Kon.Staikos, at ATΩΝ publications
and the webpage:
All the other sources for this article are included inside the text itself either in parenthesis or brackets.