Ancient Philosophers: Plato, Life and Works

Classic Philosophers: The Great Thinkers of the Western World


by Jonathan Dolhenty, Ph.D.

I. The Philosophy of Plato: Life and Works

Plato was born in Athens in the year 428 or 427 B.C.E. He was of a noble family and was related through his father to Codrus and on his mother’s side to Solon. His real name was Aristocles, but he was called Plato by his instructor in gymnastics because of his broad shoulders. Physically perfect, he had an artistic and dialectical temperament which remained with him through his whole life and made of him the philosopher-poet.

He was at first in the school of Cratylus, a follower of Heraclitus and the Sophists, and from him received his start in the study of poetry and an understanding of the philosophers.

At the age of twenty he came under the tutelage of Socrates; he felt profoundly the ethical influence of his master during the eight years he spent in his companionship. During his entire life he remained attached to Socrates, having a profound admiration for him because of the teaching he had received from the master and also because of personal friendship. “I thank the gods for having been born a Greek and not a foreigner, a man and not a woman, free and not a slave, but above all for having been born during the time of Socrates.”

We do not know whether Plato was in Athens during the trial of Socrates. It is certain that if not before that time then shortly afterward he left Athens where, after the demise of the great master, the air was not healthy for his disciples. With some friends Plato retired to Megara, to the school of Euclid.

Between 390 and 388 B.C.E. Plato began long voyages in order to place himself in contact with the principal schools which flourished at that time. He visited Egypt, whose venerable antiquity and political stability he admired. He also went to southern Italy, where he was in contact with the Pythagoreans and studied their doctrines. He then went to Sicily and was at the court of Dionysius the Elder, the tyrant of Syracuse. There he formed a friendship with Dion, brother-in-law of the tyrant.

Falling under suspicion Plato was consigned by Dionysius as a prisoner of war to a Spartan ambassador and was then sold into slavery. Freed by a friend in 388 B.C.E., he returned to Athens. There, about the year 387 B.C.E., he founded his famous school, which was called the Academy from the gardens of Academus, where the classes took place. Here Plato imparted his philosophical teachings to his followers. He taught in the Academy for fifty years, that is, until he died.

During this period Plato left Athens twice to go to Syracuse. The first time was in 366 B.C.E. when, after the death of Dionysius, his successor, Dionysius the Younger, and Dion invited him to come there; he went with the hope of carrying out an experiment in his form of the ideal state. When Dion was sent into exile, the deluded philosopher returned to his native city. He returned again to Syracuse in 361 to reconcile Dionysius with Dion. His attempt failed, and he was held a prisoner by Dionysius. Plato was liberated, probably through the intercession of Archytas of Tarentum, general, scientist, and Pythagorean philosopher. After these unhappy attempts, Plato never left Athens again, but became absorbed in his teaching, in metaphysical speculations, and in the editing of his works. Death, which came in 347, interrupted this work. The philosopher was eighty years old.

Plato is one of the most accomplished geniuses humanity has ever known. In him are united the speculative and scientific spirit and the sense of artistic beauty, the influence of which have been felt in all times. All the known works of Plato remain extant, that is, thirty-six dialogues, thirteen letters and a collection of definitions. Critical study casts some doubt on a few — for example, the definitions, which appear apocryphal, and some of the letters. The most important part of Plato’s literary activity is represented by the dialogues, which are authentic in their greater part. In default of the chronological order in which these works were published, they are commonly classified in four groups, representing the various developments of Plato’s thought.

They are as follows:

  • Socratic Dialogues, youthful writings in which Plato, as yet lacking a personal system of philosophy, expounds and defends the doctrine of Socrates: Laches; Charmides; Euthyphro; Lesser Hippias; Apology for Socrates; Crito; Ion; Lysis.
  • Polemical Dialogues against Sophistic doctrine. In these works Sophism is given a concise critical revision under logical, ethical and political aspects, and the doctrine of Socrates defended: Gorgias; Meno; Euthydemus; Cratylus; Theaetetus; Menexenus; Greater Hippias.
  • Dialogues of Maturity. Plato, now in complete possession of his system, expounds the theory of the Idea, basis of all his problems: Phaedrus; the Symposium; Phaedo; the Republic.
  • Dialogues of Late Maturity, or of his revised teaching: Parmenides; the Sophist; the Statesman; Philebus; Timaeus; Laws.
  • These dialogues are the most representative of Plato’s thought in all its divisions.

The late Dr. Jonathan Dolhenty was the Founder and President of The Center for Applied Philosophy and the Radical Academy, and is Honorary Philosophy Editor at The Moral Liberal. The Moral Liberal has adopted these projects beginning with a republishing and preserving of all of Dr. Dolhenty’s work. “Classic Philosophers: The Great Thinkers of the Western World” was designed and organized by Jonathan Dolhenty, Ph.D. Copyright ©1992 -2011 The Radical Academy. Copyright renewed in © 2011 -2013 The Radical Academy (a project of The Moral Liberal).

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