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§ 11 – Plato

Life of Plato

Plato was born either at Athens, or at Ægina, on the island of the same name, probably in the year 427 B.C. He was of a wealthy and aristocratic family, and doubtless received the highest educational advantages the brilliant age in which he lived afforded. He assimilated the best parts and elements of the good poets, himself possessed unquestionable poetical talent, having written some dithyrambics, lyrics, and tragedies, and had a clear eye for universal truth; he was, in short, one of those youths of fine gifts, spirit, and education who were the delight of the great teachers in Greece. «By Heracles!» exclaims Socrates, speaking of the beautiful youth Charmides, in Plato’s dialogue of that name, «there never was such a paragon, if only he has one other slight addition». «What is that?» asks Critias. «If he has a noble soul,» says Socrates.

From all accounts, one of which represents him as a son of Apollo, it would appear that Plato was, in the eyes of his master, Socrates, just such a paragon. Before he came under the influence of Socrates he may have been possessed by the then ordinary ambition of Athenian youths, to shine among politicians. It is difficult to conceive, however, that a youth of poetical and meditative temperament, and of very decidedly aristocratic predilections, could find anything congenial in the corrupt politics of a degenerated and degenerating democracy such as ruled Athens in Plato’s early manhood.

At all events, his mind was, by his intercourse with Socrates, permanently fixed upon philosophy—he had already studied Heraclitus, if not others of the earlier philosophers—and he chose for himself a life of comparative seclusion and contemplation rather than one of active intercourse with the world at large. Coming to Socrates at the age of nineteen or twenty, he remained a modest and devoted disciple until the death of the master, a period of eight or nine years. His intercourse with Socrates must have had as consequences an intensification of already existing intellectual appetites, and awakening of new ones, and the implanting of an ideal of manhood—in brief, a drawing out and strengthening of all his faculties. After the death of Socrates, Plato, to escape the hostility of the persecutors of Socrates, went to Megara, and there became a pupil, or at least a companion, of Euclid. How long he remained there is not known. It is certain that before many years he travelled to Cyrene, in Africa, to Italy, and to Sicily. Probably he visited Egypt also. At Syracuse, Sicily, the tyrant Dionysius, who thought his doctrines impracticable, «senile,» and was anxious to get rid of him, treated him as a prisoner of war, and delivered him to a Spartan ambassador, «who exposed him for sale in the slave market of Ægina. Ransomed by Annicens, a Cyrenian, he thence returned to his native city. Through his travels his views of life and society were expanded, and he acquired a fuller knowledge of mathematics and of the Pythagorean philosophy and ethical régime—facts that must be taken into account in any view of the development of his philosophical theories. By the year 387 or 384 B.C., if not earlier, he was teaching and writing at Athens, where he had founded a school in a gymnasium called the Academy. His devotion to his school—avowedly a place of scientific, in contradiction to sophistic, instruction and culture—seems to have been complete. The instruction given, which was free, was mostly oral in form, because of his fear that written discourse would be misinterpreted, and of the value he set upon personal contact and the living word. In his preference for this method he was a true Socratic; he was also not un-Socratic in combining with instruction, social intercourse and the enjoyment with his pupils of an occasional feast. But the purely scholastic life did not afford him the opportunity he desired for the practical application of his theories, and about the year 367 B.C. we find him in Syracuse, Sicily, instructing the younger Dionysius, who, by the death of his father, had become ruler of that city, in ethical and political philosophy. But whatever hopes Plato may have had in common with other ancient philosophers of seeing philosophy successfully applied to government, failed. Even had the Platonic theories been truly «practicable,» Dionysius, it seems, was far from being the man to appreciate and apply them. Plato returned to Athens, and, with the exception of an interval (about 361 B.C.) during which he went on a third journey to Sicily to reconcile Dionysius with his brother-in-law, Dion, an earnest disciple of Plato, devoted the remainder of his life exclusively to teaching philosophy in the Academy. He died in 347 B.C. at the age of eighty, with powers undiminished, and reverenced both by fellow-countrymen and by foreigners for the exceeding brilliancy of his intellect and the loftiness and beauty of his character. No philosopher, either of ancient or of modern times, save, perhaps, his master Socrates, and his pupil Aristotle, has so won and retained the esteem of thoughtful men. «Plato,» says Hegel, «is one of the world-historical individuals; his philosophy is one of the world-historical facts which, from their beginning to all subsequent times, have exercised the most important influence upon the formation and development of mind».(1)

Plato’s Works

Regarding the Platonic writings—their authenticity, the order (or approximate order) of their production, the growth of ideas and theories in them, and their style— there are a few points which it seems indispensable that even the general student of the history of Greek philosophy should be aware of. For a full account of these, however, the reader must, of course, be referred to the accessible learned authorities, particularly Zeller, Ueberweg, and Grote. As to the authenticity of the Platonic dialogues the student has simply to accept, as Plato’s own, all (or nearly all, the exceptions being unimportant,} the dialogues that appear in the collection known as Professor Jowett’s translation. The doubts of Ueberweg and certain others as to the authenticity of the important dialogues Meno, Parmenides, Statesman, and Sophist are not concurred in by authorities generally.(2) As to the order of the writings and the growth of Plato’s ideas and theories there are two (three) leading hypotheses; one (Schleiermacher’s) is, that the dialogues were produced according to a more or less fully preconceived philosophical scheme; the other (Hermann’s) is that they appeared in a succession determined by the «natural growth of Plato’s mind». The most recent authorities see fit to adopt a mean between these two hypotheses, inclining, it would seem, rather toward the latter. According to the theory of Hermann, the dialogues may be divided into three classes. Those of one class are «Socratic, or elementary, of another dialectic or mediatizing, of the third, expository or constructive». The first, written, in part, before the death of Socrates, in part, immediately after, have a fragmentary, more exclusively elenchtic and protreptic character, confine themselves almost entirely to the Socratic manner, and as yet go no deeper into the fundamental questions of philosophy. The second class is distinguished by greater dryness, less liveliness, less cheerfulness of form, and by that searching criticism (sometimes approving, sometimes polemical) of the Megaro-Eleatic philosophy which occupied the time of Plato’s sojourn in Megara. In the third period, there is, on the one hand, as to style, a return to the freshness and fulness of the first; while on the other, Plato’s horizon has been enlarged by the inquiries of the Megarian period, by residence in foreign countries, and especially by the knowledge he acquired of the Pythagorean philosophy, and from the fusion of all the elements we get the most perfect exposition of his system, in which the Socratic form receives the deepest content and thus attains its highest ideal».(3) Combining the two theories with certain minor considerations and certain indications noted in the study of the dialogues themselves, Zeller arrives at substantially the following groups: 1. Lesser Hippias, Lysis, Charmides, Laches, Protagoras, Euthyphro, Apology, Crito; 2. Phœdrus, Gorgias, Meno, Theœtetus, Sophist, Statesman, Parmenides, Symposium, Phœdo, Philebus (transitional); 3. Republic, Timœus, Critias, Laws. The places of Euthydemus and Cratylus are uncertain. First Alcibiades, Menexenus are by Zeller considered spurious.(4) In the first group, then,—to expand a little what is contained in the foregoing—, we must look for the purely Socratic doctrines wrought out in the Socratic manner, and for the historical Socrates, the substance of these dialogues being ethical; in the second group is to be found principally the Platonic theory of Ideas,—of conceptions and the corresponding archetypal entities; in the third group are contained, besides the theory of a dialectic as a science, the theories of virtue, of the state and of nature. The general student will find all that he requires in the Apology (for a picture of Socrates), Protagoras (for Socratic dialectic applied to ethics), Theœtetus (for the theory of knowledge), Phœdrus and Phœdo (for the theory of the soul and of Ideas), Republic (for the theory of Ideas, of virtue, and of the state), Philebus (for the theory of the finite and infinite, of Ideas and the good), Timœus (for the theory of nature and the soul). The student will be disappointed if he expect to find dogmatic conclusions at every step in Plato. Plato believed thoroughly in keeping the mind open and trying questions in every possible way. One may read several dialogues—go through, so to say, several movements of the Platonic symphony—without finding a real pause. As to the external style of the dialogues, the wise reader will guard against treating the myths and metaphors in which the dialogues abound in a temper too prosaic. Plato’s philosophy is, in many places, steeped in poetry, but, if rightly read, is not unphilosophical on account of that. The force of these remarks will receive pointed illustration when we reach Aristotle and his criticisms upon Plato.


(1) «Geschichte der Philosophie,» Bd. II. p. 147.

(2) See Zeller’s Plato and the Older Academy (a translation from Zeller’s Geschichte der Philosophie der Griechen), p. 82.

(3) Plato and the Older Academy, pp. 103, 104; also pp. 117-119. Schwegler agrees with Hermann; see his Handbook of the History of Philosophy, pp. 62-67 (Stirling’s translation). Practically the difference between Zeller and Schwegler here is of little consequence to any but the specialist.

(4) It should be noted that certain English authorities at the present moment, chief among them Henry Jackson and R. D. Archer-Hind, regard the Parmenides and the Philebus as among the very latest of Plato’s works and as containing, therefore, the latest form of Plato’s leading thought, the Theory of Ideas. See below, p. 112. (See Journal of Philology, Cambridge, 1882.)