The philosopher Plato was a citizen of Athens, born into one of the city’s old families. As a child and adolescent, the future philosopher witnessed radical and sometimes horrifying changes in Athens. A major Mediterranean power, Athens had been involved in a prolonged struggle with its rival Sparta through the decades of the Peloponnesian War (431-404), a conflict that involved dozens of allies and by-stander states across the region. The war saw revolts, massacres and catastrophic loss of life and ultimately resulted in the surrender of Athens and the significant weakening of its empire. Early experiences of Athenian abuses of power against weaker peoples, the disintegration of democratic values, the exile of relatives, the substantial loss of dominion, the rise of oligarchy, and, finally, a partial restoration of Athenian democracy surely informed Plato's interest in ethics and political philosophy.
Plato's education was most probably steered by the elder males of his family – his stepfather and older brothers. In keeping with the standard for males, Plato’s education must have consisted of a wide range of arts and sciences – from dance and music, to poetry, mathematics, astronomy, and history. The breadth of the body of Plato’s works reflects the breadth of Athenian interests, incorporating metaphysics and mathematics, love and friendship, art and religion into his investigations of virtue, human well-being and justice.
Most crucial to Plato’s future trajectory was the philosopher Socrates (469-399 BCE), whose career and life Plato witnessed first-hand until the elder philosopher was executed, after a trial in which he was accused of impiety and leading the youth of Athens astray. Socrates was indeed a radically new type of teacher. Athenian education had long been dominated by high-status teachers of rhetoric known as "sophists," from whom Socrates distinguished himself by not charging a fee for his teaching and for the relative shabbiness in which he lived. Socrates had been something of a thorn in the side of Athenians for decades, confronting them in the marketplace, interrogating their ideas of good governance and of right and wrong. Plato was probably a teenager when he undertook the rigors of philosophy in the company of Socrates and his friends. Although he was still in his twenties at the time of Socrates’ death, the legacy and specter of Socrates shaped Plato’s work until his own death.
Unlike Socrates, however, Plato engaged in formal and diplomatic activities that ultimately strayed far beyond the scope of the philosophical life led by the gadfly of Athens. Plato hoped his teaching could directly influence statecraft: upon invitation, it seems that he traveled twice to Sicily in the hopes of influencing the tyrant there to good governance. Also departing from his teacher, Plato founded something like a formal “school” that came to be known as the Academy. Set in the natural spaces well beyond the city walls, the Academy attracted philosophers and students of a variety of lines of theoretical inquiry, from mathematics and music theory, to ethics and politics. The influence of Plato began to rival the grip that the sophists had long held on Athenian education—and through his writings (and those of other philosophers) Socrates, too, left an enduring mark.
But the now-canonical status that Socrates and Plato earned was by no means inevitable. Both men were innovative in their own time and controversial among their own peers. Plato’s Socrates is opposed to consensus, a temperament reflected in the style of Plato’s form of writing. In each of his “dialogues” (i.e., conversations), the rigorous practice of philosophy is conducted through questioning and debate, although some dialogues, such as Symposium, exhibit longer speeches rather than the rapid interchange of question and answer.
Most scholars of Plato agree that his philosophical works were composed over three periods: the Early dialogues are generally thought to adhere most closely to Socrates’ questioning of traditional understandings of virtue, human well-being and self-knowledge, while the Middle and Late dialogues are generally thought to exhibit Plato’s increasing independence from the older philosopher. Both Symposium and Republic are considered Middle dialogues. Over the course of his writing, Plato developed ideas on a wide range of topics, importantly law and politics, metaphysics and epistemology and the nature of the human soul.
The figure of Socrates himself was – and continues to be – a topic of debate. The reputation and significance of a philosopher who rigorously challenged common sense and who threw into confusion thoughtlessly transmitted values was much contested throughout his life and in the centuries following. Was he a nuisance? An imposter? An atheist bent on the destruction of the sacred state institutions that held Athens together? Or, rather, was Socrates an imperturbable teacher of virtue to indecisive young minds? A near-saint? Was he merely a sophist in another guise? Even Socrates’ philosophical adherents themselves would come to represent him in their writings in ways that differed. Although they agreed on the supreme value of the philosopher and his virtue, they disagreed on what that meant – was it his lifestyle, which eschewed convention and spoke truth at any cost? Was it his commitment to virtue? Was it his style of rigorous, relentless question-and-answer that might only lead us to conclude that it is impossible truly to know anything?
To the ancients, Plato provided just one of several ways of viewing Socrates. Aristophanes, for example, famously lampooned Socrates in his Clouds, produced when Plato was just a child. Xenophon, a younger contemporary of Plato, would later initiate a philosophical tradition in which Socrates was wholly virtuous and unblinkingly pious. Other writers and philosophers would come to provide yet further ways of interpreting the man, his life and his teachings.
Written by Kate Brassel, Core Instructor, Classics, Columbia University
H. Benson, ed. A Companion to Plato. Blackwell (2006)
R. Kraut, ed. The Cambridge companion to Plato. Cambridge (1992)
D. Nails. The People of Plato: a prosopography of Plato and other Socratics (2002)
D. Halperin. “One Hundred Years of Homosexuality,” Diacritics 16 (1986) pp. 34-45
A.A. Long. “Socrates in Hellenistic Philosophy,” Classical Quarterly 38 (1988) pp. 150-171