History of Plato

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The Life of Plato

Co-authored with Christopher Planeaux

Plato was born around the year 428 BCE into an established Athenian household with a rich history of political connections -- including distant relations to both Solon and Pisistratus. Plato's parents were Ariston and Perictone, his older brothers were Adeimantus and Glaucon, and his younger sister was Potone. In keeping with his family heritage, Plato was destined for the political life. But the Peloponnesian War, which began a couple of years before he was born and continued until well after he was twenty, led to the decline of the Athenian Empire. The war was followed by a rabid conservative religious movement that led to the execution of Plato's mentor, Socrates. Together these events forever altered the course of Plato's life.

The biographical tradition is unanimous in its observation that Plato engaged in many forms of poetry as a young man, only later turning to philosophy. Aristotle tells us that sometime during Plato's youth the philosopher-to-be became acquainted with the doctrines of Cratylus, a student of Heraclitus, who, along with other Presocratic thinkers such as Pythagoras and Parmenides, provided Plato with the foundations of his metaphysics and epistemology. Upon meeting Socrates, however, Plato directed his inquiries toward the question of virtue. The formation of a noble character was to be before all else. Indeed, it is a mark of Plato's brilliance that he was to find in metaphysics and epistemology a host of moral and political implications. How we think and what we take to be real have an important role in how we act. Thus, Plato came to believe that a philosophical comportment toward life would lead one to being just and, ultimately, happy.

It is difficult to determine the precise chain of events that led Plato to the intricate web of beliefs that unify metaphysics, epistemology, ethics and politics into a single inquiry. We can be certain, however, that the establishment of a government by Sparta (after the chaos of Athens' final defeat in 404), and the events that followed, dramatically affected the direction of his thinking. Following the turmoil of the war, a short eight month oligarchical tyranny known as the Thirty Tyrants governed Athens. Two of Plato's relatives, Critias (his mother's uncle) and Charmides (his mother's brother) played roles in this regime. Critias was identified as one of the more extreme members and chief advocate of the government, while Charmides played a smaller role as one of the Eleven, a customs/police force which oversaw the Piraeus.

The oligarchy made a practice of confiscating the estates of wealthy Athenians and resident aliens and of putting many individuals to death. In an effort to implicate Socrates in their actions, the Thirty ordered him to arrest Leon of Salamis. Socrates, however, resisted and was spared punishment only because a civil war eventually replaced the Thirty with a new and most radical democracy. A general amnesty, the first in history, was issued absolving those who participated in the reign of terror and other crimes committed during the war. But because many of Socrates' associates were involved with the Thirty, public sentiment had turned against him, and he now had the reputation of being profoundly anti-democratic.

In what appears to be a matter of guilt-by-association, a general prejudice was ultimately responsible for bringing Socrates to trial in 399 on the charges of corrupting the youth, introducing new gods into the city, atheism, and engaging in unusual religious practices. During his trial, which is documented in Plato's Apology, Socrates explained that he had no interest to engage in politics, because a certain divine sign told him that he was to foster a just and noble lifestyle within the young men of Athens. This he did in casual conversations with whomever he happened to meet on the streets. When Socrates told the court that if set free, he would not...
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