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Plato (Πλάτων, c. 428/7-348/7 bce) was an Ancient Greek philosopher. His dialogues, supposedly recording the ideas of Socrates, have made him one of the pivotal figures in the history of Western thought.

Plato was born, studied, taught, and died in Athens, albeit with some travelling inbetween. His dialogues, apparently recording historical conversations between Socrates and various fellow citizens of the city, range widely, from the distinction between mind and matter, echoed later by Descartes, to the strange theory of heavenly ideas, or forms, one of which exists for every concept we have. However, it is clear from his elevation of the ‘Form of the Good’, and his metaphor of the Cave (both in the Republic) that ethics is the central concern to which he always returns. The shackled prisoners can only be ‘set free’ when they let the light thrown out by knowledge of the good illuminate their miserable earthbound existence.[1]


Plato's family was a distinguished Athenian one, with political connections, particularly with the democratic and oligarchic movements, and he had aristocratic lineage (perhaps even seeing himself as of 'kingly' stock). His real name was Aristocles, but in his school days (according to Diogenes Laertius anyway) he received the nickname 'Platon' (meaning "broad", because of his broad shoulders - or was it his forehead - or even his eloquence?[2]) and that is how history has remembered him. As was normal at the time, Plato trained as a soldier as well as about poetry. He himself had political ambitions, and the Republic, written, like all Plato's dialogues, in the form of a little playlet, starring Socrates, is not only a central text in western philosophical thought, but also a political manifesto. It seems plausible that his contempt for democracy, which he condemns as rule of the unwise, limited his options at home, Athens being a 'democracy' (that is for well-off Greek males) that in 399 bce seemed to bear out the erratic nature of the beast. After this, Plato left the City declaring that things would never go right until either "kings were philosophers or philosophers were kings"[3].

For several years he visited the Greek cities of Africa and Italy, absorbing Pythagorean notions, and then in 387 bce he returned to Athens. One story has it that he was captured by pirates and held for ransom. Whether that is true or not, the second half of his long life is much more placid, with Plato establishing the famous 'Academy' for the study of philosophy in the western suburbs of Athens, what some like to consider the first 'university'.

There is one exception to this scholarly existence, however. During the 360s bce, he travelled twice to Syracuse, the capital of Greek Sicily, to advise the new king, Dionysius II. This perhaps was his attempt to put the ideals sketched out in the Republic, into practice. Yet the reality was disastrous: Plato fell out with the King, who preferred his own opinions, and only just managed to extricate himself from the situation to return to the relative tranquillity of life as Head of the Academy. He is reported to have died in his sleep at the age of eighty after enjoying the wedding feast of one of his students.[4]


Apuleius informs us that Speusippus praised Plato's quickness of mind and modesty as a boy, and the "first fruits of his youth infused with hard work and love of study". Plato must have been instructed in grammar, music, and gymnastics by the most distinguished teachers of his time. Dicaearchus went so far as to say that Plato wrestled at the Isthmian games.[5] Aristotle also tells us that Plato had studied philosophy before meeting Socrates, and had been well acquainted with Cratylus (a disciple of Heraclitus, a prominent pre-Socratic Greek philosopher) and the Heraclitean doctrines, notably that 'all is flux'.


If Socrates’ life and works are really a bit of a mystery, Plato's seems to be plain as a pikestaff. As one contemporary academic philosopher has put it: "Plato's publications are all preserved, and make five large modern volumes. They constitute not merely the greatest philosophical work there is, but also one of the greatest pieces of literature in the world." Indeed, if anyone asks what philosophy is, he continues confidently, "the best answer is: 'read Plato'."[6]

Plato's works consist of a series of little playlets, starring Socrates, in which conversations between Socrates on the one hand and various interlocutors are recorded, often with wit, always with subtlety. Plato himself never appears in any of the dialogues - as such - but it is impossible to say whose views are really being rehearsed in them, or where.

Plato on Knowledge' 

Above the doorway to the Academy it was famously written: LET NO ONE IGNORANT OF MATHEMATICS ENTER HERE

For that reason, the story (in the Meno dialogue) of Socrates teasing out Pythagoras theorem from an apparently ignorant slave boy is an interesting social comment, for it offers a more 'inclusive' definition of educational competence.

Astronomy was experimental in a sense, but the heavens were considered to exhibit the geometry of the Gods, which was why it was necessary to insist on the stars and planets circling the earth on perfect crystal spheres, making music as they turned, (whence the phrase "the music of the spheres") long after observations undermined the hypothesis. The dialogue the Timaeus echoes this perspective, with the five geometrical shapes - or solids - representing the four elements, while the fifth, the dodecahedron represents the universe as a whole. Here too, In the Timaeus, Plato deplores the fact that 'the great mass of mankind' regard geometrical and mechanical descriptions of phenomena 'as the sole causes of all things'. But such causes are 'incapable of any plan or intelligence for any purpose'. A story (also told of Euclid) shows both a harsh and dogmatic Plato , but also an idealistic one. The story goes that after he had been asked by a student to explain the practical application of the courses he was being taught, Plato instructed a slave boy to give the student a small coin so that he might appreciate better the value of the knowledge - and then threw him out of the school![7]

Scholars conventionally divide Plato's dialogues into three main periods . The first, the 'early dialogues', are thought to be the ones written in his youth, when he is supposed to be still reflecting Socrates' influence. These are thought to be the most 'factual' accounts of Socrates' own views. The key dialogue from this period would be the Apology, written apparently shortly after Socrates' execution.

The second period, the middle dialogues, includes what are now thought to be the most important philosophical works, with Plato, it is said, at the peak of his brilliance. These are the dialogues of the Republic, the Symposium and the Phædrus. The Republic, as already mentioned, deals not only with the design and organisation of the 'ideal state' but also with the nature of knowledge and the 'Forms'; the Symposium. or 'Drinking Party', deals with the nature of beauty, love and the 'meaning of life', and the Phaedrus deals with the question of immortality and the soul.

Some people would place the Symposium later in the chronology, and the convention indeed is that the 'late dialogues' have left the historical Socrates far behind while an increasingly poetic Plato is preoccupied with more 'metaphysical' questions, even starting to challenge his own earlier views, for example on the nature of the 'Forms'. Certainly nothing in Plato can be taken at face value. Although in the Republic we have an apparently clear condemnation of poetry and even sex (children are to be produced in the ideal state in a more controlled and logical way), in the Symposium an entirely different view is given. After describing the psychological fevers that the physical presence of a lover can create, the fevers condemned in the Republic as a 'tyrant', Socrates here says that it is only this that prevents the 'wings of the soul' from becoming parched and dry, and proceeds, scandalously, to credit eros - sexual love - as a God!

The little that seems to be clear about Plato's own views is that he (like Socrates and indeed the other Greeks, notably Pythagoras) had a hierarchy of knowledge in which ethics comes out on top, pure mathematics comes second, and 'practical' knowledge, of the kind obtainable by experimentation, trails in last.[8]

Relationship to Socrates

(PD) Image:  Dr. Becker UC-Irvine
Plato and Socrates in a medieval picture. Here, rather disgracefully, Plato seems to be directing his master!

Plato makes it clear, especially in his Apology of Socrates, that he was one of Socrates' devoted young followers. In that dialogue, Socrates is presented as mentioning Plato by name as one of those youths close enough to him to have been corrupted, if he were in fact guilty of corrupting the youth, and questioning why their fathers and brothers did not step forward to testify against him if he was indeed guilty of such a crime (33d-34a). Later, Plato is mentioned along with Crito, Critobolus, and Apollodorus as offering to pay a fine of 30 minas on Socrates' behalf, in lieu of the death penalty proposed by Meletus (38b). In the Phaedo, the title character lists those who were in attendance at the prison on Socrates' last day, explaining Plato's absence by saying, "Plato was ill" (Phaedo 59b).

The relationship between Plato and Socrates is problematic, however. Aristotle, for example, attributes a different doctrine with respect to the ideas to Plato and Socrates (Metaphysics 987b1–11), but Plato never speaks in his own voice in his dialogues. In the Second Letter, it says, "no writing of Plato exists or ever will exist, but those now said to be his are those of a Socrates become beautiful and new" (341c); if the Letter is Plato's, the final qualification seems to call into question the dialogues' historical fidelity. In any case, Xenophon and Aristophanes seem to present a somewhat different portrait of Socrates than Plato paints. Some have called attention to the problem of taking Plato's Socrates to be his mouthpiece, given Socrates' reputation for irony.[9] Besides, although Plato suggests in his Apology that Socrates practiced his method by cross-examining people whom he happened to meet at the marketplace, this is very unlikely to be real.[10]

The precise relationship between Plato and Socrates remains an area of contention among scholars.[11]


The exact order in which Plato's dialogues were written is not known, nor is the extent to which some might have been later revised and rewritten.

‘’Early dialogues’’

  • Apology
  • Charmides
  • Crito
  • Euthyphro
  • Ion
  • Laches
  • Lesser Hippias
  • Lysis
  • Menexenus
  • Protagoras

The following are sometimes described as "transitional" or "pre-middle" dialogues:

Socrates figures in all of these, and they are considered the most faithful representations of the historical Socrates; hence they are also called the Socratic dialogues. Most of them consist of Socrates discussing a subject, often an ethical one (friendship, piety) with a friend or with someone presumed to be an expert on it. Through a series of questions he will show that apparently they do not understand it at all. It is left to the reader to figure out if "he" really understands "it". This makes these dialogues "indirect" teachings.[12]

‘’Middle dialogues’’

  • Cratylus
  • Phaedo
  • Phaedrus
  • Symposium
  • Republic
  • Theaetetus
  • Parmenides

Late in the early dialogues Plato's Socrates actually begins supplying answers to some of the questions he asks, or putting forth positive doctrines. This is generally seen as the first appearance of Plato's own views. The first of these, that goodness is wisdom and that no one does evil willingly, was perhaps Socrates' own view. What becomes most prominent in the middle dialogues is the idea that knowledge comes of grasping unchanging forms or essences, paired with the attempts to investigate such essences. The immortality of the soul, and specific doctrines about justice, truth, and beauty, begin appearing here. The Symposium and the Republic are considered the centrepieces of Plato's middle period. The Parmenides and Theaetetus are often considered to come late in this period and transitional to the next, as they seem to treat the Theory of Forms critically (Parmenides) or not at all (Theaetetus).[13]

‘’Late dialogues’’

  • Sophist
  • Statesman
  • Philebus
  • Timaeus
  • Critias
  • Laws

The Parmenides presents a series of criticisms of the theory of Forms which are sometimes taken to indicate Plato's abandonment of the doctrine. An apparently new method for doing dialectic known as "collection and division" is also featured, most notably in the Sophist and Statesman, explicitly for the first time in the Phaedrus. In the Sophist, it is suggested that this is what philosophy is always in the business of doing, and is doing even in the early dialogues.[14]

Plato never presents himself as a participant in any of the dialogues, and with the exception of the Apology, there is no suggestion that he heard any of the dialogues firsthand. Some dialogues have no narrator but have a pure "dramatic" form (examples: Meno, Gorgias, Phaedrus, Crito, Euthyphro), some dialogues are narrated by Socrates, wherein he speaks in first person (examples: Lysis, Charmides, Republic). One dialogue, Protagoras, begins in dramatic form but quickly proceeds to Socrates' narration of a conversation he had previously with the sophist for whom the dialogue is named; this narration continues uninterrupted until the dialogue's end.[15]

The three dialogues Phaedo, the Symposium, and the Theaetetus also begin in dramatic form but then proceed to virtually uninterrupted narration by followers of Socrates, and all, apparently, based on their distant memory or secondhand reports. Phaedo, an account of Socrates' final conversation and hemlock drinking, is narrated by Phaedo to Echecrates in a foreign city many years after the execution took place. The Symposium is narrated by Apollodorus, a Socratic disciple, apparently to Glaucon. Apollodorus assures his listener that he is recounting the story, which took place when he himself was an infant, not from his own memory, but as remembered by Aristodemus, who told him the story years ago. In the beginning of the Theaetetus (142c-143b), ‘’Euclides’’ says that he compiled the conversation from notes he took based on what Socrates told him of his conversation with the title character. The rest of the Theaetetus is presented as a "book" written in dramatic form and read by one of Euclides' slaves (143c). Some scholars take this as an indication that Plato had by this date wearied of the narrated form. With the exception of the Theaetetus, Plato gives no explicit indication as to how these orally transmitted conversations came to be written down. Other dialogues, such as the Phaedo, the Symposium, and the Parmenides, do suggest that such conversations were faithfully recalled and transmitted by Socrates' followers.[16]

'Political ambitions  

Plato was born into a prominent family that claimed descent from the god Poseidon[17] As many sources conclude, Plato more than exercised his thoughts through his works, but spent the better part of his life practicing them[18]. His work in Government affairs was concluded when Socrates was executed, due to Plato’s lack of trust in Athenian government[19]. Plato went on to create the first university in history, where he went about educating the men of society on the prosecution of scientific study[20].

In The Republic, one Plato’s most influential works, the idea for the perfect government system ruled by and with justice is laid out from the ideas of Socrates[21]. Among Plato’s dialogues The Statesman provides another look at government where he works to define every aspect of a good statesman and their government and comes to the conclusion that, “the best government is lawless,” flexible for the individuals it governs[22].
Plato’s contributions to philosophy and the world are undeniable: a great amount of the world’s progress has to be attributed to his work and dedication for truth. He managed to lead a humble life from a not so humble beginning.


Plato's influence on Western thought is immense. Alfred North Whitehead described the Western philosophical traditions as being a "series of footnotes to Plato".[23] Plato is the primary frame through which we see the thought of Socrates, and he was a large influence on Aristotle. With the rise of Christianity, St Augustine was heavily influenced by Plato. Philo of Alexandria mixed Plato's thought with Judaism.

Plato's metaphysics—the Forms—is still considered a live option within ontology: realism about universals can take immanent or transcendent form. The latter form is the Platonic one, and is still subscribed to by some mathematicians.

Plato's writings have had a profound influence on the history of political thought.


  1. Essentials of Philosophy and Ethics, Hodder Arnold 2006, ed. Cohen M. p229
  2. Diogenes Laertius, Life of Plato, IV
  3. Philosopher kings are the hypothetical rulers, or Guardians, of Plato 's ideal city-state. If it is ever to come into being, "philosophers [must] become kings…or those now called kings [must]…genuinely and adequately philosophize" (The Republic, 5.473c)
  4. Essentials of Philosophy and Ethics, Hodder Arnold 2006, ed. Cohen M. p229
  5. ^ Diogenes Laertius, Life of Plato, IV and V
  6. The Concise Encyclopaedia of Western Philosophy and Philosophers, edited by J.O. Urmson and Jonathan Ree (1991) entry on Plato by Richard Robinson
  7. Essentials of Philosophy and Ethics, Hodder Arnold 2006, ed. Cohen M. p229
  8. Essentials of Philosophy and Ethics, Hodder Arnold 2006, ed. Cohen M. p230
  9. Leo Strauss, The City and Man (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1964), 50–1
  10. Edards, P. The Encyclopedia of Philosophy, Volumes 5 & 6 (Macmillan, 1967: 317)
  11. From the Wikipedia article on Plato as accessed on November 7 2008
  12. based on the section ‘Early Dialogues’ in the Wikipedia article on Plato as accessed on November 7 2008
  13. based on the section ‘Middle Dialogues’ in the Wikipedia article on Plato as accessed on November 7 2008
  14. based on the section ‘Late Dialogues’ in the Wikipedia article on Plato as accessed on November 7 2008
  15. W. Guthrie, A History of Greek Philosophy, vol. 4, Cambridge University Press 1975; G. Vlastos, Socrates: Ironist and Moral Philosopher, Cambridge University Press 1991; T. Penner, "Socrates and the Early Dialogues", in R. Kraut (ed.), The Cambridge Companion to Plato, Cambridge University Press 1992; C. Kahn, Plato and the Socratic Dialogue, Cambridge University Press 1996; G. Fine, Plato 2: Ethics, Politics, Religion, and the Soul, Oxford University Press 1999, cited as sources for this section in the Wikipedia article on Plato as accessed on November 7 2008
  16. W. Guthrie, A History of Greek Philosophy, vol. 4, Cambridge University Press 1975; G. Vlastos, Socrates: Ironist and Moral Philosopher, Cambridge University Press 1991; T. Penner, "Socrates and the Early Dialogues", in R. Kraut (ed.), The Cambridge Companion to Plato, Cambridge University Press 1992; C. Kahn, Plato and the Socratic Dialogue, Cambridge University Press 1996; G. Fine, Plato 2: Ethics, Politics, Religion, and the Soul, Oxford University Press 1999, cited as sources for this section in the Wikipedia article on Plato as accessed on November 7 2008
  17. Taylor, 1
  18. Biffle, 5; Taylor, 2
  19. Taylor, 4
  20. Biffle, 5; Taylor, 6
  21. Cairns, 575-576
  22. Cairns, 1018
  23. Alfred North Whitehead, Process and Reality, p. 39, Free Press, 1979.