Answers to Popular Questions about Plato

Plato

Plato

The Greek philosopher, Plato was born in either 428 or 427 BCE in ancient Athens. Plato was a devout student of Socrates (c. 470-399 BCE). By taking a philosophical approach (the “Socratic Position”),  he ended up becoming the crucial link between Socrates’ philosophies and the world. This is because Socrates himself never wrote down his brilliant thoughts and concepts. Most of the writing was done by Plato.

With masterpiece writings and dialogues such as the Republic, the Apology and the Sympossium,  Plato went on to achieve tremendous influence in academics and philosophy. One of his prodigies, a Chalcidice-born philosopher called Aristotle (384-322 BCE) took up the mantle after Plato’s passing and accomplished equally amazing things in philosophy and natural science.

Furthermore, the Academy he established in c. 387 BCE in Athens is just one of the numerous great works chalked by Plato. The reasoning process and ideas in about 36 works of Plato have remained unrivaled by anyone for millennia.

In the text below, we shed light on the life of this genius as well as the incomparable works of ancient Greece’s philosophical titan- Plato.

When was Plato born?

Historians peg the date of Plato’s birth to either 428 or 427 BCE. He grew up in a wealthy and very influential family in Athens, Greece. At the time of Plato’s birth, Greece was just coming out of the Golden Age. This age was filled with great thinkers such as the Athenian Pericles (c. 495 – 429) and Pythagoras (c. 580- c. 500 BCE). Therefore, most of Plato’s childhood influences must have come from the writings and works of those thinkers. Besides, the wealth and status of Plato’s family enabled him to be tutored by a number of very good philosophers and mathematicians.

Another likely factor that shaped Plato’s upbringing came from the Peloponnesian War. It was a huge influence on the budding mind of one of history’s greatest thinkers. The Peloponnesian War raged on while Plato was still at a tender age.  Plato also witnessed Greece’s final defeat at the hands of Sparta. Some philosophers and historians claim that Plato may have been a soldier during this war.

What was Plato’s real name?

Expert philosophers and historians believe that Plato’s real name was Aristocles, son of Ariston, of the deme Collytus. It was customary for male children to be named after their grandfather. According to Diogenes, he got the name “Plato” from one of his gymnastic tutors called Ariston of Argos. Ariston gave him the name due to Plato’s muscular and hardy looks. The word “Plato” translates into “platus” in ancient Greek, this, in turn, means “broad” or “wide” or “rugged”.

How was Plato’s early life like?

Plato’s parents were Ariston of Athens and Perictione. Historical writings show that he had about four siblings: three brothers and one sister – Antiphon, Glaucon, Adeimantus and Potone. It was not uncommon to find names of family and friends in Plato’s dialogues and writings. For example, the Republic contains the names of Adeimantus and Glaucon. Similarly, the Parmenides has Antiphon’s name in it.

Plato’s family were very high standing Greek aristocrats in every sense of the word. Some family members even went on to claim that they were descendants of famous Greek gods and goddesses. One of these claims came from Plato’s father, Ariston of Athens. The Aristons hailed from a very reputable ancestry line back to Codrus,  a renowned ancient Athenian king. Legend has it that Codrus came from the line of the Greek sea god Poseidon himself. This placed the Aristons right up there in Athens ruling class.

Regarding Plato’s mother, Perictione, her family (the Critias) were also very famous. She was related to the famous lawyer and poet, Solon. The other members of her family either made waves in law or politics in Athens. Solon, along with other members of the Critias and the Charmides, even became tyrannical figures in ancient Greece. They formed what was called the Thirty Tyrants. Their reign in Athens ended around the year 403 BCE.

Plato lost his father, Ariston of Athens, at a very tender age. His mother Perictione then remarried Pyrilampes. With this void in his heart, Plato started to search for something far greater than the physical world and the plush life of his family. Also, historians believe that Plato did not bring forth any child. A great number of them go as far as claiming that Plato did not even get married.

As he grew up, Plato joined the group that interacted with Socrates. He felt way more comfortable in the midst of intellectually charged people like Socrates. The lives that these people lived were in sharp contrast to the one that Plato grew up in. Socrates’ circle was one devoid of shallow reasoning and uncontrolled emotions.

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How did Plato meet and interact with Socrates?

Plato’s beginnings in philosophy went into full gear when he met Socrates. Prior to the meeting, Plato dabbled in a few concepts and theories about the environment. As a teen, he got to meet and understudy with several teachers and coaches. His family certainly could afford all of these for Plato.

Undoubtedly, the greatest of his teachers was his role model, Socrates. Plato fast became a crucial member of Socrates’ group that challenged Greeks of all walks of life to search within their souls in order to recollect the true forms of this life. The world today owes a lot to these two great philosophers meeting and interacting with each other.  Without the words and thoughts that Plato put into writing, the world would not have known anything about the philosophies and wisdom of Socrates. Collectively, Plato’s writings about the dialogues he had with Socrates have come to be known as the ‘Socratic’ philosophy.

Plato personally witnessed resentment and anger gradually grow against Socrates and his followers. Socrates’ thirst for an inquiry into the unknown and questioning of one’s own ideas became a nuisance to some section of ancient Greece. The so-called experts in their field became wary simply because Socrates took to questioning their stands and views of life. Ultimately, this and many more factors culminated in the execution of Socrates in 399 BCE. He was charged with corrupting the society, particularly the youth of Athens.

The death of Socrates gravely affected Plato. Due to the close contact Plato had with his tutor Socrates, distinguishing between Plato’s ideas and that of Socrates can be quite difficult. However, what is vividly clear is that Socrates’ ideas served as the foundation for Plato to build upon.

Which countries did Plato travel to?

Although not with enough historical pieces of evidence, some historians are of the view that Plato embarked on several adventures around Greece, Italy, and Egypt. Accounts of such trips claim that Plato started penning down most of his thoughts during this period.

In the first place, Plato’s travel around the Mediterranean may have been triggered by the execution of his dear friend and mentor, Socrates. He must have used this as an opportunity to gain a deeper understanding of the world around him. It is said that he spent about 12 years abroad and studied a wide array of subjects while in foreign lands.

What are some of Plato’s best-known works?

The entire history of western philosophy, as well as what holds the various parts of it together, is deeply entrenched in Plato’s works. It is for this reason why up to this day, Plato continues to be admired across the world. He is famed to have laid the foundation and introduced structures that are crucial to any critical thinking and self-analysis of one’s mind and thought process.

It is estimated that Plato had about 36 major scholarly and philosophical works. Many historians and philosophers categorize these works into three: early, middle, and late dialogues. Together, they form what we call the “Socratic works”. Examples of such works are the Republic, the Meno, the Apology, the Symposium, and the Laws.

Plato’s most famous work certainly has to be the Republic. The Republic’s chief guiding principle (form) is justice. The characters in the dialogue discuss the constituents of justice as well as its relationship to happiness. In this brilliant piece of writing, Plato’s characters in the dialogue come to a conclusion that a society should be governed by a ruler vexed in the ins and outs of philosophy. According to Plato, a ruler that conforms to a higher set of ethical codes (forms) will bode well for the society in general.

Thus, for any society to become happy and fulfilled (a state of Eudaimonia), kings must eat and breathe philosophy. Alternatively, the right to rule should be reserved for only philosophers, Plato proclaimed.

Why did Plato prefer putting his messages in dialogues?

It must be noted that most of Plato’s works were written in dialogues. It was reminiscent of the conversations he had with his tutor Socrates, as well as other great minds. As a result of this, Plato’s works are generally called the dialogues. By putting his ideas and thoughts in a dialogue format, Plato avoided dictating to people how they should live their lives.

The above makes a great deal of sense because doing so in any other writing style would have defeated the number one principle of a Socratic analysis- every one of us is entitled to seek out the truth and subject the ideas of others, as well as ours, to critical analysis. At the core of the discussions in his dialogues, the characters asked one another several questions in order to fully comprehend a subject in life or a concept.

The goal was not to arrive at a conclusive fact or put up clean-cut dogmas. Rather, the essence of philosophy is to gain greater understanding and wisdom of the world that we perceive. As a matter of fact, when the Greek word Philosophia gets translated into English, it means “Love of wisdom”.

Plato, therefore, cherished the wisdom that comes to fore whenever notions and viewpoints get put under our intellectual microscope for in-depth analysis. More often than not, we come to attain this wisdom after years and years of hard work, says Plato. He also stated that in some cases, a life time is certainly too short a period to realize this wisdom.

Along the way, Plato advocated that we make several contacts with people that share in this passion of truth seeking and finding. This, he believed, was way more beneficial than reading or perusing writings of others. Regardless, Plato never condemned the usage of writings in our quest to seek the truth. Clearly, there is a utility in reading the writings of others because they transcend time and geographical boundaries.

How were the dialogues in Plato’s works written?

Throughout Plato’s endeavors, he realized that a tar bit of humor engaged people’s senses in a better way. With small doses of humor, people tend to be more receptive to criticisms of their ideas and philosophies. Hence, Plato was known to sprinkle some humor across most of his dialogues and lectures.

Another approach that he used was to charge up the atmosphere where the conversation took place. According to him, the pursuit of life’s true forms occurs when our souls are charged up intellectually.

In the Republic, for example, Plato maintained that harmonization in our souls is a precursor for true happiness and virtue. He reasoned that the three parts of the soul that require alignment are: Reason, Spirit, and Appetite. The reason component in our soul constantly searches for truth and the good beyond this material world. The spirit, on the other hand, is more concerned with maintaining honor and strong values in our lives. Finally, the Appetite in all of us seeks for the low-level physiological items such as food, drink, shelter, and sex.

At every point in time, these three aspects of our souls tug and pull us in different directions to gain ultimate control over us, Plato argued. Therefore, balancing the demands of the soul is in by no means an easy task. It often requires something more than cognitive excellence. It demands the proper functioning of each component of the soul, he stated.

For his usage of the intellectually charged atmosphere in the dialogues, Plato cemented his claim as being one of the best writers that captures exactly what transpires in a conversation. Although the conversations in his dialogues evolved around his mentor Socrates, it included a host of other interactions among family, friends and even non-philosophers. His characterization of the actors in the dialogue helped to steer the message in a manner that benefits the reader the most.

Another very peculiar thing about the dialogues is that Plato himself never featured in the conversation. By doing this, he guarded against recommending an ideal path that should be followed by the reader. The suggestions that come from the characters in the dialogue are meant to serve as a guide to one’s effort in his or her philosophical progression in life. They don’t contain answers to our quest or problems; rather they suggest possible means of attaining life’s ultimate truth. Once the truth and forms are applied in a very rational manner, Plato predicts that society as a whole begins to get happier.

What are some examples of the FORMS that Plato famously discussed in his dialogues?

One thing that featured prominently whenever Plato spoke or expressed his ideas was the term “Logos”. The ‘Logos’ is an all-encompassing truth that influences our world of forms. According to Plato, the forms of our reality are bulk idealistic concepts such as justice, courage, truth, bravery, and beauty. The happiness that we seek in life often lies in aligning our whole being to those forms.

Ancient Greek philosophers stated that we derive greater happiness when we collectively develop as a society. They described this as “human flourishing”. And in order for this to happen, we as a society need to live a good life- a life that is immersed in the “Logos” (the ultimate truth and Form).

Similarly, Platonic philosophy teaches us that our virtues lay in things and concepts that allow us to live good lives. This explanation bridges the gap between happiness and virtue. In the mind of Plato, a virtuous man becomes happy when his virtues are obtained through critical thinking.

Another point worth noting is that Plato chastised virtues that solely came from perceiving the world with our five senses. He described virtues or happiness that came from our senses as sub-virtues or shallow truths. The real truth (the ‘Logos’) always comes from the soul (the intellectual mind), he declared. Such truths, in his opinion, are free from emotions and biases.

The Socratic position, which Plato admired so dearly, posits that every character and behavior should be bound by a special kind of knowledge. And this knowledge should be realized only through cognition and intellectual introspection. This was evident in Plato’s criticism of the ancient Sophist Protagoras  (c. 485- 415 BCE) in his dialogues: the Protagoras and Theatetus. Plato’s biggest peeves with the Sophists (subjective philosophers) of ancient Greece was their subjective portrayal and analysis of reality.

How was the setting like at Plato’s Academy?

The Academy was arguably the first western university-like institution. Plato founded this institution slightly outside Athens in 387 BCE. He was around 40 years when founded this school. Around the vicinity of this school was a grove of olive trees. It was situated right atop one of the worship places of the Greek goddess Athena. This made the area very sacred to people living there.

The Academy did not only educate people in science and mathematics, but it also covered a vast range of issues from aesthetics, political and economic philosophy, theology, cosmology, poetry, epistemology to the philosophy of language. It was devoted to the overall education of people in critical reasoning by challenging them to interrogate the views they held about the physical world. Plato’s greatest suit wasn’t in Mathematics. However, he greatly appreciated and encouraged the teaching of the subject at the Academy. In most cases, he spoke at length and very favorable about it. Some of its famous alumni included Eudoxus of Cnidus (c. 395- c. 342 BCE) and Theaetetus (417-369 BCE).

Another very influential member of the Academy was the renowned great philosopher and mathematician, Aristotle. Aristotle spent close to 20 years walking the halls of Plato’s Academy. The structure and principles of the Academy ended up influencing Aristotle’s school, the Lyceum.

Aristotle broke away from the Plato’s Academy to set up his own school because Plato did not pick him as his successor. Plato and Aristotle did not always agree in the manner in which the world around them worked. Plato was an idealist, that is, he reasoned that the ultimate reality of things can be found in the good or the logos. He once proclaimed during a lecture that “the Good is One”. However, Aristotle sort of strayed away from this angle. He believed that the things we observed and analyzed had greater value than the categories in which they belonged.

What did Plato believe in?

At the center of Plato’s beliefs was the world of ‘Forms’. He reasoned that a great number of people did not strive to bring their physical world in alignment with the world of forms. By ‘Forms’, he referred to things such as justice, truth, bravery, beauty, and courage. And how did one come to access these higher values and forms? Plato believed that the individual had to be brave and desist from using his/her senses. For it is only through the power of the mind that he or she could access those forms.

Plato described the physical world that we live in as transient and not a true representation of life itself. The above-mentioned forms were the realest components of realities.

  • The ‘Logos’ and the Good in Metaphysics

Logical and systematic reasoning is required to explore these forms. At the heart of those forms was the ‘Logos’ (the truth or the Good). The Logos are what give rise to these forms that every citizen must attain to have.  A society that fails to get in touch with this reason is bound to plunge into utter chaos Plato reasoned.

  • Harmony in one’s soul

How does one become emotionally healthy? Where do good ethics and sound moral judgement come from? These and many more other questions preoccupied the mind of Plato.

Plato believed that an individual must at all times overcome his or her reliance on knowledge of the physical world. He claimed that those kinds of knowledge do not auger well for the emotional well-being of the individual. True happiness, he opined, came from developing idealistic and healthy emotional responses to one’s environment. We must at all times harmonize reason, spirit, and desires in order to attain a strong moral well-being.

Was Plato a religious man?

This question does not have a yes or no answer. Flowing from his discussions about the philosophy of religion in the Laws and the Euthyphro, one could say that Plato did believe in a higher power. Power is far greater than the pale shadow of the things we call reality. Perhaps in the mind of Plato, this power can be termed as God (the “Logos”).

His description of the world of forms that exist outside the “cave” of our bondage elevates him from the deeply religious ancient Greek. Those people accepted religious doctrines and ideas of the forefathers without questioning them. Those ideas may look beautiful and just, however, they are in no way close to real forms begot to mankind by the Logos.

Plato’s explanation of the devil and evil ran contrary to existing religious theories of his time. Plato argued that one falls into the whims and caprices of evil acts because he or she is ignorant or has forgotten about the Good (the forms). However, we can come out of that evil pit or cave by bravely pursuing the just and true forms of reality. Every human being has this forms in him or her, it is only a matter of remembering them.

How did Plato die?

First of all, the year of his death varies. Depending on which year you agree Plato was born, the year of his death can either be 348 BCE or 347 BCE. If you accept the historical account that he was born on 428 BCE, then Plato died in 348 BCE. However, a birth year of 427 BCE places his year of death at around 347 BCE.

Whatever the case may be, it is believed that Plato lived right up until a ripe age of 80 years. The settings surrounding his death are a bit murky and have been lost as the centuries have rolled by. It is likely that he simply passed away in his sleep.

What legacy did Plato leave behind?

Ask any philosopher today and he or she will tell you that Plato’s works are not answers per se to our problems in life. They are a road map to self-discovery and self-improvement. Ultimately, a self-actualized person with strong core and values breeds a better and more just society. This is what Plato will most famously be remembered for. His reliance on a unique and upper kind of knowledge is what made his ideas reverberate around the world. With unbiased lenses, Plato developed the ability to properly examine his life and made it worth living.

In addition to his various works in philosophy and critical reasoning, Plato made immense contributions to science and mathematics, societal ethics, metaphysics, and cosmology. He believed that all sorts of human disciplines are in a constant movement to attain the ultimate perfection and form (the Good).

Any subject that heightened the intellectual part of the human being was something that Plato loved talking about. The piece of advice that we can take from him is that every subject or human endeavor of us should be exposed to Socratic analysis. It is only through this that we get to move from this physical realm into the realm of the Good and the Truth.

These and many more other beliefs of Plato became the foundation of western philosophy. And even millennia after his death (died in Athens in 347 BCE), his works continue to be studied all over the world today.

What are some specific examples of philosophers that Plato influenced?

Aside from him being the undisputed patron of western philosophy, Plato’s works went on to influence: Aristotle (384-322 BCE), Justin Martyr (c. 100 -c. 165 CE), Plotinus (c. 204 – 270 CE),  Anselm (c. 1033 – 1109 CE), and Al Farabi (870-950 CE). Examples of some more recent ones are Thomas Hobbes (1588-1679),  Fredrik Nietzsch (1844 – 1900), Martin Heidegger (1889 – 1976) and Hannah Arendt (1906 – 1975).

Top Plato Quotes

Top Plato quotes

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