The son of Ariston (his father) and Perictione (his mother), Plato was born in the year after the death of the great Athenian statesman Pericles. His brothers Glaucon and Adeimantus are portrayed as interlocutors in Plato’s masterpiece the Republic, and his half brother Antiphon figures in the Parmenides. Plato’s family was aristocratic and distinguished: his father’s side claimed descent from the god Poseidon, and his mother’s side was related to the lawgiver Solon (c. 630–560 BCE). Less creditably, his mother’s close relatives Critias and Charmides were among the Thirty Tyrants who seized power in Athens and ruled briefly until the restoration of democracy in 403.
Plato as a young man was a member of the circle around Socrates. Since the latter wrote nothing, what is known of his characteristic activity of engaging his fellow citizens (and the occasional itinerant celebrity) in conversation derives wholly from the writings of others, most notably Plato himself. The works of Plato commonly referred to as “Socratic” represent the sort of thing the historical Socrates was doing. He would challenge men who supposedly had expertise about some facet of human excellence to give accounts of these matters—variously of courage, piety, and so on, or at times of the whole of “virtue”—and they typically failed to maintain their position. Resentment against Socrates grew, leading ultimately to his trial and execution on charges of impiety and corrupting the youth in 399. Plato was profoundly affected by both the life and the death of Socrates. The activity of the older man provided the starting point of Plato’s philosophizing. Moreover, if Plato’s Seventh Letter is to be believed (its authorship is disputed), the treatment of Socrates by both the oligarchy and the democracy made Plato wary of entering public life, as someone of his background would normally have done.
After the death of Socrates, Plato may have traveled extensively in Greece, Italy, and Egypt, though on such particulars the evidence is uncertain. The followers of Pythagoras (c. 580–c. 500 BCE) seem to have influenced his philosophical program (they are criticized in the Phaedo and the Republic but receive respectful mention in the Philebus). It is thought that his three trips to Syracuse in Sicily (many of the Letters concern these, though their authenticity is controversial) led to a deep personal attachment to Dion (408–354 BCE), brother-in-law of Dionysius the Elder (430–367 BCE), the tyrant of Syracuse. Plato, at Dion’s urging, apparently undertook to put into practice the ideal of the “philosopher-king” (described in the Republic) by educating Dionysius the Younger; the project was not a success, and in the ensuing instability Dion was murdered.
Plato’s Academy, founded in the 380s, was the ultimate ancestor of the modern university (hence the English term academic); an influential centre of research and learning, it attracted many men of outstanding ability. The great mathematicians Theaetetus (417–369 BCE) and Eudoxus of Cnidus (c. 395–c. 342 BCE) were associated with it. Although Plato was not a research mathematician, he was aware of the results of those who were, and he made use of them in his own work. For 20 years Aristotle was also a member of the Academy. He started his own school, the Lyceum, only after Plato’s death, when he was passed over as Plato’s successor at the Academy, probably because of his connections to the court of Macedonia.
Because Aristotle often discusses issues by contrasting his views with those of his teacher, it is easy to be impressed by the ways in which they diverge. Thus, whereas for Plato the crown of ethics is the good in general, or Goodness itself (the Good), for Aristotle it is the good for human beings; and whereas for Plato the genus to which a thing belongs possesses a greater reality than the thing itself, for Aristotle the opposite is true. Plato’s emphasis on the ideal, and Aristotle’s on the worldly, informs Raphael’s depiction of the two philosophers in the School of Athens (1508–11). But if one considers the two philosophers not just in relation to each other but in the context of the whole of Western philosophy, it is clear how much Aristotle’s program is continuous with that of his teacher. (Indeed, the painting may be said to represent this continuity by showing the two men conversing amicably.) In any case, the Academy did not impose a dogmatic orthodoxy and in fact seems to have fostered a spirit of independent inquiry; at a later time it took on a skeptical orientation.
Plato once delivered a public lecture, “On the Good,” in which he mystified his audience by announcing, “the Good is one.” He better gauged his readers in his dialogues, many of which are accessible, entertaining, and inviting. Although Plato is well known for his negative remarks about much great literature, in the Symposium he depicts literature and philosophy as the offspring of lovers, who gain a more lasting posterity than do parents of mortal children. His own literary and philosophical gifts ensure that something of Plato will live on for as long as readers engage with his works.