Born: 427 BC in Athens, Greece
Died: 347 BC in Athens, Greece
Before giving details of Plato's life we will take a
few moments to discuss how definite the details are which we give below. The
details are mostly given by Plato himself in letters which seem, on the face of
it, to make them certain. However, it is disputed whether Plato did indeed
write the letters so there are three possible interpretations. Firstly that
Plato wrote the letters and therefore the details are accurate. Secondly that
although not written by Plato, the letters were written by someone who knew him
or at least had access to accurate information on his life. The third possibility,
which unfortunately cannot be ruled out, is that they were written by someone
as pure fiction.
Next we should comment on the name 'Plato'. In Rowe writes:-
It was claimed that Plato's real name was Aristocles,
and that 'Plato' was a nickname (roughly 'the broad') derived either from the
width of his shoulders, the results of training for wrestling, or from the
breadth of his style, or from the size of his forehead.
Plato was the youngest son of Ariston and Perictione
who both came from famous wealthy families who had lived in Athens for
generations. While Plato was a young man his father died and his mother
remarried, her second husband being Pyrilampes. It was mostly in Pyrilampes'
house that Plato was brought up. Aristotle writes that when Plato was a young
man he studied under Cratylus who was a student of Heracleitus, famed for his
cosmology which is based on fire being the basic material of the universe. It
almost certain that Plato became friends with Socrates when he was young, for
Plato's mother's brother Charmides was a close friend of Socrates.
The Peloponnesian War was fought between Athens and
Sparta between 431 BC and 404 BC. Plato was in military service from 409 BC to
404 BC but at this time he wanted a political career rather than a military
one. At the end of the war he joined the oligarchy of the Thirty Tyrants in
Athens set up in 404 BC, one of whose leaders being his mother's brother
Charmides, but their violent acts meant that Plato quickly left.
In 403 BC there was a restoration of democracy at
Athens and Plato had great hopes that he would be able to enter politics again.
However, the excesses of Athenian political life seem to have persuaded him to
give up political ambitions. In particular, the execution of Socrates in 399 BC
had a profound effect on him and he decided that he would have nothing further
to do with politics in Athens.
Plato left Athens after Socrates had been executed and
travelled in Egypt, Sicily and Italy. In Egypt he learnt of a water clock and
later introduced it into Greece. In Italy he learned of the work of Pythagoras
and came to appreciate the value of mathematics. This was an event of great
importance since from the ideas Plato gained from the disciples of Pythagoras,
he formed his idea:-
... that the reality which scientific thought is
seeking must be expressible in mathematical terms, mathematics being the most
precise and definite kind of thinking of which we are capable. The significance
of this idea for the development of science from the first beginnings to the
present day has been immense.
Again there was a period of war and again Plato
entered military service. It was claimed by later writers on Plato's life that
he was decorated for bravery in battle during this period of his life. It is
also thought that he began to write his dialogues at this time.
On his return to Athens Plato founded, in about 387
BC, on land which had belonged to Academos, a school of learning which being
situated in the grove of Academos was called the Academy. Plato presided over
his Academy in Athens, an institution devoted to research and instruction in
philosophy and the sciences, from 387 BC until his death. His reasons for
setting up the Academy were connected with his earlier ventures into politics.
He had been bitterly disappointed with the standards displayed by those in
public office and he hoped to train, in his Academy, young men who would become
statesmen. However, having given them the values that Plato believed in, Plato
thought that these men would be able to improve the political leadership of the
cities of Greece.
Only two further episodes in Plato's life are
recorded. He went to Syracuse in 367 BC following the death of Dionysius I who
had ruled the city. Dion, the brother-in-law of Dionysius I, persuaded Plato to
come to Syracuse to tutor Dionysius II, the new ruler. Plato did not expect the
plan to succeed but because both Dion and Archytas of Tarentum believed in the
plan then Plato agreed. Their plan was that if Dionysius II was trained in
science and philosophy he would be able to prevent Carthage invading Sicily.
However, Dionysius II was jealous of Dion who he forced out of Syracuse and the
plan, as Plato had expected, fell apart.
Plato returned to Athens, but visited Syracuse again
in 361 BC hoping to be able to bring the rivals together. He remained in
Syracuse for part of 360 BC but did not achieve a political solution to the
rivalry. Dion attacked Syracuse in a coup in 357, gained control, but was
murdered in 354.
Field writes in that Plato's life:-
... makes it clear that the popular conception of
Plato as an aloof unworldly scholar, spinning theories in his study remote from
practical life, is singularly wide of the mark. On the contrary, he was a man
of the world, an experienced soldier, widely travelled, with close contacts
with many of the leading men of affairs, both in his own city and elsewhere.
Plato's main contributions are in philosophy,
mathematics and science. However, it is not as easy as one might expect to
discover Plato's philosophical views. The reason for this is that Plato wrote
no systematic treatise giving his views, rather he wrote a number of dialogues
(about 30) which are written in the form of conversations. Firstly we should
comment on what superb pieces of literature these dialogues are:-
They show the mastery of language, the power of
indicating character, the sense of a situation, and the keen eye for both its
tragic and its comic aspects, which set Plato among the greatest writers of the
world. He uses these gifts to the full in inculcating the lessons he wants to
In letters written by Plato he makes it clear that he
understands that it will be difficult to work out his philosophical theory from
the dialogues but he claims that the reader will only understand it after long
thought, discussion and questioning. The dialogues do not contain Plato as a
character so he does not declare that anything asserted in them are his own
views. The characters are historic with Socrates usually the protagonist so it
is not clear how much these characters express views with which they themselves
would have put forward. It is thought that, at least in the early dialogues,
the character of Socrates expresses views that Socrates actually held.
Through these dialogues, Plato contributed to the
theory of art, in particular dance, music, poetry, architecture, and drama. He
discussed a whole range of philosophical topics including ethics, metaphysics
where topics such as immortality, man, mind, and Realism are discussed.
He discussed the philosophy of mathematics, political
philosophy where topics such as censorship are discussed, and religious
philosophy where topics such as atheism, dualism and pantheism are considered.
In discussing epistemology he looked at ideas such as a priori knowledge and
Rationalism. In his theory of Forms, Plato rejected the changeable, deceptive
world that we are aware of through our senses proposing instead his world of
ideas which were constant and true.
Let us illustrate Plato's theory of Forms with one of
his mathematical examples. Plato considers mathematical objects as perfect
forms. For example a line is an object having length but no breadth. No matter
how thin we make a line in the world of our senses, it will not be this perfect
mathematical form, for it will always have breadth. In the Phaedo Plato talks
of objects in the real world trying to be like their perfect forms. By this he
is thinking of thinner and thinner lines which are tending in the limit to the
mathematical concept of a line but, of course, never reaching it. Another
example from the Phaedo is given in:-
The instance taken there is the mathemtical relation
of equality, and the contrast is drawn between the absolute equality we think
of in mathematics and the rough, approximate equality which is what we have to
be content with in dealing with objects with our senses.
Again in the Republic Plato talks of geometrical
diagrams as imperfect imitations of the perfect mathematical objects which they
Plato's contributions to the theories of education are
shown by the way that he ran the Academy and his idea of what constitutes an
educated person. He also contributed to logic and legal philosophy, including
Although Plato made no important mathematical
discoveries himself, his belief that mathematics provides the finest training
for the mind was extremely important in the development of the subject. Over
the door of the Academy was written:-
Let no one unversed in geometry enter here.
Plato concentrated on the idea of 'proof' and insisted
on accurate definitions and clear hypotheses. This laid the foundations for
Euclid's systematic approach to mathematics. In  his contributions to
mathematics through his students are summarised:-
All of the most important mathematical work of the 4th
century was done by friends or pupils of Plato. The first students of conic
sections, and possibly Theaetetus, the creator of solid geometry, were members
of the Academy. Eudoxus of Cnidus - author of the doctrine of proportion
expounded in Euclid's "Elements", inventor of the method of finding
the areas and volumes of curvilinear figures by exhaustion, and propounder of
the astronomical scheme of concentric spheres adopted and altered by Aristotle
- removed his school from Cyzicus to Athens for the purpose of cooperating with
Plato; and during one of Plato's absences he seems to have acted as the head of
the Academy. Archytas, the inventor of mechanical science, was a friend and
correspondent of Plato.
In mathematics Plato's name is attached to the
Platonic solids. In the Timaeus there is a mathematical construction of the
elements (earth, fire, air, and water), in which the cube, tetrahedron,
octahedron, and icosahedron are given as the shapes of the atoms of earth,
fire, air, and water. The fifth Platonic solid, the dodecahedron, is Plato's
model for the whole universe.
Plato's beliefs as regards the universe were that the
stars, planets, Sun and Moon move round the Earth in crystalline spheres. The
sphere of the Moon was closest to the Earth, then the sphere of the Sun, then
Mercury, Venus, Mars, Jupiter, Saturn and furthest away was the sphere of the
stars. He believed that the Moon shines by reflected sunlight.
Perhaps the best overview of Plato's views can be
gained from examining what he thought that a proper course of education should
consist. Here is his course of study:-
... the exact sciences - arithmetic, plane and solid
geometry, astronomy, and harmonics - would first be studied for ten years to
familiarise the mind with relations that can only be apprehended by thought.
Five years would then be given to the still severer study of ' dialectic'.
Dialectic is the art of conversation, of question and answer; and according to
Plato, dialectical skill is the ability to pose and answer questions about the
essences of things. The dialectician replaces hypotheses with secure knowledge,
and his aim is to ground all science, all knowledge, on some 'unhypothetical
Plato's Academy flourished until 529 AD when it was
closed down by the Christian Emperor Justinian who claimed it was a pagan
establishment. Having survived for 900 years it is the longest surviving
J J O'Connor and E F Robertson
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