|© 1996 Bernard SUZANNE
|Last updated September 30, 2001
|Plato and his dialogues : Home - Biography - Works and links to them - History of interpretation - New hypotheses - Map of dialogues : table version or non tabular version. Tools : Index of persons and locations - Detailed and synoptic chronologies - Maps of Ancient Greek World. Site information : About the author.
|"Mankind will not get rid of its evils until either the class of those who philosophize in truth and rectitude reach political power or those most powerful in cities, under some divine dispensation, really get to philosophizing." (VIIth Letter, 326a-b)
Plato was probably born in 427 BC, and died around 347 BC, aged about 80. But the earlier extant biographies of him we may read have been written hundreds of years after his death : that of Apuleius, sometime during the second century AD, and that of Diogenes Lærtius, in his Lives and Opinions of Eminent Philosophers, no earlier than the third century AD. And these bear very little resemblance with what we expect from a biography nowadays. To make things worse, Plato almost never talks about himself in his dialogues (he does so only twice, once in the Apology and once in the Phædo, each time in connection with the trial and death of Socrates). But, if we accept the authenticity of the VIIth Letter (which I do), we have there the closest thing to an autobiography we can dream of owing to the scarcity of our sources, though quite limited in scope despite its late date in Plato's life (it could not have been written before Dion's assassination in 354 BC, to which it refers, that is, at a time Plato was over 70).
Accordingly, we must bear in mind that most of what we read on Plato's life and chronology is plain guess, hypotheses built on top of hypotheses by generations of scholars, starting with those ancient writers whose extant works constitute our primary sources.
Things being so, what can be said about Plato's life ? We may be pretty confident that he was born shortly after Pericles' death, in one of the noblest families of Athens. He (supposedly) descended from Codrus, the last legendary king of Athens by his father, and was related to Solon by his mother. Among his close relatives were Critias and Charmides, famed for their infamous participation in the government of the Thirty Tyrants in 404 BC.
One of the most important events in his life was no doubt his encounter, sometime in his youth, with Socrates, of which he became a "follower" until Socrates' trial and death in 399 BC. Whether he had other teachers during his youth, who they were and what he learned from them, we don't know for sure. But we can see from his dialogues that he knew quite well the doctrines of most of the philosophers who preceded him (those we call now the "presocratics" and the sophists) and had a high level of "scientific" knowledge for the time, especially in mathematics.
Owing to his origins, he should have entered a political career, but, as he himself tells us in the VIIth Letter (1), under Socrates' influence and disillusioned by what he saw of Athenian politics in his youth, including the tyranny led by his relatives, and culminating in Socrates' condemnation and execution, he came to the conclusion that mankind's fate was hopeless unless there was a deep change in men's education, and especially in the education of those intending to become statesmen, and that only what he called "philosophy" (etymologically, friendship with wisdom) could make them fit for their task. Accordingly, rather that taking chances in active politics at the risk of his life, sometime probably when he was about forty, after a first travel to Sicily and Italy (where he most likely met with Pythagoreans and became friend with Archytas of Tarentum), Plato decided to open a school in Athens, where he would educate future leaders of cities. The school was called the Academy after the name of the park it was located in.
From there on, most of Plato's life was probably dedicated to teaching and running his school, except for two more trips in Sicily, at the court of Denys the Younger, tyrant of Syracuse, the son of the Denys he had met during his first trip there, who had died by then. He was called there each time by friends, chief among them being Dion, Denys' brother-in-law, to try and put in practice his political theories (both trips ended in failure).
When Plato died, he was succeeded at the head of the Academy, not by Aristotle, who, by then, had been for about twenty years student and then teacher at the Academy, but by his nephew, Speusippus. The Academy kept functioning, under different guises, for centuries after Plato's death.
But one thing we don't have the slightest piece of material evidence about is when Plato wrote each one of his dialogues, and even whether all or part of them were "published" (that is, made available outside the Academy) while he was still alive, despite strong statements to that effect from most scholars, who take it for granted without further proof.
For a more "classical" approach to Plato's life and works, you may consult the notice on Plato in the Perseus encyclopedia. A detailed biography of Plato from a historical point of view may also be found at Christopher Planeaux's page on Plato ; but, in reading it, you must keep in mind that most of what is there presented as facts, (granted, with reference to sources in many cases), is far from having the kind of certainty the wording might lead to assume.
(1) A translation of that section of the VIIth letter serves as an introduction to my introductory essay on Plato and his dialogues written for the EAWC site at the University of Evansville, Indiana, former host of this Plato site. (<==)
Plato and his dialogues : Home - Biography - Works and links to them - History of interpretation - New hypotheses - Map of dialogues : table version or non tabular version. Tools : Index of persons and locations - Detailed and synoptic chronologies - Maps of Ancient Greek World. Site information : About the author.
First published May 16, 1996 - Last
updated September 30, 2001
© 1996 Bernard SUZANNE) (click on name to send your comments via e-mail)
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