The Life of Plato
The Biography of Philosophy's Father
Alfred North Whitehead once famously described the history of philosophy as being a series of footnotes to Plato. The breadth of topics and subjects that Plato birthed is second to no other thinker.
And yet, despite the immense influence of the Ancient Athenian, his life is shrouded in mystery. Despite his writings being the most prodigious gift from Antiquity bar none — with all of his Dialogues (and then some) surviving the culling of the intellectual tradition in the Dark Ages — the life of the philosopher is much more legend than fact.
Most of the biographical details we have about Plato come from at least 500 years after his death. Much like his notorious teacher Socrates, Plato’s life is shrouded in mystery.
In this episode, we are going to explore what we have of Plato’s biography. The marriage of myth and fact is so complete with Plato’s life that to call this a historical biography of Plato would be misleading. Nevertheless there is much to be gained from the exercise — we certainly get a sense for the shape of Plato’s life and there are many legends and stories attached to his name that are interesting not only for their entertainment value but also for the insight they give us into the ancient psyche and the importance of Plato in it.
The Backdrop to Plato’s Life
Plato was born in 427 BC at a pivotal moment in Greek history. The Golden Age of Athens was drawing to a close. The zenith of this Golden Age had been just five years before the birth of Plato when the Parthenon — the monumental marble temple on the Athenian Acropolis decked in ivory and gold — was completed under the eye of Athens’s legendary leader Pericles.
But only a year after this crowning glory, the Peloponnesian War broke out between the Athenian Empire — still officially known as the Delian League — and the Peloponnesian League under the leadership of Sparta.
Though this war was to go well for Athens at first due to her dominant navy, it ultimately spelt doom for Athens. Under the auspices of Pericles, the Athenians engaged their enemies at sea but kept themselves defended behind their walls. This containment of the dense Athenian population was to have devastating consequences when plague broke out in the city the following year wiping out a quarter of the population — an estimated 75 – 100,000 people including Pericles himself.
This pestilence which killed indiscriminately of class or piety and infected those who would care for the ill, wreaked havoc on the fabric of Athenian society. As Thucydides — the legendary historian of the time — put it:
“the catastrophe was so overwhelming that men, not knowing what would happen next to them, became indifferent to every rule of religion or law.”
— Thucydides, History of the Peloponnesian War
This hollowing out of Athenian society saw the weakening of religious belief, the redistribution of wealth — given the death of many rich citizens — and ultimately a blow to the numbers and the morale of the Athenian army.
Between the plague and the war that was to rage on for another two and a half decades, Athens never reclaimed her former glory. In 404, the Spartans who had allied with the Persian Empire defeated the Athenians. Sparta’s allies, Corinth and Thebes wanted Athens to be destroyed and all its citizens enslaved but Sparta demurred.
This was the backdrop against which Plato entered this world. Born five years after the zenith of Athens and three years after the outbreak of this plague, Plato’s early life and adolescence took place in the shadow of loss and war.
He was 23 when the Spartans finally defeated the Athenians and dismantled her democracy instating a brutal oligarchy known as the Thirty Tyrants.
This rule was comparable to Robespierre’s Reign of Terror after the French Revolution with executions and confiscation of wealth happening wholesale. Within 8 months the regime was brought to an end when exiled supporters of democracy returned to overthrow them. Despite their short rule, 5% of the Athenian population had been killed at their command.
The Family of Plato
Plato was born into one of the wealthiest and most powerful families in Athens. His mother’s brother Charmides and her cousin Critias were leading members of the Thirty Tyrants. Both were killed in the fighting when the returning democratic faction overthrew the oligarchy.
Aside from this historical certainty there are many other clues and legends about the prominence of his family. His mother’s family boasted a connection to the Athenian wise man Solon who was held be one of the Seven Sages of Greece.
On his father’s side he was said to have been related to Codrus — the last king of Athens and through him, Plato was thus descended from Poseidon.
The historian Diogenes Laertius records another tradition about Plato’s birth that takes us even further from historical plausibility into the realms of myth. The legend says that Plato’s father Ariston had tried to force his wife to have sex with him but stopped when he received a warning from Apollo in a dream. Plato’s mother Perictione fell pregnant ostensibly by the god Apollo. And so Plato’s father was the Greek god of the Sun as well as music, truth and poetry.
Historians find this account dubious and not merely for the obvious reasons but because we know with a fair degree of certainty from Plato’s Apology and The Republic that his brother Glaucus and Adeimentus were older than he.
Nevertheless, this legend is a fascinating gem. It reminds us that Plato was born a few hundred years before Christ at a time when this sort of mythological thinking was one of the primary ways of understanding the world. It is a testament to the idolisation of Plato that occurred after his death. His brilliance was so impressive that he was accorded the status of a demi-god. It also gives an insight into the apotheosis of Jesus and the evolution of religion. You have this original seed that is the living human being — the historical Plato, the historical Jesus. And so impressive is this individual that they attract the projections of the ideal from the people and over time this mythologising process creates a larger than life figure that rapidly approaches divinity.
It seems that the written word of history fixes the life of an individual in stone. Because Jesus was born in a less literate and more obscure territory, there was more time for his wisdom to be mythologised and for the historical Jesus to be reborn as the mythological Christ.
In the case of Plato it seems that he was brilliant enough and his biography shrouded in enough mystery that this mythologising process could begin but being born in a literate and developed culture that Jesus it seems that the mythologising process that had made gods out of Achilles and Herakles, was interrupted.
We see this patten of mythologising throughout the biography of Plato and while it can be frustrating to be so unsure about Plato’s historical life, it is fascinating to see the development of the mythological Plato and to see what legends and psychological projections attach themselves to him.
Another great example of this mythologising process in Plato’s early life comes from the time of his infancy. When he was a baby Plato was sleeping one day when some bees settled on his lips. This was taken as in indication that he was to gain fame for his honeyed words.
These simple types of myth tell us more about the perceptions of his contemporaries and the structures of their consciousness than they do about our philosopher but nevertheless they have proved remarkable enough to have survived the perilous sands of time.
Socrates and the Travels of Plato
When Plato was 20 years old, the Peloponnesian War was still raging and Plato considered setting off to become a soldier in the war but he was dissuaded by a certain gadfly of Athens — the notorious Socrates.
There is an anecdote that recurs in the ancient biographies of Plato about the first meeting of Socrates and Plato. The night before, Socrates had a dream where he saw a baby swan fly up from the altar of Eros in the sacred wood outside Athens called the Academy. This swan landed in his lap and at once developed to adult size and flew into the sky singing a most enchanted tune.
When he met Plato the following day, Socrates recalled the dream and told those present that this swan was none other than Plato.
Again beyond the obvious we have reasons to doubt this entrancing tale. Socrates was good friends with Plato’s relatives and members of the Thirty Tyrants Critias and Charmides — a friendship that may have played a role in his later fate — and so given this friendship with the family it is likely that Socrates knew Plato from a young age.
Nevertheless this tale again gives us an insight into antiquity’s perspective of Plato. This theme of the swan as we’ll see recurs later in the Platonic mythos.
According to many ancient sources including Aristotle, Plato was an accomplished poet in his youth. But it was not fated to last. According to the historian of the philosophers Diogenes Laertius when Plato was 20, he was at a festival and about to compete for a prize with a tragedy he had written. But after listening to Socrates speaking in front of the theatre to Dionysus, he burned all his poems to cinders saying:
“Come hither, O fire‑god, Plato now has need of thee”
From that day until the day of his teacher’s execution eight years later he was a dedicated student of Socrates.
After the death of Socrates, Plato continued his philosophical education. According to Diogenes Laertius he studied with Cratylus from the tradition of Herclitus and with Hermodorus who was from the Eleatic tradition of Parmenides and Zeno.
After some time Plato left Athens for Megara where another student of Euclides had set up a school with other students of Socrates. It is at this time that Plato begins to write what we now call the early Platonic dialogues which historians and philosophers take to be closest to the teachings of the historical Socrates. These include dialogues like the Apology, Crito and Phaedo which chart the final days of Socrates up to and including his execution.
Plato did not stay in Megara however. From here he began a series of travels to broaden his philosophical education. According to some accounts he went to Egypt to study with the priests and this is where he gets the knowledge of Egypt that we see in his later dialogues of Timaeus and Laws.
As well as Egypt he visited Cyrene where he studied with the mathematician Theodorus and Italy where he went to the school of Pythagoras’s followers and this is where he picked up his intimate knowledge of Pythagoras.
He had hoped to travel into Persia as well to study with the Magi but was prevented by some wars taking place at the time.
How much of these travels is historically true we will never know but the image of Plato that developed in the ancient world was of a man with a thirst for knowledge. He was a man with a mission — to learn everything there was to learn from all the different schools from the healing and prophecy of the Egyptian priests to the Mathematics of the Pythagoreans and the intricate philosophers of Being and change from the Heracliteans and the Eleatics. These travels were the hero’s journey of Plato — the making of the greatest philosopher ever.
After this vagabonding education Plato returned to Athens between the ages of 37 and 40 and founded his own school of philosophy in the sacred grove of Academus over a kilometre outside of Athens. This school was named after the grove and was called the Academy from which our modern words academy and academic come from. Over the entrance to the Academy was inscribed “Let none ignorant of geometry enter here”.
But any thoughts of a long sedate life were interrupted by an invitation from the West.
The Sicily Debacle
The stories surrounding Plato’s entanglement with Sicily are lengthy enough to merit their own essay but no biography of Plato could be complete without it.
Like most aspects of Plato’s biography it is more myth than truth and we have no contemporary mentions of it from Aristotle or his contemporaries. According to the accounts of Diogenes Laertius and of the Roman historian Apuleius, Plato made his first trip to Sicily when he was 40 and for no other reason it seems than to learn about Mt Etna.
Whatever the reason it did not end well. Despite having a student in a close relative of Dionysius the tyrant of the city-state Syracuse, things went awry. When Plato argued with Dionysius about tyranny, Dionysius said
“You talk like an old dotard.”
To which Plato rather imprudently rejoined:
“And you like a tyrant,”
Needless to say this went down like a lead balloon. He had Plato taken away and sold into slavery and it was only by the fortunate ransoming of the philosopher by an Anniceris from Cyrene in North Africa.
After this misadventure Plato returned to Athens and settled in for a quiet contemplative life at the Academy. During this time he wrote what are known as his Middle Dialogues and these include such masterpieces of philosophy as Gorgias, Protagoras and The Republic.
It was this latter Dialogue that led to Plato’s return to Sicily. His student and friend there Dion wrote to Plato inviting him to come over. The tyrant Dionysius was now dead and his young son was on the throne. Dion thought that Plato could found a city on Sicily based on the principles of his Republic.
And so at the age of 62 Plato set off again and once again things ended in disaster. The young Dionysius grew attached to Plato and meanwhile dismantled the life of Dion — seizing and selling his property and holding his life to random lest Plato might leave.
Eventually Plato did manage to escape with Dion but amazingly he was yet again convinced to return to Sicily. Dionysius II had had a change of heart and said he would restore Dion to his former status if only they would come to Sicily and so after some convincing Plato embarked for Sicily with Dion and the situation ended up becoming messy with Dion leading a coup only to be killed himself in the action.
Plato returned to the Academy now around 66 returned to the Academy abandoning all such notions of politics.
The Death of Plato
Having returned from his third trip to Sicily, Plato worked on what we now call his Late Dialogues such as Timaeus, Sophist and Laws. He died around 347 between the ages of 81 and 84.
As with all parts of Plato’s biography the facts are thin but we do know that when he died he appointed Speusippus to be his successor at the Academy. It is one of the great surprises of history that he chose Speusippus over his most brilliant student and one of the greatest philosophers in history — Aristotle. Two facts explain this puzzling decision: firstly Speusippus was Plato’s nephew and second Aristotle was a Macedonian and thus an outsider. And this is a cautionary tale to all who would like to measure their heroes from the past by the standards of present. For all his wisdom and knowledge, Plato chose the parochial and nepotistic option rather than the better philosopher. It prompts us to remember that Plato dedicated two dialogues to his kinsmen Charmides and Critias who were part of the Thirty Tyrants regime. We might also recall the authoritarian regime of Plato’s Republic and recall that despite being the father of the Western philosophical tradition, Plato is still irredeemably alien to us and from a very different value system despite birthing ours as Nietzsche noted when he wrote that
“Christianity is Platonism for the masses”
This fact of succession is not the only testament to Plato’s death that we have. In keeping with the tone of the rest of his biography, his death too attracted its own share of myths. Two of these in particular stand out.
The first is from Olympiodorus’s biography who tells us that after Plato’s death it was found that he had a copies of Aristophanes and Sophron under his pillow —both of whom were famous for their comedy. Nietzsche comments on the beautiful surprise that this represents:
“there is nothing that has caused me to meditate more on Plato’s secrecy and sphinx nature than the happily preserved petit fait that under the pillow of his deathbed there was found no “Bible,” nor anything Egyptian, Pythagorean, or Platonic—but a volume of Aristophanes. How could even Plato have endured life—a Greek life he repudiated—without an Aristophanes?”
And finally there is one more tale that merits mention. Earlier we talked about Socrates’s dream of a swan that he had the night before he met Plato. Well there is a complementary dream that Plato had before his death:
“he dreamed as he was on the point of death that, having turned into a swan, he was moving from tree to tree, and in this way was causing extreme toil for the hunters”
It is one final shred of legend that serves to complete the Plato mythology. Here is our great swan elegant and beautiful that many have tried to capture in their net throughout the history of philosophy and of Western culture. But because of the dialectical nature of his dialogues, because he always wore the mask of Socrates, this swan has remained forever elusive and that is why he continues to delight us with every reading, why his writings remain timeless and why all of Western will remain but a series of footnotes to Plato.