"The measure of a man is what he does with power."
Plato was born to an aristocratic family in Athens. His father, Ariston, was believed to have descended from the early kings of Athens. Perictione, his mother, was distantly related to the 6th century BC lawmaker Solon. When Plato was a child, his father died, and his mother married Pyrilampes, who was an associate of the statesman Pericles.
Along with his teacher, Socrates, and his most famous student, Aristotle, Plato laid the very foundations of Western philosophy and science. In addition to being a foundational figure for Western science, philosophy, and mathematics, Plato has also often been cited as one of the founders of Western religion and spirituality, particularly Christianity.
Plato’s influence on Christian thought is often thought to be mediated by his major influence on Saint Augustine of Hippo, one of the most important philosophers and theologians in the history of Christianity. Plato was the innovator of the dialogue and dialectic forms in philosophy, which originate with him. Plato appears to have been the founder of Western political philosophy, with his Republic, and Laws among other dialogues, providing some of the earliest extant treatments of political questions from a philosophical perspective. Plato’s own most decisive philosophical influences are usually thought to have been Socrates, Parmenides, Heraclitus, and Pythagoras, although few of his predecessors’ works remain extant and much of what we know about these figures today derives from Plato himself. He was not the first thinker or writer to whom the word “philosopher” should be applied. But he was so self-conscious about how philosophy should be conceived, and what its scope and ambitions properly are, and he so transformed the intellectual currents with which he grappled, that the subject of philosophy, as it is often conceived – a rigorous and systematic examination of ethical, political, metaphysical, and epistemological issues, armed with a distinctive method – can be called his invention. Few other authors in the history of Western philosophy approximate him in depth and range.
What is Plato known for? Plato’s influence and legacy.
The enormity of Plato’s influence was recorded by Diogenes Laertius who wrote:
“He was the first author who wrote treatises in the form of dialogues, as Favorinus tells us in the eighth book of his Universal History. And he was also the first person who introduced the analytical method of investigation, which he taught to Leodamus of Thasos. He was also the first person in philosophy who spoke of antipodes, and elements, and dialectics, and actions (poiêmata) and oblong numbers, and plane surfaces, and the providence of God. He was likewise the first of the philosophers who contradicted the assertion of Lysias, the son of Cephalus, setting it out word for word in his Phaedrus. And he was also the first person who examined the subject of grammatical knowledge scientifically. And as he argued against almost everyone who had lived before his time, it is often asked why he has never mentioned Democritus (Lives, XIX).”
In this passage, Laertius is essentially claiming that Plato contradicted or significantly improved upon all of the accepted theories which came before him, and an important recognition of his influence on the world to the present day is summed up by the 20th century CE philosopher Alfred North Whitehead who stated, “The safest general characterization of the European philosophical tradition is that it consists of a series of footnotes to Plato”.
This influence is perhaps best represented by Plato’s most famous dialogue, Republic. Professor Forrest E. Baird writes, “There are few books in Western civilization that have had the impact of Plato’s Republic – aside from the Bible, perhaps none” (Ancient Philosophy, 68). Republic has been denounced as a treatise on fascism (by Karl Popper, among others) and praised as an eloquent and elevating work by scholars such as Bloom and Cornford. The dialogue begins with a consideration of what Justice means and goes on to develop the ideal, perfect State. Throughout the piece, Plato’s ideas of Truth, Beauty, Goodness, and Justice are developed as they are explored by Socrates and his interlocutors.
While the work has traditionally been understood as Plato’s attempt to outline his model for the perfectly just and efficient society, an important point is often overlooked: The character of Socrates very clearly states that they are creating this “city” as a means to better understand the function of the perfect “soul”. The society which the men discuss, then, is not intended to reflect an actual physical political-social entity but rather to serve symbolically as a means by which a reader may recognize strengths and weaknesses in his or her own constitution. The young poet and playwright Aristocles was always present in crafting the mature works of the philosopher Plato and, in all the dialogues, a reader is expected to consider the work as carefully as one would a poem. Unlike his famous student Aristotle, Plato never clearly spells out the meaning of a dialogue for a reader. The reader is supposed to confront the truths which the dialogue presents individually. It is this combination of artistic talent with philosophical abstractions which has assured Plato’s enduring value.
While Aristotle disagreed with Plato’s Theory of Forms and many other aspects of his philosophy, he was profoundly affected by his teacher; most notably in his insistence on a right way of living and a proper way to pursue one’s path in life (as outlined most clearly in Aristotle’s Nichomachean Ethics). Aristotle would go on to tutor Alexander the Great and, in so doing, would help spread the philosophy Plato had created to the known world. Plato died at the age of 80 in 348/7 BC, and leadership of the Academy passed to his nephew Speusippus. Tradition holds that the Academy endured for nearly 1,000 years as a beacon of higher learning until it was closed by the Christian Emperor Justinian in 529 AD in an effort to suppress the heresy of pagan thought. Ancient sources, however, establish that the Academy was severely damaged in the First Mithridatic War in 88 BC and almost completely destroyed in the Roman Emperor Sulla’s sack of Athens in 86 BC.
Plato’s Academy was a wooded garden located near to one of his homes and not a “university” as one would picture such an institution today, and so the area underwent many changes both before and after Plato’s school was established there and seems to have been a center of learning for centuries. The Roman writer Cicero claims that Plato was not even the first to have a school in the gardens of Academia, but that Democritus (c. 460 BC) was the original founder and leader of a philosophical school in the locale. It is also established that Simplicius was the head of a school in the gardens, which was still known as the Academy, as late as 560 AD. Even so, in the present day, the site is known as Plato’s Academy, reflecting the importance of the philosopher’s influence and respect for his legacy.