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Plato

Plato is one of the most famous ancient Greek philosophers. He is a foundational figure for Western science, philosophy, and mathematics, and the writer of several important philosophical books. Plato was born to an aristocratic family in Athens sometime around 428BC. His father Ariston was believed to be a descendant of the early kings of Athens and his mother Perictione was related to famous Athenian lawmaker Solon. It’s claimed that Plato’s real name was Aristocles, and that “Plato” was a nickname (meaning “the broad”) derived most likely from the width of his shoulders.

Along with his teacher, Socrates, and his most famous student, Aristotle, Plato laid the very foundations of Western philosophy and science.  Plato introduced the dialogue and dialectic forms in philosophy and has influenced Western political philosophy, with his works Republic, and Laws among other dialogues, providing some of the earliest treatments of political questions from a philosophical perspective. Plato’s influences include Socrates, Parmenides, Heraclitus, and Pythagoras, although few of their works are saved to this day and much of what we know about these figures come to us from Plato himself. Few other authors in the history of Western philosophy approximate Plato in depth and range.

What is Plato known for? Plato’s influence and legacy.

Diogenes Laertius describes succinctly the influence of Plato:

He was the first author who wrote treatises in the form of dialogues…And he was also the first person who introduced the analytical method of investigation…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…And he was also the first person who examined the subject of grammatical knowledge scientifically. (Lives, XIX).

Laertius argues 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 philosopher Alfred North Whitehead who argued that, “The safest general characterization of the European philosophical tradition is that it consists of a series of footnotes to Plato”.

Professor Forrest E. Baird writes about the influence of Plato’s Republic, “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). The dialogue in Republic begins with a consideration of what Justice means and goes on to develop the ideal (according to Plato), perfect State. Throughout the piece, Plato’s ideas of Truth, Beauty, Goodness, and Justice are developed as they are explored by Socrates and his students.

Plato, unlike his famous student Aristotle, never clearly spells out the meaning of a dialogue to his readers. Plato want his readers to confront the truths which the dialogue presents to them.

Plato’s Legacy

Aristotle was profoundly affected by the teachings of Plato even though he disagreed with Plato’s Theory of Forms and many other aspects of his philosophy. He mostly disagreed with Plato in his insistence on a right way of living and a proper way to pursue one’s path in life (and this is clearly outlined in Aristotle’s Nichomachean Ethics). As Aristotle would eventually tutor Alexander the Great, in doing so, he would help spread Plato’s philosophies to the known world of the time. Plato died around 348 BC at the age of 80 years old, but the Academy continued its operation as the leadership was passed on to Plato’s nephew Speusippus. Plato’s Academy endured for nearly 1,000 years as a beacon of higher learning until it was closed by the Byzantine Emperor Justinian in 529 AD in an effort to suppress the heresy of pagan thought.

Plato’s Academy was not a “university” in the sense we picture such institutions today. Instead, it was some type of a wooded garden located near one of Plato’s homes which 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. We also know 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.