Biography of Plato


PLATO, who, along with Aristotle, represents to modern times the whole compass of Greek philosophy, was born at Athens in the year 429 B.C. He received a good education according to the common practice of the Greeks, in music, gymnastics, and literature. His rich and gorgeous imagination is said at first to have essayed its powers in poetry; but when twenty years of age, having become acquainted with Socrates, he threw all his verses into the fire, and consecrated his great intellect to philosophy. He was a pupil of Socrates for eight or nine years, and was with him at the time of his death. He then left Athens and travelled through various countries, spending some time in Sicily. He also visited lower Italy, where he became conversant with the Pythagorean philosophy. Returning after an absence of twelve years, he commenced teaching philosophy publicly, in the Academeia, a pleasant garden in the most beautiful suburb of Athens, and there gathered around him a large school of distinguished followers, who maintained a regular succession after his death, under the name of the Philosophers of the Academy. He lived to the age of 82, never married, and never mingled in public affairs.

All the great works of Plato have been preserved, and have always been extensively read wherever the Greek language was known. They are in the form of dialogues, and in most of them, Socrates, as the chief speaker, is made to utter the sentiments of the author. It has been said of Plato that "he is one of the most fascinating writers who ever undertook to expound the enigmas of philosophy. He spreads the charm of an exhaustless fancy over the subtlest controversies of the dialectician. He is at once poet and philosopher, with no small measure of the sweet flow of dict&ion, the richness of invention, the exuberant imagery and the never failing vivacity of Homer." The distinctive character of the Platonic philosophy is expressed by the word idealism, as opposed to realism or materialism, using the words in their most general and least technical sense. Its starting point is the theory of knowledge. This is set forth in the Theoeteus, the Sophistes and the Parmenides. The philosophy of love is set forth with imaginative grandeur in the Phoedrus, and with rich dramatic variety in the Banquet. The philosophy of beauty and the theory of pleasure are set forth with great analytic acuteness in the Philebus. The immortality of the soul, Plato maintains with great earnestness. This doctrine is most fully set forth in the Phaedo, a dialogue which combines with the abstract philosophical discussion, a graphic narrative of the last hours of Socrates, which for simple pathos and unaffected dignity are unsurpassed by any human composition.

The philosophy of Plato, with all its transcendental elements, was essentially a practical philosophy; all his discussions on the theory of knowledge and the nature of ideas, are undertaken mainly that a system of eternal divine types, as the only reliable knowledge, may serve as a foundation for a virtuous life, as the only consistent course of action.