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Plato Silanion Musei Capitolini MC1377.jpg
Plato: copy of portrait bust by Silanion
Born c. 428–427 BC[1]
Died c. 348–347 BC (aged c. 80)
Nationality Greek
Era Ancient philosophy
Region Western philosophy
School Platonism
Main interests Rhetoric, art, literature, epistemology, justice, virtue, politics, education, family, militarism
Notable ideas Theory of Forms, Platonic idealism, Platonic realism, hyperuranion, metaxy, khôra

Plato (/ˈplt/;[2] Greek: Πλάτων, Plátōn, "broad";[3] 428/427 BC[a] – 348/347 BC) was a philosopher in Classical Greece. He was also a mathematician, student of Socrates, writer of philosophical dialogues, and founder of the Academy in Athens, the first institution of higher learning in the Western world. Along with his mentor, Socrates, and his student, Aristotle, Plato helped to lay the foundations of Western philosophy and science.[4]

Plato's sophistication as a writer is evident in his Socratic dialogues; thirty-six dialogues and thirteen letters have been ascribed to him. Plato's writings have been published in several fashions; this has led to several conventions regarding the naming and referencing of Plato's texts.[5] Plato's dialogues have been used to teach a range of subjects, including philosophy, logic, ethics, rhetoric, religion and mathematics. Plato is one of the most important founding figures in Western philosophy.


Early life

Birth and family

The exact time and place of Plato's birth are not known, but it is certain that he belonged to an aristocratic and influential family. Based on ancient sources, most modern scholars believe that he was born in Athens or Aegina[b] between 429 and 423 BC.[a] His father was Ariston. According to a disputed tradition, reported by Diogenes Laertius, Ariston traced his descent from the king of Athens, Codrus, and the king of Messenia, Melanthus.[6] Plato's mother was Perictione, whose family boasted of a relationship with the famous Athenian lawmaker and lyric poet Solon.[7] Perictione was sister of Charmides and niece of Critias, both prominent figures of the Thirty Tyrants, the brief oligarchic regime, which followed on the collapse of Athens at the end of the Peloponnesian War (404–403 BC).[8] Besides Plato himself, Ariston and Perictione had three other children; these were two sons, Adeimantus and Glaucon, and a daughter Potone, the mother of Speusippus (the nephew and successor of Plato as head of his philosophical Academy).[8] According to the Republic, Adeimantus and Glaucon were older than Plato.[9] Nevertheless, in his Memorabilia, Xenophon presents Glaucon as younger than Plato.[10]

The traditional date of Plato's birth (428/427) is based on a dubious interpretation of Diogenes Laertius, who says, "When [Socrates] was gone, [Plato] joined Cratylus the Heracleitean and Hermogenes, who philosophized in the manner of Parmenides. Then, at twenty-eight, Hermodorus says, [Plato] went to Euclides in Megara." As Debra Nails argues, "The text itself gives no reason to infer that Plato left immediately for Megara and implies the very opposite."[11] In his Seventh Letter, Plato notes that his coming of age coincided with the taking of power by the Thirty, remarking, "But a youth under the age of twenty made himself a laughingstock if he attempted to enter the political arena." Thus, Nails dates Plato's birth to 424/423.[12]

According to some accounts, Ariston tried to force his attentions on Perictione, but failed in his purpose; then the god Apollo appeared to him in a vision, and as a result, Ariston left Perictione unmolested.[13] Another legend related that, when Plato was an infant, bees settled on his lips while he was sleeping: an augury of the sweetness of style in which he would discourse about philosophy.[14]

Ariston appears to have died in Plato's childhood, although the precise dating of his death is difficult.[15] Perictione then married Pyrilampes, her mother's brother,[16] who had served many times as an ambassador to the Persian court and was a friend of Pericles, the leader of the democratic faction in Athens.[17] Pyrilampes had a son from a previous marriage, Demus, who was famous for his beauty.[18] Perictione gave birth to Pyrilampes' second son, Antiphon, the half-brother of Plato, who appears in Parmenides.[19]

In contrast to his reticence about himself, Plato often introduced his distinguished relatives into his dialogues, or referred to them with some precision: Charmides has a dialogue named after him; Critias speaks in both Charmides and Protagoras; and Adeimantus and Glaucon take prominent parts in the Republic.[20] These and other references suggest a considerable amount of family pride and enable us to reconstruct Plato's family tree. According to Burnet, "the opening scene of the Charmides is a glorification of the whole [family] connection ... Plato's dialogues are not only a memorial to Socrates, but also the happier days of his own family."[21]


According to Diogenes Laërtius, the philosopher was named Aristocles after his grandfather, but his wrestling coach, Ariston of Argos, dubbed him Platon, meaning "broad," on account of his robust figure.[22] According to the sources mentioned by Diogenes (all dating from the Alexandrian period), Plato derived his name from the breadth (platytês) of his eloquence, or else because he was very wide (platýs) across the forehead.[23] Recent scholars have argued that the legend about his name being Aristocles originated in the Hellenistic age.[24] Plato was a common name, of which 31 instances are known at Athens alone.[25]


Apuleius informs us that Speusippus praised Plato's quickness of mind and modesty as a boy, and the "first fruits of his youth infused with hard work and love of study".[26] Plato must have been instructed in grammar, music, and gymnastics by the most distinguished teachers of his time.[27] Dicaearchus went so far as to say that Plato wrestled at the Isthmian games.[28] Plato had also attended courses of philosophy; before meeting Socrates, he first became acquainted with Cratylus (a disciple of Heraclitus, a prominent pre-Socratic Greek philosopher) and the Heraclitean doctrines.[29] W. A. Borody argues that an Athenian openness towards a wider range of sexuality may have contributed to the Athenian philosophers’ openness towards a wider range of thought, a cultural situation Borody describes as “polymorphously discursive.”[30]

Plato and Socrates

Plato and Socrates in a medieval depiction

The precise relationship between Plato and Socrates remains an area of contention among scholars. Plato makes it clear in his Apology of Socrates, that he was a devoted young follower of Socrates. In that dialogue, Socrates is presented as mentioning Plato by name as one of those youths close enough to him to have been corrupted, if he were in fact guilty of corrupting the youth, and questioning why their fathers and brothers did not step forward to testify against him if he was indeed guilty of such a crime (33d-34a). Later, Plato is mentioned along with Crito, Critobolus, and Apollodorus as offering to pay a fine of 30 minas on Socrates' behalf, in lieu of the death penalty proposed by Meletus (38b). In the Phaedo, the title character lists those who were in attendance at the prison on Socrates' last day, explaining Plato's absence by saying, "Plato was ill." (Phaedo 59b)

Plato never speaks in his own voice in his dialogues. In the Second Letter, it says, "no writing of Plato exists or ever will exist, but those now said to be his are those of a Socrates become beautiful and new" (341c); if the Letter is Plato's, the final qualification seems to call into question the dialogues' historical fidelity. In any case, Xenophon and Aristophanes seem to present a somewhat different portrait of Socrates from the one Plato paints. Some have called attention to the problem of taking Plato's Socrates to be his mouthpiece, given Socrates' reputation for irony and the dramatic nature of the dialogue form.[31]

Aristotle attributes a different doctrine with respect to the ideas to Plato and Socrates (Metaphysics 987b1–11). Putting it in a nutshell, Aristotle merely suggests that Socrates' idea of forms can be discovered through investigation of the natural world, unlike Plato's Forms that exist beyond and outside the ordinary range of human understanding.

Later life

Plato may have traveled in Italy, Sicily, Egypt and Cyrene, Libya.[32] Said to have returned to Athens at the age of forty, Plato founded one of the earliest known organized schools in Western Civilization on a plot of land in the Grove of Hecademus or Academus.[33] The Academy was "a large enclosure of ground that was once the property of a citizen at Athens named Academus (some, however, say that it received its name from an ancient hero).[34] The Academy operated until it was destroyed by Lucius Cornelius Sulla in 84 BC. Neoplatonists revived the Academy in the early 5th century, and it operated until AD 529, when it was closed by Justinian I of Byzantium, who saw it as a threat to the propagation of Christianity. Many intellectuals were schooled in the Academy, the most prominent one being Aristotle.[35]

Throughout his later life, Plato became entangled with the politics of the city of Syracuse. According to Diogenes Laertius, Plato initially visited Syracuse while it was under the rule of Dionysius.[36] During this first trip Dionysius's brother-in-law, Dion of Syracuse, became one of Plato's disciples, but the tyrant himself turned against Plato. Plato was sold into slavery and almost faced death in Cyrene, a city at war with Athens, before an admirer bought Plato's freedom and sent him home. After Dionysius's death, according to Plato's Seventh Letter, Dion requested Plato return to Syracuse to tutor Dionysius II and guide him to become a philosopher king. Dionysius II seemed to accept Plato's teachings, but he became suspicious of Dion, his uncle. Dionysius expelled Dion and kept Plato against his will. Eventually Plato left Syracuse. Dion would return to overthrow Dionysius and ruled Syracuse for a short time before being usurped by Calippus, a fellow disciple of Plato.


A variety of sources have given accounts of Plato's death. One story, based on a mutilated manuscript,[37] suggests Plato died in his bed, whilst a young Thracian girl played the flute to him.[38] Another tradition suggests Plato died at a wedding feast. The account is based on Diogenes Laertius's reference to an account by Hermippus, a third-century Alexandrian.[39] According to Tertullian, Plato simply died in his sleep.[39]


Plato (left) and Aristotle (right), a detail of The School of Athens, a fresco by Raphael. Aristotle gestures to the earth, representing his belief in knowledge through empirical observation and experience, while holding a copy of his Nicomachean Ethics in his hand. Plato holds his Timaeus and gestures to the heavens, representing his belief in The Forms

Recurrent themes

Plato often discusses the father-son relationship and the question of whether a father's interest in his sons has much to do with how well his sons turn out. A boy in ancient Athens was socially located by his family identity, and Plato often refers to his characters in terms of their paternal and fraternal relationships. Socrates was not a family man, and saw himself as the son of his mother, who was apparently a midwife. A divine fatalist, Socrates mocks men who spent exorbitant fees on tutors and trainers for their sons, and repeatedly ventures the idea that good character is a gift from the gods. Crito reminds Socrates that orphans are at the mercy of chance, but Socrates is unconcerned. In the Theaetetus, he is found recruiting as a disciple a young man whose inheritance has been squandered. Socrates twice compares the relationship of the older man and his boy lover to the father-son relationship (Lysis 213a, Republic 3.403b), and in the Phaedo, Socrates' disciples, towards whom he displays more concern than his biological sons, say they will feel "fatherless" when he is gone.

In several dialogues, Socrates floats the idea that knowledge is a matter of recollection, and not of learning, observation, or study.[40] He maintains this view somewhat at his own expense, because in many dialogues, Socrates complains of his forgetfulness. Socrates is often found arguing that knowledge is not empirical, and that it comes from divine insight. In many middle period dialogues, such as the Phaedo, Republic and Phaedrus Plato advocates a belief in the immortality of the soul, and several dialogues end with long speeches imagining the afterlife. More than one dialogue contrasts knowledge and opinion, perception and reality, nature and custom, and body and soul.

Several dialogues tackle questions about art: Socrates says that poetry is inspired by the muses, and is not rational. He speaks approvingly of this, and other forms of divine madness (drunkenness, eroticism, and dreaming) in the Phaedrus (265a–c), and yet in the Republic wants to outlaw Homer's great poetry, and laughter as well. In Ion, Socrates gives no hint of the disapproval of Homer that he expresses in the Republic. The dialogue Ion suggests that Homer's Iliad functioned in the ancient Greek world as the Bible does today in the modern Christian world: as divinely inspired literature that can provide moral guidance, if only it can be properly interpreted.

Socrates and his company of disputants had something to say on many subjects, including politics and art, religion and science, justice and medicine, virtue and vice, crime and punishment, pleasure and pain, rhetoric and rhapsody, human nature and sexuality, as well as love and wisdom.


"Platonism" is a term coined by scholars to refer to the intellectual consequences of denying, as Plato's Socrates often does, the reality of the material world. In several dialogues, most notably the Republic, Socrates inverts the common man's intuition about what is knowable and what is real. While most people take the objects of their senses to be real if anything is, Socrates is contemptuous of people who think that something has to be graspable in the hands to be real. In the Theaetetus, he says such people are "eu a-mousoi", an expression that means literally, "happily without the muses" (Theaetetus 156a). In other words, such people live without the divine inspiration that gives him, and people like him, access to higher insights about reality.

Socrates's idea that reality is unavailable to those who use their senses is what puts him at odds with the common man, and with common sense. Socrates says that he who sees with his eyes is blind, and this idea is most famously captured in his allegory of the cave, and more explicitly in his description of the divided line. The allegory of the cave (begins Republic 7.514a) is a paradoxical analogy wherein Socrates argues that the invisible world is the most intelligible ("noeton") and that the visible world ("(h)oraton") is the least knowable, and the most obscure.

Socrates says in the Republic that people who take the sun-lit world of the senses to be good and real are living pitifully in a den of evil and ignorance. Socrates admits that few climb out of the den, or cave of ignorance, and those who do, not only have a terrible struggle to attain the heights, but when they go back down for a visit or to help other people up, they