Plato, the son of Ariston and Perictione, was born in Athens in around 425 BC. It was an aristocratic family and he was descended from Solon (c.  638 BC – c.  558 BC) who it is believed laid the foundations for democracy to the city. Little is known of his early life but "he probably followed the normal educational path of a young aristocratic boy in poetry, music and gymnastics". (1) Plato's was praised for "his quickness of mind" and the "first fruits of his youth infused with hard work and love of study". (2)

Plato's biographer, Richard M. Hare, points out: "He (Plato) would have been old enough to witness with young and impressionable eyes the last scenes of a tragedy, the decline and fall of the Athenian Empire." (3)

As a young man Plato attended courses of philosophy, where he became acquainted with Cratylus (a disciple of Heraclitus, a prominent Greek philosopher). According to Aristotle, Plato was "persuaded of the truth of the Heraclitean doctrine that all sensible things (ie, things perceived by the senses) are ever passing away, so that if knowledge or thought is to have an object, there must be some other and permanent entities, apart from those which are sensible; for there can be no knowledge of things which are in a state of flux." (4) Plato also studied under Socrates, a man "for whom he had a profound affection and respect". (5)

In 404 BC a twenty-seven-year war between Athens and Sparta came to an end. Athens defeat was blamed on the city's experiment with democracy. That system was brought to an end and Sparta installed rule by a group of men who became known as the Thirty Tyrants. Two of the leaders of this group, Charmides and Critias, were Plato's uncles. This group of men maintained power for eight months. Though brief, their reign resulted in the killing of 5% of the Athenian population, the confiscation of citizens' property, and the exile of other democratic supporters. (6)

The regime was overthrown in 403 BC but it was not until 401 BC that democracy was fully restored. Understandably, the democrats felt very insecure and became concerned by Socrates who continued to teach people to ask questions about the political system. Another disadvantage for Socrates was that Critias had been one of his students. Another student, Alcibiades, had actually betrayed the city and fought on the side of the Spartans. Some claimed that intellectuals like Socrates were weakening Athenian society by undermining its traditional views and values. (7)

Trial of Socrates

In 400 BC a man named Meletus brought the following indictment against Socrates: "Meletus son of Meletus of Pitthos has brought and sworn this charge against Socrates son of Sophroniscus of Alopeke: Socrates is a wrongdoer in not recognizing the gods which the city recognizes, and introducing other new divinities. Further, he is a wrongdoer in corrupting the young." (8)

The case came to trial before a jury of 500 citizens in the early spring of 399. Plato attended the trial and later provided a detailed account of the proceedings. According to Bettany Hughes he reports that "Socrates is insouciant, apathetic. Standing there in the packed courtroom in his shabby clothes... the master of words appears diffident, as if he has no taste for this particular drama, as if he perceives it all to be a sham... Athens has prided itself on its legal system, on its ability to being men to justice in front of their peers. But Socrates confesses that he had no time for such legalities." (9)

Accounts provided by people who knew him provide "a picture of a man of a certain type: a man very sure of himself, high-minded, indifferent to worldly success, believing that he is guided by a divine voice, and persuaded that clear thinking is the most important requisite for right living... in this last point, he resembles a Christian martyr... In the final passage, where he considers what happens after death, it is impossible not to feel that he firmly believes in immorality, and that his professed uncertainty is only assumed. He is not troubled, like the Christians, by fears of eternal torment: he has no doubt that his life in the next world will be a happy one." (10)

Plato reports Socrates as saying: "The fact is that this is the first time I have come before the court, even though I am seventy years old. I am therefore an utter foreigner as far as courtroom speaking goes. So now I make what I think is a fair request of you; disregard my manner of speaking. Pardon me as I speak in that manner in which I have been raised, just as you would if I really were a foreigner." (11)

Socrates was cross-examined about the rumour that he disbelieved in the traditional gods. He denied this charge, but not convincingly. There is no doubt that he had an unorthodox approach to divinity. The jury also disliked the way he talked about his "guardian spirit" or personal "divine sign". It has been argued: "The state alone had the power to say what was a suitable object for religious veneration; it had its own procedures for officially recognizing gods, and anyone who ignored them was in effect challenging the legitimacy of the democratic state." (12)

It is claimed that during the trial Socrates claimed that an intimate relation between self-knowledge and having one's soul in the best possible state. He advocated "care for intelligence and truth and the best possible state of one's soul" since "it is as a result of goodness that wealth and everything else are good for people in the private and in the public sphere". (13)

Socrates believed strongly that people who thought deeply about issues were incapable of making decisions that were not in their own self-interests. Therefore, the charge that he had corrupted his students, if true, "it must have been unintentionally, since if they were corrupted they would be harmful to him, and no one harms himself intentionally." (14)

According to one of Socrates' students, after speeches and production of witnesses by both sides the jury voted for the condemnation or acquittal. Socrates was found guilty by a majority of sixty (280 to 220). Once the verdict was reached each side spoke again to propose the penalty, and the jury had to decide between the two. The prosecution called for the death penalty. At first Socrates proposed that he be awarded free meals for life in the town hall. He was eventually persuaded to change his mind and he suggested a fine that was about eight years' wages for a skilled craftsman. He also said: "If you put me to death, you will not easily find anyone to take my place." (15)

Execution usually took place straight away. However, he was kept in prison for the next four weeks. It has been suggested by Plato that the authorities did not want Socrates to become a martyr and wanted to provide an opportunity to escape. His friend, Crito, encouraged Socrates to leave the city. He rejected this because he had "consistently remained in and enjoyed the benefits of Athens as an adult, he has thereby implicitly entered into an agreement with the state to abide by its laws (and thereby accept its authority over him) in exchange for those benefits. To evade its authority now, says Socrates, would be breaking that agreement and behaving unjustly." (16)

Socrates also took the view that he had a good and useful life and that he was not afraid of death: "No one knows with regard to death whether it is really the greatest blessing that can happen to a man, but people dread it as though they were certain that it is the greatest evil, and this ignorance, which thinks that it knows what is does not, must surely be ignorance most culpable... and if I were to claim to be wiser than my neighbour in any respect, it would be in this - that not possessing any real knowledge of what comes after death, I am also conscious that I do not possess it." If there were an afterlife, he added, he would get the chance to meet "heroes of the old days who met their death through an unfair trial, and to compare my fortunes with theirs - it would be rather amusing." (17)

The Death of Socrates, by Jacques-Louis David (1787)
The Death of Socrates, by Jacques-Louis David (1787)

Socrates accepted that he would have to die. For serious crimes, prisoners would be crucified. The other form of death was to drink ground-up hemlock, a very strong poison. Medical evidence suggests that this was an extremely painful death and was far more harrowing than the gentile and dignified end described by Plato in his account of Soctrates' final days. (18)

Apology of Socrates

After the death of Socrates in 399 BC Plato published Apology of Socrates (c. 380 BC). The book is Socrates defence against the charges of "not recognizing the gods which the city recognizes" and of "corrupting the young." It also included the Socratic dialogues, with Euthyphro, Phaedo, and Crito. It has been argued by Anthony Gottlieb that there "are reasons to believe that in this work Plato tried harder to represent the real Socrates than he subsequently did elsewhere, though he did not necessarily try to reproduce his exact words." (19)

The book is generally regarded as a historical document. However, it was written around ten years after the trial and was not like "a stenographic report, but what remained in Plato's memory some years after the event, put together and elaborated with literary art. Plato was present at the trial, and it certainly seems fairly clear that what is set down is the sort of thing that Plato remembered Socrates as saying, and that the intention is broadly speaking, historical. This, with all its limitations, is enough to give a fairly definite picture of the character of Socrates." (20)

The author of The Dream of Reason: A History of Philosophy from the Greeks to the Renaissance (2000) agrees that Plato is the best witness we have for the ideas of Socrates: "Plato has by far the most to say on the subject, but as an objective guide to Socrates he suffers from the disability of having practically worshipped him. He is therefore likely to have exaggerated what he took to be his finest qualities. Also, in the course of some forty years of thinking and teaching, during which Plato's ideas naturally changed quite a lot, he paid Socrates the tribute of using him as a mouthpiece." (21)

The Plato Academy

Plato travelled around the Mediterranean in the years following the death of Socrates. This included a visit to Syracuse in Sicily, and got to know its ruler Dionysius the Elder. He was regarded as an example of the worst kind of despot cruel, suspicious and vindictive ruler in the ancient world. His son, Dionysius the Younger, became Plato's pupil. (22)

He later criticized this period of his life: "I found myself utterly at odds with this sort of life that is there termed a happy one, a life taken up with Italian and Syracusan banquets, an existence that consists in filling oneself up twice a day, never sleeping alone at night, and indulging in all the practices attendant on that way of living. In such an environment no man under heaven, brought up in self-indulgence, could ever grow up to be wise." (23)

Plato did not consider it safe to return until about 385 BC. Soon afterwards he founded one of the earliest known organized schools in Western Civilization on a plot of land in the Grove of Hecademus. It is believed that the name of the Academy comes from the ancient hero, Academus. His lectures and discussions were not, as a rule, public, and was in many ways like an exclusive club. Aristotle who became one of Plato's students in 367 BC. (24)

Sparta and the History of Ideas

Plato's philosophical ideas was influenced by Athens' great rival, Sparta. Its capital was Laconia and it controlled south-eastern Peloponnese. Sparta was unique in ancient Greece for its social system and constitution, which organised their entire society to maximize their military power. The sole business of a Spartan citizen was war. The intensive training the soldiers received resulted in the belief that they had the best army in the classical world. This was confirmed in 404 BC when Sparta defeated Athens in the Peloponnesian War. (25)

Pausanias was the King of Sparta when Athens was defeated. Admiral Lysander, blockaded the port city of Piraeus. This action effectively closed the grain route to Athens through the Hellespont, thereby starving Athens. Realising the seriousness of the situation, the Athenian statesman, Theramenes, started negotiations with Lysander. These negotiations took three months, but in the end Lysander agreed to terms at Piraeus. Lysander then put in place a puppet government in Athens with the establishment of the oligarchy of the Thirty Tyrants. (26)

Plato was very interested in what made Sparta, a city-state with a smaller population (estimated 50,000 people) than Athens, able to be so successful. If the elders declared that the baby was too weak to be of benefit to the state it was condemned to death. The babies were left out in the wild to die from starvation, the cold, or being eaten by wild animals. It was only those judged to be healthy who were allowed to be reared. (27)

In Sparta there were two kings, belonging to two different families, and succeeding by heredity. One or other of the kings commanded the army in time of war, but in time of peace their powers were limited. They were members of the Council of Elders, a body consisting of 30 men. Other than the two kings they had to be over sixty and were elected for life, by all the citizens, but they had to come from Spartan aristocratic families. The Assembly consisted of all the citizens; it could not initiate anything, but could vote yes or no to any proposal brought before it. No law could be enacted without its consent. (28)

Women in Sparta had more rights than those in Athens. Spartan women could legally own and inherit property and they were usually better educated than in the rest of the Greek city-states. Girls went through the same physical training as was given to boys. According to Plutarch: "It was desired that the maidens should harden their bodies with exercise of running, wrestling, throwing the bar, and casting the dart... by gathering strength thus by exercises, should more easily away with the pains of child bearing... And though the maidens did show themselves thus naked openly, yet was there no dishonesty seen nor offered, but all this sport was full of play and toys, without any youthful part or wantonness." (29)

Up to the age of twenty, all the boys were trained in one large school. The purpose of the training was to make them hardy, indifferent to pain, and submissive to discipline. There was no cultural or scientific education; the sole aim was to produce good soldiers, devoted to the needs of the State. In return, the State promised that no Spartan citizen should be destitute, and none should be rich. Citizens were expected to live on the food that they produced. "None was allowed to own gold or silver, and the money was made of iron. Spartan simplicity became proverbial." (30)

John Bagnell Bury has argued that someone from Athens visiting Sparta at this time "must have had a feeling of being transported into an age long past, when men were braver, better and simpler, unspoiled by wealth, undisturbed by ideas." Plato admired Sparta for its stability. Whereas all the other city-states had revolutions, but the Sparta constitution remained unchanged for centuries. "To a philosopher, like Plato, speculating in political science, the Spartan State seemed the nearest approach to the ideal." (31)

Plato's Republic

Plato's most important work was The Republic (c. 375 BC). The book starts with an attempt to define "justice". In the book, Plato writes about Socrates discussing with various Athenians and foreigners about the meaning of justice and whether the just man is happier than the unjust man. This approach is later abandoned when Plato claims that it would be better to inquire what makes a just State than what makes a just individual. (32)

In the book Plato appears to be critical of the experiment in democracy in Athens. "Democracy... is a charming form of government, full of variety and disorder; and dispensing a sort of equality to equals and unequals alike." He then goes on to say: "Dictatorship naturally arises out of democracy, and the most aggravated form of tyranny and slavery out of the most extreme liberty." (33)

Peter Gutzeit
Plato's image from The School of Athens by Raphael (1509-1511)

Plato then consider the natures of existing regimes and then propose a series of different, hypothetical cities in comparison, culminating in Kallipolis, a hypothetical city-state ruled by a philosopher king. They also discuss the theory of forms, the immortality of the soul, and the role of the philosopher and of poetry in society. Socrates is normally assumed to be Plato's own spokesman in the text. (34)

Plato attempts to describe the ideal society. He decides that the citizens are to be divided into three classes: the common people, the soldiers, and the guardians, the group with the political power. The guardians, small in number, will "come from the aristocracy and will usually succeed by heredity, but in exceptional cases a promising child may be promoted from one of the inferior classes, while among the children of guardians a child or young man who is unsatisfactory may be degraded." (35)

In the debate with Socrates, the philosopher, Thrasymachus (c. 459 BC - c. 400 BC) in The Republic, states that in Plato's utopia "justice is nothing else than the interest of the stronger". This idea is rejected because the guardians will make good decisions based on the needs of the whole of society: "There will be no end to the troubles of states, or of humanity itself, till philosophers become kings in this world, or till those we now call kings and rulers really and truly become philosophers, and political power and philosophy thus come into the same hands." (36)

In Plato's utopia there is to be rigid censorship from very early years over the literature to which the young have access. Teachers and mothers are to tell their children only authorized stories. Homer and Hesiod are not to be allowed, for a number of reasons. First they represent the gods as behaving badly on occasion. The young must be taught that the gods are only responsible for good things. Second, there are things in Homer and Hesiod which are calculated to make their readers fear death, whereas everything ought to be done in education to make young people willing to die in battle. Nor should they be told stories of good men crying over the death of loved ones. (37)

Education was vitally important in Plato's utopia. "It shows that Plato did not make the mistake for which Aristotle and others took the real Socrates to task, namely that of ignoring the role of character in determining moral behaviour. The guardians of The Republic would be virtuous, rational and generally benign because everything in their early life was designed to mould their characters to that end." (38)

Plato insisted that the guardians should not use their power for economic advantage. "Plato proposes a thoroughgoing communism for the guardians, and also for the soldiers, though this is not very clear. The guardians are to have small houses and simple food; they are to live as in a camp, dining together in companies; they are to have no private property beyond what is absolutely necessary. Gold and silver are to be forbidden. Though not rich, there is no reason why they should not be happy; but the purpose of the city is the good of the whole, not the happiness of one class. Both wealth and poverty are harmful, and in Plato's city neither will exist." (39)

Plato applies his communism to the family. Friends, he says, should have all things in common, including women and children. He admits that this presents difficulties, but thinks them not insuperable. One way of dealing with this problem is for women to have complete equality with men. For example, all girls are to have exactly the same education as boys, learning music, gymnastics, and the art of war along with the boys. "The same education which makes a man a good guardian will make a woman a good guardian; for their original nature is the same." (40)

In Plato's ideal society, mothers are to be between 20 and 40, fathers between 25 and 55. Outside these ages, intercourse is to be free, but abortion or infanticide is to be compulsory. At certain festivals, brides and bridegrooms, in such numbers as are required to keep the population constant, will be brought together, by lot, as they will be taught to believe; but in fact the rulers of the city will manipulate the lots of eugenic principles. They will arrange that the best sires shall have the most children. All children will be taken away from their parents at birth, and great care will be taken that no parents shall know who are their children, and no children shall know who are their parents. Deformed children, and children of inferior parents, "will be put away in some mysterious unknown place, as they ought to be." (41)

Bertrand Russell asks the question: "What will Plato's Republic achieve? It will achieve success in wars against roughly equal populations, and it will secure a livelihood for a certain small number of people. It will almost certainly produce no art or science, because of its rigidity; in this respect, as in others, it will be like Sparta. In spite of all the fine talk, skill in war and enough to eat is all that will be achieved. Plato had lived through famine and defeat in Athens; perhaps, subconsciously, he thought the avoidance of these evils the best that statesmanship could accomplish." (42)

Anthony Gottlieb takes a different view. "The real point of Plato's utopia is stated in the Republic itself by the character of Socrates. 'It makes no difference', he says, 'whether it exists now or will ever come into being.' The ideal city is intended as a subject for reflection and argument. By considering the Republic's discussion of it, a man can learn the truth about justice and about how to live; in particular, he will learn the truth of what the real Socrates was always claiming, namely that it is in one's own interest to be just." (43)

Plato died in about c. 348. When he died, he left the Academy not to any children of his own, but to his sister's son. This would suggest that he did not have a wife or children.

Unlike nearly all of his philosophical contemporaries, Plato's entire work is believed to have survived intact for over 2,400 years.

Primary Sources

(1) Plato, quotations (c. 425 BC - 348 BC)

(1) Wise men speak because they have something to say; Fools because they have to say something.

(2) Human behavior flows from three main sources: desire, emotion, and knowledge.

(3) Ignorance, the root and stem of all evil.

(4) Thinking: the talking of the soul with itself.

(5) People are like dirt. They can either nourish you and help you grow as a person or they can stunt your growth and make you wilt and die.

(6) A good decision is based on knowledge and not on numbers.

(7) Dictatorship naturally arises out of democracy, and the most aggravated form of tyranny and slavery out of the most extreme liberty.

(8) We can easily forgive a child who is afraid of the dark; the real tragedy of life is when men are afraid of the light.

(9) If a man neglects education, he walks lame to the end of his life.

(10) Love is a serious mental disease.

(11) Courage is knowing what not to fear.

(12) Honesty is for the most part less profitable than dishonesty.

(13) For a man to conquer himself is the first and noblest of all victories.

(14) Good people do not need laws to tell them to act responsibly, while bad people will find a way around the laws.

(15) There will be no end to the troubles of states, or of humanity itself, till philosophers become kings in this world, or till those we now call kings and rulers really and truly become philosophers, and political power and philosophy thus come into the same hands.

(16) Democracy... is a charming form of government, full of variety and disorder; and dispensing a sort of equality to equals and unequals alike.

(17) The man who makes everything that leads to happiness depends upon himself, and not upon other men, has adopted the very best plan for living happily. This is the man of moderation, the man of manly character and of wisdom.

(18) One of the penalties for refusing to participate in politics is that you end up being governed by your inferiors.

(19) Rhetoric is the art of ruling the minds of men.

(20) When the tyrant has disposed of foreign enemies by conquest or treaty, and there is nothing more to fear from them, then he is always stirring up some war or other, in order that the people may require a leader.

(21) He who commits injustice is ever made more wretched than he who suffers it.

(22) Our object in the construction of the state is the greatest happiness of the whole, and not that of any one class.

(23) Knowledge which is acquired under compulsion obtains no hold on the mind.

Student Activities

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(1) Bettany Hughes, The Hemlock Cup: Socrates, Athens and the Search for the Good Life (2011) pages xxx-xxxi

(2) Diogenes Laertius, Lives and Opinions of Eminent Philosophers (c. 330 AD)

(3) Richard M. Hare, Greek Philosophers (1998) page 107

(4) Aristotle, Metaphysics (c. 350 BC)

(5) Bertrand Russell, History of Western Philosophy (1946) page 122

(6) Peter Krentz, The Thirty at Athens (1982) page 50

(7) Anthony Gottlieb, The Dream of Reason: A History of Philosophy from the Greeks to the Renaissance (2000) pages 136-137

(8) C.C.W. Taylor, Greek Philosophers (1998) pages 14-15

(9) Bettany Hughes, The Hemlock Cup: Socrates, Athens and the Search for the Good Life (2011) page 329

(10) Bertrand Russell, History of Western Philosophy (1946) page 107

(11) Plato, Apology of Socrates (c. 380 BC)

(12) Anthony Gottlieb, The Great Philosophers: Socrates (1997) page 11

(13) Plato, Apology of Socrates (c. 380 BC)

(14) C.C.W. Taylor, Greek Philosophers (1998) page 22

(15) Plato, Apology of Socrates (c. 380 BC)

(16) Jean E. Hampton, Political Philosophy (1997) page 40

(17) Plato, Apology of Socrates (c. 380 BC)

(18) C.C.W. Taylor, Greek Philosophers (1998) page 16

(19) Anthony Gottlieb, The Dream of Reason: A History of Philosophy from the Greeks to the Renaissance (2000) page 138

(20) Bertrand Russell, History of Western Philosophy (1946) page 103

(21) Anthony Gottlieb, The Dream of Reason: A History of Philosophy from the Greeks to the Renaissance (2000) page 143

(22) Richard M. Hare, Greek Philosophers (1998) page 114

(23) Anthony Gottlieb, The Dream of Reason: A History of Philosophy from the Greeks to the Renaissance (2000) page 176

(24) Jonathan Barnes, Aristotle (2000) page 31

(25) Paul Cartledge, Sparta and Lakonia: A Regional History 1300 to 362 BC (2002) page 192

(26) Plutarch, Greek Lives (2008) pages 16-19

(27) Sarah Pomeroy, Spartan Women (2002) pages 34-35

(28) Bertrand Russell, History of Western Philosophy (1946) page 114

(29) Plutarch, Greek Lives (2008) page 23

(30) Bertrand Russell, History of Western Philosophy (1946) page 113

(31) John Bagnell Bury, A History of Greece to the Death of Alexander the Great (1900) page 141

(32) Bertrand Russell, History of Western Philosophy (1946) page 125

(33) Plato, The Republic (c. 375 BC)

(34) Colin Bird, An Introduction to Political Philosophy (2006) page 25

(35) Bertrand Russell, History of Western Philosophy (1946) page 125

(36) Plato, The Republic (c. 375 BC)

(37) Bertrand Russell, History of Western Philosophy (1946) page 135

(38) Anthony Gottlieb, The Dream of Reason: A History of Philosophy from the Greeks to the Renaissance (2000) page 184

(39) Bertrand Russell, History of Western Philosophy (1946) page 127

(40) Plato, The Republic (c. 375 BC)

(41) Plato, The Republic (c. 375 BC)

(42) Bertrand Russell, History of Western Philosophy (1946) page 131

(43) Anthony Gottlieb, The Dream of Reason: A History of Philosophy from the Greeks to the Renaissance (2000) pages 181-182