Introducing the Philosophers: Plato

When Plato was in his late teens or early twenties he heard Socrates teaching in the market and abandoned his plans to pursue a literary career as a playwright; he burned his early work and devoted himself to philosophy. (18) Such is the story of how Plato became a lover of wisdom. (1)

It is likely that Plato had known Socrates, at least by reputation, since youth. The Athenian politician, Critias, was Plato’s mother’s cousin and studied with Socrates as a young man. It has been suggested, therefore, that Socrates was a regular visitor to Plato’s family. However this may be, nothing is suggested by the ancient writers to indicate Socrates’ influence over Plato until the latter was about 20 years old. Diogenes Laertius (c. 200 CE) writes that Plato was about to compete for the prize in tragedies in the theatre of Bacchus when “he heard the discourse of Socrates and burnt his poems saying, ‘Vulcan, come here; for Plato wants your aid’ and from henceforth, as they say, being now twenty years old, he became a pupil of Socrates.” Nothing is clearly known of Plato’s activities for the next eight years save that he studied under the elder philosopher until the latter’s trial and execution on the charge of impiety in 399 BCE.

Socrates’ execution had a great impact on the then 28 year old and he left Athens to travel, visiting Egypt and Italy among other places, before returning to his homeland to write his dialogues and set up the Academy. His Dialogues almost all feature Socrates as the main character, but whether this is an accurate portrayal of Socrates’ actions and beliefs have long been contested. Plato’s contemporary, Phaedo, also one of Socrates’ students (and best known for Plato’s dialogue named after him) contended that Plato placed his own ideas in Socrates’ mouth and made up the dramatic situations of his dialogues. Other philosophers and writers of the time have also questioned the accuracy of Plato’s depiction of Socrates but seem in agreement that Plato was a very serious man with lofty ideas, which were difficult for many to grasp.

Though he was respected as a philosopher of enormous talent in his lifetime (he was at least twice kidnapped and ransomed for a high price), he was by no means universally acclaimed. The value of Plato’s philosophy was questioned most strenuously by the Cynic philosopher Diogenes of Sinope who considered Plato an ‘elitist snob’ and a ‘phony’. When Plato defined a human being as a bi-ped without feathers, Diogenes is said to have plucked a chicken and presented it in Plato’s classroom, crying, “Behold, Plato’s human being.” Plato allegedly replied that his definition would now need to be revised, but this concession to a critic seems to have been an exception rather than the rule. Criticisms aside, however, Plato’s work exerted an enormous impact on his contemporaries and those who followed. (9)