Philosopher. According to sources, Plato was born on or around May 21, 427 (or 428) B.C. in Athens, the son of Ariston and Perictione, both of Athenian aristocratic ancestry. He lived his whole life in Athens, although he traveled to Sicily and southern Italy on several occasions, and one story says he traveled to Egypt. Little is known of his early years, but he was given the finest education Athens had to offer the scions of its noble families, and he devoted his considerable talents to politics and the writing of tragedy and other forms of poetry. His acquaintance with Socrates altered the course of his life. The compelling power which Socrates’s methods and arguments had over the minds of the youth of Athens gripped Plato as firmly as it did so many others, and he became a close associate of Socrates.
The end of the Peloponnesian War (404 BC) left Plato in an irreconcilable position. His uncle, Critias, was the leader of the Thirty Tyrants who were installed in power by the victorious Spartans. One means of perpetuating themselves in power was to implicate as many Athenians as possible in their atrocious acts. Thus Socrates, as we learn in Plato’s Apology, was ordered to arrest a man and bring him to Athens from Salamis for execution. When the great teacher refused, his life was in jeopardy, and he was probably saved only by the overthrow of the Thirty and the reestablishment of the democracy.
Plato was repelled by the aims and methods of the Thirty and welcomed the restoration of the democracy, but his mistrust of the whimsical demos was deepened some four years later when Socrates was tried on trumped up charges and sentenced to death. Plato was present at the trial, as we learn in the Apology, but was not present when the hemlock was administered to his master, although he describes the scene in vivid and touching detail in the Phaedo. He then turned in disgust from contemporary Athenian politics and never took an active part in government, although through friends he did try to influence the course of political life in the Sicilian city of Syracuse.
Plato and several of his friends withdrew from Athens for a short time after Socrates’s death and remained with Euclides in Megara. His productive years were punctuated by three voyages to Sicily, and his literary output, all of which has survived, may conveniently be discussed within the framework of those voyages.
The first trip, to southern Italy and Syracuse, took place in 388-387 BC, when Plato made the acquaintance of Archytas of Tarentum, the Pythagorean, and Dion of Syracuse and his infamous brother-in-law, Dionysius I, ruler of that city. Dionysius was then at the height of his power and prestige in Sicily for having freed the Greeks there from the threat of Carthaginian overlordship. Plato became better friends with Dion, however, and Dionysius’s rather callous treatment of his Athenian guest may be ascribed to the jealously which that close friendship aroused. On Plato’s return journey to Athens, Dionysius’s crew deposited him on the island of Aegina, which at that time was engaged in a minor war with Athens, and Plato might have been sold as a prisoner of war had he not been ransomed by Anniceris of Cyrene, one of his many admirers.
On his return to Athens, Plato began to teach in the Gymnasium Academe and soon afterward acquired property nearby and founded his famous Academy, which survived until the philosophical schools were closed by the Christian emperor Justinian in the early 6th century A.D. At the center of the Academy stood a shrine to the Muses, and at least one modern scholar suggests that the Academy may have been a type of religious brotherhood. Plato had begun to write the dialogues, which came to be the hallmark of his philosophical exposition, some years before the founding of the Academy. To this early period, before the first trip to Sicily, belong the Laches, Charmides, Euthyphro, Lysis, Protagoras, Hippias Minor, Ion, Hippias Major, Apology, Crito, and Gorgias. Socrates is the main character in these dialogues, and various abstractions are discussed and defined. The Laches deals with courage, Charmides with sophrosyne (common sense), Euthyphro with piety,