Plato was born in the second half of the fifth century BC in Athens, where he also died (c. 428–347 BC). (His given name was actually Aristocles; he earned the nickname ‘Platon’ because of his broad shoulders.) This was a time during which Athens was engaged in the long-running Pelopon-nesian war with Sparta and her allies, and also a period of great internal political upheaval in which the democratic form of government was seriously challenged and for a while replaced by a brutal pro-Spartan oligarchy, the so-called Thirty (404 BC).1
But it was also the century that had, quite extraordinarily, seen the birth and first flowering of democracy,2
of historical inquiry, of tragic and comic theatre, of architectural masterpieces such as the Parthenon, of a host of superb sculptures and vase paintings, of systematic medical theory, of rhetoric and of philosophy. The Athenians were well aware of their achievements and among the first to claim that, in words the historian Thucydides gives to the political leader Pericles, they were ‘a lesson to all Hellas [Greece] . . . the wonder not only of contemporaries but of future generations’ (Thuc. 2.41).
Beyond the dramatic and inspiring nature of his times, five factors in particular clearly impinged on Plato’s development: his friendship with Socrates; his reaction to the sophists; his personal relations (both formal and informal) with some of the leading figures of his time, including his politically active relatives Critias and Charmides; the city state of Sparta; and, of course, those thinkers who preceded him, the Presocratics.
Socrates, who himself wrote nothing, was Plato’s mentor and inspiration, and is presented as the main character in most of the latter’s writings. Socrates was a notable figure, so much so that the Delphic oracle, a serious and powerful player in the politics of the time, said that there was none wiser than he (Pl. Ap.
21; Xen. Ap.
This, according to the story as told by Plato, led Socrates to question those with acknowledged expertise in the various crafts, trades, and professions, in order to try and find out what on earth the oracle could mean. His conclusion, famously, was that
he was wiser than others only in that he recognized his own ignorance: he knew what he didn’t know. Though he performed his civic duty, serving as a soldier and on the city’s Council, he does not seem to have spent much time pursuing his craft as a stonemason, nor, though in this he may not have been unusual, in devoting him self to his family.4
The evidence suggests that his main interest was in trying to understand in what human life should ideally consist. But he was no ivory tower academic, and on more than one occasion bravely stood up to be counted politically in the face of popular opposition (Ap. 32). As the main character in Aristophanes’ comedy the Clouds,
Socrates was clearly a well known figure long before the majority of his fellow citizens, irritated by what they saw as his arrogance and evil influence, brought him to trial in 399 BC. That trial and his subsequent execution (in a prison the foundations of which can still be seen today in the ancient agora
or market place), as well as the example of his life, were clearly crucial to the development of Plato’s thought.
There has been much argument about where Socrates ends and Plato begins – where and how to distinguish between the thought of the two men. But this is not very profitable or important from the point of view of examining and evaluating the thought in question. For the fact is that, apart from a few Socratic writings of Xenophon, Aristophanes’ comedy already referred to, and a few references in Aristotle, the contemporary evidence that we have is Plato’s. The Socrates that we know is essentially the Platonic Socrates. So, for example, while it is generally agreed that the historical Socrates began life with an interest in metaphysical and scientific questions, we only have direct information about his views on social and moral questions. Likewise, some comments by Aristotle (e.g. Metaph. 1078b) suggest that what is generally referred to as Plato’s Theory of Forms or Ideas is a development, perhaps a significantly different development, of Socrates’ view; this is very likely true, but given that there is clearly development of the theory in Plato’s own writings, given the complexity of the theory, and given that the evidence all comes from Plato’s treatment of the subject, trying to abstract the precise nature of Socrates’ original view seems a far from urgent task.
The sophists are an important phenomenon. The Greek word sophos
means ‘wise’, but in context sophistai
(sophists) should be understood to refer to what we would call ‘lecturers’, ‘professors’, ‘experts’, or ‘consultants’, even, at one extreme, ‘craftsmen’ and, at the other, ‘gurus’. Though reference may be found to the ‘sophistic movement’, in no sense was it truly a movement, and the individual sophists were different from one another in respect of the subjects that interested them, how they conducted themselves, their integrity, their talent, and much else besides. (On the issue of a ‘sophistic movement’, see Appendix 1.) Protagoras, for example, seems
to have been a serious philosopher who would take on students and make a genuine attempt to educate them, on moral issues. Gorgias was a bona fide teacher too, but he was a teacher of rhetoric – a practical art rather than speculative theory. By contrast, Hippias appears to have been an altogether lesser figure, a jack of all trades, one of whose boasts was that he had made everything that he wore and carried with him (Prt
.358d; Hp. mi.
386b, but see Appendix 1). Some sophists are presented as subversive, some come down to us as fraudulent, and others as simply lacking in talent. Sometimes the evidence is hard to evaluate: Prodicus is mentioned quite often by Plato, and some interpret the references to suggest a benign fondness if not respect for this grammarian; others interpret them to suggest a hair-splitting pedant whom Plato is ironically mocking.
The historical reality behind this is that in the second half of the fifth century, the wealth and freedom of the young democracy, combined with safer seas and greater ease of travel (thanks to the Athenian naval empire), attracted those with genuine ideas and knowledge to communicate (such as the historian Herodotus), those drawn to a place where they could be themselves, those who saw an opportunity to make money, and those who in some sense wanted to advertise themselves. On one level, in referring to the sophists, we are simply drawing attention to the fact that Athens at this time attracted a significant number of traveling teachers of this and that, with widely varying talents and reputations. But three things in particular should be noted. First, the sophists in general are characterized as people who expected to be paid for their services. Secondly, again generalizing, they are depicted as teaching skills (technai) of various types rather than developing intellect, and in this respect may be compared with contemporary courses in practical living or self-help books. This is significant, because it implies a view of understanding, teaching and learning that is at best contentious. There are many things, notably abilities such as riding a bike or kicking a soccer ball, that are skills in the sense of discrete, physical movements, behaviors or sets of behaviors that can be trained through practice under the guidance of the expert. The question is whether you can teach all things in that way, in particular the understanding of such things as morality, art, or human relations. Rhetoric or public speaking, at any rate if it is seen as a matter of employing various oratorical tropes, can be seen as a matter of passing on the ‘tricks of the trade’, but can teaching history? Whatever the answer to that question, the sophists should be seen as individuals who promised to teach the skills of, e.g., leadership, morality, rhetoric, and, above all, worldly success.
The third and crucial point to note is that most of what we know about the sophists (as with Socrates) derives from Plato, and Plato’s agenda is transparent. He set up an image of the sophists in deliberate contrast to his
image of Socrates: the sophists thought anything could be taught as if it were a set of skills, the sophists claimed to make you a success and the sophists charged money; Socrates did not charge money, Socrates did not claim he would make you successful, but tried to increase your understanding, and Socrates did not see the important branches of learning on the model of mechanistic skill development. For Plato the pursuit of knowledge had little or nothing to do with worldly success: knowledge is to be acquired for its own sake; truth, goodness, and beauty are interwoven, so much so that at times Plato writes as if they are one and the same; the contemplative life is the ideal life. It is a measure of Plato’s success in distinguishing Socrates the philosopher from the sophists that the words ‘sophistry’ and ‘sophistic’ today still carry strong pejorative overtones and connotations of fraud, despite being etymologically derived from the word for wisdom.
A third factor influencing the development of Plato’s thinking was his political background. It is debatable to what extent we can say that Plato was anti-democratic. There are those who argue that he was hostile to some of the excesses of the Athenian democracy of his time (and there were excesses), but that he would have supported certain contemporary democracies. There are those who argue that he wasn’t in favor of any practical alternative to the Athenian democracy, but was simply interested in explaining theoretical strengths and weaknesses in all forms of government. There are those who see him as an advocate of totalitarian government. In fact here, as in much else, history suggests that you can find pretty much what you want to find in Plato (see, e.g., Russell, 1946, 1950; Levinson, 1953; Wild
, 1953; Popper, 1966; Bamborough
, 1967; Crossman, 1971; Barrow, 1975). But two significant facts are indisputable. Whether he was or was not a democrat, he was a relative of Critias and nephew of Charmides, both members of the murderous oligarchy, the Thirty, who briefly ruled, not to say terrorized, Athens after its final defeat by the Spartans. Plato also, at a later stage of his life, sailed to the city of Syracuse in Sicily, to act as tutor to the future tyrant, Dionysius. (The Greek word for tyrant, tyrannos
, does not have any of the necessary pejorative connotations that the word ‘tyrant’ has for us. One could be a good tyrant, as some believed Peisistratus had been at Athens. But ‘tyranny’ nonetheless implies rule by one man, and therefore cannot be regarded as democratic.) One can argue against the significance of these points: Critias was his mother’s cousin and Charmides his uncle, not Plato himself, and there is evidence that Plato approved of Socrates’ courageous resistance to the Thirty (e.g. Ap.
32c). Teaching a future tyrant or king, perhaps in the hope of improving his rule for the benefit of all, does not necessarily entail approving of one-man rule. But, whatever we choose to say, these two points are widely seen as counting against Plato and confirming the view that his criticisms of democracy stem from a
fundamental anti-democratic stance, and it is beyond question that he was, by birth, an aristocratic, well-connected man. Equally certainly, however, he was nurtured in a land of free inquiry and thought, and was a passionate lover of truth and knowledge for its own sake. (For a brief note on the evidence relating to Plato’s visits to Syracuse, see Appendix 2.)
The visit to Syracuse suggests that, not with standing his belief in the intrinsic value of knowledge, Plato was interested in having some kind of practical effect in politics: the contemplative life might be ideal and a necessary part of the good life, but Plato also wanted the contemplation to lead to some practical advance. It is thus entirely in character that towards the end of his life he should have founded what may be considered the first University. It was called the Academy, after the hero Academus, in a grove sacred to whom it was situated, from which derive our words ‘academy’ and ‘academic’. (It lies some 3km from the ancient agora
and sparse remains of buildings can still be seen there today.) The Academy probably was academic in something like our sense of the word, and in this Plato should be distinguished from contemporaries such as Isocrates. Isocrates (not to be confused with Socrates), though not as well known as Plato today, was in his time a figure similarly to be reckoned with, and he too had his followers and students. His surviving work is interesting and readable, but he is more in the business of teaching rhetoric and the art (or skills?) of practical politics than Plato. At a risk, one might liken Plato’s Academy to a liberal arts college, and Isocrates’ interests as being more in line with those of the political equivalent of a Center for Policy Studies. Or, if that is too modern an analogy, one might say that Plato’s focus was more on theory, Isocrates’ on practice.5
An important influence on Plato’s thinking was Sparta, particularly in the realms of politics and education. It is perhaps difficult for readers today to recognize the significance of Sparta as an inspiration throughout history. The American founding fathers, for instance, aspired at least as much to creating a new Sparta as a new Athens. For most of Plato’s lifetime these two city-states were permanently at odds, whether actually engaged in war or not, and admiration for and loyalty to either one was pretty evenly spread – and to some extent shifting – between the two. The notion that democratic Athens was everywhere acknowledged to be the shining light and ‘education to all Greece’ that Pericles claimed is seriously misplaced. Athenians themselves (or many of them) were enthusiasts for the newly emergent democratic form of government, but a great deal of the Greek world was unimpressed, as were some notable Athenians, and, as it happens, most of our surviving contemporary sources. Of course, one of the features of a democratic community is a large degree of freedom of speech, and consequently there is likely to be more evidence of criticism and dissent than there is in more closed societies. Nor, in any case, should the satire and knock-about fun of, for instance, Aristophanes’ comedies, though they do highlight some of the possible dangers and excesses of democracy, be construed as antidemocratic. But the tract attributed to an anonymous author referred to as the Old Oligarch (i.e. supporter of oligarchy or rule by the few, as opposed to the many), the works of Xenophon, and to a lesser extent the history of Thucydides are all to some degree critical of, if not the idea of democracy, at any rate the Athenian version, particularly as events unraveled towards the end of the fifth century and the beginning of the fourth. And for some (notably Xenophon) Sparta was clearly a much-admired alternative.
Sparta itself was a small city, comprising five closely situated villages on the river Eurotas in the southern Peloponnese. In myth it was famous as being the kingdom of Menelaus and his wife Helen, whose abduction by Paris led to the Trojan War. (A memorial monument to Menelaus and Helen can still
be seen in the hills across the river from the modern town of Sparta.) Also according to legend, but clearly with reference to some kind of historical truth, at some point between 800 BC and 600 BC, a leader named Lycurgus caused the Spartans to reorganize their social and political institutions in a dramatic and rigid manner, thus giving rise to a distinctive way of life that remained, on its own terms, effective throughout most of Plato’s life. (Plato is thought to have died in 347 BC; the battle of Leuctra, fought against the Thebans, which brought an end to Spartan significance and power was fought in 371 BC.)
The Spartans were Dorians who had originally invaded Greece from the north in about 1000 BC. They were thus of a different race from the Athenians (who were Ionians and liked to stress that they were indigenous Greeks, or Hellenes, to use their own word), and from those they conquered in Laconia (the district around Sparta) and, subsequently, the neighbouring area of Messenia. By about 700 BC the Dorians of Sparta had gained the upper hand, politically and militarily, over other Dorian settlements: these neighbouring Dorians were known as perioeci (‘those who live round about’) and were nominally independent, provided that they followed Sparta in matters of foreign policy (particularly war) and confined their activities essentially to crafts and trade – activities which Spartans themselves were forbidden to engage in. More significantly, all the non-Dorian inhabitants of Laconia and Messenia were reduced to slavery (and known as helots).
The Lycurgan reforms can be seen as the answer to the question of how a small body of Spartans (c. 10,000) could control the immensely superior number of helots and perioeci: that answer was to turn the body of Spartan males (the so-called homoioi...