Phenomenology Online

A Resource for Phenomenological Inquiry

Plato was born to an aristocratic family in Athens. His father, Ariston, was believed to have descended from the early kings of Athens. Perictione, his mother, was distantly related to the 6th-century B.C. lawmaker Solon. When Plato was a child, his father died, and his mother married Pyrilampes, who was an associate of the statesman Pericles. As a young man Plato had political ambitions, but he became disillusioned by the political leadership in Athens. He eventually became a disciple of Socrates, accepting his basic philosophy and dialectical style of debate: the pursuit of truth through questions, answers, and additional questions.

 

Plato witnessed the death of Socrates at the hands of the Athenian democracy in 399 B.C. Perhaps fearing for his own safety, he left Athens temporarily and traveled to Italy, Sicily, and Egypt. In 389 B.C. he founded the “Academy” in Athens, the institution often described as the first European university. It provided a comprehensive curriculum, including such subjects as astronomy, biology, mathematics, political theory, and philosophy. The main purpose of the Academy was to cultivate thought to lead to a restoration of decent government in the cities of Greece. Pursuing an opportunity to combine philosophy and practical politics, Plato went to Sicily in 367 to tutor the new ruler of Syracuse, Dionysius the Younger, in the art of philosophical rule. The experiment failed. Plato made another trip to Syracuse in 361, but again his engagement in Sicilian affairs met with little success.

 

The concluding years of his life were spent lecturing at the Academy and writing. He died at about the age of 80 in Athens in 347 B.C. Plato wrote 26 dialogues on various philosophical themes, with Socrates as the main character in most of them. The exact ordering of the dialogues is not known, but they can be roughly assigned to three periods, the early, middle, and late. During the Renaissance, the primary focus of Platonic influence was the Florentine Academy, founded in the 15th century near Florence. Under the leadership of Marsilio Ficino, members of the Academy studied Plato in the original Greek. In England, Platonism was revived in the 17th century by Ralph Cudworth and others who became known as the Cambridge Platonists. Plato’s influence has been extended into the 20th century by such thinkers as Alfred North Whitehead, who once paid him tribute by describing the history of philosophy as simply “a series of footnotes to Plato.”