The Life of Plato

∼ The Legend of Plato ∼

Our Plato (428-347 BCE) was devoted to the gods, but to Apollo especially. In his dialogues this is express by his emphasis of Socrates' relationship to Apollo, and by doing thereby expressing his own love of the god. In the Apology, Socrates states that his philosophy was his quest to understand the oracle given to his friend Chaerephon at Delphi, in which Apollo declares Socrates to be the most wise among men. And the Phaedo is filled with allusions to Socrates' connexion with Apollo. Socrates recalled that he once understood philosophy to be the highest form of music, and so he was spending his remaining hours alive composing a hymn to Apollo to capture that truth. He compares himself to the swan, the bird sacred of the god, who it is said sings most beautifully and fully as they near the time of their deaths. In making such statements, Plato puts forth is position that philosophers are the truest servants of the god of poetry and music, for their wisdom reflects best the harmonious beauty of essential reality.

∼ Plato's Apollonian Birth and Youth ∼

It is commonly said, even during his own lifetime, that Plato was of divine birth. The story, no doubt developed much after Plato's death, goes that the figure of god Apollo came to Plato's virgin mother, Perictione, and impregnated her. When his father, Ariston, attempted to lie with her, the god appeared to him in a vision, commanding him to abstain from her for ten months until the child was born. This birth occured on the seventh of Thargelion (Plutarch, Quaest. conv. 717b-e; Apuleius, De Platone 1.1; Diogenes Laertius 3.2; Anonymous Prelegomena 1.41-46, 2.12-16).

It is worthwhile to note that the birthdays of Socrates and Plato, on the 6th and 7th of the Greek month of Thargelion respectively, are auspicious for other reasons as well. The 6th of Thargelion is also the birthday of the goddess Artemis, the patron of the wild and childbearing. Both Artemis and Socrates are midwives: Artemis assists women in labour to deliver healthy babies, and Socrates, as he states in the Theaetetus, assists labouring souls to deliver healthy ideas through the art of dialectics.

The 7th of Thargelion, the birthday of Plato, is also the birthday of Artemis' twin brother and Plato's divine father, Apollo, the Lord of Prophetic Illumination and the Leader of the Muses. Like Apollo, Plato inspires the soul to listen to the "music of the spheres" and to glimpse the celestial realm of divine Ideas. To further the analogy, Plato's muses would be the golden chain of Platonic sages, who continued expounding upon his philosophy for another 900 years.

It is said that the name given to him by his father was Aristocles, naming him after his paternal grandfather. He was later called Plato (meaning "broad") due to either the breadth of his forehead, or his chest, or his style (Diogenes Laertius 3.4; Olympiodorus, In Alcib. 2.36-43; Apuleius, De Platone 1.1; Seneca, Epistle 58.30). However, it is also likely that Plato is his original name, as the name Plato was not uncommon in the fourth century B.C., and Plato uses this name for himself in some of his earlier dialogues, Apology (34a) and the Phaedo (59b) (cf. Notopoulus, “Name of Plato”, 38).

When Plato was a infant, his parents went to Hymettus, the mountain sacred to the Muses, to offer a sacrifice to the gods. His mother laid him down near a bush and as he rested, bees, who had fed upon the thyme that grew on that sacred mount, came and made honey on his lips. This omen would foretell the sweetness of his future eloquence (Anonymous Prelegomena 2.16-22; Cicero, De div. 1.36.78, 2.31.66; Valerius Maximus 1.6; Pliny, Nat. hist. 11.17.55).

Plato had two brothers, Glaucon and Adeimantus, and a sister, Potone. Among his family included Charmides, his uncle, and Critias, cousin to his mother. These two become involved in the tyrannical overturning of the democratic government at the end of the Peloponnesian War, and were killed in the rioting (Press, “Plato”, 34).

He received a full education. He studied wrestling, grammar, and music, the latter from Dracon of Athens and Metellus of Acragas, the pupil of Damon (Apuleius, De Platone 1.2; Diogenes Laertius 3.4; Olympiodorus, In Alcib. 2.32-36; Anonymous Prelegomena 2.24-27). Plato trained in athletics under Alexander Polyhistor, and became a champion wrestler, excelling in all four Panhellenic games, and even winning victories in some of them (Apuleius, De Platone 1.2; Diogenes Laertius 3.4-5; Anonymous Prelegomena 2.26-28). Olympiodorus adds that "these were the three things the boys at Athens were taught, I mean grammar, music, and wrestling, not simply for themselves; but grammar, to embellish the language natural to them; music, to tame violent passions; and wrestling and gymnastics, to strengthen the relaxed state of desire" (trans. Burges, Works of Plato VI, 232-240). Like all citizens, Plato served in the military, and took part in three campains, Tanagra, Corinth and Delion where Plato was award a prize in valour (Diogenes Laertius 34-5; Aelian, Var. hist. 7.14). His military bravery is similar to Socrates', demonstrating that philosophers are not men to falter before danger.

Before becoming a philosopher, Plato wrote poetry, including epic, tragedy, dithyrambs, and comedy. He was intent on a career as a tragedian, and was to participate in the tragic competition. This was until Socrates persuaded him of the inferiority of poetry to philosophy, Socrates seeing in Plato a brilliance destined for a higher purpose. Plato, signifying the transition of one phase of his life for another, burned his old poetry and this is why only epigrams of such works remain. This conversion to Philosophy occurred when Plato was about twenty years old (Diogenes Laertius 3.5; Anonymous Prelegomena 3.1-5 and 17-20; Apuleius, De Platone 1.2; Macrobius, Sat. 2.2.15; Proclus, In Rep 1.205.4-13).

∼ A Swan of Apollo ∼

Socrates knowledge on Plato's future was not just due to a keen eye. The night before he met Plato, Socrates had a dream in which he saw a baby swan fly up from the altar of Eros at the Academy and land in his lap. Then it, at once, developed to adult size and flew into the sky, singing a most enchanted tune. When he met Plato the following day, he remebered the dream and told those present that the swan of his dream was Plato. Like the baby swan, Plato was young and uneducated when he was presented to Socrates, but by the instruction he gained, Plato would soar on his own (Anonymous Prelegomena 1.22-29; Apuleius, De Platone 1.1; Pausanias 1.30.3; Diogenes Laertius 3.5; Olympiodorus, In Alcib. 2.83-86; Sudias on Plato).

The swan, as mentioned before, is a sacred bird of Apollo, and Socrates identifies himself with them at his death-bed when he says: "Will you not allow that I have as much of the spirit of prophecy in me as the swans? For they, when they perceive that they must die, having sung all their life long, do then sing more lustily than ever, rejoicing in the thought that they are about to go away to the god [i.e., Apollo] whose ministers they are. But men, because they are themselves afraid of death, slanderously affirm of the swans that they sing a lament at the last, not considering that no bird sings when cold, or hungry, or in pain, not even the nightingale, nor the swallow, nor yet the hoopoe; which are said indeed to tune a lay of sorrow, although I do not believe this to be true of them any more than of the swans. But because they are sacred to Apollo, they have the gift of prophecy, and anticipate the good things of another world; wherefore they sing and rejoice in that day more than ever they did before. And I too, believing myself to be the consecrated servant of the same God, and the fellow-servant of the swans, and thinking that I have received from my master gifts of prophecy which are not inferior to theirs, would not go out of life less merrily than the swans" (Phaedo 84e-85b, Jowlett).

Plato would call himself a "fellow-slave of the swans" (Olympiodorus, In Alcib. 2.30-31; Anonymous Prelegomena 1.21-22), and just before his death, Plato had a dream in which he was a swan, jumping from tree to tree, evading bird-catchers who tried in vain to capture him. Simmias, one of those present at the death of Socrates, interpreted the bird-catchers of Plato's dream to represent those who try and fail to understand his sublime doctrines (Anonymous Prelegomena 1.29-35; Olympiodorus, In Alcib. 2.156-162).

∼ Travels ∼

At his death, Socrates instructed his friend Cebes to travel in search of knowledge, to find a "charmer" that will remove doubts from the soul. "Greece is wide," he said, "wherein doubtless good men are to be found, and many also are the tribes of the barbarians, all of whom it is your duty to search through in quest of such a charmer, and to spare neither money nor toil, for there is nothing on which you can lay out money to better purpose" (Phaedo, 78a, Cope). Plato, during the twelve years after the death of Socrates, took his advice to heart and, like all the great sages had done before him, travelled and studied the arts of philosophy, religion, geometry, astronomy and other sciences under the most prominent philosophers, priests, and sages of his time. In Greece he studied under Cratylus and Hermogenes, in Megara under Eucleides, in Cyrene under the geometrician Theodorus, in Italy under the Pythagoreans Philolaus, Archytas, Echecrates, Timaeus, Eurytos and Arion, in Egypt under the high priests and prophets, and in the East under the Zoroastrian Magi.

It is reported that Plato went to Sicily to witness a volcano on Mount Aetna. While there he spoke freely before the tyrant Dionysius the Elder, enraging the later. The tyrant remarked that Plato would now speak ill of him when he returned to Athens, but Plato responded that he had more important matters for discussion than Dionysius. The belittled tyrant entrusted Plato to a Spartan general, Pollis, with special instructions to dispose of the philosopher. Pollis took Plato to Aegina, where a law was passed allowing Athenian prisoners to be executed. Plato was seized. However, Plato's demeanour and character before the Aeginetan assembly convinced them to spare his life and have him be sold as a slave instead. A Libyan by the name of Anniceris, who happened to be in Aegina when returning home from the Olympic Games where he competed as a charioteer, ransomed Plato and set him free. The Libyan refused any attempt at reimbursement. (Another story about his freedom humorously relates that when the Aeginetan assembly learned he was a philosopher decided to free him, implying the idea that philosophers would be useless at real work. (Diogenes Laertius 3.19.))

Not all his travels were for the purpose of learning, but also for giving instruction. After his ordeal in Aegina, he returned to Sicily two more times to influence the politics there in the hope of turning the tyranny into a genuine aristocracy and to teach the new ruler, Dionysius the Younger, the ways of philosophy. He returned there when his friend Dion tried hard to convince him of the long-term benefits. Plato wrote, "I weighed the question and was uncertain whether or not to yield to his urging and undertake the journey. What tipped the scales eventually was the thought that if anyone ever was to attempt to realise these principles of law and government, now was the time to try, since it was only necessary to win over a single man and I should have accomplished all the good I dreamed of" (Seventh Letter, 328b-c). While there Plato even taught Philosophy to Dionysius' wife. It is said that when Plato was there the palace floors were covered with dust to be used by the huge numbers of students to draw geometric figures in their studies of mathematics.

However, intrigue and envy at the court began to interfere with the rulers opinion of Plato, and in the end, the philosopher was made to leave that country.

∼ The Academy ∼

The centre of Plato's teaching was the Academy. This public park, a grove with a gymnasium (an area of exercise), was situated outside the walls of Athens. It was named after a certain hero called Hecademos. Even before Plato, the Park of Hecademos was a place where sophists and thinkers would come a have discussions with whomever would be willing to listen. It was remote from the city and was often unkept, and with the help of Dion, Plato was able to purchase the land. It was chosen because its remoteness and unkept condition facilitated a more ascetic environment for philosophical pursuits, that they would be distracted by no other pleasure than that of learning. Doctors advised Plato to move his school to a more "healthy" location, but Plato refused. (Aristotle, Plato's student, did heed such advice and establish his school at the Lyceum.)

The school emphasised geometry. Above the gate was supposedly written, "If you are ignorant of geometry, do not enter here." Geometry in this case does not just reflect knowledge of mathematics, but also those moral principles of justice and correct measure.

It is related that when the Delians were afflicted by plague, they sought advice from the Oracle at Delphi. The Oracle advised them that if they doubled their cube-shaped altar, the plague would stop. However, they were unlearned in the geometry needed, and so they consulted Plato. Plato understood the true meaning of the Oracle: that the Gods were upset with the Delians for their ignorance of geometric principles. This may seem silly, but it is through geometry and mathematics that allows mankind, and especially scientists, to understand and work with the universe in which they live (Anonymous Prolegomena 5.15-24; Valerius Maximus 8.12; Plutarch, De E ap. Delph. 386e and De genio Socr. 579a-d; Philoponus, In Anal. post).

In it he established a shrine to the Muses. The lessons would often occur in the open air as they walked. He believed that walking during the lecture would give him a healthier body and so would not interfere with his "psychic energy" (Ammonius, In Porph. Isag. and In Cat.; Philoponus, In Cat.; Olympiodorus, Proleg.). Plato even encouraged pregnant women to exercise so that they young would not begin life "untrained" (Pseudo-Elias, In Porph. Isag.).

Plato believed in teaching his students to tap their inner knowledge. Once when a student of his was travelling, his boat turned and all his notes and books were lost. The student came to Plato and told him that he now understood Plato's precept that knowledge must not be written in books but in souls (Hermias, In Phaedrum 275c). Plato once admonished Aristotle from writing so many books, though Aristotle defended himself by saying such writings were simply to make things clearer (al-Farabi, Philosoph. Abhand.). Plato expelled a student, Demosthenes, because he spend more time worrying about how nice his speech was than on whether it was accurate (Anon. In Rhetor. 3.1).

Plato attracted many to his Academy after reading his dialogues. From the simple Corinthian farmer who converted to Platonism after reading the Gorgias to the famous example of Axiothea of Phlius, who when she read the Republic, set forth from Arcadia to Athens where she became a follower of Plato. It is said that she then chose, in spite of the gender equality mentioned in the dialogue, to dress like a man to distance herself from the superficial women of that era. And then there was Zeno of Citium, who upon reading the Apology, was converted to philosophy and came to study at the Academy under Polemon. Zeno later founded his own school of philosophy, Stoicism (Themistius, Or. 23.295c-d).

Not everyone received his philosophy well however. Once Plato announced that he would give a lecture "On the Good". The audience, who came from the city, the fields and the mines, arrived expecting to be taught the ways of gaining worldly goods. However, when he began speaking of loftier aims, they left disappointed.

∼ His Character ∼

Plato was a man of modesty. He avoided excessive sleep, the eating of meat. He was a man inclined to solitude, but dedicated his live to the education of others. Though he had wealth, his lifestyle was that of simplicity bordering on poverty. Though he may have been a man of eroticism, he chose the celibate life.

In his youth, he never laughed excessively (Diogenes Laertius 3.16). Once he visited Olympia incognito and spoke with the people freely without them knowing who he was. When they returned to Athens, Plato entertained them and they said that they all should go to the Academy and visit the philosopher Plato. It was then that Plato let them know that he was that man, and his guests were amazed that they did not realise it was him due to his humility and that he avoided abstract discussions during their stay (Aelian, V. h. 4.9). This is an example how the philosopher must not be prideful but able to mingle with the people.

He would restrain himself when he was angry. Once when a slave continuously disobeyed orders and he became angry, but he chose to have someone else punish the slave in case his own anger caused him to exceed proper limits (Plutarch, De lib. educ. 10d; Diogenes Laertius 3.38; Stobaeus 3.20.57; Gnom. Vat. 436a; Valerius Maximus 4.1 ext. 2). It was also said that he had raised his hand with the intent to strike the slave but, when he stopped himself, chose to keep that hand raised for a long period of time as a way to punish himself for his intention (Plutarch, De ser. num. vind. 551b; Themistius, Peri aretes 46; Seneca, De ira 3.12.5; Gnom. Vat. 346b).

When Plato was thirsty, he would bring up water from a well, look at it, and then pour it upon the ground as a punishment for his want (Stobaeus 3.17.35; Gnom. Vat. 435).

He would look into a mirror often to see what his travels and experiences have done to his appearance (Ioannes Saresberiensis, Polycrat. 8.12.761a). Plato also advised drunk individuals to look into a mirror to assess how their habit is affecting their lives (Diogenes Laertius 3.39).

He was a man devoted to his meditations. At one time he chose to live on the street of the goldsmiths. When he was asked why there, he replied, "When sleep creeps upon me and threatens my meditations, the noise of their work wakes me (Bryson, Oeconomicus).

∼ His Death ∼

By a frugal life and strict personal care, Plato lived to a great age. He died willfully on his own birthday, being exactly 81 years of age. The number 81 is holy. It is the called the “squared-squared number”, (32)2, and is the square of the number of Muses, the choir of his god Apollo (Anonymous Prelegomena 6.1-7; Censorius, De die nat. 14.12 and 15).

On this Seneca wrote, "You know, I am sure, that Plato had the good fortune, thanks to his careful living, to die on his birthday, after exactly completing his eighty-first year. For this reason wise men of the East, who happened to be in Athens at that time, sacrificed to him after his death, believing that his length of days was too full for a mortal man, since he had rounded out the perfect number of nine times nine. I do not doubt that he would have been quite willing to forgo a few days from this total, as well as the sacrifice" (Epistle 58.31, Gummere).

It is said that he died while listening to music being played by a flute-girl, Thraittys, drifting to sleep into a melody that Pythagoreans know to hold deeper truths (Index Herc. Col. III 40 and V 1-19).

The words of an oracle are enscribed on Plato's grave:

These two, Asclepius and Plato, did Apollo beget,
One that he may heal bodies, the other to heal souls.

(Olympiodorus, In Alcib. 2.165-167; Diogenes Laertius 3.45)

A woman came to an oracle and ask if she could consider his grave-stone or altar equal to the statues of the gods. The oracle replied that "whoever esteems Plato's guidance like of the gods' does a great thing, such will bring you grace and fortune, for that man there is beyond description" (Anonymous Prelegomena 6.8-13).