Plato (427?-347 B.C.) was one of the world's most influential philosophers. A student of Socrates and a teacher of Aristotle, he is regarded as an idealist who explored justice and virtue in postwar Athens and founded the Academy. He and his philosophy gave birth to the concept of Platonic love, and the legend of Atlantis.

The poet Antiphanes once said that Plato's words froze in the winter and thawed in the summer: the meaning being that his followers and students often didn't appreciate what he said until they were old and wise. Based on the number of books written about him (2,894 in 1999 in the Library of Congress collection), Plato is the world's tenth most famous person. He ranks behind Jesus and Lenin but ahead of Aristotle and Buddha. According to Amazon rankings and other sources he is the best-selling philosopher of all time.

Plato's real name was Aristocles. He was born into a noble family. His father was related to the early leaders of Athens and his mother was a descendant of the democracy pioneer Solon and further back, it was said, Poseidon, god of the sea. Plato was intelligent, handsome and athletic and was raised in luxury. He received an typical upper class education in poetry, music, oratory and gymnastics.

Plato grew up in the age after the Peloponnesian War, when Athens was defeated by Sparta and well past its Golden Age. He thought about pursuing a career in politics until he saw the horrors caused by war. Two of his relatives were killed trying to fight the ruling oligarchy and his mentor, Socrates, was condemned to death.

Plato and Socrates

Plato's Academy
Most of what know about Socrates is based on what Plato wrote about him. Plato was Socrates number one student. He once said, Socrates was an “an absolute unlikeness to any human being that is or ever was.”

Plato was about the age of 19 when he became a student of Socrates and remained faithful to him until Socrates death in 399 B.C. According to Plato’s own account he began his professional life as a dramatist, and wrote a few tragedies, but gave all that up and even burned his manuscripts when he met Socrates

After Socrates’s death Plato fled Athens and may have traveled as far away as Egypt, where he studied history and mathematics. His writings on Egyptian customs and games seem to indicate that he really went to Egypt. He returned to Athens and embarked on a 12 year journey around the Mediterranean. In Sicily he angered a local tyrant. He was kidnaped into slavery and was released only after his friends paid a random.

Plato's Academy

Socrates and Plato
In 387 B.C., after returning to Athens a second time, Plato founded the Academy, about a mile outside of Athens, in a garden near a gymnasium and grove sacred to the Hero Akedemus (also known as Hekademus), the source of the name Academy. At first Plato’s Academy was little more than a place where students gathered. Over time, Plato reputation as a lecturer grew and he received enough financial support from the aristocracy to have buildings constructed. A nobleman named Dionysuis II reportedly gave Plato the equivalent of half a million dollars.

The Academy has been called the first think tank and the first university but it had some unique features. There was no admission and no tuition fees. Plato got by on donations and presents from the rich parents of some of his students. The students reportedly dressed in elegant clothes in what were pleasant bucolic surroundings. They were encouraged to live ascetically and be celibate. Plato continued teaching at the Academy until his death at age 80.

The atmosphere of the Academy was quite different than the marketplace where Socrates held court and gymnasiums where they the Sophists lectured.. Students came from all over. They usually stayed for four years. Aristotle stayed for 20 years. The curriculum focused on mathematics and the pursuit of truth while its rival school in Athens, Isocrates, taught rhetoric and persuasion.

Plato's Academy provided a model for universities and social and scientific academies that developed later. His students, which included Demosthenes, Aristotle, Lycurgus and several women, studied mathematics, philosophy, law and music.

Plato's Writing and Philosophy

Plato symposium papyrus
Plato left behind a great number of written works, many of which were in the form of dialogues in which Socrates is the leader of the discussions conducted in a Socratic question-and-answer style. In many of Plato’s works Socrates is a mouthpiece for Plato’s ideas and doctrines. Many of are written in a poetic language with the use of metaphors, parables and symbols.

When or why Plato wrote his dialogue is not known. His most famous works include The Laws ; The Republic , an outline for an ideal government; Symposiums , featuring guests sitting around a banquets discussing ideal love and beauty: Apology , a compelling portrait and defense of Socrates; and Timaeus , a discussion on the nature of the universe.

Plato developed a number of philosophical theories on topics such as knowledge, government, human conduct and the universe. His ideas have seeped into many facets of Western culture. Some scholars have argued that many of the basic doctrines of Christianity owe as much to Plato as they do to Jesus.

Plato and his mystical followers believed that source of the "real" forms he sought was in mathematics and geometry. The Platonic view of the world was built on the foundation of ideal mathematics. Over the door to Plato's academy was a sign that read, "let no one destitute of geometry enter my doors."

"A mathematical species...have a primary subsistence in the soul," wrote one of Plato's disciples, "so that, before sensible numbers, there are to be found in the utmost recesses, self-moving numbers...ideal proportions of harmony pervious to concordant sounds; and invisible orbs, prior to the bodies which revolve in a circle...we must follow the doctrine of Timaeus, who derives the origin, and consummates the fabric of the soul, from mathematical forms, and reposes in their nature the causes of everything which exists."

Although the premises for Plato’s beliefs are often very lofty and metaphysical, the applications were often practical in nature but were often quite idealistic. Plato wrote that everything on earth has its ideal version in heaven. He also thought the constellations had souls.

Parable of the Cave

Plato accommodated different viewpoints by saying they could coexist on different levels in his Theory of Forms (sometimes translated as Theory of Ideas). The most famous illustration of this was in his Parable of the Cave in The Republic in which he argued there was a permanent world that could not be perceives and a shadow world that was always changing.

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Plato's Academy

The Parable of the Cave goes: “Behold! Human beings living in an underground den, which has a mouth open towards the light and reaching all along the den; here they have been from their childhood, and have their legs and necks chained so they cannot move, and can only see before them, being prevented by chains from turning around their heads. Above and behind them is a fire blazing at a distance, and the fire and the prisoners there is a raised way; and you will see, if you look, a low wall built along the way, like the screen, which marionette players have in front of them, over which they show the puppets.”

Plato argued that real world was the one that couldn’t be perceived and the world of shadows was an illusion. If anyone is “liberated and compelled suddenly to stand up and turn his neck around and walk and look towards the light, he will suffer sharp pains: the glare will distress him, and he will be unable to see the realities of which in his former state he had seen only shadows; and then conceive someone saying to him, that what he saw before was only an illusion, but that, now, when he is approaching nearer to being and his eye is turned towards more real existence, he has a clear vision...Will he be perplexed? Will he not fancy that the shadows which he formally saw are truer than the objects which are shown to him?”

Plato's Republic

In The Republic , Plato describes a utopia based on meritocracy, where the main virtue is wisdom and leaders, called guardians, are selected for their intellect and education. People live in communes and share everything. Luxuries are not permitted and people are not even allowed to go near gold or silver. Parents are not allowed to know who their children are and only the best and brightest offspring are allowed to have children themselves. Children judged inferior are killed at birth. Children allowed to survive are brought up in a state nursery and taken to wars as observers "to have their taste of blood like puppies." "Plato urged the banishment of the poet from the ideal republic because it provokes irrational thoughts and undisciplined emotions."

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The 5,040 citizens of the Republic (the number of people that could be addressed by a single orator) selected 360 guardian that ruled on a rotating basis of 30 different guardians a month. Children went to school until they were 20 and were trained in gymnastics, music and intellectual activities. Those that did poorly on their exams became businessman, workers and farmers. The ones that did well received continued education in mathematics, science and rhetoric. The people who failed the tests became soldiers. The most able at the age of 35 were selected to command armies and the best officers was selected as ruler at the age of 50.◂

Plato and Science

The Greek philosophers often equated beauty and mathematics. "Measure and commensurability," wrote Plato in Philebus , "are everywhere identifiable with beauty and excellence." Aristotle wrote "the qualities of numbers exist in a musical scale, the heavens, and many other things. [Source: "The Creators" by Daniel Boorstin,μ]

Describing the creation of the two sphere universe, Plato wrote: "Wherefore he made the world in the form of a globe, round as from a lathe, having its extremes in every direction equidistant from the center, the most perfect and the most like itself of all figures; for he considered that the like is infinitely fairer than the unlike."

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Aristotle, Plato. Socrates

Plato's Views on Love and Other Things

Plato discussed his views on what became known as the Platonic love in The Perfect Union . Plato viewed lovers as incomplete halves who could not find peace until they found each other. Plato’s pondering in The Symposia are the oldest known attempt to systematically unravel the mysteries of love. Plato also is crediting with first putting down in writing the belief that there is "only one person in the world for me, without whom I am lost."

Plato denounced the material world and the pleasures of the flesh, which is one reason why he was popular among Christian theologians. Plato wrote: "Until philosophers are kings, or the kings and princes of this world have the spirit and power of philosophy...cities will never cease from ill, nor the human race." He also once wrote democracy is a "delightful form of government, anarchic and motley."

Plato wrote, witchcraft "persuades victims that...they are being harmed by those who are able to work magic." Plato also wrote about humorous, trivial things. He wrote about Alcibiades drunkeness and described how Aristophanes "hiccoughing because he had eaten too much."

Plato and the Immortal Soul

Plato, Seneca, Aristotle
Plato developed the concept of an immortal soul that would shape concepts of death and afterlife in Western philosophy. His concept of the soul was connected with his view of higher order of reality beyond that in the perceived world. His concept of death was similar to that of reincarnation. After death, a soul enriched by knowledge and notions of good, beauty and justice, Plato theorized, rose to higher planes in the universe. For most mortals though there was a judgment, some rewards and punishments, and then rebirth centuries later on earth.

In Phaedrus , Plato wrote: for “the soul of a sincere lover of wisdom, or of one who has made philosophy his favorite...these, in the third period of a thousand years, if they have chosen this [philosopher’s] life thrice in succession, they thereupon depart, with their wings restored in the three thousandth year. Others are tried, some are sentenced to places of punishment beneath the Earth...others to some region in the thousandth year they choose their next life.”

By the A.D. 3rd, century the neo-Platonist, like early Christians, believed the soul was a "fiery breath" that tended or rise towards heaven but became damp and heavy in the Earth’s atmosphere and was further weighted down by passions until it was brought down to earth. Many ordinary people believed in idea of the Islands of the Blest, a heaven with plentiful supplies of food and wine.

Plato and Atlantis

Plato by Raphael
Our knowledge of the lost continent of Atlantis is based on what Plato wrote 335 B.C. when he was in his 70s. He described Atlantis a real place that existed 8,000 years before his time. Soem say the source of his information was a Greek historian who heard about the continent from an Egyptian priest in 590 B.C. Others say Plato heard about Atlantis from Socrates, who in turn said he was told about it by the Egyptians. The Atlantic Ocean is named after Atlantis.

According the Egyptian priest the people of Atlantis fought a war with a group of pre-historic Athenians. The Athenians won the war. When the people of Atlantis were driven back their island a great earthquake enveloped the Mediterranean, leveling Athens and submerging Atlantis.

In Plato's story the Atlantis culture flourished on an island paradise near the Strait of Gibraltar. The city had temples "coated with silver save only the pinnacles and these were coated with gold" and roofs "all of irony in appearance, variegated with gold and silver." There were temples to the Greek gods, one of them with Poseidon and six winged horses in it. According to Plato, Atlantis disappeared in a "single day of earthquakes, floods and rain."

Search for Atlantis

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In a book called True History , written in 150 A.D., the Greek philosopher Lucian describes being pushed over the Atlantic Ocean in a waterspout propelled by the winds of the moon. After breaking up a fight between the Sun-King and the Moon-king over the planet Jupiter he traveled to the moon where he encountered people with artificial genitals, archers riding on fleas and birds with salad wings. In an earlier book called Icaramenippus , Lucian took a wing from an eagle and one from a vulture and flew from Mount Olympus to the moon where he saw the Earth was a sphere.◂

During the Middle Ages, maps often depicted Atlantis. In recent of centuries explorers, like those searching for Noah's Ark, have gone searching from Atlantis. One of the explorers was the grandson of a man who said he discovered Troy who said he found Atlantis with secret papers left by his grandfather.◂

Explorers have also searched for Atlantis in reed boats in Bolivia's Lake Poopo. According to Moscow Institute of Metahistory, Atlantis is located 100 miles off the southwest coast of England. The institute based their finding on "energetic readings" of Plato's Republic .

Some scholars speculate that Atlantis was in reality the Minoan culture on Santorini and Crete that was destroyed in part by a Krakatoa-like volcanic eruption around 1,500 B.C. In 2004 professional Atlantis searcher Robert Sarmast found a big pile of amphorae and a three-kilometer-long wall and a deep trench which he said fit Plato’s description of the Atlantis acropolis at the bottom of the Mediterranean Sea between Cyprus and Syria and claimed it was Atlantis. He presented pictures of the amphorae and said the walls had been found with sonar scans. Archaeologists were skeptical and said more proof was necessary.

Plato Becomes More Dogmatic

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In 367 B.C., Dionysus II, a friend of Plato’s family, became the leader of Syracuse, a powerful colony in Sicily, and invited Plato to come and help set up a government. Plato saw this as a chance to create a utopian republic like the one described in his book. It turns out Dionysus II was a foolish leader and Plato’s venture was a disaster. He had to flee for his life. One of his favorite students was murdered.

After Plato’s nasty experience with Dionysus II in Sicily, the conversation segments in his dialogues became increasing longer and more like monologues as Plato’s philosophy moved away from the Socrates call-and-response style to dogma. In one of his later works, Laws , he demanded that men obey earthly laws rather than seek a utopia “laid up in heaven.” The historian Daniel Boorstin said that in doing this Plato “displaced the question by the answer.”

Image Sources: Wikimedia Commons, The Louvre, The British Museum

Text Sources: New York Times, Washington Post, Los Angeles Times, Times of London, Yomiuri Shimbun, The Guardian, National Geographic, The New Yorker, Time, Newsweek, Reuters, AP, Lonely Planet Guides, Compton’s Encyclopedia and various books and other publications. Most of the information about Greco-Roman science, geography, medicine, time, sculpture and drama was taken from "The Discoverers" [∞] and "The Creators" [μ]" by Daniel Boorstin. Most of the information about Greek everyday life was taken from a book entitled "Greek and Roman Life" by Ian Jenkins from the British Museum [||].

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© 2008 Jeffrey Hays

Last updated January 2012

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