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. Alfred North Whitehead said: “The safest general characterization of the whole Western philosophical tradition is that it consists of a series of footnotes to Plato.”

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.


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Plato’s Early Life

Plato (from Platon, "the broad shouldered") was born about 429 B.C. in Athens close to the time when Pericles died. He died in 347 B.C. just after the birth of Alexander the Great. Plato's real name was Aristocles.

Plato was born into a very rich and powerful noble family although some writers say he lived through periods of poverty. 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. Many of his relatives were involved with Athenian politics, though Plato himself was not. Plato fought for several years as a soldier.

Plato grew up when Athens was in the middle of fighting the Peloponnesian War. Athens was defeated by Sparta in the war and was on the last legs of its Golden Age. Plato 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 in Athens, and his mentor, Socrates, was condemned to death on trumped political charges..

Plato and Socrates

Most of what know about Socrates is based on what Plato wrote about him. Plato was Socrates’ number one student. He learned a lot from Socrates about how to think, and what sort of questions to think about. He once said, Socrates was an “an absolute unlikeness to any human being that is or ever was."

Socrates and Plato
Plato was about the age of 19 when he became a student of Socrates. Plato was soldier at the time and went to listen to Socrates speak a war had ended. Plato remained faithful to Socrates until his 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

The master- pupil relationship between Socrates and Plato lasted about ten years and was a decisive influence in Plato's philosophical career. Before meeting Socrates he had, very likely, developed an interest in the earlier philosophers, and in schemes for the betterment of political conditions at Athens. At an early age he devoted himself to poetry. All these interests, however, were absorbed in the pursuit of wisdom to which, under the guidance of Socrates, he ardently devoted himself. [Source: Catholic Encyclopedia Article, 1913 |=|]

Plato was about 30 years old when Socrates died in 399 B.C.. He was very upset and began to write down some of the conversations he had heard Socrates have. Practically everything we know about Socrates comes from what Plato wrote down After a while, Plato began to write down his own ideas about philosophy instead of just writing down Socrates‘ ideas.

See Separate Article: SOCRATES AND PLATO

Plato After 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.

Also fter the death of Socrates he joined a group of the Socratic disciples gathered at Megara under the leadership of Euclid. Later he travelled in Egypt, Magna Graecia, and Sicily. His profit from these journeys has been exaggerated by some biographers. There can, however, be no doubt that in Italy he studied the doctrines of the Pythagoreans. His three journeys to Sicily were, apparently, to influence the older and younger Dionysius in favor of his ideal system of government. But in this he failed, incurring the enmity of the two rulers, was cast into prison, and sold as a slave. Ransomed by a friend, he returned to his school of philosophy at Athens. [Source: Catholic Encyclopedia Article, 1913 |=|]

After returning to Athens he founded The Academy. After his return from his third journey to Sicily, he devoted himself unremittingly to writing and teaching until his eightieth year, when, as Cicero tells us, he died in the midst of his intellectual labors. |=|

Plato's Academy

Plato's Academy
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.

Plato’s school differed from the Socratic School in many respects. It had a definite location in the groves near the gymnasium of Academus and its atmosphere 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. The tone was more refined than the the Socratic School. More attention was given to literary form, and there was less indulgence in the odd, and even vulgar method of illustration which characterized the Socratic manner of exposition.

According to the Internet Encyclopedia of Philosophy: “The Academy (Academia) was originally a public garden or grove in the suburbs of Athens, about six stadia from the city, named from Academus or Hecademus, who left it to the citizens for gymnastics (Paus. i. 29). It was surrounded with a wall by Hipparchus, adorned with statues, temples, and sepulchres of illustrious men; planted with olive and plane trees, and watered by the Cephisus. The olive-trees, according to Athenian fables, were reared from layers taken from the sacred olive in the Erechtheum, and afforded the oil given as a prize to victors at the Panathenean festival. The Academy suffered severely during the siege of Athens by Sylla, many trees being cut down to supply timber for machines of war.Few retreats could be more favorable to philosophy and the Muses. Within this enclosure Plato possessed, as part of his patrimony, a small garden, in which he opened a school for the reception of those inclined to attend his instructions. Hence arose the Academic sect, and hence the term Academy has descended to our times. The nameAcademia is frequently used in philosophical writings, especially in Cicero, as indicative of the Academic sect. [Source: Internet Encyclopedia of Philosophy (IEP) <^>]

“Sextus Empiricus enumerates five divisions of the followers of Plato. He makes Plato founder of the first Academy, Aresilaus of the second, Carneades of the third, Philo and Charmides of the fourth, Antiochus of the fifth. Cicero recognizes only two Academies, the Old and the New, and makes the latter commence as above with Arcesilaus. In enumerating those of the old Academy, he begins, not with Plato, but Democritus, and gives them in the following order: Democritus, Anaxagoras, Empedocles, Parmenides, Xenophanes, Socrates, Plato, Speusippus, Xenocrates, Polemo, Crates, and Crantor. In the New, or Younger, he mentions Arcesilaus, Lacydes, Evander, Hegesinus, Carneades, Clitomachus, and Philo (Acad. Quaest. iv. 5). If we follow the distinction laid down by Diogenes, and alluded to above, the Old Academy will consist of those followers of Plato who taught the doctrine of their master without mixture or corruption; the Middle will embrace those who, by certain innovations in the manner of philosophizing, in some measure receded from the Platonic system without entirely deserting it; while the New will begin with those who relinquished the more questionable tenets of Arcesilaus, and restored, in come measure, the declining reputation of the Platonic school. <^>

“Views of the New Academy. The New Academy begins with Carnades (i.e. the Third Academy for Diogenes) and was largely skeptical in its teachings. They denied the possibility of aiming at absolute truth or at any certain criterion of truth. Carneades argued that if there were any such criterion it must exist in reason or sensation or conception; but as reason depends on conception and this in turn on sensation, and as we have no means of deciding whether our sensations really correspond to the objects that produce them, the basis of all knowledge is always uncertain. Hence, all that we can attain to is a high degree of probability, which we must accept as the nearest possible approximation to the truth. The New Academy teaching represents the spirit of an age when religion was decaying, and philosophy itself, losing its earnest and serious spirit, was becoming merely a vehicle for rhetoric and dialectical ingenuity. Cicero's speculative philosophy was in the main in accord with the teachings of Carneades, looking rather to the probable (illud probabile) than to certain truth (see his Academica). <^>

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.

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Plato's Academy

Academy in A.D. 160

Pausanias wrote in “Description of Greece”, Book I: Attica (A.D. 160): “Before the entrance to the Academy is an altar to Love, with an inscription that Charmus was the first Athenian to dedicate an altar to that god. The altar within the city called the altar of Anteros (Love Avenged) they say was dedicated by resident aliens, because the Athenian Meles, spurning the love of Timagoras, a resident alien, bade him ascend to the highest point of the rock and cast himself down. Now Timagoras took no account of his life, and was ready to gratify the youth in any of his requests, so he went and cast himself down. When Meles saw that Timagoras was dead, he suffered such pangs of remorse that he threw himself from the same rock and so died. From this time the resident aliens worshipped as Anteros the avenging spirit of Timagoras. In the Academy is an altar to Prometheus, and from it they run to the city carrying burning torches. The contest is while running to keep the torch still alight; if the torch of the first runner goes out, he has no longer any claim to victory, but the second runner has. If his torch also goes out, then the third man is the victor. If all the torches go out, no one is left to be winner. There is an altar to the Muses, and another to Hermes, and one within to Athena, and they have built one to Heracles. There is also an olive tree, accounted to be the second that appeared. [Source: Pausanias, “Description of Greece,” with an English Translation by W.H.S. Jones, Litt.D. in 4 Volumes. Volume 1.Attica and Cornith, Cambridge, MA, Harvard University Press; London, William Heinemann Ltd., 1918]

“Not far from the Academy is the monument of Plato, to whom heaven foretold that he would be the prince of philosophers. The manner of the foretelling was this. On the night before Plato was to become his pupil Socrates in a dream saw a swan fly into his bosom. Now the swan is a bird with a reputation for music, because, they say, a musician of the name of Swan became king of the Ligyes on the other side of the Eridanus beyond the Celtic territory, and after his death by the will of Apollo he was changed into the bird. I am ready to believe that a musician became king of the Ligyes, but I cannot believe that a bird grew out of a man. In this part of the country is seen the tower of Timon, the only man to see that there is no way to be happy except to shun other men. There is also pointed out a place called the Hill of Horses, the first point in Attica, they say, that Oedipus reached--this account too differs from that given by Homer, but it is nevertheless current tradition--and an altar to Poseidon, Horse God, and to Athena, Horse Goddess, and a chapel to the heroes Peirithous and Theseus, Oedipus and Adrastus. The grove and temple of Poseidon were burnt by Antigonus1 when he invaded Attica, who at other times also ravaged the land of the Athenians.

“Near the Hill of Ares is shown a ship built for the procession of the Panathenaea. This ship, I suppose, has been surpassed in size by others, but I know of no builder who has beaten the vessel at Delos, with its nine banks of oars below the deck. Outside the city, too, in the parishes and on the roads, the Athenians have sanctuaries of the gods, and graves of heroes and of men. The nearest is the Academy, once the property of a private individual, but in my time a gymnasium. As you go down to it you come to a precinct of Artemis, and wooden images of Ariste (Best) and Calliste (Fairest). In my opinion, which is supported by the poems of Pamphos, these are surnames of Artemis. There is another account of them, which I know but shall omit. Then there is a small temple, into which every year on fixed days they carry the image of Dionysus Eleuthereus. Such are their sanctuaries here, and of the graves the first is that of Thrasybulus son of Lycus, in all respects the greatest of all famous Athenians, whether they lived before him or after him. The greater number of his achievements I shall pass by, but the following facts will suffice to bear out my assertion. He put down what is known as the tyranny of the Thirty1, setting out from Thebes with a force amounting at first to sixty men; he also persuaded the Athenians, who were torn by factions, to be reconciled, and to abide by their compact. His is the first grave, and after it come those of Pericles, Chabrias and Phormio. There is also a monument for all the Athenians whose fate it has been to fall in battle, whether at sea or on land, except such of them as fought at Marathon. These, for their valor, have their graves on the field of battle, but the others lie along the road to the Academy, and on their graves stand slabs bearing the name and parish of each.”

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.

“It is practically certain that all Plato's genuine works have come down to us. The lost works ascribed to him, such as the "Divisions" and the "Unwritten Doctrines", are certainly not genuine. Of the thirty-six dialogues, some — the "Phaedrus", "Protagoras", "Phaedo", "The Republic", "The Banquet", etc. — are undoubtedly genuine; others — e.g. the "Minos", — may with equal certainty be considered spurious; while still a third group — the "Ion", "Greater Hippias", and "First Alcibiades" — is of doubtful authenticity. In all his writings, Plato uses the dialogue with a skill never since equalled. That form permitted him to develop the Socratic method of question and answer. For, while Plato elaborated to a high degree the faculty by which the abstract is understood and presented, he was Greek enough to follow the artistic instinct in teaching by means of a clear-cut concrete type of philosophical excellence. The use of the myth in the dialogues has occasioned considerable difficulty to the commentators and critics. When we try to put a value on the content of a Platonic myth, we are often baffled by the suspicion that it is all meant to be subtly ironical, or that it is introduced to cover up the inherent contradictions of Plato's thought. In any case, the myth should never be taken too seriously or invoked as an evidence of what Plato really believed. [Source: Catholic Encyclopedia Article, 1913 |=|]

Plato’s most famous works and their English translators:
“The Apology”, translated by Benjamin Jowett
“The Euthyphro”, translated by Benjamin Jowett
“The Meno”, translated by Benjamin Jowett
“The Parmenides”, translated by Benjamin Jowett
“The Phaedo”, translated by Harold North Fowler,
another version translated by Benjamin Jowett
“The Phaedrus”, translated by Benjamin Jowett
“The Republic”, translated by Benjamin Jowett
“The Seventh Letter”, translated by J. Harwood
“The Symposium”, translated by Benjamin Jowett
“The Theaetetus”, translated by Benjamin Jowett
[Source: available online through Evansville University] |=|

Parable of the Cave

Allegory 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 ("Allegory 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.

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."

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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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 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

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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

One possible Atlantis location

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: Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy /, Internet Encyclopedia of Philosophy; Internet Ancient History Sourcebook: Greece ; Internet Ancient History Sourcebook: Hellenistic World ; BBC Ancient Greeks ; Canadian Museum of History ; Perseus Project - Tufts University; ; MIT, Online Library of Liberty, ; Metropolitan Museum of Art, National Geographic, Smithsonian magazine, New York Times, Washington Post, Los Angeles Times, Live Science, Discover magazine, Times of London, Natural History magazine, Archaeology magazine, The New Yorker, Encyclopædia Britannica, "The Discoverers" [∞] and "The Creators" [μ]" by Daniel Boorstin. "Greek and Roman Life" by Ian Jenkins from the British Museum.Time, Newsweek, Wikipedia, Reuters, Associated Press, The Guardian, AFP, Lonely Planet Guides, World Religions edited by Geoffrey Parrinder (Facts on File Publications, New York); History of Warfare by John Keegan (Vintage Books); History of Art by H.W. Janson Prentice Hall, Englewood Cliffs, N.J.), Compton’s Encyclopedia and various books and other publications.

Last updated October 2018

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