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Philosophy's greatest luminaries brought down to earth.
Plato Within Your Grasp offers fast, easy access to the life and works of the acknowledged father of Western philosophy. In fewer than 100 pages, you'll get all the essentials in everyday language. A short biographical sketch sets the scene, followed by chapters illuminating Plato's overall philosophy and his most important writings.
For students and lifelong learners seeking an entry point into this astonishingly diverse thinker's ideas, Plato Within Your Grasp is the springboard to enriched understanding.
Inside you'll find all the vital details, including:
* Family and upbringing
* Influence of Socrates
* Athenian culture and society
* Overview of key works, themes, and impact
* Socratic, mature, and late periods
* Individual chapters on Apology and Meno
* Book-by-book explanation of The Republic
* Tracking down Plato's major works
* Collections, biographies, and critical writings
* Plato on the Internet
Get a grip-Plato is within your grasp!
1. Plato’s Life.
Plato’s Early Life.
A Silver Spoon.
A Time of War.
The Influence of Socrates.
Becoming Socrates’s Student.
The Opening of the Academy.
Plato’s Return to Italy.
The Final Years.
2. Plato’s Philosophy.
The Socratic Period.
The Meaning of Virtue.
Writings of the Socratic Period.
The Mature Period.
Separating Form from Function.
Writings of the Mature Period.
The Late Period.
Continuing the Conversation.
Writings of the Mature Period.
Perspective on Apology.
Opening Statements, Cross Exam, and Closing Arguments .
Guilt by Reputation.
Taking on the Accusers.
Unafraid of Death.
A Man Condemned.
Perspective on Meno.
The Nature of Virtue.
The Paradox of Learning.
Knowledge and Belief.
Perspective on Republic.
Characters of Republic.
The Themes of Republic.
Book I: Beginning the Search for Justice.
Book II: A City of Justice.
Book III: Educating the Guardians.
Book IV: The City as Soul.
Book V: Refining the City Model.
Book VI: The Search for a Philosopher-King.
Book VII: Rising Out of the Cave.
Book VIII: Beyond Callipolis.
Book IX: Justice versus Injustice.
Book X: Loose Ends.
Plato’s Main Works.
Collections, Biographies, and Critical Works.
Plato Web Sites.
"I am that gadfly which God has given the state and all day long and in all places am always fastening upon you, arousing and persuading and reproaching you." -Socrates, Apology
Plato has been called, with no exaggeration, the Father of Western Philosophy. Though he hadn't aspired to such a role, he probably would not have shied away from it. (He was not known for his humility.) Like many other great figures in history, Plato came to play the role he did as much because of circumstance and chance as because of his own decisions.
What we know about Plato today, nearly 2,400 years after his death, stems mostly from his numerous writings (some 650,000 words have been attributed to his hand, according to Plato historian Christopher Planeaux). Through what he mentions in his work, and through biographies of Plato written by his contemporaries, we have produced a fairly good picture of what Plato's life was like.
But this picture, like most old images, has been blurred by time. Some of what we know of Plato stems from writings that tried to make him seem legendary in stature, so it is important to try to weed out some of the more grandiose descriptions of his background. Other information comes from his letters, the only written work from Plato where he actually mentions events in his life. Unfortunately, there is some dispute as to whether all the letters attributed to Plato were even written by him, placing their accuracy in question.
This book covers the information on Plato's life that is believed to be true by most scholars; alternative theories about Plato are mentioned for the sake of completeness, but not in great detail. (You can find more information on Plato and his life by consulting one of the references in the appendix at the end of this book.)
Plato's Early Life
There is some debate as to whether Plato was actually the philosopher's given name or a nickname that was generally accepted. It has been suggested by some, including Planeaux, that Plato's real name was Aristocles and that Plato was a nickname that loosely translates to "the broad." It isn't known whether broad refers to the width of his shoulders, the size of his forehead, or a description of his personality. Regardless, the name Plato seems to have stuck, at least with modern scholars.
A Silver Spoon
Most scholars believe that Plato was born in the year 427 B.C.E. in Athens, the third child of Ariston and Perictone. He had two older brothers and a younger sister. The family was one of the more wealthy in the Greek city-state of Athens, which had been democratically organized for just over 80 years when Plato was born. A city-state was a political organization in ancient Greece that tended to be geographically small areas dominated by a central metropolitan organization.
Some of the more legend-minded biographers and peers of Plato maintained that Plato descended from a long line of rulers that included Codrus, the last king of Athens. Whether this is true is a matter of debate. But it is generally well established that Plato's family was politically strong and active in Athenian society. In Plato's later years, these political connections would dramatically affect his life.
What influence Plato's father might have had on his third-born will unfortunately never be known, as Ariston died when Plato was very young. In keeping with Athenian tradition, which held that a woman could not head a household, Plato's mother soon remarried. From his mother's second marriage, Plato would get a half-brother.
Not much is known about Plato's early years. Like most Greek men of his time, he would have likely received the best education his family could afford. Given the political background of his family, he was very likely groomed for a life of politics and leadership.
Many biographers have pointed to evidence that Plato was skilled in the physical arts as well as the mental ones. Gifted with a strong body and athletic prowess, Plato won many wrestling contests, a sport that was among the most popular in Greece at the time. That he was so healthy and skilled in athletics is a testament to his family's financial status.
Although Plato's family was prosperous in Athens, they did not particularly enjoy the leadership under which they lived. Being wealthy and tracing (if somewhat ambiguously) their lineage back to ruling nobles, families like Plato's grew increasingly discontent under the democratic rule of law. Apparently, what prosperity they had was not enough, and families like Plato's missed the past, when their families ruled over everything instead of just participating in government with other, less-noble people as equals. This attitude left quite an impression on the young Plato, whose political leanings would always remain opposed to the concept of democracy.
A Time of War
Just before the birth of Plato, Athens found itself embroiled in the midst of a rather bothersome war. If this description sounds nonchalant, it reflects the initial attitude the Athenians had toward the war and their enemy, the city-state of Sparta. The war between Athens and Sparta would have a profound impact on Plato's life.
Athens and Sparta had long been at odds with each other. The problem wasn't just that the city-states differed in their approaches, but that each city-state thought its methods would be best to rule over all of mainland Greece. Athens preferred a democratic approach to self-governance, while Sparta opted for a militaristic tyranny to rule itself. Although Sparta's expansionist army was generally greater than that of Athens, Sparta had been soundly beaten by Athens's massive navy and forced to sign a 30-year armistice.
Chafing under the enforced peace, Sparta, a very militaristic society, began to build up its armies for another try at Athens. In 431 B.C.E., four years before the birth of Plato, Sparta found its excuse in a small border skirmish and quickly set upon Athens with its large army. Athens resignedly set itself up for another confrontation with Sparta. Even though Sparta's army outnumbered Athens two to one, Athens had its own secret weapon: a very large navy, which Athens quickly used to bypass the land-based Spartans and attack Sparta directly.
Though each side felt that it would soon gain the upper hand, a stalemate arose between the two warring sides, as neither Athens nor Sparta could get a clear victory. Ultimately, the two city-states agreed to another armistice: the 50-year Peace of Nicias. Nicias was the ruling general of the Athenian forces at the time he helped craft this peace agreement, which basically allowed both sides to go home with nothing lost and nothing gained. He is described by his peers as a cautious and patient general, but he had rivals in the Athenian government who would soon cause him more trouble than Sparta ever did.
One of Nicias's rivals was Alcibiades, a very talented politician and orator. In 415 B.C.E., when Plato was 12 years old, Alcibiades whipped the Athenian Assembly, the ruling body of Athens, into an expansionist frenzy and convinced the leaders to send the army and navy to conquer the Greek city-states on the island of Sicily. Such a victory would have brought much wealth and power to the Athenian Empire had the plan worked.
Unfortunately, the army, still led by Nicias, was completely defeated, and half of the once-powerful Athenian navy was burned and sunk in the Syracuse harbor in 413 B.C.E. To make matters worse, Sparta took notice of the outcome. Worse still, the Persians, whom Athens also trounced in the first half of the fifth century B.C.E., decided to use the opportunity to take revenge on Athens.
Athens was attacked by two powerful and allied opponents: Sparta and Persia. With its military forces severely depleted, Athens fought a very good fight, fending off its allied enemies for a few years. But in 405 B.C.E., the remainder of the Athenian navy was defeated, which left the city-state up for grabs. One year later, Athens surrendered completely to Sparta.
For its part, Sparta did what most conquering powers would have done at that time: It tore down the walls of Athens, forbade Athens from ever having a navy again, and put its own puppet government in place, a group of 30 Athenians who would become known as the Thirty Tyrants. Among the Thirty Tyrants were Plato's uncle and great-uncle, who soon invited the 23-year-old Plato to participate in the new ruling government of the now-conquered Athens, an invitation he declined.
The Influence of Socrates
Determining how much influence Socrates the teacher had on Plato the student is difficult, particularly because most of the biographical knowledge we have about Socrates comes from Plato himself. This is mainly due to one very important difference in the approaches of Plato and Socrates: Plato typically wrote his important thoughts down, while Socrates thought writing a waste of time and instead followed a more oral tradition. It is important to recognize that without the diligence of Plato, the thoughts and teachings of Socrates would be forever lost.
Exactly when Plato first met Socrates is a matter of conjecture by many historians. Most traditional views place their first meeting fairly early in Plato's life, when he was 20. Although this is certainly when Plato became Socrates's student, other historians have speculated that the pupil actually met his future teacher quite a bit earlier. This earlier meeting was likely to have occurred when Plato was a boy, as he was being groomed for the family "business" of Athenian politics. Socrates was a close associate of Plato's family, including his mother's brother Charmides and his mother's uncle Critas. Although Charmides and Critas participated in the Athenian democracy, they did so begrudgingly; they still longed for the earlier days when their family was one of the ruling families of Athens. Socrates, who was at best apathetic about the concept of democracy, provided philosophical fuel to Plato's kinsmen in their quest to return to the good old days. Thus, it was likely that Plato met Socrates earlier in Plato's life, through one family function or another.
Before Plato became one of Socrates's students, Plato learned the way other upper-class Athenian men learned, becoming knowledgeable in the teachings of Cratylus, Pythagoras, and Parmenides-pre-Socratic philosophers who stretched Plato's knowledge of the universe with the concepts of metaphysics and epistemology (the study of the very nature of knowledge).
Aristotle, Plato's future student, later wrote that Plato was also an accomplished poet, his first major pursuit until he was the age of 20. At that time, Plato inexplicably decided to burn all his poems and devote his attention to philosophy.
Becoming Socrates's Student
When Plato was 20 years old (the age when he began to study with Socrates), Athens was still in its desperate struggle against the Spartan and Persian armies. Athens's final defeat was only three years away.
A tale passed on from this time indicates that Plato considered leaving home to become a mercenary soldier in the still ongoing war, and that Socrates talked him out of it and asked Plato to join him instead. This may be more fable than truth, but whatever the circumstances, Plato became one of Socrates's faithful students.
When Plato began to study under Socrates, he pursued his teacher's own quest for the substance and meaning of virtue. As Socrates engaged in dialogues with his students, the one overall theme was this quest for a noble character.
Plato, in an early display of the wisdom for which he is so renowned, was able to use his background education to apply the question of virtue to politics and morality. Plato reasoned that how we think and what we perceive as reality are important components to how we act. So, in the journey to a virtuous life, a person should always have a philosophical approach so he better molds himself with virtue. This would be a tenet that Plato would hold throughout the rest of his life, even after he grew past the teachings of Socrates and put forth his own unique ideas.
Plato was very good at unifying many different subjects-virtue, metaphysics, epistemology, and politics, for example-into a single question that he would then approach with methodical and careful reasoning. In fact, he was one of the first (if not the first) philosophers in Western culture to combine different disciplines to examine larger questions. But before he taught these ideas, Plato would first learn at the feet of Socrates and focus on the issue that beguiled Socrates until his death: the pursuit of the meaning of virtue.
After Athens was soundly defeated in 404 B.C.E., the Spartans and Persians divided their respective spoils, and then Sparta opted to set up the puppet government known as the Thirty Tyrants. The Tyrants (in those days, tyrant had the less-sinister meaning of "leader") were what is known as an oligarchy, a government made solely of a small faction of people. Sparta chose members of the conquered Athenian Assembly who would stay under the control of their Spartan masters and keep Athens from ever becoming a threat to Sparta again. Among the Thirty Tyrants were Plato's kinsmen Critas and Charmides, who invited Plato to actively participate in exerting their rule over the Athens puppet state.
Even though Plato was raised in an antidemocratic family and he himself tended to lean away from democracy, he resisted joining his family in ruling Athens. This was a surprising decision, because his great mentor, Socrates, was also a critic of the old Athenian government, believing that nobility could not be found in leadership by the masses. In fact, Socrates's teachings would be forever linked to the Thirty Tyrants, because they parroted his works in order to justify their actions.
Perhaps it was the Tyrants' actions that repelled Plato, for the Thirty certainly shaped the modern definition of the word tyrant with their violence and cruelty toward the conquered citizens of Athens. Even though Socrates had many negative beliefs about democratic government, he refused to actively involve himself in politics, preferring to stay out of such worldly affairs. Such neutrality may have influenced Plato to stay out as well.
After a mere eight months, the Thirty Tyrants were violently overthrown and replaced by a new democracy in 403 B.C.E. This new democracy, a far cry from the old government, was a far more conservative and religious group of men-and it was also a group that never forgot a grudge.
Excerpted from Plato Within Your Grasp by Brian Proffitt Excerpted by permission.
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