The OUP Philosophy team have selected Plato (c. 429 BC–c. 347 BC) as their February Philosopher of the Month. The best known and most widely studied of all the ancient Greek philosophers, Plato laid the groundwork for Western philosophy and Christian theology.
Little is known for certain of Plato’s life. He was most likely born in Athens, in a noble, politically active family which was divided by the consequences of the Peloponnesian War. From c. 407 BC he was a disciple of Socrates, from whom he may have derived many of his ideas about ethics. When Socrates was sentenced to death in 399 BC—as depicted in Plato’s Phaedo—Plato grew discouraged with political life and travelled to Italy, Sicily, and Egypt, before returning to Athens around 387 BC where he remained for most of the rest of his life.
Shortly after his return, around 387 BC, Plato founded the Academy of Athens—an open-air educational centre considered one of the Western world’s first institutions of higher learning. Admission to the Academy was granted exclusively to a cultural elite. In Plato’s time, teaching at the Academy is thought to have consisted primarily of lectures and seminars, focusing on dialectics and mathematics. The Old Academy consisted of influential students and philosophers such as Aristotle, Speusippus, Eudoxus, and Theatetus of Athens.
Plato’s philosophical investigations took the form of dialogues, spoken mainly by Socrates, in which characters continually ask questions of one another. This form allows for the expression of various, evolving philosophic points of view. His dialogues address a broad range of subjects, including the nature of knowledge, the soul, perception, society, beauty, art, governance, and more. Plato’s dialogues are divided into early, middle, and late periods; among them are included Apology and Laws.
All of Plato‘s 36 works survive. His most famous dialogues include Gorgias (on rhetoric as an art of flattery), Phaedo (on death and the immortality of the soul) and the Symposium (a discussion on the nature of love). Plato‘s greatest work was the Republic, an extended dialogue on justice, in which he outlined his view of the ideal state.
After his death in 347 BC, educators at the Academy continued teaching Plato’s works into the Roman era. Today he is perhaps the most widely studied philosopher of all time.
Plato’s influence on Western thought is inescapable, reaching across entire fields of study—from philosophy, to linguistics, to Christian theology.
Featured image credit: Plato’s Symposium, depiction by Anselm Feuerbach. Public domain via Wikimedia Commons.