This February, the OUP Philosophy team honours Plato (c. 429 BC – c. 347 BC) as their Philosopher of the Month. Plato is recognised as one of the most influential figures in the history of Western thought, along with his mentor Socrates, and his student Aristotle. Born into a noble and politically active family, he grew up in the shadow of the great Peloponnesian war which caused social and political upheavals for Athens. The Greek philosopher Socrates (469-399 B.C.) was an important formative influence on Plato. When his revered teacher, Socrates was put to death on charges of impiety and of corrupting the young in 399 BC, this affected him so deeply that he rejected a political career and devoted his life to the pursuit of philosophy. He spent several years travelling to various places, including Egypt, Italy, and Sicily. Upon his return to Athens, he founded The Academy, which was regarded as the first institution devoted to philosophy and mathematical enquiry. It was here that Aristotle, its most celebrated member, began his philosophical training under Plato’s supervision.
Plato wrote many philosophical works. Most of these are in dialogue form between two or more characters, usually with Socrates as a leading protagonist. The dialogues are incentives for philosophical discussions and debates; the characters engage in cross examination, asking questions and analysing each other’s ideas and presumptions. The early dialogues hold a central place in his writing as they provide a portrait of Socrates and reveal the full range of his philosophy.
Like his mentor Socrates, Plato believed that it is vital to question received dogma and traditional moral beliefs and to distinguish truth from opinions. He also insisted on the importance of virtue and wisdom as a basis for happiness in our lives. Among Plato’s masterpieces are The Republic, an extended dialogue in which he outlines his view of an ideal state and develops a comparison between justice and order in the soul; Symposium, and Phaedrus which contain profound ideas on the true nature of love; and Phaedo, which explores the nature of the soul and immortality.
Featured image credit: “The School of Athens” by Raffaello Sanzio da Urbino (1511), Vaticans Museum. Public Domain via Wikimedia Commons