Plato. Luni marble, copy of the portrait made by Silanion ca. 370 BC for the Academia in Athens. From the sacred area in Largo Argentina, 1925.
Plato (428/427 BC – 348/347 BC) is one of the most important philosophers of antiquity, second only to his student Aristotle. Most of his writings that have survived took the form of dialogues, thirty-six in all, in which the principal interlocutor is Plato’s teacher Socrates: he never writes in his own voice. Key themes in the dialogues include knowledge as originating in recollection or divine insight, rather than through learning or observation, the immortality of the soul, and the nature of poetry and the arts. The term ‘Platonism’ is now generally reserved for the doctrine that there exists a realm of forms or abstract universals, by virtue of which mathematical propositions are true or false, but in The Republic the realm of forms includes concepts of justice and ultimate causes. In the allegory of the cave, physical objects and material events are mere shadows of ideal and perfect forms.
In The Timaeus, written as a monologue rather than dialogue, Plato gives an account of the origin of the universe. Its beauty and order, he argued, could only be explained by a rational and benevolent agency, a design to bring about good effects on a pre-existing chaos.
Plato was an Athenian of aristocratic origins. He was the founder of the Academy, the first institution of higher learning in the western world. Its entrance was reportedly under a sign with the words ‘let none but geometers enter here’: Plato was known to have studied mathematics and astronomy. His relationship with Socrates is, according to his Apology of Socrates, that of a youthful follower who would have been corrupted by him were the allegations against Socrates true. Socrates was condemned to death at his trial in 399 BC, and took his own life. His reasons were recounted in Phadeo, and also in dialogues by Xenophon.