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Plato’s Phaedo: The Spirituality of Socrates

by on September 4, 2017

“Crito, we ought to offer a cock to Asclepius. See to it, and don’t forget.” – the Last words of Socrates, according to Plato.

Reading Socrates’ final utterance, one could be forgiven of thinking he was a practical, material man. Nothing, however, could be further from the truth. Socrates, as depicted in Plato’s Phaedo, was a gentleman who shunned the physical world and all thing corporeal. An individual who dedicated his life, and eventually lost it, in pursuit of wisdom and abstract ideals such as Beauty and Justice. In a word: Spiritual… even in the modern sense of the term.

But before we proceed, we must first dispense with the essential caveats that collocate with all Platonic/Socratic texts. As always, the distinction between teacher and student is a hard line to draw, as is the influence the former had on the latter. With time though, the mentor’s exact words started to fade and were replaced by the young philosopher’s own theories. This can be seen in Plato’s Phaedo, which was conceived much later than the Apology or Crito, though it still follows the tragic story of Socrates’ trial, imprisonment and eventual death.

Plato and Socrates

Plato and Socrates

Therefore, when Socrates speaks, we should see him more and more as a puppet for Plato’s words… a sacred protagonist.

So what does Plato’s frontman do in the final hours of his life? Bewail his fate? Seek the comforts of his wife and children? Or question and prove to his companions the existence of the immortal soul? Of course we can’t know what Socrates actually did while waiting in the shadows of his imminent execution… we only know how Plato wanted to envision it.

Of course, it isn’t a large stretch to imagine a thoughtful man pondering the future of his soul considering his situation. Surely the inmates in Huntsville, Texas’ death row are contemplating the same thing with their quickly diminishing lives. Will their spirit exist once their body has deceased? And, if that life force within us escapes its prison of flesh and blood, where does it go?

To these questions Socrates posits a few of his own suggestions. To begin with, he endeavors to prove the immortality of the soul with four theories.

Socrates’ first thesis is the Argument of Opposites. Everything comes to be from its opposite, in the way that ‘Tallness’ comes to be only from ‘Shortness’. With this logic, life can only come from death and vice versa. This would imply that life and death do not have a definitive end, but exist in a perpetual cycle.

The second, more famous concept, is the Theory of Recollection, which is dealt with much more thoroughly in Plato’s Meno. This argument is that we do not learn, only remember knowledge we’ve had before we were born. It can be hard for modern readers to swallow this thought, but it is important to distinguish fact from form. Socrates is not advocating that we ‘remember’ things like: when did the Peloponnesian war begin? Especially if it did not happen until after we were conceived. Instead, it is the idea that within us is an innate, built in ability to distinguish the essential concepts of Beauty, Equality and the like.

death of socrates

The Death of Socrates

In regards to the immortality of the soul, this theory proves to Socrates and his friends that the soul existed before the body.

The third idea is the Argument of Affinity. It is the categorization of things that are invisible, indivisible and immortal versus those that are material, dissolvable and mortal. The body is of the latter, the spirit of the former. Therefore, the soul can not cease.

At this moment, the two other Pythagorean philosophers in the dialogue put Socrates on his back foot with strong rebuttals. Think about a musical instrument, says Simmias, the beauty of ‘Harmony’ only exists with the tangible structure of the lyre, same as the soul and the body. While Cebes agrees that the soul is long living and can exist after the physical form has died, he is not yet convinced that it is immortal.

Socrates concedes that these are excellent points, and so brings out his final and most formidable notion. The cornerstone of his winning argument is the Theory of the Forms. It is one of Plato’s most important contributions and it proposes that greater abstract concepts exist as immaterial and unchanging ideas, such as courage or Justice or Beauty or Goodness, and that all worldly items take in these forms.

The soul, therefore, partakes of the form of “Life” and is in fact an essential property of the soul. Consequently it can never die.

Socrates concludes his arguments with a myth that describes the concept of an afterlife. Throughout his whole conversation, however, he has sprinkled references to where he feels his spirit will go next.

Relaying: “That soul, I say, herself invisible, departs to the invisible world to the divine and immortal and rational: thither arriving, she lives in bliss and is released from the error and folly of men, their fears and wild passions and all other human ills, and forever dwells, as they say of the initiated, in company with the gods.”

This is the reason why Socrates does not fear death. Like more contemporary believers, he is convinced that his future spiritual life will be better than his current physical existence. In fact, as a lover of wisdom and truth, his body only distracts him from finding reality.

“And thought is best when the mind is gathered into herself and none of these things trouble her-neither sounds nor sights nor pain nor any pleasure-when she has as little as possible to do with the body, and has no bodily sense or feeling, but is aspiring after being?”

Socrates spirituality was unlike the traditions of the Hellenic era, where the multitude of gods and the destination of Hades ruled over life and Death. Socrates never evokes the plethora of olympian dwellers. He does refer to the underworld though… he paints a hell-like finale for those who spent their life impurely and committed to the physical.

And so, knowing his life has been dedicated to finding the truth, and that his soul will live forever in a heaven like residence, Socrates bathes, bids his farewells, takes his hemlock and dies.

“Plato’s Phaedo: The Spirituality of Socrates” was written by Anya Leonard

Socrates Justice – Law and Disorder

by on August 24, 2017

by Anya Leonard

Somewhere between the words of Socrates and the thoughts of Plato lies the profound question of what is ‘Just’. Is it defined by laws and men or is it something separate, something ideal? When one is wrongfully imprisoned, for example, is it okay to escape, to break the “law” as it is written? This was the quandary in which Socrates found himself when facing an unfair death sentence.

Crito by PlatoOf course, we can’t be sure which ideas actually belong to Socrates or to Plato. We only know that Crito, the second defense of Socrates, was written after the events took place. Even if Socrates did utter the words contained therein, it was a secondhand account at best. Chronologically though, it follows Socrates’ trial as seen in the Apology and slots in before his final death in Phaedo.

Crito is actually the shortest of these three dialogues, but that doesn’t mean it’s the easiest to understand.

In it, Plato attempts to find justice in an unjust action. He wants to reconcile the injustice of his beloved friend’s execution with the respect that he has for the city and its laws. Certainly that is no simple feat, and one that some might say Plato did not entirely accomplish.

To understand this dialogue, one first must distinguish between the lower case and upper case words – laws vs. Laws, respectively. The latter represents something much grander than the collective ideas of men or the wisdom of a lawmaker. The Law is an ideal, a form, an entity – personified and perfect. And it’s Plato’s way out… a method for Socrates to remain good by following what is Just in the concept of the Laws, rather than obeying the evil of his unjust accusers who unethically utilize mere laws to kill him.

We begin the dialogue with Socrates in his cell, his imminent death casting a long shadow on the proceedings. His friend, Crito, has found him asleep and, impressed by his quiet slumber, does not want to wake him up to face his unfortunate reality. When finally Socrates comes to, Crito implores him to escape, employing, at times, astute logic to make his case.

He begins, perhaps, with a selfish point. Should Socrates allow himself to be killed, others will think his friends were not loose enough with their purses to rescue him. Crito makes clear that Socrates need not worry about his friends’ welfare or wallets. The provocative philosopher has sufficient benefactors to ensure his escape.

Crito’s second argument addresses the injustice of those who accused and sentenced him. By fulfilling their decision, Socrates is acting unjustly. By refusing to escape, he treats himself as his enemies treat him. This, says Crito, is morally wrong.

Lastly, Crito pleads for Socrates to think of his children, who will become orphans if he dies.

Statue of SocratesHe beseeches: “You appear to me to betray your own sons, who, when it is in your power to rear and educate them, you will abandon, and, so far as you are concerned, they will meet with such a fate as chance brings them, and as is probably, they will meet with such things as orphans are wont to experience in a state of orphanage”.

As a philosopher, it is Socrates’ aim it to reveal ignorance and inspire knowledge. Would he deny his own progeny his lessons?

Socrates, in turn, counters these arguments with his own. He attacks Crito’s concern for public approval, responding that the only opinions that matter, are of those with knowledge. In a swift rebuttal, he states: “what we ought to consider is not so much what people in general will say about us but how we stand with the expert in right and wrong, the one authority, who represents the actual truth.”

The matter at hand is not what people will think of Socrates. The real question is: is it Just to escape? Even if his punishment is unjust, he should still not act unrighteously. Here Socrates combats the idea of an ‘eye for an eye’, making the point that it is never right to do an injustice, even if you suffered an injury first. Therefore, he won’t leave his prison if the departure is proved to be unrighteous.

Crito concedes this point… but it still doesn’t address whether escape is Just. To answer this riddle, Socrates conjures the Laws, which confront and question the philosopher.

The Laws take the stance that escape is unjust, for disobeying the rules would, in effect, destroy the Laws and what they stand for. The State is held together by the Laws, and if the latter were to fall into disarray, the former would collapse as well. Therefore, Socrates’ illegal departure would be an affront the city-state that reared him. He argues allegiance to the State is more important than one’s well being or ties to their family…

Finally Socrates concludes that by living in Athens, he has agreed to her Laws. Not only that, he reared his children in the famous city-state and stayed there his whole, long, 70 years of his life. If he didn’t agree with the Laws, he could have left at any time, but chose not to.

Plato and Socrates

Plato and Socrates

The fact that the Laws are personified in Crito is important for our understanding of the “social compact” as viewed by Socrates. This is not Rousseau’s famous social contract, though it does at first appear that way. In the 18th century concept, the state or sovereign is a direct consequence of the people’s general will. Therefore, the social contract is an agreement between citizens to live together under the same laws. For Plato, however, this agreement is not made between citizens. It’s made between the individual citizen and the Laws – an entity in and of itself.

For Plato and for Socrates, the Laws are more like the ‘forms’ – an abstract idea that represents the fundamental essence of a thing. A chair, as we know it, is not just the thing we sit on, that you may be sitting on right now. It is also an idea of something that we sit on. Therefore, we can all look at a chair and say, “Yes, that is chair,” having in our minds a form of what a chair is.

In this way the Laws are something greater, purer than laws. The Laws are always Just, according to Socrates, but a law can be unjustly used.

This is how Plato tries to reconcile unjust actions with the innate Justice of the Laws. By acquiescing to the injustice, Socrates upheld the Laws and Justice and therefore, the State built upon them. Failure to do so would have destroyed all the ideals, truths and forms he held dear. This is why Socrates had to die.

 

Socrates Justice – Law and Disorder – Classical Wisdom Weekly was written by Anya Leonard

The Peloponnesian War Summary of Battles and Betrayals – Part Two

by on August 11, 2017

To Read Part One, Click here: http://classicalwisdom.com/the-peloponnesian-war-summary-part-one/

The entirety of the Peloponnesian war is broken into two parts, punctuated by a brief, and probably very welcomed, armistice. The total engagement, with all its battles and betrayals, began in 431 BC and finally concluded with complete devestation in 404 BC. The first collection of campaigns, referred to as the “Archidamian War” after the Spartan king, lasted a full ten years.

The Plan of Attack for the land-loving Spartans and their allies was to surround the Athenians, thereby depriving them of their productive fields. This, however, was only partially effective because the Spartans could sustain siege for just a few weeks at a time. The hoplites, or infantrymen, were still farmers after all. They had to return to their own harvest and to quell the occasional slave uprising.

Athenian Strategy

Athenian Strategy

Nonetheless, Pericles, the Atheniangeneral, advised his men to not enter into combat with Sparta’s masterful soldiers on the ground. They would only fail. Instead, the Athenians, far superior in naval warfare, protected the access to their port with a formidable wall and relied on the dominance of their fleet to launch attacks against their enemy. So far, so good.

Bust of Pericles

The Athenian General, Pericles

That’s when the plague hit. Perhaps more than any other factor, it was the sweeping disease that weakened Athens and brought the fair city to her knees. It wiped out over 30,000 citizens, sailors and soldiers, including their revered general and his sons. It is estimated that between one-third to two-thirds of the entire Athenian population perished.

After all the bodies had been disposed of, Athens renewed her military ambitions with emboldened hostility. The general who replaced Pericles, Cleon, embarked on an aggressive strategy for taking down the Spartans. The Athenians continued relentlessly with their naval raids, and stretched their military activities into Boeotia and Aetolia. In addition they began fortifying posts, one of which was near Pylos on a tiny island called Sphacteria. There the course of the first war turned in Athens’s favour.

Finally, things were looking up for Athens. They started taking advantage of Sparta’s greatest weakness: Helots. Helots were essentially slaves that made the Spartan system possible. By doing the farm work, they freed up the citizens’ time to become expert soldiers. However, they were also prone to revolts – and the Athenian presence at nearby posts helped spur them on. Without their working class, Sparta would have a hard time of surviving.

The Athenians rejoiced after the Battle of Pylos in 425, when they defeated the Spartans and captured between 300 and 400 soldiers. However, this joy did not last long. The Spartans fought back with their own belligerent general, Brasidas. He raised an army and took the Athenian silver mines, a crucial source of funding.

Bust of Thucydides

The historian, Thucydides

Interestingly enough, it was Thucydides, the famous historian, who was supposed to have saved the Athenian silver mines. Maybe it’s not so strange then that he said the following: “War is a matter not so much of arms as of money.”

However, Thucydides failed to arrive at the mines in time to defend them and consequently was exiled for his failure. Fortunately for us, this meant he was able to communicate with both sides, gaining a unique perspective which he later recorded in his major work, History of the Peloponnesian War.

The Athenians also knew that silver was pretty key. And so, they tried to retake their productive metallic mines… but, maybe not so tragically, the bellicose generals from both sides, Brasidas and Cleon, were killed in the fight. With no hawkish fame seekers to push the men into action, it was hard to keep warring. In fact, this resulted in the Peace of Nicias, which spanned 6 years.

‘Peace’, however, might be a little bit of an overstatement. There were still plenty skirmishes. Alliances were created and broken and large forces navigated the seas and lands… war was just a shot away.

Click HERE to read about the post peace Grecian breakdown in The Peloponnesian War Summary of Battles and Betrayals – Part Three: The Sicilian Expedition.

“The Peloponnesian War Summary of Battles and Betrayals – Part Two” was written by Anya Leonard

The Death of Socrates…and the State that Killed Him

by on July 25, 2017

by Anya Leonard

According to the Oracle at Delphi, Socrates was the wisest of them all. It is usually considered unwise, however, to publicly attack the political class and humiliate their intellect, capability and righteousness. This is particularly true when the government is in a weakened and, therefore, volatile position. Why then would Socrates, nobel pillar of wisdom, stand up to a system that would eventually, inevitably, murder him?

The old philosopher was not the first to provoke the hostilities of the state at the wrong time…nor would he be the last.

One only has to think of the modern day dissenters, the infamous ‘whistleblowers’, to know the powers that be do not like to be exposed. If an individual has the gumption to reveal undesired truths, uncomfortable realities, the state will react…swiftly and with its own brand of “justice.” In the case of our contemporaries, that may mean being indefinitely detained without trial or cooped up in the ecuadorian embassy. For Socrates, it resulted in a sham indictment and a death sentence for a 70 year old man.

Like our modern examples, Socrates committed an error of inconvenient honesty in a declining empire. For this, he would pay the ultimate price.

Socrates portrait

Bust of Socrates

The trial of Socrates took place in the year 399 B.C. – a mere 5 years after the fall of Attica by Spartan spear and pluck. The Golden Age of Athens came to a brutal and disappointing end. Socrates himself had been unpopular for a substantial amount of time already, and yet no one saw him as a legitimate threat until after the Peloponnesian war had done its damage.

In 423 B.C., for instance, Aristophanes authored his famous satirical play, The Clouds. It was produced a full 24 years before the trial of Socrates. Here the playwright unfairly characterized Socrates as a despised Sophist, one charging a fee for his services. He also drew the philosopher as, ironically, a pre-socratic thinker, questioning the earth below him and the sky above. But no one threw Socrates in jail then. The poet, politicians and craftsmen had been humiliated but, critically, the state’s safety was not yet at stake. It is the failing empires, self-conscious at their weakening power, that happily suspend justice to muffle dissenting voices.

Which makes us ask once more, why would Socrates, or anyone, speak against such a crumbling authority?

Bradley Manning, who was accused of releasing damning and dishonorable pictures and videos of his own government, may have furnished a response to a similar question in an online chat:1

“If you had free reign over classified networks…” he is said to have written, “and you saw incredible things, awful things… things that belonged in the public domain, and not on some server stored in a dark room in Washington, DC … what would you do?

“God knows what happens now. Hopefully worldwide discussion, debates, and reforms… I want people to see the truth…because without information, you cannot make informed decisions as a public.”

Julian Assange, the controversial figure behind online transparency activist group, Wikileaks, identified a similar goal:

“You have to start with the truth. The truth is the only way that we can get anywhere. Because any decision-making that is based upon lies or ignorance can’t lead to a good conclusion”. 2

It appears the pursuit of truth, the desire to follow what one believes is good, is nothing new.

We can’t know for sure, of course, but it seems that Socrates was spurred on by similar feelings, at least according to Plato’s description of the final trial. In Plato’s earliest dialogue, The Apology, written shortly after Socrates’ execution, the student rises to his mentor’s defense. He ensured that Socrates’ attackers look petty and capricious, while the philosopher king appears noble, defiant and unwavering.

The piece begins with Socrates pledging to speak clearly, truthfully and without the high flown speech, for which his opposition is famous. Importantly, he does not apologize, though the name of the text would suggest as much. The title actually derives from the Greek word “apologia,” which translates as a defense, or a speech made in defense. The dialogue concerns Socrates attempt to defend himself and his conduct, not to say sorry.

The philosopher sets himself apart immediately and without compromise. He then proceeds to explain the root of the situation: The Delphic oracle had essentially crowned him the smartest man. In disbelief, Socrates set out to prove this wrong by finding men more intelligent than himself. What he found, however, were pompous busybodies who enjoyed speaking at length on things they did not know. Socrates found that through a series of questions, he could easily reveal their ignorance, something no one’s pride takes easily. Eventually he concluded that yes, he could be the wisest man, simply due to the fact that he knows that he knows nothing.

Socrates then address the charges against him – that he had corrupted the youth and acted impiously. With albeit imperfect logic, he proceeds with the elenchus, or cross-examination, against Meletus, the man primarily responsible for bringing Socrates before the jury. If the youth have been corrupted, then why are his pupils here on his side, along with their relatives? Importantly, he references Plato as one of his pupils.

Socrates then makes the analogy that he is a gadfly and the state is a fat and lazy horse. A bloated thoroughbred that has enjoyed too many comforts and would sleep forever, if the gadfly did not do its duty the keep the horse awake.

At no time does Socrates plead for mercy, ask for forgiveness or beg the judges for leniency. Eventually the ballot is cast and, by a close margin, Socrates is found guilty. After a little deliberation the sentence is set: death.

Still, even now, Socrates stays true to his position, defiant in his apologia and sure of his virtue. When asked why he should follow any pursuit that may result in death, Socrates responded:

“You do not speak well, Sir, if you think a man in whom there is even a little merit ought to consider danger of life or death, and not rather regard this only, when he does things, whether the things he does are right or wrong and the acts of a good or a bad man.” 3

But if one were to imagine that Socrates was unwise by confronting a goliath much larger than him, they would prove to be the foolish one. The truth is that Socrates never wanted to face the political body. That is why he didn’t join the public life. Instead, he always spoke to individuals. Facing the government would only mean death.

“…for you may be quite sure, men of Athens, that if I had undertaken to go into politics, I should have been put to death long ago and should have done no good to you or to myself. And do not be angry with me for speaking the truth; the fact is that no man will save his life who nobly opposes you or any other populace and prevents many unjust and illegal things from happening in the state.”4

And so, Socrates chose to address the individual rather than purposefully face the state…until, of course, the state found him. Maybe this is why Socrates reached the ripe old age of 70. As for Julian Assange and Bradley Manning, it’s too early to tell.

Socrates did, ultimately, accept the punishment of death. There is no reason to fear what we do not know, he argued. A point that might have comforted him as he marched into the great unknown beyond this life. Perhaps, reflecting on the years he had already lived, Socrates welcomed a memorable end.

Maybe it is the death of socrates that makes his life, his search for truth, so well known…the sort of pursuit that can inspire individuals thousands of years on.

 

1. http://firedoglake.com/merged-manning-lamo-chat-logs/
2. “Julian Assange, monk of the online age who thrives on intellectual battle”. The Guardian. (http://www.guardian.co.uk/media/2010/aug/01/julian-assange-wikileaks-afghanistan) 2010-08-01. Retrieved on 2010-08-01.
3. 28b, The Apology by Plato http://www.perseus.tufts.edu/
4. 31d – 31e, , The Apology by Plato http://www.perseus.tufts.edu/

The Death of Socrates … and the State that Killed Him was written by Anya Leonard

The Peloponnesian War Summary of Battles and Betrayals – Part One

by on July 18, 2017

Reconstruction of Athens

Athens in its Golden Age

You couldn’t imagine two cities less alike. Athens was a powerful democracy where citizens spent their days reclining and discussing politics and culture.

Sparta was a ruthless oligarchy where individuals were born and bred to fight. Athens controlled a large, mostly coastal territory with its commanding navy, while Sparta was infamous for its authoritative army. The former had its own empire; the latter ran the Peloponnesian League. In ethnicity and dialect, too, the Athenians were Ionian, the Spartans Dorian.

Sparta versus Athens

The Navy versus the Army

The Peloponnesian War was bound to happen… eventually.

The two great cities were too contrary, too dominant to stand in the other’s shadow. They were enemies. Man, throughout time, has found causes, large and small, over which to wage war. Jealousies, grudges and human nature, ever open to corruption and debasement, push him to the battlefield.

The Peloponnesian war was no exception.

It was a war that forever changed the Ancient Greek world. It took down the mightiest city-state, Athens, and established Sparta as the superior power. Costly campaigns plunged the Peloponnese into a deep poverty, from which they never really recovered. The war itself was a shift from the earlier, smaller battles to full-out warfare across the region, initiating atrocities never before seen. It marked the end of the fifth century BC and the Golden Age of Athens.

This war, while greater than previous skirmishes, was not entirely anomalous. The two immensely powerful city states had been at each other’s throats for years in the first Peloponnesian war. They only managed a respite from the violence with the ‘Thirty Years Peace’ treaty in the winter of 446/5 BC. That peace accord, however, didn’t really last long.

Thucydides, the great historian and the source for most of the information on the Peloponnesian war, spelled it out clearly: “Peace is an armistice in a war that is continuously going on.”
the_peloponnesian_war__431___404_bc__by_hms_endeavour-d5a56fn
Trouble started brewing as early as 440 BC when some of the Athenian allies started to revolt. Sparta wanted to take advantage of its weakened enemy, which would have triggered a major assault. It was held off, however, by another key player, Corinth. But the calmness proved fleeting. Alliance breaks, wavering warships, stringent trade sanctions, mutinies and betrayals across the region all threatened to erode the thin veneer of Grecian stability.

And then Athens infuriated Corinth, their original saviors. Strategically placed warships stopped the Corinthians from capturing Corcyra, a powerful sea colony not yet allied to either side. This did not sit well with the budding city-state. The insults, however, did not stop there. Afterwards Athens instructed Potidaea, a tributary ally of Athens but a colony of Corinth, to become submissive to the Athenian Empire. Essentially, they were ordered to tear down their walls, send hostages to Athens, dismiss the Corinthian magistrates from office, and refuse the magistrates that the city would send in the future. Now Corinth was really angry.

Eventually, in 423 BC, Sparta summoned the members of the Peloponnesian League to air their grievances with Athens. A debate ensued with the Athenians (who were present…though not invited). The Corinthians accused Sparta of not having the gumption to challenge the growing Athenian empire, goading them on to fight. The Athenians, for their part, retorted that unleashing Sparta’s military might could have undesired consequences. In the end, a Spartan majority voted and declared that Athens had broken the peace agreement… essentially declaring hostility.

And this is how the war began, with a whine and not a bang.

——

To read Part Two of the Peloponnesian War Summary of Battles and Betrayals, click HERE.

“The Peloponnesian War Summary of Battles and Betrayals – Part One” was written by Anya Leonard

The Probing Philosopher Kings

by on July 6, 2017

by Anya Leonard

Plato and Socrates

Plato and Socrates

One might wonder why Socrates never wrote anything down. Such a brilliant philosopher… wouldn’t he want to impart his wisdom to future generations? Surely he would aspire to inspire others who weren’t necessarily within ear shot? But no. He didn’t author a single word. He wanted people to think for themselves, rather than just mimic his ideas. For Socrates it was all about the method. It was about being able to arrive at one’s own ideas independently.

Plato, however, did write, and he recorded both his and Socrates’ thoughts. He didn’t forget his teacher’s lesson though, and so often composed dialogues that demonstrate the critical process of thinking and questioning, rather than present a definitive, conclusive answer. In this way, Plato encourages us to keep thinking.

As a child, Plato probably would not have envisioned the life he was going to lead. His family’s lot, steeped in aristocracy and influence, was of the political class. His father Ariston supposedly could trace his ancestry to the King of Athens and the King of Messenia. Not to be outshone by her husband, Plato’s mother, Perictione, rubbed shoulders with the likes of Solon, a famous lawyer and lyric poet. In addition, her brother and uncle we part of the thirty tyrants that ruled over Athens after the deafening defeat at the hands of Sparta. Plato was very proud of his distinguished family tree, and often glowingly referred to them in his dialogues.

Considering his family’s affluence and prestige, it is not surprising that Plato received the best education, instructed by the most distinguished teachers at the time. His most influential mentor, of course, was Socrates himself. He met him when he was but a youth. Socrates was considered an ugly man who did not possess much wealth or prominence. He might have been seen as a strange intellectual bedfellow for the well-to-do Plato. However, the old man had a remarkable power of discourse and an ability to bring down the most grandiose of gentlemen.

The Death of Socrates

The Death of Socrates

Socrates was Plato’s mentor and became his protagonist. His execution in 399 would have certainly affected the budding boy and shake his confidence in a political system that allowed such a tragedy. The fall of Athens at the end of the Peloponnesian war also would have been a momentous episode in Plato’s life. As well as the ensuing dictatorship which failed miserably due to the inevitable corruption of the 30 chosen oligarchs. It’s no wonder then the quick thinking Plato abandoned the family trade and choose philosopher over politics. It was Socrates, the probing philosopher, who changed Plato’s course to the world of debate, dialogues and discovery.

Bust of Plato

Bust of Plato

His career, once selected, was very successful. He wrote, traveled, set up an academy dedicated to thinking and questioning. He even tried to shape a dictator in Syracuse to become one of the Philosopher kings. Unfortunately, it didn’t work. And then, as all mortal men do, he died, at the ripe old age of 80. Recognised at the brilliant man he was, forever imparting not only wisdom, but a way of trying to understand the world.

We’ll never know exactly where Socrates ended and Plato began. What ideas, ultimately, belonged to the teacher or to the student? All we can know and be grateful for, is that Plato had the audacity to write them down, so that even now we can continue to question.

Check in in next week for a look at Plato’s Apology. You can view the whole text here beforehand for free: http://classicalwisdom.com/greek_books/apology-by-plato/