Plato is one of the most brilliant and far-reaching writers to have ever lived. Our very conception of philosophy—of rigorous thinking concerning the true situation of man, the nature of the whole, and the perplexity of being—owes a great debt to his work. No area of inquiry seems foreign to him: his writings investigate ethics, politics, mathematics, metaphysics, logic, aesthetics, and epistemology in tremendous depth and breadth. In the words of Alfred North Whitehead, “The safest general characterization of the European philosophical tradition is that it consists of a series of footnotes to Plato.”
There are few contemporary sources for the life of Plato. According to Diogenes Laertius, who lived many centuries later than the philosophers about whom he was writing, Plato was born to Ariston, an Athenian aristocrat who traced his lineage to Codrus, the king of Athens, and to Melanthus, the king of Messina. The family of his mother, Perictione, boasted a relationship with the great Athenian legislator Solon. Diogenes Laertius also reports that the philosopher’s name was Aristocles, for his grandfather, but that his wrestling coach dubbed him “Platon,” meaning “broad,” either on account of his robust physique, or the width of his forehead, or eloquence of his speech. And yet modern scholars are in doubt, since the name “Plato” was not uncommon in the Athens of Plato’s day.
Well before his encounter with Socrates, Plato was known to accompany philosophers such as Cratylus, a disciple of Heraclitus. Later in life, after the death of Socrates, Plato traveled around Egypt, Italy, Sicily, and Cyrene, Libya. Upon his return to Athens at around 40 years of age, Plato founded the first known institution of higher learning in the West, the Academy, named for its location in the Grove of Academus. The Academy was open until its destruction by Sulla in 84 BCE. It counts among its illustrious alumni many fine minds, but none more renowned than Aristotle.
After founding the Academy, Plato became involved in the politics of Syracuse. According to Diogenes, Plato visited Syracuse while it was under the rule of Dionysius. While there, Dionysius’ brother-in-law, Dion, became Plato’s disciple. Dion, however, later turned against Plato, selling him into slavery. During this time, Plato nearly faced death in Cyrene. Fortunately, chancing upon an admirer who purchased his freedom, Plato was spared and found his way home.
Upon the death of Dionysius, according to Plato’s account in his Seventh Letter, Dion requested that Plato return to Syracuse to tutor young Dionysius II. In another reversal of fortune, Dionysius II expelled his uncle Dion, and compelled Plato to remain. Plato would eventually leave Syracuse, while Dion later returned to Syracuse and overthrew Dionysius II, only to be usurped by Callipus, another disciple of Plato.
Ancient sources offer differing accounts of Plato’s death. According to one source, Plato died peacefully in his bed listening to the sweet sounds of a Thracian flute girl. Another source reports that he died while attending a friend’s wedding feast. Still another account simply says he died in his sleep.
For further biographical reading, see also:
The Cambridge Companion to Plato, ed. Richard Kraut, Cambridge: 1992.