58. Plato – The Greatest Philosopher 2

The Acropolis, center of economics and politics for Athenians like Plato and Socrates.
The Acropolis in Athens, by German painter Leo von Klenze, oil on canvas, 1846

After publishing the previous post, not surprisingly I received some email inquiries concerning the virgin birth of Plato. I will comment on that later, but first I would like to finish the dialogue-story about the life of Plato that I started in Post 57. Please see that post if you wish to read this story from the beginning.

Previously, the Athenian businessman/philosopher Damien hosted a visitor from Southern Italy named Xenon at his home. Xenon was in Athens for business and Plato had just died earlier that morning. Others were in attendance at Damien’s home including the poet Antimachus. Damien discussed the circumstances surrounding Plato’s birth and death as an intrigued Xenon listened intently.

Plato’s Funeral

The next evening, the eight men including the visitor Xenon and the poet Antimachus gathered again at the home of Damien. It had been a day like no other since it was the day of Plato’s funeral. It was a spectacular sight indeed, for all of Athens turned out except for those who were physically unable to attend. There was a great procession that ended at the very Academy that Plato founded at the northwestern outskirts of the city of Athens, and this is where he was buried.1

The Academy, which withstood more than a single revolution in Athens.
Layout of the city of Athens in relation to the Academy

How ironic indeed that Socrates had been executed by the city of Athens while his pupil, Plato, was celebrated. One could say that philosophy had metaphorically died with Socrates and rose from the dead with Plato.

In order to eulogize the great philosopher, a series of speeches were given that lasted about a half a day. Athenians seemed not to notice the heat as they stood motionless and listened. Some of the speakers told humorous anecdotes about Plato’s life, eliciting laughter from the audience. Others brought the audience to tears, while still others waxed elegantly about Plato’s philosophical acumen and, most importantly, his virtues. It seemed that Plato’s great legacy, besides his philosophy, was leaving a standard of virtue for others to follow.

King Philip of Macedon sent a retinue to represent him. They did their duty by lavishing many gifts upon Athens in Plato’s honor and reading a speech that King Philip had written. The retinue included King Philip’s eight-year-old son Alexander.2

Dinner at Damien’s

“Well, good sirs, make yourself at home,” bellowed Damien as his guests arrived. There was a flurry of activity as the servants seemed to appear from nowhere, each carrying a part of what would soon become the evening meal. The men, including Xenon the guest from Croton, soon began discussing the day’s events. The atmosphere was light and relaxed as it usually is during a funeral wake.

Dinner conversation involved discussing and processing the day’s events, which were packed with content – everything from the speeches eulogizing Plato to the actual ceremony itself. The men ate and conversed for several hours. Afterward, just like clockwork, the servants cleared the table and brought the fruit and figs drizzled with honey.

Finally, when there was a long pause in the conversation, Damien cocked his head toward Xenon and said, “Lest I keep you in suspense, let’s continue our discussion on Plato. Yesterday we talked about his birth and death, but now let’s talk about the most important part: his life.”

“I welcome that,” replied Xenon. “You have been more than generous with your hospitality, and if that weren’t enough, you are now feeding my soul with rich morsels from the life of Plato.”

The Early Life of Plato

All eyes were on Damien as he said, “Let’s start with young Plato and—”

“Oh, if I may interrupt,” Xenon piped up, the wine relaxing his inhibitions again. “How many siblings did Plato have?”

The other guests smiled, including Damien, who answered his impetuous guest and said, “I was just going to talk about that.” Xenon looked sheepish and his posture retracted a bit.

Damien picked up again. “Plato had two older brothers, Adeimantus and Glaucon, as well as a sister Potone.3 Now Potone has a son named Speusippus. Rumor has it that Plato has bequeathed the leadership of his Academy to Speusippus, but that’s another story altogether.4

“Plato, who was born into a well-connected aristocratic family, received a sound early education, being taught letters in the school of Dionysius.5 Eventually, Plato became a choregos at Athens, the expenses defrayed by Dion.”6

“What is a choregos?” asked Xenon.

“There are three productions of tragic drama that are put on each year at the annual festival of Dionysus. It is the choregos’ role to fund one of those productions. Of course, it is a voluntary undertaking…and very expensive, which is why his friend Dion helped with the cost. Even though Plato was born into a wealthy family, it is not uncommon to receive funding from wealthy friends and benefactors in Athens. Besides, being a choregos at such a young age is a good way to put yourself on the map politically, and no doubt Dion wanted in on that, to ride Plato’s coattails to the top, so to speak.”

“Where I am from in Southern Italy, we always thought that Plato was apolitical, not having a political bone in his body. I am surprised to hear that,” commented Xenon.

“That is indeed how he is known and really was for most of his life, but it wasn’t always like that. Plato had much political ambition as a youth and probably looked at being a choregos as a way to jumpstart his career in politics. I will talk more about that later, but first I wanted to talk about Plato, the athlete.”

“Plato, the athlete!” exclaimed Xenon.

Plato the Wrestler, Painter, and Poet

“Yes, as uniquely talented as Plato was, he was also a typical Athenian male,” Damien responded. “He loved sports, both as a spectator and as a participant. Besides, the training of the body is an important part of an Athenian boy’s education. We call that gymnastikē. So all free Athenian boys undergo such an education, but just like in his other endeavors, Plato particularly excelled in gymnastics.

“You may be surprised to know that he studied gymnastics and wrestling with none other than Ariston the Argive wrestler! And I think Plato even wrestled at the Isthmian games if I’m not mistaken. In fact, it was Ariston who nicknamed him “Plato” because of his robust constitution.7 His real name being Aristocles, after his grandfather, as we learned today at the funeral ceremonies.”

“I should have guessed that his real name wasn’t Plato, for who would name their son ‘broad’?” quipped Xenon.

“But despite his wide frame and athletic prowess, he had a soft voice, some would say beautiful, which would suit him later for more philosophical endeavors. Would you believe that Plato was also a painter as well as writer and poet? His gifts were evident from an early age. In addition to being a decent painter, he also took to and excelled in writing poetry, first dithyrambs, and then proceeding to lyric poetry and tragedies. That is why his dialogues have such an artistic bent to them rather than being just words. Diotima’s Ladder of Love is a great example of that.”8

“I’ve never heard of that before,” Xenon said, looking puzzled.

“It is really Plato at his best where he talks about six rungs on a ladder that represent six levels of love. The highest level of love is love for beauty in its pure form, beholding true beauty.”9

“This is fascinating! Tell me more about it, please.”

“We need to meet again on another evening just to talk about that,” Damien replied. “But lest we get too far afield, let’s continue on with discussing Plato’s life.”

Plato’s Introduction to Philosophy

Damien continued, “In Athens, we emphasize the development of both the mind and the body, thus musike and gymnastikē as I mentioned before, and Plato excelled at both. He studied musike at the school of Dionysus.

“A lot of education occurs in the gymnasiums which are located in the suburbs.10 The gymnasium is not just a place to develop the body, but also a place to cultivated the mind. We see harmony between the two, but it is the soul that is most important. That is why a boy starts out in music as a foundation and then cultivates the body through gymnastics. As Plato’s teacher Socrates himself said:

For I, for my part, do not believe that a sound body by its excellence makes the soul good, but on the contrary that a good soul by its virtue renders the body the best that is possible.11

– Plato, Republic 403d

“Plato could have done anything, but he was particularly attracted to philosophy as a youth. He used to attend the gymnasium that was located near the sacred groves of Athena and the hero-god Academus. It was Academus who at one time saved Athens from attack by Sparta which is probably why this location is named after him. It is located about a mile and a half northwest of the Acropolis. When Plato was attending the gymnasium there, it was a beautiful place. In addition to the gymnasium and religious shrines, it had a running track and beautiful walking trails among the various poplar and elm trees.12 Its rustic beauty lent itself to quiet contemplation away from the noise and sophistry of the Agora.

The site of the ancient Academy where philosophical heavyweights like Socrates and Plato learned and taught.
The Archaeological Site of Plato’s Academy discovered in the 20th century

“So Plato first studied philosophy there and eventually in the garden of Colonus, which is located about a mile east of the Academy. He always liked the rural areas because he felt that the beauty and quiet stimulated his thinking to ponder on loftier ideas. A noisy city is not a thinking environment.”

Xenon replied, “I feel the same way. Sometimes I go to the outskirts of Croton in order to just hear myself think. Freneticism is not conducive to producing the ideas on which we can build societies. It seems to me that disordered people always have to have some noise or music surrounding them. They cannot stand quiet for some reason.”

“Exactly,” replied Damien enthusiastically. “Plato accomplished so much because he was contemplative. Well, anyway, it was in Colonus that he read the works of Heraclitus for the first time. But even though he enjoyed philosophy, his ambition at that point was to be a successful tragedian and to use this as a stepping stone for a political career in Athens. In his own words, Plato said:

In my youth I went through the same experience as many other men. I fancied that if, early in life, I became my own master, I should at once embark on a political career.13

– Plato, Seventh Letter, 360 B.C.

“He wrote what he thought was an exceptional tragedy, prizewinning for sure. He went to a contest where he hoped to win the prize for tragedy. It was there that his life changed forever,” Damien said.

“What happened?” Xenon asked the question everyone was wondering.

Plato’s Life Changes Forever

Damien stopped talking as he put some figs in his mouth and washed it down with some wine. Everyone was on the edge of their seats since Damien knew how to tell a story. He continued after the pause.

“As he was about to enter the contest, young Plato heard Socrates speaking in front of the theater of Dionysus. He was so awestruck that he burned his poem immediately, and this from a person who, even in his youth, was not impetuous. At the age of twenty, Plato became Socrates’ disciple and remained so for eight years until Socrates’ execution. The irony is that the very person who gave up writing tragedies ended up not only witnessing one of the greatest tragedies of history, but writing about it in his Apology. Unlike other tragedies he could have written which would be eventually forgotten, I think that his account of Socrates’ death will never be forgotten.

“Having said that, the few short years that Plato was a disciple of Socrates changed his life forever. He was transformed, not only by what Socrates taught but by his example of living a virtuous life. Unless we live a virtuous life, what we attempt to say in regard to wisdom will have little impact on those we are trying to teach.”

Socrates and the Swan

Xenon was staring at the ceiling as if in deep thought. This prompted Damien to ask, “Do you have a question, my young friend?”

“Well, it is obvious that Plato was enthusiastic about Socrates, but was it reciprocal? Did Socrates take to Plato the same way?”

“That is a good question, for there was a large age difference at the time, Socrates being around sixty-two years old and Plato only twenty,” replied Damien in a respectful manner. “That reminds me of a story that I almost forgot to tell!

“The day before Socrates met Plato, Socrates dreamt that he had a newborn swan in his lap. The swan suddenly grew feathers and flew off Socrates’ lap with a very sweet cry. The next day when they met, Socrates realized that the swan in his dream was Plato, for Plato had a very sweet, melodious voice. He had the voice of a philosopher despite his athletic build.14 In fact, remember what the orator Timon said today at the funeral:

Broadest, he led all; a sweet-voiced speaker, Musical in prose as the cicadas who, perching on a tree Of Hecademus, send forth their gentle voices.15

Revolution in Athens

Damien continued, “Socrates and Plato developed a deep friendship. As Plato learned philosophy, he continued to aspire to political office. A few years after meeting Plato, a revolution occurred in Athens where the existing constitution was condemned. A group that would be known as the Thirty Tyrants were appointed with full powers over public affairs as a whole.19 Some of these were even relatives and acquaintances of Plato. Plato thought that they would make a great improvement upon the previously defective constitution, turning a bad way of life into a good one. As soon as they took power, they offered young Plato a part in the new government.”

“It seems that any young man faced with such an opportunity would jump at the chance. Did Plato take them up on their offer?” asked Xenon.

“You would think that to be the case,” replied Damien, “but Plato decided to wait and watch them closely to see what they would do.”

“That is amazing!” replied Xenon.

“It certainly is,” replied Damien. “The fact that he exhibited such prudence and self-control at a young age illustrates that he was someone special, destined for greater things. This was no doubt Socrates’ influence. And a good thing he waited, for the new government quickly spiraled downward, becoming more putrid than the previous.

“The final straw was the fact that the government tried to co-opt Socrates – whom Plato considered to be the most upright man of that day – to carry off one if its citizens by force with the help of others in order to execute him. They considered that unfortunate man an enemy of the state simply because he criticized them, and they wanted Socrates to share in his guilt because Socrates had influence. But Socrates would not obey them. He chose not to participate in their evil deeds, disregarding whatever consequences may befall him. At this time, Plato withdrew any connection with the abusive government that had executed hundreds of citizens in the Athens revolution.”

“The lesson that I see,” replied Xenon, “is that bad governments become worse because they drive all the good men away.”

“Yes, that is true,” said Damien.

A Second Revolution in Athens

“Shortly after, about a year later, the new government fell as quickly as it had risen to power. At this point,” continued Damien, “Plato again felt a desire to take part in public life and political affairs. But again, it didn’t take long to realize that this government was rotten as well.16 As is typical of a revolution, and this one in Athens was no exception, the new government often seeks to punish or eliminate its political opponents.

“Ironically, they set their sights on Socrates, who did not cooperate with the Thirty Tyrants in their evil deeds. They possibly targeted Socrates because he was one of the few prominent men who stayed in Athens during their tyranny and maybe because of this, they associated Socrates with the Tyrants.17

“Regardless, the whole world knows the rest of the story of how Socrates was charged with the most iniquitous offenses of impiety toward the gods and corrupting the youth of Athens. He was sentenced to death by drinking poison hemlock.”

“A sad state of affairs indeed,” said Xenon with a tone of sadness. “At this point, I imagine that Plato was finished with politics.”

Plato on Government and Politics

“You would think so,” replied Damien, “and the truth is that it did dampen his desire, but it did not extinguish it. He started to question why governments acted so, which put him on a trajectory of thinking deeply about political philosophy, looking to construct the most perfect government possible this side of the ideal world. In fact, Plato spent the next twenty years on this problem of politics, the result being one of his greatest works ever: a dialogue entitled the Republic.

“Let me read you an excerpt from a letter by Plato to give you an idea of how the revolution and other events in Athens shaped his thinking.18 This would be a good place to end the discussion for the evening, for what I am about to read is rich subject matter for rumination. This is one of the most important writings that we have of Plato because it reveals his personal thoughts on the politics of his day.

“This letter is addressed ‘To the relatives and friends of Dion.’ Dion was a disciple and friend of Plato who unfortunately got caught up in politics in Syracuse and was assassinated. Plato wrote this letter after Dion’s assassination.”

Damien proceeded to read the letter.

As I observed these incidents and the men engaged in public affairs, the laws too and the customs, the more closely I examined them and the farther I advanced in life, the more difficult it seemed to me to handle public affairs aright. For it was not possible to be active in politics without friends and trustworthy supporters; and to find these ready to my hand was not an easy matter, since public affairs at Athens were not carried on in accordance with the manners and practices of our fathers; nor was there any ready method by which I could make new friends. The laws too, written and unwritten, were being altered for the worse, and the evil was growing with startling rapidity. The result was that, though at first I had been full of a strong impulse towards political life, as I looked at the course of affairs and saw them being swept in all directions by contending currents, my head finally began to swim; and, though I did not stop looking to see if there was any likelihood of improvement in these symptoms and in the general course of public life, I postponed action till a suitable opportunity should arise. Finally, it became clear to me, with regard to all existing communities, that they were one and all misgoverned. For their laws have got into a state that is almost incurable, except by some extraordinary reform with good luck to support it. And I was forced to say, when praising true philosophy that it is by this that men are enabled to see what justice in public and private life really is. Therefore, I said, there will be no cessation of evils for the sons of men, till either those who are pursuing a right and true philosophy receive sovereign power in the States, or those in power in the States by some dispensation of providence become true philosophers.

– Plato, excerpt from the Seventh Letter

“After Socrates’ death, Plato had to flee Athens for obvious reasons. He traveled extensively and eventually ended up in Sicily, which we will talk about tomorrow evening. But if nothing else, I want you to take note of the mindset, as revealed in the letter, with which Plato entered the tumultuous world of Syracuse politics in Sicily. In fact, Plato says in his letter after the above section:

It was with these thoughts in my mind I came to Italy and Sicily on my first visit.

– Plato, quote from his Seventh Letter

Xenon had a look of incredulity on his face as if he couldn’t believe his own ears. After pausing for a few seconds, he said, “What is amazing to me is that Plato was at one and the same time very realistic, if not pessimistic, about contemporary politics, yet very optimistic that a solution could be found.”

“And what was that solution?” prompted Damien.

“Why, none other than philosophy!” answered Xenon with the energy and enthusiasm of someone who had just found a valuable coin that had been lost.

He left Damien’s house that night sensing that he had gained a valuable insight. He could barely sleep that night, despite the wine, as his mind repeatedly churned these new insights. Plato was known as the philosopher who held the ideal world in high esteem. But now he was starting to see that Plato was a very practical man as well.

(To be continued….)

Over 2000 years later, nothing has changed in regard to corrupt governments. Plato was optimistic on finding a solution. Are you? Please leave your comments below and don’t forget to subscribe. Thank you!

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Deo Gratias

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Footnotes and Endnotes

  1. Diogenes Laertius, Lives of the Eminent Philosophers, translated by Pamela Mensch, edited by James Miller, hardcover, p. 112, Oxford University Press; Annotated edition (May 14, 2018); Archaeologists have yet to find his grave.
  2. There is no evidence that the future Alexander the Great was at Plato’s funeral, but I include that as an element of fiction to make the point that Alexander the Great was eight years old when Plato died. Plato’s pupil Aristotle would become his teacher.
  3. Diogenes Laertius, Lives of the Eminent Philosophers, p. 99; Both brothers appear in Plato’s dialogues. They appear in Plato’s Republic where Glaucon takes the role of Socrates’ primary interlocutor. Glaucon is also a part of the frame narrative that surrounds the Symposium.
  4. According to Trelawny-Cassity, Lewis, Plato the Academy, The Internet Encyclopedia of Philosophy, Diogenes and other ancients divided the post-Plato academy into three sections: Old Academy, Middle Academy, and New Academy. The Academy lasted until 86 B.C. when it was destroyed by the Roman general Sulla as part of the siege of Athens during another revolution.
  5. Diogenes Laertius, Lives of the Eminent Philosophers, p. 99; not Dionysius the tyrant of Syracuse, but an Athenian orator.
  6. Ibid.; not the Dion who sang Runaround Sue, but a wealthy Athenian who became a follower of Plato. He lived from 408 to 353 B.C.
  7. Ibid.; Plato derives from the Greek word platos which means “broad.”
  8. Diotima’s Ladder of Love as found in the Symposium 210a-212c.
  9. This imagery has been used by Christians including Dante to describe the ascent to God and seeing Him as He is: as pure love. This is called the Beatific Vision which is the end goal of those in the Catholic faith. Unfortunately, in modern times, Christianity has taken on a more therapeutic orientation which paradoxically leaves people feeling more unfulfilled.
  10. “Musikē, it should be remembered, includes education in what we call ‘music’ today, such as training with the lyre and/or aulos (double flute), familiarization with various rhythms and modes, and the learning of songs, but it also includes the memorization and potentially even the analysis of poetry,” as quoted from Dr. Jason Rheins, “Education in Plato’s Republic, Part II: Music for the Guardians,” Montessorium, December 29, 2021
  11. Plato. Plato in Twelve Volumes, Vols. 5 & 6 translated by Paul Shorey. Cambridge, MA, Harvard University Press; London, William Heinemann Ltd. 1969.
  12. According to Trelawny-Cassity, Lewis, Plato the Academy
  13. There are thirteen so-called epistles of Plato. Many scholars feel that most of these are not authentic. Having said that, the one considered to most likely be authentic is his Seventh Letter.
  14. “In the ancient world, swans were admired for their beautiful voices,” Diogenes Laertius, Lives of the Eminent Philosophers, p. 99, footnote 18
  15. The Thirty Tyrants assumed power in 404 B.C.
  16. This makes me think of the 1971 song by The Who about the futility of revolution, “Won’t Get Fooled Again.” The last line of the song is my favorite: “Meet the new boss, same as the old boss.” This idea is similar to George Orwell’s Animal Farm which illustrated that those who overthrow tyrants often become tyrants themselves.
  17. Please see my earlier posts on Socrates in order to more clearly understand the details of his life. Check the Table of Contents.
  18. This is an excerpt from Plato’s Seventh Letter. See note 13 above.

Bibliography:

Diogenes Laertius, Lives of the Eminent Philosophers, translated by Pamela Mensch, edited by James Miller, hardcover, Oxford University Press; Annotated edition (May 14, 2018)

Everitt, Anthony, The Rise of Athens: The Story of the World’s Greatest Civilization, Random House Trade Paperbacks; Reprint edition (September 26, 2017)

Jackson, Roy, Plato, A Complete Introduction, Teach Yourself; 1st edition (May 10, 2016)

Joint Association of Classical Teachers, The World of Athens: An Introduction to Classical Athenian Culture, Cambridge University Press; 2nd edition (June 2, 2008)

Shear, Julia L., Polis and Revolution: Responding to Oligarchy in Classical Athens, Cambridge University Press; Illustrated edition (May 30, 2011)

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