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Plato, Roman copy of the portrait made by Silanion ca. 370 BC for the Academia in Athens

Plato (GreekΠλάτων) was an ancient Greek philosopher and lived in Athens from 427 BC to 347 BC. He is considered one of the most important philosophers in history.


„Plato (Platon) - originally Aristocles, only later, it is said, called Platôn by his teacher in gymnastics because of his broad chest - born, according to the most probable reckoning, in 427 B.C. at Athens (according to others on Aegina), came from a noble family, as is characteristic of most of the older Greek philosophers. His mother descended from a relative of Solon, his father from King Kodrus, and his cousins included the well-known oligarch Kritias. The intellectually and physically highly gifted boy received a thorough education, including drawing, painting and music. His favourite poets were Homer, Epicharm and Sophron; it was perhaps through the latter that he was inspired to write his dialogues in mime. He himself also dabbled in various genres of poetry, but is said to have burnt these poems when he began to penetrate more deeply into philosophy.

Plato once thanked the gods for four things: that he was born as a man, as a Greek and as a citizen of Athens in Socrates' time. The latter became decisive for him. It is said that he had already been introduced to the teachings of Heraclitus by Cratylus (§ 5) and to those of Anaxagoras by others, but it was only through his intimate contact with Socrates, which he enjoyed from his 21st to his 28th year, that his mind was set on its proper course. Within the Socratic circle, he then became acquainted with the Pythagorean doctrine through Kebes and Simmias (§ 3), and with the Eleatic doctrine through Euclid (§ 18). With the latter he moved to Megara after the death of the master, whom he tried in vain to save, but he apparently did not stay there long.

After the years of apprenticeship, the years of travel began. Since Socrates was no longer around and the political party struggles in his home town did not suit his philosophical spirit, the reemergence of democracy did not suit his aristocratic disposition, he went on longer journeys, which took him to Cyrene, where he probably trained in the science of the mathematician Theodoros, and to the land of ancient priestly wisdom, Egypt. He then seems to have been active as a writer in Athens for a while, around 395-390, and at the same time to have gathered a crowd of enthusiastic followers around him. Around 390 he went to Lower Italy, where he met the wise Pythagorean and statesman Archytas of Taranto, then to Sicily, where he came into contact with the elder Dionys. At the court of the latter, he won over his young brother-in-law Dion to his views, but irritated the tyrant himself by his boldness, perhaps also by his opposing political views, to such an extent that the latter treated him as a prisoner of war and, as it is said, had him brought by the Spartan envoy to the slave market at Aegina!

Bought out of Cyrene by Annikeris, he now, at the age of about 40 (387), founded the Academy, a kind of college, near a gymnasium of his father's city dedicated to the heros Akademos. Here he taught and practised his philosophy, partly in dialogue form like Socrates, but in contrast to the latter, completely withdrawn from public life, and partly, especially later, in continuous lecture.

Once a month, joint symposia of the philosophers' cooperative took place. Twice more (367 and 361), the call of his friend Dion and his own hopeful idealism drew the ageing thinker out of the quiet of this teaching activity and into the political dealings of Syracuse, where both hoped to influence the younger Dionys in the sense of their ideal of the state. Both times he was disappointed and henceforth confined himself entirely to his "academic" teaching activities. At the age of eighty, Plato died in 347, "writing", i.e. still working on his writings. He did not live to see the downfall of Greek political freedom.

Early on, his life was surrounded by all kinds of legends, one of which is strange because of its similarity to the story of Jesus. As with Jesus, Plato's father is said to have been a god (Apollo), his mother to have remained a virgin, and his earthly father (Ariston), like Joseph, to have postponed the consummation of the marriage because Apollo had announced to him the birth of a son of God. The whole of antiquity, including his philosophical opponents, held Plato's character in high esteem. In this myth of Apollonian descent, we may well see an effect of his overall personality, which represents the Hellenic ideal in a harmonious balance of physical and spiritual virtues.“ (Lit.:Karl Vorländer, [ Platons Leben.pdf GA Karl Vorländer, Platons Leben])

Philosophical themes and positions

„Plato, born in Athens in 427 B.C., as a disciple of Socrates, felt that it was through Socrates that his confidence in the life of thought was strengthened. That which the whole of development up to that time had wanted to bring to light: in Plato it reaches a climax. It is the idea that in the life of thought the spirit of the world reveals itself. At first, Plato's whole soul-life is illuminated by this feeling. Everything that man recognises through the senses or in any other way is not valuable as long as the soul has not brought it into the light of thought. For Plato, philosophy becomes the science of ideas as the true being. And the idea is the revelation of the world spirit through the revelation of thought. The light of the world spirit shines into the human soul, reveals itself there as ideas; and the human soul, by grasping the idea, unites with the power of the world spirit. The world spread out in space and time is like the mass of sea water in which the stars are reflected; but only what is reflected as an idea is real. Thus, for Plato, the whole world is transformed into the ideas acting on each other. Their action in the world comes about through the ideas being reflected in the hyle, the primordial matter. Through this reflection arises that which man sees as many individual things and individual processes. But one need not extend cognition to the hyle, the primordial matter, for truth is not in it. One comes to this only when one strips off from the world-image everything that is not idea.“ (Lit.:GA 18, p. 70f)

Theory of the soul

„The soul is by its nature a member of the world of ideas. As such it is a rational soul. However, it is active in such a way that it adds to its life in reason an activity through the courageous and the desirous. In this threefold mode of expression it is the earth-soul. As a rational soul, it descends to earthly existence through physical birth and re-enters the world of ideas at death. Insofar as it is a rational soul, it is immortal, for as such it lives through the eternal existence of the world of ideas.

This doctrine of the soul of Plato appears as a significant fact within the age of thought perception. The awakened thought pointed man to the soul. In Plato, a view of the soul develops that is entirely the result of thought perception. In Plato, thought endeavoured not only to point to the soul, but to express what the soul is, to describe it, as it were. And what thought has to say about the soul gives it the power to know itself in the eternal. Yes, thought in the soul even illuminates the nature of the temporal by extending its own being beyond this temporal. The soul perceives the thought. As it reveals itself in earthly life, the pure form of thought is not to be developed in it. Where does the experience of thought come from if it cannot be developed in earthly life? It forms a memory of a pre-earthly, purely spiritual state. Thought has taken hold of the soul in such a way that it is not content with its earthly existence. It is revealed to the soul in a pre-existence in the spiritual world (world of ideas), and the soul brings it up during its earthly existence through memory from that life which it spent in the spirit.“ (Lit.:GA 18, p. 71f)

See also


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