Plato was a well-known wrestler, and the name by which we know him today was his ring name. Plato means broad or flat: presumably in this case the former meaning, referring to his shoulders (or, as some sources insist, to his forehead). At his birth in 428 BCE, Plato was given the name Aristocles. He was born in Athens, or on the island of Aegina, which lies just twelve miles offshore from Athens in the Saronic Gulf. Plato was born into one of the great political families of Athens. His father Ariston was descended from Codrus, the last king of Athens, and his mother was descended from the great Athenian lawmaker Solon.
Like any bright member of a political family, Plato’s earliest ambitions were in other fields. Twice he carried off the wrestling prize at the Isthmian Games but seemingly never made it to the Olympics at Olympia. Instead he set about trying to become a great tragic poet, but he failed to impress the judges in any of the major competitions. Having failed to win an Olympic gold, or carry off the ancient Greek equivalent of the Nobel Prize, Plato was almost resigned to becoming a mere statesman. Then, as a last fling, he decided to have a go at philosophy, and went off to listen to Socrates.
It was love at first sight. For the next nine years Plato sat at the feet of his master, absorbing all he could of his ideas. Socrates’s combative teaching methods forced his pupil to realize his full intellectual potential, at the same time opening his eyes to the unrealised possibilities of the subject.
Socrates taught by a conversational method in which the subject under discussion was gradually analysed and defined. This method was known as dialectic – from the ancient Greek word for discussion or disputation (dialect has the same root). Socrates would encourage his conversational protagonist (or pupil) to put forward a definition of some particular topic, and would then proceed to question this – discovering its weaknesses, its strong points, suggesting additions, qualifications, extending the range of the topic, and so forth.
It’s difficult for us to imagine the profoundly innovative nature of this method, which relied heavily on reason. Philosophy before Socrates had had little or nothing to do with reason. The Pre-Socratics were for the most part more interested in such topics as Being – the metaphysical nature of what it means to be alive – or the ultimate nature of the world itself (speculating that it might be composed of water, or atoms). A few of these wild-and-woolly intuitions were uncannily accurate, given the way they were arrived at, but it was Socrates who realized that philosophy couldn’t go on like this. Philosophers were already a laughingstock, but there was no reason why philosophy itself should be relegated to this category. If philosophical thought was to stop itself from becoming an intellectual joke, or slipping back into religious speculation (from which it had emerged), it needed a more rigorous approach. This was supplied by Socrates’s dialectal method. With the benefit of well over two thousand years of hindsight, we can now see this as the forerunner of logic– which was to be invented by Plato’s pupil Aristotle a century or so later. (Pictured, Plato as painted by Raphael, within his work, The School of Athens, 1509. Click on image to see complete painting).
A dangerous position
Socrates’ achievement, and his pupil Plato’s understanding of this, marked a crucial stage in the evolution of philosophy. To appreciate the full extent of this advance, one need only imagine a serious intellectual discussion devoid of reason.
Yet despite having found his true métier, Plato was still tempted to become a backslider and enter politics. Fortunately he was dissuaded by the behavior of Athenian politicians. When the Thirty Tyrants took over after the Peloponnesian War, two of their leaders (Critias and Charmides) were close relatives. The reign of terror that followed might have inspired a young Stalin or Machiavelli, but it didn’t impress Plato. After the democrats took over, Plato’s beloved teacher was tried on trumped-up charges of impiety and corrupting youth, and sentenced to death. In Plato’s eyes, democracy was now tarred with the same brush as tyranny.
Plato’s close association with Socrates placed him in a dangerous position, and he was forced to remove himself from Athens for his own good. Thus began his travels, which were to last for the next twelve years. After learning all he could at the feet of his master, he would now learn from the world.