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Plato: the Father of Western Philosophy

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Ancient Greece

Plato is one of the most well-known people in Western history. A philosopher and writer, he is thought by many people to be the father of Western philosophy.

Little is known of Plato's life, but some facts have come down to us. He was born in the 420s B.C. (although historians differ on the exact year of his birth). He is thought to have been born in Athens (but some historians differ on this as well). His father is thought to have been Ariston, an Athenian who had a fair amount of wealth and standing. Some historians list Plato's birth name as Aristicles and say that he was given the nickname "Platon" (meaning wide) because of his wide build and that the nickname was shortened to Plato, which became his real name eventually. As was the case with many such youths born into wealthier families, Plato would have had a well-rounded classical education and would have been well-versed in grammar, gymnastics, music, philosophy, and science. It was at philosophy that the young Plato excelled the most, especially meeting the famed philosopher Socrates.

Before that, though, Plato fought as a young man in the Peloponnesian War, which ended with the defeat of Athens in 404 B.C.

Plato spent most of his life in and around Athens, founding the famed Academy in 387 B.C. and serving as its guiding light for the rest of his life. Some historians think that Plato traveled, to Egypt and Italy and Libya. He is known to have visited Syracuse more than once, and one story has him being sold into slavery and then rescued by a friend of the family.

Sources don't agree on the place or manner of Plato's death. He is thought to have died in Athens in 347 B.C., but whether he died at a wedding feast or alone in his asleep or in some other manner altogether cannot be agreed on by many historians.

What most sources agree on, however, is the massive contribution that Plato made to the development of Western philosophy. He is famous for his Dialogues, a series of writings that set out a set of ideas for living, for viewing the world, and for understanding elements of that world. A total of 36 Dialogues exist as part of the general Platonic tradition, although some historians think that other philosophers wrote some of those. The Dialogues lay out a series of ideas, usually in the form of a conversation, sometimes an argument. 

One of the main people to appear in Plato's Dialogues is Socrates. Many people think that Plato used Socrates as a convenient mouthpiece to advance Plato's own ideas. Few other writings of the ideas or sayings of Socrates exist, so conclusions on that matter are difficult to make. What is true is that Socrates appears as a "character" in many of Plato's Dialogues, the most famous of which is perhaps the Apology, which tells the story of Socrates' trial. In the Apology, Socrates confronts charges against him and gives a long speech to members of a jury that eventually convicts him of those charges and sentences him to death. Socrates' speech is filled with aspects of his philosophy, as are other of Plato's Dialogues

Another famous Dialogue is the Republic, in which Plato advances many ideas about citizens, government, and their place in the world. One of the discussions in this long Dialogue is of the ideal ruler; Plato's idea is for a city-state (or civilization) to have as its ruler a philosopher-king, a person who has demonstrated enough the ability to be wise and thoughtful and just so that the people he rules accept him as all of those things and are satisfied in his ability to rule over them in a fair and just manner.

Plato (and Socrates) write a lot about ideals, not only ideas of how important things are but also of the forms that such ideals take. One of Plato's main assertions is the Theory of the Forms, that people see shadows of the ideal forms of things and that those ideal forms exist above and beyond people's experience. What people can see, Socrates and Plato, is a copy or a version of the ideal form of something; and only by practicing reason and intense contemplation can people come close to experiencing that ideal.

Other themes to be found in Plato's Dialogues include family relationships, art and poetry, justice and politics, science and medicine, mathematics and logic, and love and widsom.

One person who does not speak in any of the Dialogues is Plato himself. He is mentioned in Phaedo, one of the three Dialogues associated with the death of Socrates. But Plato lets Socrates do all of the talking and debating.

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