Saturday, March 31, 2012

Plato The Republic

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Platos biography is mainly drawn from the work of other ancient writers and a few of Platos own letters. He was born in Athens around 48 BC to an aristocratic family with a long and esteemed history of political leadership in the state. According to an anecdote of dubious veracity, Plato was originally named Aristocles, but was quickly dubbed, Platon, meaning broad, by schoolmates impressed with his broad shoulders--shoulders that would one day burden themselves with the foundational weight of Western thought. Platos father, Ariston, descended from the early kings of Athens, and his mother, Perictone, from a distinguished line that included 6th Century BC legislator Solon. Platos father died when Plato was a young child; his mother, unable to support Plato, his two older brothers Adeimantus and Glaucon, and his young sister Potone on her own, remarried to Pyrilampes, an associate of the statesman Pericles.

Plato had political ambitions as a young man and appeared destined to continue in the family tradition. His disillusionment with Athenian politics, however, was inevitable. Both the Empire and its politics had begun to decline since the onset of the Peloponnesian War several years before Platos birth. Outside the political sphere, Plato enjoyed success in athletics, winning the Isthmian wrestling competition, and wrote various forms of poetry and drama. Aristotle reports that during his youth, Plato also became familiar with the teachings of Cratylus, a student of Heraclitus, and other Presocratic thinkers, such as Pythagoras and Parmenides, providing the young philosopher with a worthy introduction to the foundations of Greek metaphysics and epistemology. At about this time, Plato came to know the man who, because of his uncouth habits and intellectual unorthodoxy, was already an infamous figure in the city of Athens. Plato probably met Socrates around 40 through close relatives Critias (Platos mothers uncle) and Charmides (his mothers brother), who were friends with Socrates. Plato immediately became his devoted follower and a dedicated student of philosophy.

Socrates has been credited with teaching Plato basic philosophy along with his dialectic style of debate, in which the truth is elucidated through a series of questions and answers. It is also thought that Socrates directed his disciples inquiries toward the question of virtue and how it manifested itself into the nobility of human character. If there is a broader context under which Platos philosophy developed, eventually unifying to some extent metaphysics, epistemology, aesthetics, politics, and ethics, it is the pursuit of virtue.

Following the end of the Peloponnesian war, an oligarchic tyranny, called the Thirty Tyrants, ruled Athens for eight months from 404-40. Critias and Charmides, members of the regime that seized the estates of wealthy citizens and resident aliens and executed numerous others, invited Plato to join them. The junta, however, had dissolved as a result of civil war before Plato could decide. But the Thirty also tried to enlist Socrates by ordering him to arrest Leon of Salamis. Although Socrates refused to comply--escaping punishment only because the Thirty were promptly replaced by a new and radical democracy‹he nonetheless gained a reputation for anti-democratic beliefs. In Plato witnessed the trial and execution of Socrates at the hands of the restored Athenian democracy, under charges of corrupting the youth, introducing new gods to the city, atheism, and unusual religious practices. The trial, later memorialized in the dialogue, Apology, culminated the most important sequence of events in Platos early life. Soon after a thoroughly jaded Plato, justifiably fearing for his own safety, left Athens, abandoning his political career and a state he was no longer able serve. During the next twelve years Plato traveled widely around the Mediterranean, visiting Italy, Sicily, and Egypt, searching out the philosophers, the priests and prophets of other foreign lands with whom Plato reportedly studied religion, geometry, and astronomy. He was also, at this time, composing his first group of dialogues, generally know as the Socratic dialogues, because of their more direct debt to Platos mentor, including Apology, The Crito, Charmides, Euthyphro, Laches, Lysis, Hippias Minor and Major, Gorgias, Ion, and Protagoras.

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