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Three Millennia of Greek Literature

W.K.C. Guthrie, Life of Plato and philosophical influences

From, A History of Greek Philosophy, vol. IV, Plato: the man and his dialogues, earlier period,
Cambridge University Press, 19896, pp. 8-38. 

(Ι) LIFE  |||  (a) Sources  |||  (b) Birth and family connexions  |||  (c) Early years  |||  (d) Sicily and the Academy  |||  (2) PHILOSOPHICAL INFLUENCES  \ Greek Fonts \ Plato Home Page


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F PLATO's Seventh Letter is genuine (a question which will be discussed in its proper place among his writings), we are in the unique position for a writer of his time of having an autobiographical document outlining the stages οf his development and concentrating on his part in a historical episode, the violent course of fourth-century Syracusan politics. If he did not write it himself, its historical value is scarcely lessened, since the sceptics agree that it must be the work of one of his immediate disciples written either before or shortly after his death. Such a source is of the highest value, even allowing for the probability that its overriding aim was the vindication of Plato’s actions and their motives.

   In his own writings Plato keeps himself firmly out of sight, and they reveal little or nothing about his life. He never writes in his own person,[2] and mentions himself twice only, both times in intimate connexion with Socrates, once to tell us that he was present at the trial and once to explain his absence from the group of friends who were with Socrates in his last hours. A number of his friends and pupils wrote about him, including Aristotle, Speusippus, Xenocrates, Philip of Opus, Hermodorus and Erastus, but their productions took the form of eulogies rather than biographies, and were already mingling legend with fact. In a school with a religious basis, such as Plato’s Academy was (p. 20 below), there was a traditional tendency to venerate the founder, and even Plato’s own nephew Speusippus is credited with having followed Pythagorean precedent so far as to give him the god Apollo for a father.[3] We also hear of lives by pupils of Aristotle, Clearchus (an ‘encomium’), Dicaearchus and Aristoxenus. Plato was also a favourite butt of the poets of the Middle Comedy, from whom we have a number of satirical quotations.

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