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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













Page 10

   Of the length of Plato’s stay the letter says nothing, and the fact that his second visit occurred after the death of Dionysius Ι and the succession of his son is referred to so casually that one would never suspect that a gap of at least twenty years intervened between his first and second arrival.[28] There is a story not mentioned by Plato, but current in later centuries, that the first visit ended by his being sold into slavery by, or at the orders of, Dionysius, and ransomed either by a Cyrenean called Anniceris or by unnamed friends. Details vary, but if the version is correct that the sale took place on Aegina and was effected by Pollis, a Spartan returning from an embassy to Syracuse, Plato’s visit lasted only a matter of months; for this could only have happened in the period when Athens and Aegina were at war, i.e. not later than 387.[29]

   In the next twenty years nothing occurred to alter his opinion that ‘politics was in a state pretty well incurable without exceptional resources[30] and luck as well’. To see what was right for states and individuals was itself only possible after a rigorous education and an unbiased search for truth, conducted apart from the confusion and prejudices of active politics - in other words it was only possible for philosophers, ‘lovers of wisdom’. If the only good rulers are philosophers, his duty in present circumstances was not to plunge into the whirlpool of politics but to do what he could to make philosophers out οf himself and other potential rulers. The first task was educational, and he founded the Academy. The Academy of Plato does not correspond entirely to any modern institution, certainly not a university of modern foundation. The nearest parallels are probably our ancient universities, or rather their colleges, with the characteristics that they have inherited from the medieval world, particularly their religious connexions and the ideal of the common life, especially a common table. That its foundation followed Plato’s return to Athens after his first visit to the West in 387 is stated or implied by the late biographers (e.g. D.L. 3.7). How long afterwards they do not say, but most scholars assume, as is reasonable, that it was not long.[31] The institution takes its name from its site, nearly a mile outside the walls of Athens, supposedly sacred to a hero Academus or Hecademus, and including a grove of trees, gardens, a gymnasium and other buildings. The sanctity of the place was great, and other cults, including that of Athena herself, were carried on there. To form a society owning its own land and premises, as Plato did, it appears to have been a legal requirement that it be registered as a thiasos,[32] that is, a cult-association dedicated to the service of some divinity, who would be the nominal owner of the property. Plato’s choice was the Muses, patrons of education, not so much, perhaps, because he believed that ‘philosophy was the highest "music"‘ (Phaedo 61a) as because a Museion or chapel of the Muses was a regular feature of the schools of the day.[33] The common meals (συσσίτια) were famous for their combination of healthy and moderate eating with talk that was worth remembering and recording. A guest is said to have remarked that those who dined with Plato could feel well on the day after.[34] He himself in the Symposium (176e) narrates how Agathon’s guests agreed to moderate the drinking, send away the flute-girl and entertain themselves by each speaking in turn on a set subject; and in the Protagoras (347d) through the mouth of Socrates he pours scorn on the uneducated who need entertainment after dinner: educated gentlemen are capable of enter­taining themselves, by ‘speaking and listening in turns in an orderly manner’. Perhaps it is only in character when he makes Socrates add, ‘even if they have drunk a great deal of wine’; for it was known that Socrates could take any amount without getting drunk (Plato, Symp. 176c). (There is perhaps a feeble echo of this feature of the Academy in the one-time practice in our colleges of having an improving book read to the scholars at their dinner.) In the Academy the meals were conducted according to fairly elaborate rules. Xenocrates in his headship wrote some out, as did Aristotle.[35] Plato himself in the Laws (639cff.) speaks at some length of the necessity for symposia to be conducted according to rules applied by a master of ceremonies who must remain completely sober. This passage and the Symposium should save us from a natural impatience at the time spent over what we are at first tempted to regard as the trivialities of social intercourse. The periodic feasts of a thiasos were in any case religious occasions with their appropriate sacrifices.[36] Plato and Speusippus, wrote Anti­gonus of Carystus, did not hold these gatherings for the sake of carousing till dawn, ‘but that they might manifestly honour the gods and enjoy each other’s companionship, and chiefly to refresh them­selves with learned discussion’.[37]

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