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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 5

The rich and noble families which had accepted the Periclean regime and been proud to serve it, seem to have been driven in increasing numbers into the ranks of the extreme opponents of democracy by the financial oppression to which they were subjected to pay for the war policy of the democratic party. At any rate it is clear that during those susceptible years in which Plato was first coming to manhood those most near to him were becoming more and more hostile to the democracy and ready to go to any length to overthrow it. 

This being so, the remarkable thing is perhaps not that Plato was imbued with anti-democratic sentiments but that he flatly refused to go along with the extreme and violent actions of elder relatives whom he had earlier admired, and could recognize the moderation of the restored democracy in spite of the ‘mischance’ of the trial and execution of Socrates. The only conclusion that age and experience brought him was the general one that ‘it is very difficult to manage political affairs aright’, and that ‘all cities at the present time are without exception badly governed’ (Εp. 7.325c, 326a).



(c) Early years


PEUSIPPUS (fr. 28L.), relying, says Apuleius, on ‘domestica docu­menta’, praised his quickness of mind and modesty as a boy, and the ‘firstfruits of his youth infused with hard work and love of study’. His education, like any other Athenian boy’s, would be physical as well as mental, and his writings witness to a continued interest in the ‘gymnastic’ side. Dicaearchus (fr. 40 W.) went so far as to say that he wrestled at the Isthmian games.[10] Νο other information goes back to sources so near Plato’s lifetime. Those of later centuries name his teachers of reading and writing, physical education and music, and speak of an early interest in painting and poetry. Whatever we may think of the story that after hearing Socrates talk he burned a tragedy that he had written (D.L. 3.5), we can have no difficulty in accepting that the author of the dialogues showed early poetic gifts. We have indeed a number of epigrams, some of them both beautiful and touching, which have come down under his name and are generally accepted as genuine.[11] We must admit however that we know little of his personal life in early years, though we can if we like reconstruct his experiences and tastes from a combination of what is known of contemporary Athenian family life and education with all the evidence of his own extra-philosophical interests which is to be found scattered throughout his dialogues, and which makes their effect so much more personal and immediate than that of any purely philosophical works. This will not be attempted here.[12] Military service can be taken for granted, doubtless (considering his social status) in the cavalry, and he was old enough to take part in actual engagements in the last five years of the Peloponnesian War and later.[13]

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