Plato (428–347 B.C.) wrote poetry as a young man, before turning to philosophy and the
question of virtue. His given name was Aristocles, but he was called Platon at school be-
cause of his broad shoulders. Plato grew up during the Peloponnesian War, unfortunately
on the losing Athenian side. The resulting conservative religious movement in Athens led
to the execution of Socrates, Plato's teacher, who was convicted of corrupting the youths
and introducing new gods. This background may explain Plato's interest in moral and po-
litical questions, rooted in the question of virtue. After leaving Athens to study and travel
for several years, Plato returned to found the Academy at age 40. The Academy was not
simply a classroom for discussing philosophy, but included gardens; shrines to various
gods and goddesses; and, naturally, a gymnasium. Plato was a prolific writer; his dialogues
included discussions not only of philosophy, but of geometry, religion, and geography, to
name but a few topics. He also invented a completely fictional land, Atlantis, that sinks
into the sea for lack of virtue. Around 367 B.C, Plato went to Syracuse to tutor its young
ruler, Dionysus II. He returned after several years complicated by war just as his most fa-
mous student, Aristotle (p. 20), entered the Academy. His final years were peaceful, and he
apparently died in his sleep following a student's wedding feast. Plato's Academy re-
mained open for almost a thousand years, until it was finally closed by Emperor Justinian
in A.D. 529.
Socrates, Glaucon. AND now, I said, let me show in a figure how far our nature is enlightened or unenlightened: Behold! human beings living in an underground den, which has a mouth open toward the light and reaching all along the den; here they have been from their childhood, and have their legs and necks chained so that they cannot move, and can only see before them, being prevented by the chains from turning round their heads. Above and behind them a fire is blazing at a distance, and between the fire and the prisoners there is a raised way; and you will see, if you look, a low wall built along the way, like the screen which marionette-players have in front of them, over which they show the puppets.
And do you see, I said, men passing along the wall carrying all sorts of vessels, and statues and figures of animals made of wood and stone and various materials, which appear over the wall? Some of them are talking, others silent.
You have shown me a strange image, and they are strange prisoners.
Like ourselves, I replied: and they see only their own shadows, or the shadows of one another, which the fire throws on the opposite wall of the cave?
True, he said; how could they see anything but the shadows if they were never allowed to move their heads?
And of the objects which are being carried in like manner they would only see the shadows?
From Plato, “Book VII, Story of the Cave.” In B. Jowett (Trans.), The Republic of Plato (pp. 209–212). New York: Colonial Press,
1901. (Original work written 380 B.C.)