The safest general characterization of the European philosophical tradi-
tion is that it consists of a series of footnotes to Plato.
(ALFRED NORTH WHITEHEAD)
Plato is Philosophy, and Philosophy is Plato…. Out of Plato comes all
things that are still written and debated among men of thought.
(RALPH WALDO EMERSON)
Plato (427–347 B.C.) is generally recognized as the Father of Philosophy, the first systematic metaphysician and epistemologist, the first philosopher to set forth a comprehensive treatment of the entire domain of philosophy from ontology to ethics and aesthetics. He was born into an Athenian aristocratic family at the end of the Periclean Golden Age of Greek democracy.1 During much of his life, Athens was at war with Sparta, the Greek city state to the south. He was Socrates' disciple, the developer of his teacher's ideas, the founder of the first university and school of philosophy (the Academy in Athens), Aristotle's teacher, and an advisor to kings, Dionysius and Dion. His goal may have been to found the ideal state, described in Book V of the Republic, where philosophers ruled with justice. Among his important works are the Euthyphro, Apology, Crito, Phaedo, Meno, and Republic, which are included in this part of our book. Most of his books are dialogues in which Socrates is the key spokesman and interlocutor, who seeks an understanding of difficult concepts.
Socrates (c. 470–399 B.C.), the son of Sophroniscus, an Athenian stone cutter, and Phanenarete, a midwife, one of the most important yet enigmatic figures in philosophy, was the inspiration for Plato's thought. At one time a follower of the “Pre-Socratic” cosmologists (perhaps of Anaxagoras), he later turned from cosmological speculation about the heavens to consider ethics, how we ought to live. He wrote nothing, but his ideas are conveyed to us by Plato. In the early dialogues, such as the Euthyphro, Apology, and Crito, Plato may be reporting Socrates' own thoughts, if not his own words, but as Plato developed his own philosophy, he continued to use Socrates as his mouthpiece. After the infamous trial and execution of Socrates in 399 B.C., Plato, then twenty-eight, abandoned thoughts for a political career, traveled, and then began his career as a philosopher.
What were Plato's distinctive ideas? The most famous idea is the Theory of Forms, an instance of the idea of the One and the Many. What do the many similar things have in common? The one Form. All beautiful things have in common participation in the form of the Beautiful; all good things have in common participation in the Form of the Good.
1 Pericles (495–429 B.C.) was the great Athenian General and statesman under whose leadership Athens
developed into a humane democracy and prospered materially and culturally.