The Development of Plato's Political Theory

By George Klosko | Go to book overview

1

Plato and Greek Politics

Plato was born in 428 BC to a distinguished, well-connected Athenian family. His early years were passed in the shadow of the wars between Athens and Sparta, which culminated in the complete victory of Sparta in the year 404. Plato probably saw military service during this conflict, but in the remarkable autobiographical statement preserved in his Seventh Epistle,1 he does not mention this but rather comments on political events during the closing years of the war. The Athenian democracy was overthrown and replaced by an oligarchy, important members of which were Plato's relatives and associates. He watched with horror as this regime, which he had considered joining and in which he had lodged great hopes, degenerated into a tyranny. The democracy returned and completed Plato's disillusionment with politics, by executing Socrates, 'the best and wisest and most righteous man' then living (Phaedo 118a). Thus, Plato's early years were filled with political turmoil and strife. He saw Athens pass from a position of political supremacy in the Greek world to defeat and near destruction. But Athens rose again, and Plato witnessed her resumption of her earlier course.

Specific political events will be discussed below. For now we should note that Plato's understanding of politics was shaped by the conditions in which he lived. The aftermath of the Peloponnesian War was a period of hardship throughout the Greek world, and though subsequent years witnessed a commercial upsurge, this exacerbated conditions within many cities, enriching some inhabitants but increasing the poverty of others. City after city was beset by civil strife, stasis, pitting rich against poor, oligarch against democrat. In both the Republic and Laws, Plato describes all cities as actually two cities conjoined—cities of the rich and of the poor, at each other's throats

1 I regard this as genuine. For defence of the authenticity of Epistle 7, see G. Morrow, ed.,
Plato's Epistles, revised edn. (Indianapolis, IN, 1962), pp. 3–17; G. C. Field, Plato and His
Contemporaries,
3rd edn. (London, 1967), pp. 197–201; W. K. C. Guthrie, A History of Greek
Philosophy,
6 vols. (Cambridge, 1962–81), V, 399–401. For the contrary view, see L. Edelstein,
Plato's Seventh Letter (Leiden, Germany, 1966). Also note the compromise position of P. A. Brunt,
who does not insist on the validity of the epistle, but accepts its evidence in regard to both Plato's
early political experiences and voyages to Sicily (Studies in Greek History and Culture [Oxford,
1993], pp. 319, 339–41). For brief discussion of the issue and additional references, see G. Klosko,
'Politics and Method in Plato's Political Theory', Polls, 23 (2006).

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The Development of Plato's Political Theory
Table of contents

Table of contents

  • Title Page iii
  • Contents vii
  • Preface xi
  • Note on Sources and Substantiation xv
  • Texts and Translations xvii
  • List of Abbreviations xviii
  • 1: Plato and Greek Politics 1
  • 2: Plato's Corpus 14
  • Part I - The Political Theory of Plato's Socrates 31
  • 3: Socrates' Mission 33
  • 4: Socratic Politics 46
  • Part II - The Moral Psychology of the Middle Dialogues 63
  • 5: The Tripartite Soul 69
  • 6: The Ascent to the Philosopher 87
  • 7: Moulding Souls 105
  • Part III - Platonic Politics 121
  • 8: Education and Moral Reform 123
  • 9: The Ideal State 138
  • 10: Philosophic Rule 170
  • Part IV - Plato's Later Political Theory 193
  • 11: Plato's Later Political Theory 195
  • 12: The 'second-Best' State 217
  • 13: Political Principles 238
  • Afterword 263
  • Bibliography 265
  • Further Reading 275
  • Glossary of Greek Words 279
  • Index 280
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