Greek Political Theory: Plato and His Predecessors

By Ernest Barker | Go to book overview

CHAPTER VI
Plato and the Platonic Dialogue

THE LIFE OF PLATO

Plato was born about the year 428 B.C. By birth he belonged to a distinguished Athenian family. On his mother's side he could trace his pedigree as far back as Athenian archons of the middle of the seventh century; and among the men of his own generation he was connected with Critias, who was prominent among the members of the oligarchical clique which ruled for a time in 404. It would be a mistake, however, to judge the politics of Plato's family from the career of Critias, or to maintain that Plato inherited from his family a prejudice against Athenian democracy. The politics of his family were Whig rather than Tory: they were proud of their connexion with Solon; and it would be truer to ascribe to the influence of his family, if any such influence can be traced at all, a prejudice in favour of that mixed and moderate form of constitution which is advocated in the Laws.1 On occasion, and more especially in the Gorgias, Plato is a bitter critic of Periclean democracy; but he can also do justice to its better side even in the Republic; and in later dialogues like the Politicus and the Laws, in which Socratic influence is less present, he shows a real appreciation of its value.

He was perhaps never a disciple, in the strict sense, of the Socratic school, but from his earliest years he was a member of the Socratic circle. Originally he seems to have thought of embracing a political career at Athens; but the death of Socrates, by which he was profoundly influenced, changed all his plans, and he turned to the life of philosophy. Down to the date of his first visit to Sicily, in 387 B.C., he was largely occupied in the composition of his earlier dialogues. To this period belong the Apology, the Crito, the Gorgias, the Protagoras, and probably the

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1
Burnet, Greek Philosophy, pp. 209-10. The family pride in the connexion with Solon (cf. also the Charmides, 157 E-158 A) appears in the Timaeus (cf. 23 A), where the whole story of Atlantis is recorded as a family tradition derived from Solon. The Critias who tells that story, and gives his name to the Critias, is not the oligarchical leader of 404, but his grandfather, who was also Plato's great grandfather ( Burnet, op. cit. p. 338).

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