"The safest general characterization of the European philosophical tradition is that it consists of a series of footnotes to Plato." This assessment by the 20th-century philosopher-mathematician Alfred North Whitehead can be considered only a slight exaggeration. The religious traditions of Judaism and Christianity have provided one foundation of Western civilization, while the Greek philosophers Socrates, Plato, and Aristotle have provided another.
The influence of Plato has been persistent and unbroken. His Academy at Athens, which opened in about 387 BC, was the first forerunner of today's colleges and universities. It was a school devoted to philosophy, law, and scientific research--primarily mathematics--and it endured as an institution until AD 529, when it and other non-Christian schools were closed by the emperor Justinian.
Plato's influence extended far beyond the Academy. In his lifetime he was the most celebrated teacher of his day. After his death his ideas were taken up by countless other thinkers. Philo of Alexandria used Plato's ideas to give a philosophical framework to Judaism. Early Christian writers eagerly embraced Plato's thought as the best available instrument for explaining and defending the teachings of the Bible and church tradition. Of the Christian Platonists, St. Augustine of Hippo was the best known and most influential. Plato's influence spread into Islam as well, through the writings of the philosophers Avicenna and Averroes.
Plato was born in Athens in about 428 BC and grew up during the decades of conflict with Sparta and other city-states. His parents, Ariston and Perictione, were one of the most distinguished and aristocratic couples in the city. Of the details of Plato's early life almost nothing is known. Because of his family's position it is likely that he was acquainted with Socrates from childhood. Plato probably intended to go into politics, but the fate that Socrates met at the hands of Athenian politicians changed his mind.
With the forced suicide of Socrates in 399, Plato and other followers took temporary refuge in Megara. Some early biographers say that he then traveled around the Mediterranean world, visiting other Greek city-states, Egypt, Italy, and Sicily. None of the reports can be confirmed except for a trip to Sicily. There he met and befriended Dion, brother-in-law of the ruler of Syracuse, Dionysius I. Sometime after the death of Socrates Plato decided to devote himself to philosophy and teaching. He opened the Academy and remained with it as teacher, with two brief interruptions, until his death in about 348 BC.
The interruptions had to do with the government in Syracuse. Dionysius I died in 367 and was succeeded by Dionysius II, an uneducated youth. Dion called on Plato to come to Syracuse to teach the new ruler. Plato agreed, but the cause proved hopeless and he returned to Athens. He made one more journey to Syracuse in 361-360.
Plato's complete body of work has come down to the present. No genuine writing was lost, though a number of false writings were passed along as his. If the 'Epistles' are considered one item, there are 36 works. All, except for the letters, are called dialogues because they are presented mostly in conversational style as discussions between two or more individuals. One of the masterpieces of world literature is the 'Republic'. Like the 'Laws'--Plato's last work--it is book length, while many others are much shorter.
The earliest dialogues were those in which Socrates takes the lead in conversation. The shorter ones usually deal with one issue. The 'Lysis', for instance, examines the nature of friendship, while the 'Meno' is a discussion of virtue. The 'Apology' is the last statement of Socrates about his life and work through speeches at his trial for impiety.
The 'Republic' discusses the nature of justice and the institutions of society. In some ways it is utopian in that it describes Plato's ideal society. But it also deals with the whole range of human knowledge, the purpose and content of education, and the nature of science. Much of it is a comprehensive ethical treatise in which three types of lives are distinguished. The philosopher is devoted to attaining wisdom, the hedonist seeks only pleasure and self-gratification, and the man of action desires recognition for his practical abilities.