Birth and family
Diogenes Laertius is a principal source for the history of ancient Greek philosophy.
Due to a lack of surviving accounts, little is known about Plato's early life and education. Plato belonged to an aristocratic and influential family. According to a disputed tradition, reported by doxographer Diogenes Laërtius, Plato's father Ariston traced his descent from the king of Athens, Codrus, and the king of Messenia, Melanthus.
Through his mother, Plato was related to Solon.
Plato's mother was Perictione, whose family boasted of a relationship with the famous Athenian lawmaker and lyric poet Solon, one of the seven sages, who repealed the laws of Draco (except for the death penalty for homicide). Perictione was sister of Charmides and niece of Critias, both prominent figures of the Thirty Tyrants, known as the Thirty, the brief oligarchic regime (404–403 BC), which followed on the collapse of Athens at the end of the Peloponnesian War (431–404 BC). According to some accounts, Ariston tried to force his attentions on Perictione, but failed in his purpose; then the god Apollo appeared to him in a vision, and as a result, Ariston left Perictione unmolested.
The exact time and place of Plato's birth are unknown. Based on ancient sources, most modern scholars believe that he was born in Athens or Aegina[c] between 429 and 423 BC, not long after the start of the Peloponnesian War.[d] The traditional date of Plato's birth during the 87th or 88th Olympiad, 428 or 427 BC, is based on a dubious interpretation of Diogenes Laërtius, who says, "When [Socrates] was gone, [Plato] joined Cratylus the Heracleitean and Hermogenes, who philosophized in the manner of Parmenides. Then, at twenty-eight, Hermodorus says, [Plato] went to Euclides in Megara." However, as Debra Nails argues, the text does not state that Plato left for Megara immediately after joining Cratylus and Hermogenes. In his Seventh Letter, Plato notes that his coming of age coincided with the taking of power by the Thirty, remarking, "But a youth under the age of twenty made himself a laughingstock if he attempted to enter the political arena." Thus, Nails dates Plato's birth to 424/423.
According to Neanthes, Plato was six years younger than Isocrates, and therefore was born the same year the prominent Athenian statesman Pericles died (429 BC). Jonathan Barnes regards 428 BC as the year of Plato's birth. The grammarian Apollodorus of Athens in his Chronicles argues that Plato was born in the 88th Olympiad. Both the Suda and Sir Thomas Browne also claimed he was born during the 88th Olympiad. Another legend related that, when Plato was an infant, bees settled on his lips while he was sleeping: an augury of the sweetness of style in which he would discourse about philosophy.
Speusippus was Plato's nephew.
Besides Plato himself, Ariston and Perictione had three other children; two sons, Adeimantus and Glaucon, and a daughter Potone, the mother of Speusippus (the nephew and successor of Plato as head of the Academy). The brothers Adeimantus and Glaucon are mentioned in the Republic as sons of Ariston, and presumably brothers of Plato, though some have argued they were uncles.[e] In a scenario in the Memorabilia, Xenophon confused the issue by presenting a Glaucon much younger than Plato.
Ariston appears to have died in Plato's childhood, although the precise dating of his death is difficult. Perictione then married Pyrilampes, her mother's brother, who had served many times as an ambassador to the Persian court and was a friend of Pericles, the leader of the democratic faction in Athens. Pyrilampes had a son from a previous marriage, Demus, who was famous for his beauty. Perictione gave birth to Pyrilampes' second son, Antiphon, the half-brother of Plato, who appears in Parmenides.
In contrast to his reticence about himself, Plato often introduced his distinguished relatives into his dialogues, or referred to them with some precision. In addition to Adeimantus and Glaucon in the Republic, Charmides has a dialogue named after him; and Critias speaks in both Charmides and Protagoras. These and other references suggest a considerable amount of family pride and enable us to reconstruct Plato's family tree. According to Burnet, "the opening scene of the Charmides is a glorification of the whole [family] connection ... Plato's dialogues are not only a memorial to Socrates, but also the happier days of his own family."
The fact that the philosopher in his maturity called himself Platon is indisputable, but the origin of this name remains mysterious. Platon is a nickname from the adjective platýs (πλατύς) 'broad'. Although Platon was a fairly common name (31 instances are known from Athens alone), the name does not occur in Plato's known family line. The sources of Diogenes Laërtius account for this by claiming that his wrestling coach, Ariston of Argos, dubbed him "broad" on account of his chest and shoulders, or that Plato derived his name from the breadth of his eloquence, or his wide forehead. While recalling a moral lesson about frugal living Seneca mentions the meaning of Plato's name: "His very name was given him because of his broad chest."
His true name was supposedly Aristocles (Ἀριστοκλῆς), meaning 'best reputation'.[f] According to Diogenes Laërtius, he was named after his grandfather, as was common in Athenian society. But there is only one inscription of an Aristocles, an early archon of Athens in 605/4 BC. There is no record of a line from Aristocles to Plato's father, Ariston. Recently a scholar has argued that even the name Aristocles for Plato was a much later invention. However, another scholar claims that "there is good reason for not dismissing [the idea that Aristocles was Plato's given name] as a mere invention of his biographers", noting how prevalent that account is in our sources.
Ancient sources describe him as a bright though modest boy who excelled in his studies. Apuleius informs us that Speusippus praised Plato's quickness of mind and modesty as a boy, and the "first fruits of his youth infused with hard work and love of study". His father contributed all which was necessary to give to his son a good education, and, therefore, Plato must have been instructed in grammar, music, and gymnastics by the most distinguished teachers of his time. Plato invokes Damon many times in the Republic. Plato was a wrestler, and Dicaearchus went so far as to say that Plato wrestled at the Isthmian games. Plato had also attended courses of philosophy; before meeting Socrates, he first became acquainted with Cratylus and the Heraclitean doctrines.
Ambrose believed that Plato met Jeremiah in Egypt and was influenced by his ideas. Augustine initially accepted this claim, but later rejected it, arguing in The City of God that "Plato was born a hundred years after Jeremiah prophesied."
Later life and death
Plato in his academy, drawing after a painting by Swedish painter Carl Johan Wahlbom
Plato may have traveled in Italy, Sicily, Egypt and Cyrene. Said to have returned to Athens at the age of forty, Plato founded one of the earliest known organized schools in Western Civilization on a plot of land in the Grove of Hecademus or Academus. The Academy was a large enclosure of ground about six stadia outside of Athens proper. One story is that the name of the Academy comes from the ancient hero, Academus; still another story is that the name came from a supposed former owner of the plot of land, an Athenian citizen whose name was (also) Academus; while yet another account is that it was named after a member of the army of Castor and Pollux, an Arcadian named Echedemus. The Academy operated until it was destroyed by Lucius Cornelius Sulla in 84 BC. Many intellectuals were schooled in the Academy, the most prominent one being Aristotle.
Throughout his later life, Plato became entangled with the politics of the city of Syracuse. According to Diogenes Laërtius, Plato initially visited Syracuse while it was under the rule of Dionysius. During this first trip Dionysius's brother-in-law, Dion of Syracuse, became one of Plato's disciples, but the tyrant himself turned against Plato. Plato almost faced death, but he was sold into slavery.[g] Then Anniceris[h] bought Plato's freedom for twenty minas, and sent him home. After Dionysius's death, according to Plato's Seventh Letter, Dion requested Plato return to Syracuse to tutor Dionysius II and guide him to become a philosopher king. Dionysius II seemed to accept Plato's teachings, but he became suspicious of Dion, his uncle. Dionysius expelled Dion and kept Plato against his will. Eventually Plato left Syracuse. Dion would return to overthrow Dionysius and ruled Syracuse for a short time before being usurped by Calippus, a fellow disciple of Plato.
According to Seneca, Plato died at the age of 81 on the same day he was born. The Suda indicates that he lived to 82 years, while Neanthes claims an age of 84. A variety of sources have given accounts of his death. One story, based on a mutilated manuscript, suggests Plato died in his bed, whilst a young Thracian girl played the flute to him. Another tradition suggests Plato died at a wedding feast. The account is based on Diogenes Laërtius's reference to an account by Hermippus, a third-century Alexandrian. According to Tertullian, Plato simply died in his sleep.
Plato owned an estate at Iphistiadae, which by will he left to a certain youth named Adeimantus, presumably a younger relative, as Plato had an elder brother or uncle by this name.