For someone whose influence has been so profound on Western thinking remarkably little is known of him.
There is still much discussion as to when and where he was born. It is almost certain that he was born into an influential and aristocratic family. As to where it seems to be Athens although others have claimed it might be Aegina, one of the Saroinc Islands in the Saronic Gulf, 27 kilometres from Athens.
With such a lack of detail on Plato’s life scholars have tried to re-construct parts of the timeline using his writings, those of his contemporaries and histories of the time. Even so much is open to debate. Traditional history estimates Plato's birth was around 428 B.C.E., but increasingly among more modern scholars, they conclude he was born between 424 and 423 B.C.E. Both of his parents came from the Greek aristocracy. Plato's father, Ariston, was descended from the kings of Athens and Messenia. His mother, Perictione, was claimed to be related to the 6th century B.C.E. Greek statesman Solon. Due to the means and social status of his family Plato was most probably educated by some of Athens' finest teachers. The curriculum would have been rich and varied and include the doctrines of Cratylus and Pythagoras as well as Parmenides.
Plato's father, Ariston, died when he was still a boy. His mother re-married to her uncle, Pyrilampes, a politician and ambassador to Persia.
It is thought that Plato had several siblings; two brothers, a sister and a half-brother, though it is not confirmed where Plato falls in this line. From his dialogues though it is certain that he holds them in fond affection and introduces them in several.
Two major events shaped Plato’s life whilst he was a young man. The first was a meeting with the great philosopher Socrates. Socrates's methods of debate impressed Plato and he soon became a devoted follower. From here would flow Plato’s career as one of the finest minds civilization has produced.
Major event number two was the on-going rivalry between Athens and Sparta which erupted into the Peloponnesian War. This was in fact several ‘stop-start’ wars fought during the period 431–404 BCE. Plato served in the cause of Athens and its Allies between 409 and 404 B.C.E.
The comprehensive defeat of Athens by the Peloponnesian League led by Sparta ended the Athenian democracy. It was replaced by a Spartan imposed oligarchy. Ironically two of Plato's relatives, Charmides and Critias, were now prominent figures in the new government, known as the Thirty Tyrants whose brief 8 month rule severely reduced the rights of Athenian citizens as well as slaughtering somewhere in the region of 5% of their number.
After the oligarchy was overthrown and the former institutions of Athens began their slow rebuilding, Plato briefly considered a career in politics, but the execution of Socrates in 399 B.C.E., after being found guilty on the twin charges of moral corruption and impiety, discouraged Plato away from this idea and he turned to a life of study and philosophy.
Plato now traveled for a dozen years throughout the Mediterranean, studying mathematics with the Pythagoreans in Italy, as well as geometry, geology, astronomy and religion in Egypt. It was during this time that Plato began his writings, a remarkable number of which survive to this day.
The writings themselves are usually classified into three distinct periods although there is some uncertainty as to the exact order in which they were written.
The first, or early, period occurs during Plato's travels (399-387 B.C.E.). The Apology of Socrates appears to have been written shortly after Socrates's death. Other texts included in this period include Protagoras, Euthyphro, Hippias Major and Minor and Ion. It is in these dialogues, Plato attempts to convey Socrates's philosophy and teachings.
In the middle period, Plato now writes in his own voice on his core beliefs and ideals of justice, courage, wisdom and moderation, both of the individual and society. His most famous work, The Republic was written during this time and is a seminal work on the exploration of a just government ruled by philosopher kings.
In the late, period, Socrates is now relegated to a minor role and Plato now returns to take a closer look at his own early metaphysical ideas. The roles of art, including dance, music, drama and architecture, as well as ethics and morality are explored and expounded upon. In his writings on the Theory of Forms, Plato suggests that the world of ideas is the only consistent force and that the world we experience through our senses is deceptive.
Having now returned to Athens Plato embarked upon an extraordinary undertaking. In around 385 B.C.E., he established a school of learning, known as the Academy. Plato would preside over its teachings until his death.
The Academy's extensive curriculum included astronomy, biology, mathematics, political theory and philosophy. Plato hoped that those who studied there would be future leaders who would be better equipped thorough its teachings to understand how to build a better government in the Greek city-states.
The Academy would continue to teach and research for centuries until it was closed in 529 C.E., by the Roman Emperor Justinian I, who feared it was a source of paganism and a threat to Christianity.
In 367 B.C.E., Plato was invited by Dion, a friend and disciple, to be tutor to his nephew, Dionysius II, the new ruler of Syracuse in Sicily. Dion believed that Dionysius showed promise as a philosopher king; an ideal leader. Plato accepted but Dionysius fell far short of expectations and suspected Dion, and then Plato, of conspiring against him. Dion was exiled, and Plato put under "house arrest." Eventually, Plato returned to Athens and his beloved Academy. One of his more promising students there was Aristotle, who would shortly take Plato’s teachings in new directions.
Plato's final years were spent at the Academy and immersed in his writing.
We now come to the final piece concerning our lack of knowledge; the exact nature of Plato’s death. All accounts are confident he died in Athens around 348 B.C.E., a time when he would have been in his early 80’s. Some suggest that he died while attending a wedding, while others contend he died peacefully in his sleep. As a romantic alternative he died in his sleep while a young girl played the flute nearby. No matter Plato the man had ceased to be but Plato the legend had begun.
Plato's ideas on philosophy and the nature of humanity has had an impact across all civilisations since. Whilst his areas of interest and work cover mathematics, science and nature, morals and political theory he understood that the use of mathematics in education has helped to develop a more complete understanding not just of our world but the entire universe. Additionally, his work on the use of reason to develop a fairer and more just society based on the equality of the individual has helped establish the foundation for modern liberal democracy.