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Of Plato's biography we can furnish nothing better than a faint outline. We are not fortunate enough to possess the work on Plato's life composed by his companion and disciple, Xenocrates, like the life of Plotinus by Porphyry, or that of Proclus by Marinus. Though Plato lived eighty years, enjoying extensive celebrity, and though Diogenes Laertius employed peculiar care in collecting information about him, yet the number of facts recounted is very small, and of those facts a considerable proportion is poorly attested.
The School of Athens.
Thus mortified and disappointed, Plato withdrew from public functions. What part he took in the struggle between the oligarchy and its democratical assailants under Thrasybulus we are not informed. But when the democracy was re-established his political ambition revived and he again sought to acquire some active influence on public affairs. Now, however, the circumstances had become highly unfavorable to him. The name of his deceased relative, Critias, was generally abhorred, and he had no powerful partisans among the popular leaders. With such disadvantages, with anti-democratical sentiments, and with a thin voice, we cannot wonder that Plato soon found public life repulsive, though he admits the remarkable moderation displayed by the restored Demos. His repugnance was aggravated to the highest pitch of grief and indignation by the trial and condemnation of Socrates (399 B.C.) four years after the renewal of the democracy. At that moment doubtless the Socratic men or companions were unpopular in a body. Plato, after having yielded his best sympathy and aid at the trial of Socrates, retired along with several others of them to Megara. He made up his mind that for a man of his views and opinions it was not only unprofitable, but also unsafe, to embark in active public life, either at Athens or in any other Grecian city. He resolved to devote himself to philosophical speculation and to abstain from practical politics, unless fortune should present to him some exceptional case of a city prepared to welcome and obey a renovator upon exalted principles.
At Megara Plato passed some time with the Megarian Eucleides, his fellow-disciple in the society of Socrates and the founder of what is termed the Megaric school of philosophers. He next visited Cyrene, where he is said to have become acquainted with the geometrician Theodorus and to have studied geometry under him. From Cyrene he proceeded to Egypt, interesting himself much in the antiquities of the country as well as in the conversation of the priests. In or about 394 B.C., if we may trust the statement of Aristoxenus about the military service of Plato at Corinth, he was again at Athens. He afterward went to Italy and Sicily, seeking the society of the Pythagorean philosophers, Archytas, Echecrates, Timaeus, etc., at Tarentum and Locri, and visiting the volcanic manifestations of AEtna. It appears that his first visit to Sicily was made when he was about forty years of age, which would be 387 B.C. Here he made acquaintance with the youthful Dion, over whom he acquired great intellectual ascendancy. By Dion Plato was prevailed upon to visit the elder Dionysius at Syracuse; but that despot, offended by the free spirit of his conversation and admonitions, dismissed him with displeasure, and even caused him to be sold into slavery at AEgina on his voyage home. Though really sold, however, Plato was speedily ransomed by friends. After farther incurring some risk of his life as an Athenian citizen, in consequence of the hostile feelings of the AEginetans, he was conveyed away safely to Athens, about 386 B.C.
It was at this period, about 386 B.C., that the continuous and formal public teaching of Plato, constituting as it does so great an epoch in philosophy, commenced. But I see no ground for believing, as many authors assume, that he was absent from Athens during the entire interval between 399-386 B.C.
The spot selected by Plato for his lectures or teaching was a garden adjoining the precinct sacred to the hero Hecademus or Acedemus, distant from the gate of Athens called Dipylon somewhat less than a mile, on the road to Eleusis, toward the north. In this precinct there were both walks, shaded by trees, and a gymnasium for bodily exercise; close adjoining, Plato either inherited or acquired a small dwelling-house and garden, his own private property. Here, under the name of the Academy, was founded the earliest of those schools of philosophy, which continued for centuries forward to guide and stimulate the speculative minds of Greece and Rome.
We have scarce any particulars respecting the growth of the School of Athens from this time to the death of Plato, in 347 B.C. We only know generally that his fame as a lecturer became eminent and widely diffused; that among his numerous pupils were included Speusippus, Xenocrates, Aristotle, Demosthenes, Hyperides, Lycurgus, etc.; that he was admired and consulted by Perdiccas in Macedonia, and Dionysius at Syracuse; that he was also visited by listeners and pupils from all parts of Greece.
It was in the year 367-366 that Plato was induced, by the earnest entreaties of Dion, to go from Athens to Syracuse, on a visit to the younger Dionysius, who had just become despot, succeeding to his father of the same name. Dionysius II., then very young, had manifested some disposition toward philosophy and prodigious admiration for Plato, who was encouraged by Dion to hope that he would have influence enough to bring about an amendment or thorough reform of the government at Syracuse. This ill-starred visit, with its momentous sequel, has been described in my "History of Greece." It not only failed completely, but made matters worse rather than better; Dionysius became violently alienated from Dion and sent him into exile. Though turning a deaf ear to Plato's recommendations, he nevertheless liked his conversation, treated him with great respect, detained him for some time at Syracuse, and was prevailed upon, only by the philosopher's earnest entreaties, to send him home. Yet in spite of such uncomfortable experience, Plato was induced, after a certain interval, again to leave Athens and pay a second visit to Dionysius, mainly in hopes of procuring the restoration of Dion. In this hope, too, he was disappointed, and was glad to return, after a longer stay than he wished, to Athens.
The visits of Plato to Dionysius were much censured and his motives misrepresented by unfriendly critics, and these reproaches were still further embittered by the entire failure of his hopes. The closing years of his long life were saddened by the disastrous turn of events at Syracuse, aggravated by the discreditable abuse of power and violent death of his intimate friend, Dion, which brought dishonor both upon himself and upon the Academy. Nevertheless, he lived to the age of eighty, and died in 348-347 B.C., leaving a competent property, which he bequeathed by a will still extant. But his foundation, the Academy, did not die with him. It passed to his nephew Speusippus, who succeeded him as teacher, conductor of the school, or scholarch, and was himself succeeded after eight years by Xenocrates of Chalcedon; while another pupil of the Academy, Aristotle, after an absence of some years from Athens, returned thither and established a school of his own at the Lyceum, at another extremity of the city.
The latter half of Plato's life in his native city must have been one of dignity and consideration, though not of any political activity. He is said to have addressed the Dicastery as an advocate for the accused general Chabrias; and we are told that he discharged the expensive and showy functions of Choregus with funds supplied by Dion. Out of Athens also his reputation was very great. When he went to the Olympic festival of B.C. 360 he was an object of conspicuous attention and respect; he was visited by hearers, young men of rank and ambition, from the most distant Hellenic cities.
Such is the sum of our information respecting Plato. Scanty as it is we have not even the advantage of contemporary authority for any portion of it. We have no description of Plato from any contemporary author, friendly or adverse. It will be seen that after the death of Socrates we know nothing about Plato as a man and a citizen, except the little which can be learned from his few epistles, all written when he was very old and relating almost entirely to his peculiar relations with Dion and Dionysius. His dialogues, when we try to interpret them collectively, and gather from them general results as to the character and purposes of the author, suggest valuable arguments and perplexing doubts, but yield few solutions. In no one of the dialogues does Plato address us in his own person. In the Apology alone (which is not a dialogue) is he alluded to even as present; in the Phaedon he is mentioned as absent from illness. Each of the dialogues, direct or indirect, is conducted from beginning to end by the persons whom he introduces. Not one of the dialogues affords any positive internal evidence showing the date of its composition. In a few there are allusions to prove that they must have been composed at a period later than others, or later than some given event of known date; but nothing more can be positively established. Nor is there any good extraneous testimony to determine the date of any one among them; for the remark ascribed to Socrates about the dialogue called Lysis (which remark, if authentic, would prove the dialogue to have been composed during the lifetime of Socrates) appears altogether untrustworthy. And the statement of some critics, that the Phaedrus was Plato's earliest composition, is clearly nothing more than an inference (doubtful at best, and in my judgment erroneous) from its dithyrambic style and erotic subject.
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