Plato's dialogues, written twenty-three hundred years ago, form the foundation of western thought. Throughout ancient times, the middle ages, the renaissance, as well as in contemporary philosophy, Plato has served as a guiding light, exemplifying what philosophy is or ought to be. Plato is considered by most philosophers to be the father of the subject, having invented the philosophies of religion, science, aesthetics, metaphysics, love, ethics, political theory, and epistemology.
Plato is unique for being one of the first thinkers to conceive of philosophy as being its own discipline with its own distinctive intellectual method. He believed that since philosophy scrutinized presuppositions and assumptions that other subjects merely took for granted, it alone could grant true understanding. Philosophy, for Plato, was a tool for discovering realms of objects, inaccessible to the ordinary senses. Plato used philosophy to understand organized systems of truths, which go far beyond our common sense and everyday observations. In his dialogues, even when Plato does not solve a particular problem entirely, he has often laid out a philosophical framework, which furthers discussions of such problems even today.
It is of course impossible to understand the philosophy of Plato without understanding his teacher, Socrates. Socrates is not only the logical philosopher figure in almost of all of Plato's dialogues, but he was a real philosopher as well. All of the things that we know of Socrates, the philosopher and the man, are pieces of information that have been handed down to us by his students, most notably Plato and a philosopher named Xenophon. Socrates himself never wrote any of his own philosophy down but preferred to focus on pedagogy and was exclusively a teacher of students. (Interestingly, Socrates's own teacher, Cratylus, was so focused on his own thoughts of wisdom that he even refused to speak!)
Socrates began his quest for knowledge originally because the Oracle at Delphi told him that he was the wisest man in Greece. Socrates claimed that this was impossible because he felt that he knew absolutely nothing. To discover what the Oracle possibly could have meant, Socrates traveled around Athens speaking to wise men so that he could see how wise he was in comparison. Upon speaking to these men, Socrates realized that what the Oracle must have meant is that whereas he knew that he knew nothing, these other men were often mistaken and did not even know that they knew nothing. They were convinced that they had knowledge and were therefore less wise than Socrates. Socrates made it is life's work to make others wiser by revealing to them that in fact they have no knowledge. This is the task of the Socrates character that we see portrayed in the Laches. He asks questions of his friends to show them that they in fact cannot answer his questions, thereby deepening their wisdom.
Plato lived a relatively long life, even according to modern standards. We know that he was born about 427 B.C.E. and died at the age of eighty or eighty-one about 347 B.C.E. Born into a prominent Athenian family, Plato was expected to pursue a career in politics. However, after the trial and execution of his mentor, Socrates, at which Plato was present, Plato became disgusted with Athenian political life, and devoted himself instead to teaching and philosophical inquiry. To that end, he founded the Academy around 385 B.C.E., which counted the famous thinker Aristotle among its students. In addition to his dialogues, the Academy was Plato's great contribution to philosophy and civilization, lasting 912 years until 527 A.D., and serving as the prototype for the Western university system.
Socrates himself lived amidst a time of war and transition. Born in 469 B.C.E. and executed in 399 B.C.E., Socrates lived in Athens during the transfer of power from Athens to Sparta, following Athens's defeat in the Peloponnesian War (431–404 B.C.E) With this war, in which Socrates fought many battles, came the end of Athens's Golden Age, despite the fact that most of the great philosophy of Plato and Aristotle was still to come.
Although Plato is considered by most to be the father of philosophy, he did not create the field out of nothing. There already existed several currents of thought, which were prominent at the time in which Plato was writing and which were influential to his thought. Plato's travels in southern Italy and Sicily as a young man brought him into close contact with many followers of the philosopher Pythagoras, whose mathematical research played an important role in Plato's early intellectual development. He was also familiar with and influenced by the philosophy of Heraclitus, who claimed that the world was in constant flux. Plato was also influenced to write against the relativist ideas advocated at the time by Protagoras and the materialist mode of explanation assumed by Democritus. However, the most important influence on Plato is obviously that of his mentor, Socrates. Aside from other strains of philosophy popular at the time, there were also several periods and methods present within the entire philosophy of Plato. Generally, Plato's dialogues are classed into categories of early, middle, and late periods. The early dialogues were written soon after Socrates's death, and in them we get the clearest picture of Socrates and Socratic philosophy. As Plato matured, however, he developed an increasingly distinct voice and philosophical outlook. The figure of Socrates in the middle and late dialogues is more of a mouthpiece for Plato's own views. In particular, the theory of Forms, we know from Aristotle, was not a belief held by the actual Socrates, despite the fact that his character preaches it consistently in many of the middle and later dialogues. The Laches is considered to be one of Plato's early dialogues. Other early dialogues include the Apology, the ##Gorgias##, and the Euthyphro.
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