Plato (c. 427-347 BCE)

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 lived a relatively long life, even according to modern standards. We know that he was born about 427 BCE and died at the age of eighty or eighty-one about 347 BCE. 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 BCE, 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 CE, and serving as the prototype for the Western university system.

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.

Socrates (c. 469-399 BCE)

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 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!)

The life and teachings of Socrates stand at the foundation of Western philosophy. He lived in Athens during a time of transition (Athens' defeat at the hands of Sparta in the Peloponnesian War (431—404 BCE) ended the Golden Age of Athenian civilization) and had a tremendous influence on the Athenian youth of his day. Socrates himself never recorded his thoughts, so our only record of his life and thought comes from his contemporaries. These accounts are mixed and often biased by the authors' personal interpretations.

It seems that Socrates led a very simple life, renouncing wealth and holding himself aloof from political ambitions, preferring instead to mingle with the crowds in Athens' public places, engaging whomever he could in conversation. Nonetheless, he did serve as a hoplite (heavy infantryman) in several battles during the Peloponnesian War, and that he was distinguished by his bravery. In 399 BCE, Socrates was brought before a jury of around 500 Athenians on charges of not recognizing the gods recognized by the state, of inventing new deities, and of corrupting the youth of Athens.

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 his 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 Laches. He asks questions of his friends to show them that they in fact cannot answer his questions, thereby deepening their wisdom.