Plato (c. 427-347 BCE)


  Plato was born in Athens around 427 BCE, and lived a relatively long life, even by modern standards, dying at the age of eighty or eighty-one around 347 BCE. His aristocratic family background led him into a messy career in politics, which netted him several close calls and a permanent disillusionment with governmental pursuits. The death of his teacher, Socrates, in 399 BCE was a catalyst for Plato, who embarked on a philosophical mission that blossomed into the founding of the Academy in about 387 BCE. The Academy was a great success (and an important point of origin for Western education). Among Plato’s pupils was Aristotle.

Most of Plato’s early works were recreations—through dialogues—of the thinking of Socrates (who never wrote anything down), and much of Plato's later work built on that thinking. 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.

Socrates (c. 469-399 BCE)

Little is known about Socrates besides what is described by Plato, and much of that is blended with Plato’s own ideas, motives, and recollections. Most accounts suggest that Socrates was an honored soldier in the Peloponnesian War, who spent much of the rest of his life wandering around Athens engaging in philosophical debates on the street. In any case, it seems clear that Socrates was put on trial and executed for being a religious subversive and for “corrupting the youth of Athens” (Socrates’s speech at his trial and his conversation before death are re-enacted in Plato's The Apology and Crito, respectively).

The consensus is that there was probably a political motive involved in Socrates’s execution as well. There are many points in Lysis, as in some of Plato’s other Socratic dialogues, at which Plato seems to be attempting to exonerate Socrates, posthumously, of the charges for which he was executed. 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. He made it his life’s work to make others wiser by revealing to them that in fact they have no knowledge.

Philosophical Background for Lysis

Lysis is probably one of Plato's earlier dialogues, judging by its fairly uncompromising use of the Socratic elenchus and its ending in aporia. As Plato's series of dialogues develops, there is a clear shift in content away from the Socratic method and toward a more complex philosophical system that can only be Plato's own. Although Lysis seems quite Socratic in its refusal really to assert anything in the end, it is still a text in which the voices of Socrates and Plato are bound together, the former as character and narrator, and the latter as author.

Lysis is also one of the least studied of Plato's works (though all of them have, of course, been studied quite a bit), primarily for two reasons: First, Lysis does not provide a particularly exemplary version of the Socratic elenchus; no high ideals are offered for Socrates to dismantle, and his interlocutors are two young boys whose roles serve little purpose other than to agree with Socrates's successive theses and objections. Second, Lysis does not show either Socrates or Plato moving clearly toward a cohesive philosophy. The dialogue proceeds, like many others, through several rejected hypotheses, and retains few clear assertions by the end. At a deeper level, the purely philosophical aims of Lysis are compromised, in a fascinating way, by the situation in which they unfold (Socrates is demonstrating how to properly woo a beloved boy). Nonetheless, we can see Plato playing with some important notions, particularly in the areas of identity (likeness), harmony (with oneself and with others), and good and evil.