Philosophy 190: Plato Fall, 2014 Prof. Peter Hadreas Course website: http://www.sjsu.edu/people/peter.hadreas/courses/Plato. Some Very Fundamental Aspects of Plato’s Life and Times.
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Philosophy 190: Plato Fall, 2014
Prof. Peter Hadreas
Some Very Fundamental Aspects of Plato’s Life and Times
“[Plato] was a post-war figure writing in an Athens of a different intellectual temper. When he put on to his stage the giants of the Sophistic era, he was recalling them from the dead.”1
1. W. K. C. Guthrie, A History of Greek Philosophy, V ill. 4 (Cambridge, 1975), p. 6.
The trial, judgment and execution of Socrates in 399 B. C. E. had an effect on Plato’s thought and writings that did not cease throughout the whole of his life. Socrates is not only the spokesperson for the early and middle dialogues. He is the spokesperson in the late dialogue, Philebus. And, the late period dialogue, Theatetus, ends with Socrates going to answer to the indictment of Meletus – one of Socrates’ three accusers who filed capital crime charges against him.
The influence of Socrates not only launches the style of philosophical inquiry in the early dialogues, and likely their dialogic form in general, it is a catalyst for Plato’s life-long pursuit of the conflict between philosophy and politics.
At the age of roughly 40, Plato travels to Sicily and southern Italy. His intent – in all likelihood – was to make contact with the Pythagorean philosophers in southern Italy. Second only to Socrates is the influence of Plato’s confrontation with Pythagoreanism. As Schofield puts it:
“What was the outcome of this meeting of the minds? Here is a way of telling the story – which construes the encounter as a decisive moment with extraordinary impact of the future of Plato’s thought.”
[Schofield quote continued from previous slide]:
“To put it in a nutshell, Plato converted to Pythagoreanism: to belief in the immortality of the soul; to a fascination with eschatology and myths of a last judgment; to a conviction that mathematics held the key to an understanding of reality; to the idea that politics might might, after all, be reshaped by philosophy and philosophers;
[continued from previous slide] “to the resolve to create in Athens his own community of friends dedicated to the pursuit of philosophy. From the conversation flowed much of the energy and vision that fueled the writing of dialogues such as Gorgias, Meno, Phaedo, and Republic. Its most practical consequence was to be the founding of the Academy.”1
1. Schofield, Malcolm, “Plato in His Time and Place,” in The Oxford Handbook of Plato, edited by Gail Fine, (Oxford/NY: Oxford University Press, 2011), p. 44.
Touching upon the most principal influences on Plato intellectual development one must point third figure, the Eleatic philosopher, Parmenides (date of birth uncertain, approximately 540 BCE – death approx. 460 BCE).
Parmenides influence becomes profound in Plato later dialogues. This is obvious in the dialogue titled Parmenides, where the Eleatic philosopher crushingly criticizes Plato’s Theory of Forms. Also, in the Sophist and Statesman, the figure leading the discussion is referred to as ‘an Eleatic Stranger.’ He is surely to be associated with if not an incarnation of Parmenides.
Parmenides: Fragment #3:
"For thinking and being are the same.”
This enigmatic statement – so often cited by Martin Heidegger – would invite the interpretation that thought – not perception, imagination nor feeling -- is the mode by which reality is apprehended. The logical rigor that we find in what remains of Parmenides writings and the profound division between what may be discerned by mind – as opposed to perception – is endorsed fully by Plato, especially so in his later works. Also, an acceptance of Parmenides arguments would provide a understanding for why Plato, unlike the Pythagorean school, separates was is most real from the perceptual world.
Compelling question about the style of Plato’s dialogues:
Why do you think Plato is never a spokesperson1 in any of his dialogues?
1. In the Phaedo, he is mentioned as absent during Socrates’ last hours because he is ill. He attends Socrates trial. From indirect report we read Plato offers to supply a sum of money to waylay the jury’s verdict. But those are the only two mentions we have of Plato in the dialogues.
There are thirteen letters attributed to Plato. But all of them, with the possible exception of the Seventh Letter, are thought to be inauthentic. It should be added, however, that it is generally agreed by current scholars that even if the Seventh Letter was not written by Plato, it was written as a ‘public letter’ by someone in the Academy extremely familiar with Plato’s voyages to Italy and very likely with his approval. The exacting agreement of dates would suggest is was written during his lifetime and we have no indication that Plato discredited it.