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THE AUTHOR AND HIS TIMES
The man called Plato who wrote The Republic grew up in the Greek city-state of Athens during the tragic decline of that glorious civilization. Born about 427 B.C., Plato was the son of one of Athens' aristocratic families and the descendant of kings. His real name was Aristocles. "Plato" is a Greek nickname meaning "broad."
A year or so before Plato's birth, Pericles-the great statesman and democratic leader of Athens-died, leaving behind a reign that had fostered superb artistic achievements in architecture, sculpture, and literature and brilliant accomplishments in history and science. But Pericles also left behind a war between democratic Athens and Sparta, a nearby Greek city-state ruled by a military elite. This conflict for economic and ideological dominance, known as the Peloponnesian War (431-404 B.C.), ended in the defeat of Athens and brought to a close the Golden Age that Athens had known under Pericles' leadership.
Before their defeat the Athenians had thought that they were the most splendid of people, living as they did in a society devoted to intellectual and cultural pursuits, a democracy in which every male citizen had a voice in governmental policy (the many slaves in Athens-the human spoils of war-had no political voice, nor did women). The defeat by Sparta brought the Athenians to their financial knees, wounded their considerable pride, and caused them to distrust their social and political institutions.
At this time Plato was twenty-three years old and was disillusioned with the Athenian democratic government and the traditional form of Athenian education. Plato probably fought in the Peloponnesian War. Returning from war defeated, with hopes dashed for the continuation of a prosperous, powerful government, Plato turned to ideas on social and political reform. If times had been different he might have become a financier, a politician, or both. Instead he met Socrates, and with Socrates as his mentor, Plato became a philosopher.
The word philosophy comes from the Greek language and means "the love of wisdom." Socrates was a lover of wisdom, a seeker of truth. His primary mission, as revealed in Plato's writings, was to discover that which is true and good about human nature. He stalked the streets of Athens questioning the prominent citizens on their beliefs. He found that few people, including himself, knew much about what it was to live the Good Life. And he let the citizens know that he knew that they didn't really know what they were talking about, that their convictions were not based on sound logic. This behavior made him unpopular with a number of people, especially some influential older leaders. But the young Athenians richly enjoyed these conversations in the marketplace (called the agora), and thus Socrates acquired quite a following. Among his followers was the young Plato.
Socrates became a martyr. In 399 B.C., when Plato was about twenty-eight years old, the Athenian court sentenced Socrates to die. He was charged with corrupting the youth of Athens and with not believing in the traditional Greek gods. Apparently Socrates had angered too many prominent citizens and was, perhaps, influencing too many young men to question the political activities of the controlling powers.
Plato wrote many dialogues and in more than twenty of them Socrates is the main character. For example, in his dialogue the Apology Plato recounts the proceedings of Socrates' trial. In the Crito he dramatizes Socrates' reasons for not escaping from prison, when he had every opportunity. And in the Phaedo Plato presents, along with a discourse on death and immortality, a stirring account of Socrates' death by the poisonous hemlock. In Plato's most famous dialogue, The Republic, Socrates is portrayed in his middle years, perhaps fifteen or twenty years before his condemnation by the Athenian leaders.
Combined with the defeat of Athens and the reign of terror that existed in Athens for several years after the war, the circumstances of Socrates' death probably convinced Plato once and for all that governments are bad and will remain so until philosophers are kings. The Republic strongly argues that existing forms of government are neither appropriate for the human good, nor are they just. Plato asserts that philosophers must rule-only then will true justice prevail, only then will there be health in the souls of individuals and in the soul of the state.
After twenty-four centuries Plato continues to be one of the most celebrated, loved, and widely read philosophers in the Western world. Some scholars consider all philosophical writing since Plato's merely as footnotes to his thought. Ralph Waldo Emerson said, "Out of Plato come all things that are still written and debated among men of thought." Thus, to study Plato is to contemplate ideas that have fascinated, absorbed, and perplexed people for centuries; it is to have a grasp on wisdom.