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Born "Aristocles," but came to be known as "Platon," which means "broad." (It would be a nice story if this was in reference to my mind, but actually, they were talking about my shoulders.)
The Father of Western Philosophy
I was born in Athens, probably in 427 BCE (my memory is a little hazy at this point, as it's been a while). I've generally been a hometown boy—grew up in Athens, got my education there. But I'll admit there was a period when that hometown boy image was seriously in question. In my late twenties, I left dear old Athens for a dozen years and checked out foreign lands. Why? Dude, they had just killed Socrates, the wisest and best man that ever lived! What was I supposed to do—throw a toga party?
So I traveled to Cyrene (in present-day Libya), to southern Italy, and even to Egypt. Met all kinds of crazy people along the way, but some interesting ones, too (like the Pythagoreans). In in the end, I came back to my Athens, opened up my own school, and stayed there till I kicked the bucket.
I was born into a very aristocratic family—the crème de la crème of Athenian society. Did I mention that already? Well, I hope you appreciate who you're dealing with here.
Like a lot of young aristocrats, I envisioned for myself a life in politics. That was the original plan, anyway. But then I met Socrates, and he pretty much turned my world upside down. He showed me that you didn't have to engage in politics—you could just think about it (which has the advantage of far less shaking of hands and kissing of babies). And there were a lot of other subjects to think about as well. It was all so grand!
I was definitely having my doubts about a political career at that point. And then the worst thing happened: Athens sentenced my beloved teacher to death. That sealed it: no more involvement in the corrupt realm of politics for me. Instead, I decided to pursue a career as a writer. But I didn't just want to write dull scientific treatises like my philosophical predecessors. No, I incorporated my love of drama and wrote philosophical dialogues—beautiful works of literature (which, properly educated as I was, I pronounced "lit-chrechure"). People loved my writing…although I'm pretty sure they never understood it.
But I was interested in doing more than just writing; I wanted to teach, too. You think it's hard to get a job in academia these days? See how much luck you have in the middle of the 4th century BCE. When I got back from my travels abroad, teaching jobs were so scarce, I finally had to found my own university. In fact, I even had to invent the very concept of a university! Although that makes me wonder…can you really invent a concept? (Note to self: explore that question in new dialogue.)
Anyway, that venture turned out to be pretty successful. The Academy that I founded and taught at was the world's first institute of higher learning, and it lasted for about 300 years. (You know how they call it "academia" today? That's because of me. You're welcome.)
You might think that would be enough to keep me occupied, but I admit I never entirely abandoned my interest in politics. And so, as I describe at some length in the Seventh Letter, around the time I turned 40, I had a killer idea. Earlier, I had befriended a king named Dionysus who lived in Syracuse, Sicily. It hit me that I could educate him—I could train Dionysus to be just the kind of philosopher king that I had written about in the Republic. Great plan, huh?
Well, apparently some things sound a lot better in theory than they work out in practice.
It turned out that Dionysus was arrogant and a terrible student—and paranoid to boot. He was often suspicious of me and generally dissed me pretty badly. I tried for a long time, but eventually I realized this was not going to work. When I finally got out of Syracuse, I decided I would just stick to writing and teaching from then on.
I come from a long line of aristocrats and was given just the sort of top-notch education that someone of my class would generally receive. I don't remember the exact details, but along the way, I studied the works of Cratylus, Pythagoras, and Parmenides, some of the finest philosophers of the day. Shockingly, I never went to college. There was, however, good reason for that—namely, college didn't exist. I took care of that lack later on, founding the first institute of higher learning.
My education didn't stop in my adolescence, though. There were all those years in my 20s hanging around with this guy named Socrates—have you heard of him? That time was critical. But also I studied lots of exotic subjects in my subsequent travels: mathematics with the Pythagoreans in Italy; astronomy, geometry, and religion in Egypt. In short, I became a pretty well-rounded guy.
You think you're going to get a straight answer on this one? Dream on! Look, I saw my mentor get killed—murdered by the state!—because of politics. I'm not one to blab on in public about my political beliefs. Instead, I will, as is my fashion, give you some hints about what my views might be and lead you to draw your own conclusions.
I am an aristocrat (did I mention that?) and it does seem that I prefer an aristocracy—that is, rule by the ariston, the best. So what does that mean? Well, in the way I work it out in the Republic, it does sound just a little bit like a totalitarian state. Ideally—this is my ideal anyway—there would be no private life, but instead, everyone would live together in a big, strictly regulated commune, with their occupations and even their sexual partners determined by the rulers (who are carefully selected in childhood and given the very best educations).
Sounds great, doesn't it?
Not everyone thinks I mean it seriously. Yes, it's true that, on the surface, I'm pretty hostile to democracy. Okay, very hostile: democracy, as rule by the ignorant "many," is ranked next to the bottom in my list of regimes, coming in ahead only of tyranny. But if you read very carefully between the lines and see just how ironic I can be, you might conclude that maybe I think my "ideal" regime is no more than a utopian nightmare and that actually democracy is about the best we can do. Just how tricky am I?
Well, to further complicate things, in the Laws, I describe another ideal state, which sounds rather different than the one you find in the Republic. It's somewhat less strict than the Republic's regime (which, admittedly, is not saying much), with some allowance for families and for private property…though it's still pretty authoritarian. Did I change my mind about my political views? Do I mean any of it at face value? You be the judge.
You're going to find it even harder to get a clear answer on this topic than asking me about my politics. Look, if you want someone who's going to spill their guts about every little thing they think and feel, go talk to Jennifer Lawrence (besides, she's a lot cuter than I am).
So what are my religious beliefs? Don't you think you should first define the term "religion," if you want a precise answer? (I am a philosopher, you realize.) Well, all right, I'll make this as simple as I can. I do talk about the gods and mythology a lot. But unless you're really dense, you will notice that I significantly change how the immortal beings are to be understood. All this traditional stuff about the Olympian gods scheming and fighting and being jealous—is this any way for a supposed divine being to behave? I suggest that gods should be understood as perfect and unchanging, as true moral exemplars. No more fighting, no more shape shifting.
You might even say—and many have said—that in the end I pretty much abandon the notion of divine beings. My substitute is something more like ideal concepts or principles—perfect justice, perfect virtue, perfect goodness, and so on. This goes along with my argument in the Euthyphro that it is reason, not conjecture about the will of the divine, that ultimately discerns what is right and wrong. So it begins to sounds as if my "religion" is more like a very high-minded conception of morality.
But if you think that's the final word on the matter, then you still don't get me. You see, I also talk a lot about subjects that have nothing to do with morality in the ordinary sense—reincarnation, the immortality of the soul, and the necessity of purifying oneself. These beliefs aren't found in traditional Greek religion either, but instead, are part of the "mystery cults"—the secret underground religious orders into which one had to be specifically initiated.
In other words, you could argue that, rather than being ultra-intellectual, my real religious commitments run in the direction of mysticism.
So which is it? I'm afraid you're going to have to be the judge. (Detecting a pattern here?)