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date: 16 January 2021

Plato, life and worklocked

, c. 429–347 BCE
  • Julia Annas

Extract

Plato descended from wealthy and influential Athenian families on both sides. His own family, like many, was divided by the disastrous political consequences of the *Peloponnesian War. His stepfather Pyrilampes was a democrat and friend of *Pericles (1), but two of his uncles, *Critias and *Charmides, assisted the oligarchic revolution of 404. At some point Plato turned away from practical politics to philosophy. The major philosophical influence on his life was *Socrates, but in three important respects Plato diverged from the Socratic model. He rejected marriage and the family duty of producing citizen sons; he founded a philosophical school, the *Academy; and he published written philosophical works (as well as uttering some so-called ‘unwritten doctrines’, for which we have only secondary evidence, and which have been the focus of considerable speculation among some scholars).

Plato's written works take the form of *dialogues in which he does not himself appear, which has the effect of detaching the author from the arguments which are presented. Plato is unique among philosophers in this constant refusal to present ideas as his own, forcing the reader to make up his or her own mind about adopting them—a strategy which works best in the shorter dialogues where arguments are presented in a more lively way. For Plato this detachment and use of dialogue is not a point of style, but an issue of epistemology: despite various changes of position on the issue of knowledge, he remains convinced throughout that anything taken on trust, second-hand, either from others or from books, can never amount to a worthwhile cognitive state; knowledge must be achieved by effort from the person concerned. Plato tries to stimulate thought rather than to hand over doctrines.

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