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Plato, the son of Ariston and Perictione, was born in Athens in around 425 BC. It was an aristocratic family and he was descended from Solon (c. 638 BC – c. 558 BC) who it is believed laid the foundations for democracy to the city. Little is known of his early life but "he probably followed the normal educational path of a young aristocratic boy in poetry, music and gymnastics". (1) Plato's was praised for "his quickness of mind" and the "first fruits of his youth infused with hard work and love of study". (2)

Plato's biographer, Richard M. Hare, points out: "He (Plato) would have been old enough to witness with young and impressionable eyes the last scenes of a tragedy, the decline and fall of the Athenian Empire." (3)

As a young man Plato attended courses of philosophy, where he became acquainted with Cratylus (a disciple of Heraclitus, a prominent Greek philosopher). According to Aristotle, Plato was "persuaded of the truth of the Heraclitean doctrine that all sensible things (ie, things perceived by the senses) are ever passing away, so that if knowledge or thought is to have an object, there must be some other and permanent entities, apart from those which are sensible; for there can be no knowledge of things which are in a state of flux." (4) Plato also studied under Socrates, a man "for whom he had a profound affection and respect". (5)

In 404 BC a twenty-seven-year war between Athens and Sparta came to an end. Athens defeat was blamed on the city's experiment with democracy. That system was brought to an end and Sparta installed rule by a group of men who became known as the Thirty Tyrants. Two of the leaders of this group, Charmides and Critias, were Plato's uncles. This group of men maintained power for eight months. Though brief, their reign resulted in the killing of 5% of the Athenian population, the confiscation of citizens' property, and the exile of other democratic supporters. (6)

The regime was overthrown in 403 BC but it was not until 401 BC that democracy was fully restored. Understandably, the democrats felt very insecure and became concerned by Socrates who continued to teach people to ask questions about the political system. Another disadvantage for Socrates was that Critias had been one of his students. Another student, Alcibiades, had actually betrayed the city and fought on the side of the Spartans. Some claimed that intellectuals like Socrates were weakening Athenian society by undermining its traditional views and values. (7)

In 400 BC a man named Meletus brought the following indictment against Socrates: "Meletus son of Meletus of Pitthos has brought and sworn this charge against Socrates son of Sophroniscus of Alopeke: Socrates is a wrongdoer in not recognizing the gods which the city recognizes, and introducing other new divinities. Further, he is a wrongdoer in corrupting the young." (8)

The case came to trial before a jury of 500 citizens in the early spring of 399. Plato attended the trial and later provided a detailed account of the proceedings. According to Bettany Hughes he reports that "Socrates is insouciant, apathetic. Standing there in the packed courtroom in his shabby clothes... the master of words appears diffident, as if he has no taste for this particular drama, as if he perceives it all to be a sham... Athens has prided itself on its legal system, on its ability to being men to justice in front of their peers. But Socrates confesses that he had no time for such legalities." (9)

Accounts provided by people who knew him provide "a picture of a man of a certain type: a man very sure of himself, high-minded, indifferent to worldly success, believing that he is guided by a divine voice, and persuaded that clear thinking is the most important requisite for right living... in this last point, he resembles a Christian martyr... In the final passage, where he considers what happens after death, it is impossible not to feel that he firmly believes in immorality, and that his professed uncertainty is only assumed. He is not troubled, like the Christians, by fears of eternal torment: he has no doubt that his life in the next world will be a happy one." (10)

Plato reports Socrates as saying: "The fact is that this is the first time I have come before the court, even though I am seventy years old. I am therefore an utter foreigner as far as courtroom speaking goes. So now I make what I think is a fair request of you; disregard my manner of speaking. Pardon me as I speak in that manner in which I have been raised, just as you would if I really were a foreigner." (11)

Socrates was cross-examined about the rumour that he disbelieved in the traditional gods. He denied this charge, but not convincingly. There is no doubt that he had an unorthodox approach to divinity. The jury also disliked the way he talked about his "guardian spirit" or personal "divine sign". It has been argued: "The state alone had the power to say what was a suitable object for religious veneration; it had its own procedures for officially recognizing gods, and anyone who ignored them was in effect challenging the legitimacy of the democratic state." (12)

It is claimed that during the trial Socrates claimed that an intimate relation between self-knowledge and having one's soul in the best possible state. He advocated "care for intelligence and truth and the best possible state of one's soul" since "it is as a result of goodness that wealth and everything else are good for people in the private and in the public sphere". (13)

Socrates believed strongly that people who thought deeply about issues were incapable of making decisions that were not in their own self-interests. Therefore, the charge that he had corrupted his students, if true, "it must have been unintentionally, since if they were corrupted they would be harmful to him, and no one harms himself intentionally." (14)

According to one of Socrates' students, after speeches and production of witnesses by both sides the jury voted for the condemnation or acquittal. Socrates was found guilty by a majority of sixty (280 to 220). Once the verdict was reached each side spoke again to propose the penalty, and the jury had to decide between the two. The prosecution called for the death penalty. At first Socrates proposed that he be awarded free meals for life in the town hall. He was eventually persuaded to change his mind and he suggested a fine that was about eight years' wages for a skilled craftsman. He also said: "If you put me to death, you will not easily find anyone to take my place." (15)

Execution usually took place straight away. However, he was kept in prison for the next four weeks. It has been suggested by Plato that the authorities did not want Socrates to become a martyr and wanted to provide an opportunity to escape. His friend, Crito, encouraged Socrates to leave the city. He rejected this because he had "consistently remained in and enjoyed the benefits of Athens as an adult, he has thereby implicitly entered into an agreement with the state to abide by its laws (and thereby accept its authority over him) in exchange for those benefits. To evade its authority now, says Socrates, would be breaking that agreement and behaving unjustly." (16)

Socrates also took the view that he had a good and useful life and that he was not afraid of death: "No one knows with regard to death whether it is really the greatest blessing that can happen to a man, but people dread it as though they were certain that it is the greatest evil, and this ignorance, which thinks that it knows what is does not, must surely be ignorance most culpable... and if I were to claim to be wiser than my neighbour in any respect, it would be in this - that not possessing any real knowledge of what comes after death, I am also conscious that I do not possess it." If there were an afterlife, he added, he would get the chance to meet "heroes of the old days who met their death through an unfair trial, and to compare my fortunes with theirs - it would be rather amusing." (17)

Socrates accepted that he would have to die. For serious crimes, prisoners would be crucified. The other form of death was to drink ground-up hemlock, a very strong poison. Medical evidence suggests that this was an extremely painful death and was far more harrowing than the gentile and dignified end described by Plato in his account of Soctrates' final days. (18)

After the death of Socrates in 399 BC Plato published Apology of Socrates (c. 380 BC). The book is Socrates defence against the charges of "not recognizing the gods which the city recognizes" and of "corrupting the young." It also included the Socratic dialogues, with Euthyphro, Phaedo, and Crito. It has been argued by Anthony Gottlieb that there "are reasons to believe that in this work Plato tried harder to represent the real Socrates than he subsequently did elsewhere, though he did not necessarily try to reproduce his exact words." (19)

The book is generally regarded as a historical document. However, it was written around ten years after the trial and was not like "a stenographic report, but what remained in Plato's memory some years after the event, put together and elaborated with literary art. Plato was present at the trial, and it certainly seems fairly clear that what is set down is the sort of thing that Plato remembered Socrates as saying, and that the intention is broadly speaking, historical. This, with all its limitations, is enough to give a fairly definite picture of the character of Socrates." (20)

The author of The Dream of Reason: A History of Philosophy from the Greeks to the Renaissance (2000) agrees that Plato is the best witness we have for the ideas of Socrates: "Plato has by far the most to say on the subject, but as an objective guide to Socrates he suffers from the disability of having practically worshipped him. He is therefore likely to have exaggerated what he took to be his finest qualities. Also, in the course of some forty years of thinking and teaching, during which Plato's ideas naturally changed quite a lot, he paid Socrates the tribute of using him as a mouthpiece." (21)

Plato travelled around the Mediterranean in the years following the death of Socrates. This included a visit to Syracuse in Sicily, and got to know its ruler Dionysius the Elder. He was regarded as an example of the worst kind of despot cruel, suspicious and vindictive ruler in the ancient world. His son, Dionysius the Younger, became Plato's pupil. (22)

He later criticized this period of his life: "I found myself utterly at odds with this sort of life that is there termed a happy one, a life taken up with Italian and Syracusan banquets, an existence that consists in filling oneself up twice a day, never sleeping alone at night, and indulging in all the practices attendant on that way of living. In such an environment no man under heaven, brought up in self-indulgence, could ever grow up to be wise." (23)

Plato did not consider it safe to return until about 385 BC. Soon afterwards he founded one of the earliest known organized schools in Western Civilization on a plot of land in the Grove of Hecademus. It is believed that the name of the Academy comes from the ancient hero, Academus. His lectures and discussions were not, as a rule, public, and was in many ways like an exclusive club. Aristotle who became one of Plato's students in 367 BC. (24)

Plato's philosophical ideas was influenced by Athens' great rival, Sparta. Its capital was Laconia and it controlled south-eastern Peloponnese. Sparta was unique in ancient Greece for its social system and constitution, which organised their entire society to maximize their military power. The sole business of a Spartan citizen was war. The intensive training the soldiers received resulted in the belief that they had the best army in the classical world. This was confirmed in 404 BC when Sparta defeated Athens in the Peloponnesian War. (25)

Pausanias was the King of Sparta when Athens was defeated. Admiral Lysander, blockaded the port city of Piraeus. This action effectively closed the grain route to Athens through the Hellespont, thereby starving Athens. Realising the seriousness of the situation, the Athenian statesman, Theramenes, started negotiations with Lysander. These negotiations took three months, but in the end Lysander agreed to terms at Piraeus. Lysander then put in place a puppet government in Athens with the establishment of the oligarchy of the Thirty Tyrants. (26)

Plato was very interested in what made Sparta, a city-state with a smaller population (estimated 50,000 people) than Athens, able to be so successful. If the elders declared that the baby was too weak to be of benefit to the state it was condemned to death. The babies were left out in the wild to die from starvation, the cold, or being eaten by wild animals. It was only those judged to be healthy who were allowed to be reared. (27)

In Sparta there were two kings, belonging to two different families, and succeeding by heredity. One or other of the kings commanded the army in time of war, but in time of peace their powers were limited. They were members of the Council of Elders, a body consisting of 30 men. Other than the two kings they had to be over sixty and were elected for life, by all the citizens, but they had to come from Spartan aristocratic families. The Assembly consisted of all the citizens; it could not initiate anything, but could vote yes or no to any proposal brought before it. No law could be enacted without its consent. (28)

Women in Sparta had more rights than those in Athens. Spartan women could legally own and inherit property and they were usually better educated than in the rest of the Greek city-states. Girls went through the same physical training as was given to boys. According to Plutarch: "It was desired that the maidens should harden their bodies with exercise of running, wrestling, throwing the bar, and casting the dart... by gathering strength thus by exercises, should more easily away with the pains of child bearing... And though the maidens did show themselves thus naked openly, yet was there no dishonesty seen nor offered, but all this sport was full of play and toys, without any youthful part or wantonness." (29)

Up to the age of twenty, all the boys were trained in one large school. The purpose of the training was to make them hardy, indifferent to pain, and submissive to discipline. There was no cultural or scientific education; the sole aim was to produce good soldiers, devoted to the needs of the State. In return, the State promised that no Spartan citizen should be destitute, and none should be rich. Citizens were expected to live on the food that they produced. "None was allowed to own gold or silver, and the money was made of iron. Spartan simplicity became proverbial." (30)

John Bagnell Bury has argued that someone from Athens visiting Sparta at this time "must have had a feeling of being transported into an age long past, when men were braver, better and simpler, unspoiled by wealth, undisturbed by ideas." Plato admired Sparta for its stability. Whereas all the other city-states had revolutions, but the Sparta constitution remained unchanged for centuries. "To a philosopher, like Plato, speculating in political science, the Spartan State seemed the nearest approach to the ideal." (31)

Plato's most important work was The Republic (c. 375 BC). The book starts with an attempt to define "justice". In the book, Plato writes about Socrates discussing with various Athenians and foreigners about the meaning of justice and whether the just man is happier than the unjust man. This approach is later abandoned when Plato claims that it would be better to inquire what makes a just State than what makes a just individual. (32)

In the book Plato appears to be critical of the experiment in democracy in Athens. "Democracy... is a charming form of government, full of variety and disorder; and dispensing a sort of equality to equals and unequals alike." He then goes on to say: "Dictatorship naturally arises out of democracy, and the most aggravated form of tyranny and slavery out of the most extreme liberty." (33)

Plato then consider the natures of existing regimes and then propose a series of different, hypothetical cities in comparison, culminating in Kallipolis, a hypothetical city-state ruled by a philosopher king. They also discuss the theory of forms, the immortality of the soul, and the role of the philosopher and of poetry in society. Socrates is normally assumed to be Plato's own spokesman in the text. (34)

Plato attempts to describe the ideal society. He decides that the citizens are to be divided into three classes: the common people, the soldiers, and the guardians, the group with the political power. The guardians, small in number, will "come from the aristocracy and will usually succeed by heredity, but in exceptional cases a promising child may be promoted from one of the inferior classes, while among the children of guardians a child or young man who is unsatisfactory may be degraded." (35)

In the debate with Socrates, the philosopher, Thrasymachus (c. 459 BC - c. 400 BC) in The Republic, states that in Plato's utopia "justice is nothing else than the interest of the stronger". This idea is rejected because the guardians will make good decisions based on the needs of the whole of society: "There will be no end to the troubles of states, or of humanity itself, till philosophers become kings in this world, or till those we now call kings and rulers really and truly become philosophers, and political power and philosophy thus come into the same hands." (36)

In Plato's utopia there is to be rigid censorship from very early years over the literature to which the young have access. Teachers and mothers are to tell their children only authorized stories. Homer and Hesiod are not to be allowed, for a number of reasons. First they represent the gods as behaving badly on occasion. The young must be taught that the gods are only responsible for good things. Second, there are things in Homer and Hesiod which are calculated to make their readers fear death, whereas everything ought to be done in education to make young people willing to die in battle. Nor should they be told stories of good men crying over the death of loved ones. (37)

Education was vitally important in Plato's utopia. "It shows that Plato did not make the mistake for which Aristotle and others took the real Socrates to task, namely that of ignoring the role of character in determining moral behaviour. The guardians of The Republic would be virtuous, rational and generally benign because everything in their early life was designed to mould their characters to that end." (38)

Plato insisted that the guardians should not use their power for economic advantage. "Plato proposes a thoroughgoing communism for the guardians, and also for the soldiers, though this is not very clear. The guardians are to have small houses and simple food; they are to live as in a camp, dining together in companies; they are to have no private property beyond what is absolutely necessary. Gold and silver are to be forbidden. Though not rich, there is no reason why they should not be happy; but the purpose of the city is the good of the whole, not the happiness of one class. Both wealth and poverty are harmful, and in Plato's city neither will exist." (39)

Plato applies his communism to the family. Friends, he says, should have all things in common, including women and children. He admits that this presents difficulties, but thinks them not insuperable. One way of dealing with this problem is for women to have complete equality with men. For example, all girls are to have exactly the same education as boys, learning music, gymnastics, and the art of war along with the boys. "The same education which makes a man a good guardian will make a woman a good guardian; for their original nature is the same." (40)

In Plato's ideal society, mothers are to be between 20 and 40, fathers between 25 and 55. Outside these ages, intercourse is to be free, but abortion or infanticide is to be compulsory. At certain festivals, brides and bridegrooms, in such numbers as are required to keep the population constant, will be brought together, by lot, as they will be taught to believe; but in fact the rulers of the city will manipulate the lots of eugenic principles. They will arrange that the best sires shall have the most children. All children will be taken away from their parents at birth, and great care will be taken that no parents shall know who are their children, and no children shall know who are their parents. Deformed children, and children of inferior parents, "will be put away in some mysterious unknown place, as they ought to be." (41)

Bertrand Russell asks the question: "What will Plato's Republic achieve? It will achieve success in wars against roughly equal populations, and it will secure a livelihood for a certain small number of people. It will almost certainly produce no art or science, because of its rigidity; in this respect, as in others, it will be like Sparta. In spite of all the fine talk, skill in war and enough to eat is all that will be achieved. Plato had lived through famine and defeat in Athens; perhaps, subconsciously, he thought the avoidance of these evils the best that statesmanship could accomplish." (42)

Anthony Gottlieb takes a different view. "The real point of Plato's utopia is stated in the Republic itself by the character of Socrates. 'It makes no difference', he says, 'whether it exists now or will ever come into being.' The ideal city is intended as a subject for reflection and argument. By considering the Republic's discussion of it, a man can learn the truth about justice and about how to live; in particular, he will learn the truth of what the real Socrates was always claiming, namely that it is in one's own interest to be just." (43)

Plato died in about c. 348. When he died, he left the Academy not to any children of his own, but to his sister's son. This would suggest that he did not have a wife or children.

Unlike nearly all of his philosophical contemporaries, Plato's entire work is believed to have survived intact for over 2,400 years.

(1) Wise men speak because they have something to say; Fools because they have to say something.

(2) Human behavior flows from three main sources: desire, emotion, and knowledge.

(3) Ignorance, the root and stem of all evil.

(4) Thinking: the talking of the soul with itself.

(5) People are like dirt. They can either nourish you and help you grow as a person or they can stunt your growth and make you wilt and die.

(6) A good decision is based on knowledge and not on numbers.

(7) Dictatorship naturally arises out of democracy, and the most aggravated form of tyranny and slavery out of the most extreme liberty.

(8) We can easily forgive a child who is afraid of the dark; the real tragedy of life is when men are afraid of the light.

(9) If a man neglects education, he walks lame to the end of his life.

(10) Love is a serious mental disease.

(11) Courage is knowing what not to fear.

(12) Honesty is for the most part less profitable than dishonesty.

(13) For a man to conquer himself is the first and noblest of all victories.

(14) Good people do not need laws to tell them to act responsibly, while bad people will find a way around the laws.

(15) There will be no end to the troubles of states, or of humanity itself, till philosophers become kings in this world, or till those we now call kings and rulers really and truly become philosophers, and political power and philosophy thus come into the same hands.

(16) Democracy... is a charming form of government, full of variety and disorder; and dispensing a sort of equality to equals and unequals alike.

(17) The man who makes everything that leads to happiness depends upon himself, and not upon other men, has adopted the very best plan for living happily. This is the man of moderation, the man of manly character and of wisdom.

(18) One of the penalties for refusing to participate in politics is that you end up being governed by your inferiors.

(19) Rhetoric is the art of ruling the minds of men.

(20) When the tyrant has disposed of foreign enemies by conquest or treaty, and there is nothing more to fear from them, then he is always stirring up some war or other, in order that the people may require a leader.

(21) He who commits injustice is ever made more wretched than he who suffers it.

(22) Our object in the construction of the state is the greatest happiness of the whole, and not that of any one class.

(23) Knowledge which is acquired under compulsion obtains no hold on the mind.

(1) Bettany Hughes, The Hemlock Cup: Socrates, Athens and the Search for the Good Life (2011) pages xxx-xxxi

(2) Diogenes Laertius, Lives and Opinions of Eminent Philosophers (c. 330 AD)

(3) Richard M. Hare, Greek Philosophers (1998) page 107

(4) Aristotle, Metaphysics (c. 350 BC)

(5) Bertrand Russell, History of Western Philosophy (1946) page 122

(6) Peter Krentz, The Thirty at Athens (1982) page 50

(7) Anthony Gottlieb, The Dream of Reason: A History of Philosophy from the Greeks to the Renaissance (2000) pages 136-137

(8) C.C.W. Taylor, Greek Philosophers (1998) pages 14-15

(9) Bettany Hughes, The Hemlock Cup: Socrates, Athens and the Search for the Good Life (2011) page 329

(10) Bertrand Russell, History of Western Philosophy (1946) page 107

(11) Plato, Apology of Socrates (c. 380 BC)

(12) Anthony Gottlieb, The Great Philosophers: Socrates (1997) page 11

(13) Plato, Apology of Socrates (c. 380 BC)

(14) C.C.W. Taylor, Greek Philosophers (1998) page 22

(15) Plato, Apology of Socrates (c. 380 BC)

(16) Jean E. Hampton, Political Philosophy (1997) page 40

(17) Plato, Apology of Socrates (c. 380 BC)

(18) C.C.W. Taylor, Greek Philosophers (1998) page 16

(19) Anthony Gottlieb, The Dream of Reason: A History of Philosophy from the Greeks to the Renaissance (2000) page 138

(20) Bertrand Russell, History of Western Philosophy (1946) page 103

(21) Anthony Gottlieb, The Dream of Reason: A History of Philosophy from the Greeks to the Renaissance (2000) page 143

(22) Richard M. Hare, Greek Philosophers (1998) page 114

(23) Anthony Gottlieb, The Dream of Reason: A History of Philosophy from the Greeks to the Renaissance (2000) page 176

(24) Jonathan Barnes, Aristotle (2000) page 31

(25) Paul Cartledge, Sparta and Lakonia: A Regional History 1300 to 362 BC (2002) page 192

(26) Plutarch, Greek Lives (2008) pages 16-19

(27) Sarah Pomeroy, Spartan Women (2002) pages 34-35

(28) Bertrand Russell, History of Western Philosophy (1946) page 114

(29) Plutarch, Greek Lives (2008) page 23

(30) Bertrand Russell, History of Western Philosophy (1946) page 113

(31) John Bagnell Bury, A History of Greece to the Death of Alexander the Great (1900) page 141

(32) Bertrand Russell, History of Western Philosophy (1946) page 125

(33) Plato, The Republic (c. 375 BC)

(34) Colin Bird, An Introduction to Political Philosophy (2006) page 25

(35) Bertrand Russell, History of Western Philosophy (1946) page 125

(36) Plato, The Republic (c. 375 BC)

(37) Bertrand Russell, History of Western Philosophy (1946) page 135

(38) Anthony Gottlieb, The Dream of Reason: A History of Philosophy from the Greeks to the Renaissance (2000) page 184

(39) Bertrand Russell, History of Western Philosophy (1946) page 127

(40) Plato, The Republic (c. 375 BC)

(41) Plato, The Republic (c. 375 BC)

(42) Bertrand Russell, History of Western Philosophy (1946) page 131

(43) Anthony Gottlieb, The Dream of Reason: A History of Philosophy from the Greeks to the Renaissance (2000) pages 181-182

Intellectual Property

Intellectual property is generally characterized as non-physical property that is the product of original thought. Typically, rights do not surround the abstract non-physical entity rather, intellectual property rights surround the control of physical manifestations or expressions of ideas. Intellectual property law protects a content-creator&rsquos interest in her ideas by assigning and enforcing legal rights to produce and control physical instantiations of those ideas.

Legal protections for intellectual property have a rich history that stretches back to ancient Greece and before. As different legal systems matured in protecting intellectual works, there was a refinement of what was being protected within different areas. Over the same period several strands of moral justification for intellectual property were offered: namely, personality-based, utilitarian, and Lockean. Finally, there have been numerous critics of intellectual property and systems of intellectual property protection. This essay will discuss all of these topics, focusing on Anglo-American and European legal and moral conceptions of intellectual property.

Plato - History

The website is the home of the PLATO History Foundation and the archive for information about the history and significance of the PLATO computer system and its online community.

The Foundation's principal focus is to advance the public awareness of the history, significance, and importance of the PLATO computer system and its online community, and to tell the story of the people who designed, built, and used the system.

The PLATO system was created in 1960 at the University of Illinois. Initially it ran as a one-terminal system connected to the ILLIAC computer. By 1963, the system was running on a CDC 1604 with multiple simultaneous users. By 1972, the system had expanded to run a thousand simultaneous users on a CDC CYBER mainframe. Control Data Corporation began marketing PLATO commercially in 1976, resulting in PLATO system installations in dozens of cities around the world. Many of these systems were interconnected, enabling email and remote logins through the network. For nearly ten years, there were more users on PLATO than there were on ARPANET, the precursor to the Internet.

This site is maintained by Brian Dear, who has conducted years of research on the history of PLATO.


Plato is one of the most brilliant and far-reaching writers to have ever lived. Our very conception of philosophy—of rigorous thinking concerning the true situation of man, the nature of the whole, and the perplexity of being—owes a great debt to his work. No area of inquiry seems foreign to him: his writings investigate ethics, politics, mathematics, metaphysics, logic, aesthetics, and epistemology in tremendous depth and breadth. In the words of Alfred North Whitehead, “The safest general characterization of the European philosophical tradition is that it consists of a series of footnotes to Plato.”

There are few contemporary sources for the life of Plato. According to Diogenes Laertius, who lived many centuries later than the philosophers about whom he was writing, Plato was born to Ariston, an Athenian aristocrat who traced his lineage to Codrus, the king of Athens, and to Melanthus, the king of Messina. The family of his mother, Perictione, boasted a relationship with the great Athenian legislator Solon. Diogenes Laertius also reports that the philosopher’s name was Aristocles, for his grandfather, but that his wrestling coach dubbed him “Platon,” meaning “broad,” either on account of his robust physique, or the width of his forehead, or eloquence of his speech. And yet modern scholars are in doubt, since the name “Plato” was not uncommon in the Athens of Plato’s day.

Well before his encounter with Socrates, Plato was known to accompany philosophers such as Cratylus, a disciple of Heraclitus. Later in life, after the death of Socrates, Plato traveled around Egypt, Italy, Sicily, and Cyrene, Libya. Upon his return to Athens at around 40 years of age, Plato founded the first known institution of higher learning in the West, the Academy, named for its location in the Grove of Academus. The Academy was open until its destruction by Sulla in 84 BCE. It counts among its illustrious alumni many fine minds, but none more renowned than Aristotle.

After founding the Academy, Plato became involved in the politics of Syracuse. According to Diogenes, Plato visited Syracuse while it was under the rule of Dionysius. While there, Dionysius’ brother-in-law, Dion, became Plato’s disciple. Dion, however, later turned against Plato, selling him into slavery. During this time, Plato nearly faced death in Cyrene. Fortunately, chancing upon an admirer who purchased his freedom, Plato was spared and found his way home.

Upon the death of Dionysius, according to Plato’s account in his Seventh Letter, Dion requested that Plato return to Syracuse to tutor young Dionysius II. In another reversal of fortune, Dionysius II expelled his uncle Dion, and compelled Plato to remain. Plato would eventually leave Syracuse, while Dion later returned to Syracuse and overthrew Dionysius II, only to be usurped by Callipus, another disciple of Plato.

Ancient sources offer differing accounts of Plato’s death. According to one source, Plato died peacefully in his bed listening to the sweet sounds of a Thracian flute girl. Another source reports that he died while attending a friend’s wedding feast. Still another account simply says he died in his sleep.

Plato - History

Plato, along with Socrates, who was his teacher and mentor, remains one of the most influential of all Greek philosophers of antiquity. His school of thought continues to influence people many thousands of years after his passing. Plato was also instrumental in founding the Academy in Athens, which was the very first institution of higher learning ever established in the Western World.

Early Life of Plato

Plato was born sometime between 428 and 427 B.C. As is common among many of the great philosophers of his day, records about the birth and early life of Plato do not exist. They were either never recorded or they were lost or destroyed. Based on what is known about his early life, certain fragments can be compiled to craft a logical biography. In terms of where he was born, it is accepted he may have been born in Aegina, although there is no certainty to this assessment.

As a young man, Plato showed a high level of scholastic aptitude. In addition to the common studies a young man would be engaged in, Plato was also heavily involved with athletics and he did show a lot of skill in physical endeavors. It is believed he had taken part in the Isthmian games as well.

Meeting Socrates

Plato eventually began his study of philosophy and he did so long in advance of meeting Socrates. However, when he did become a student of Socrates, Plato’s life changed immensely. To great dismay, historians have never been able to actually ascertain the full relationship between Socrates and Plato.

How close the two became is not really known, although it is clear Plato was heavily influenced by Socrates to the point it is reasonable to conclude Socrates was his mentor. Plato also went on to document the trial of Socrates.

Socrates’ Influence on Plato

In his works, Plato often wrote from the perspective and voice of Socrates. This can sometimes create a bit of confusion over where the theories of Plato and Socrates begin and end. It would not be an outrageous assumption to infer that whatever sentiments expressed in a work authored by Plato are surely those themes and beliefs he strongly adhered to.

One of the more interesting aspects of Plato’s work is how he examined the relationship between a father and son and how it relates to the overall strong structure and foundation of society. In short, Plato believed the role a father played in terms of shaping the life of his son contributed greatly to how the young one turned out. A young man who was properly cared for as a youth would be more likely to grow up and be a responsible member of society.

Plato also is credited with creating theories surrounding Platonic realism, a philosophical examination of realism in regard to the existence of universals and seemingly abstract objects.

The theory of forms is another concept that is attributed to Plato. Within this theory, the notion is put forth that the belief in the real world is based solely on an image of the real world, and not what is actual reality.

Major Works of Plato

The Republic was the premiere major work of Plato and it is an expansive and influential presentation of a Socratic dialogue. The work examined the idea of justice from the perspective of the just man in relation to the just society. The more controversial aspect of the work is its suggestion that society might be best constructed when philosopher kings rule over society and make the decisions on behalf of the populace. This is a statist concept that is removed from the works of Enlightenment era philosophers, such as John Locke.

The other critical work that he compiled was the Socratic Dialogues, a treatise that examined virtue and asked poignant questions about whether or not it was possible to teach virtue. Other major works of Plato include Phaedo, Symposium, Parmenides, and more.

Platonic Solids

Plato the mathematician is perhaps best known for his identification of 5 regular symmetrical 3-dimensional shapes, which he maintained were the basis for the whole universe, and which have become known as the Platonic Solids: the tetrahedron (constructed of 4 regular triangles, and which for Plato represented fire), the octahedron (composed of 8 triangles, representing air), the icosahedron (composed of 20 triangles, and representing water), the cube (composed of 6 squares, and representing earth), and the dodecahedron(made up of 12 pentagons, which Plato obscurely described as “the god used for arranging the constellations on the whole heaven”).

The tetrahedron, cube and dodecahedron were probably familiar to Pythagoras, and the octahedron and icosahedron were probably discovered by Theaetetus, a contemporary of Plato. Furthermore, it fell to Euclid, half a century later, to prove that these were the only possible convex regular polyhedra. But they nevertheless became popularly known as the Platonic Solids, and inspired mathematicians and geometers for many centuries to come. For example, around 1600, the German astronomer Johannes Kepler devised an ingenious system of nested Platonic solids and spheres to approximate quite well the distances of the known planets from the Sun (although he was enough of a scientist to abandon his elegant model when it proved to be not accurate enough).

Early, Middle and Late Periods: An Overview

The first, or early, period occurs during Plato&aposs travels (399-387 B.C.E.). The Apology of Socrates seems to have been written shortly after Socrates&aposs death. Other texts in this time period include Protagoras, Euthyphro, Hippias Major and Minor and Ion. In these dialogues, Plato attempts to convey Socrates&aposs philosophy and teachings.

In the second, or middle, period, Plato writes in his own voice on the central ideals of justice, courage, wisdom and moderation of the individual and society. The Republic was written during this time with its exploration of just government ruled by philosopher kings.

In the third, or late, period, Socrates is relegated to a minor role and Plato takes a closer look at his own early metaphysical ideas. He explores the role of art, including dance, music, drama and architecture, as well as ethics and morality. In his writings on the Theory of Forms, Plato suggests that the world of ideas is the only constant and that the perceived world through our senses is deceptive and changeable.

Plato - History

Plato, 427?-347 B.C., Greek philosopher. In 407 B.C. he became a pupil and friend of Socrates. After living for a time at the Syracuse court, Plato founded (c.387 B.C.) near Athens the most influential school of the ancient world, the Academy, where he taught until his death. His most famous pupil there was Aristotle.

Plato's extant work is in the form of epistles and dialogues, divided according to the probable order of composition. The early, or Socratic, dialogues, e.g., the Apology, Meno, and Gorgias, present Socrates in conversations that illustrate his major ideas-the unity of virtue and knowledge and of virtue and happiness. They also contain Plato's moving account of the last days and death of Socrates.

Plato's goal in dialogues of the middle years, e.g., the Republic, Phaedo, Symposium, and Timaeus, was to show the rational relationship between the soul, the state, and the cosmos. The later dialogues, e.g., the Laws and Parmenides, contain treatises on law, mathematics, technical philosophic problems, and natural science.

Plato regarded the rational soul as immortal, and he believed in a world soul and a Demiurge, the creator of the physical world. He argued for the independent reality of Ideas, or Forms, as the immutable archetypes of all temporal phenomena and as the only guarantee of ethical standards and of objective scientific knowledge. Virtue consists in the harmony of the human soul with the universe of Ideas, which assure order, intelligence, and pattern to a world in constant flux. Supreme among them is the Idea of the Good, analogous to the sun in the physical world.

Historical Context for Plato's Republic

The second half of the 5th century BCE was a tumultuous period in Athens. It was both the golden age of Athenian democracy and power – under the rule of Pericles in the 440’s and 430’s democratic Athens was quickly transforming into a regional hegemon. Yet it was also a period in which the Athenian polis experienced a rapid decline. The Peloponnesian War (431-404) fought between Athens and a coalition of states led by its bitter enemy Sparta resulted in Athens’ defeat and the temporary overthrow of Athenian democracy which, for many, was ultimately responsible for the failure at war. Members of Plato’s family, though not Plato himself, were involved in the coup. While Plato’s writings are rooted in this dynamic political context, and the major themes we will encounter in the Republic such as his critique of democracy and of Athenian educators and poets cannot be fully appreciated outside it.

Death of Socrates by Jacque-Louis David, 1787 (Wikimedia Commons). In his Republic, Plato describes an ideal City in which a wise philosopher such as Socrates (about to be executed by Athens, here) would rule. Scholars concur that Plato authored 36 dialogues. The Republic is thought to have been written in what is called Plato’s middle period. In Greek, the title of the work is understood as Politea, which can be rendered something closer to “forms of government” or perhaps “constitution.” This later choice, constitution, seems to capture the text’s focus on the deep relationship between the vibrancy of the polis and political community and the flourishing of the individual. The Republic is encyclopediac, addressing in great depth and with wide reach the domains and spheres of philosophy, from education, to ethics, to politics, and beyond. Among the fundamental questions to ask in reading the text is why Plato deemed all these topics essential to the question of the just.

Unlike many other philosophers, Plato’s ideas are rarely explicitly or systematically set forth. Instead, Plato’s thought is conveyed through dialogues, in the model of Socratic inquiry, elenchus. and the literary scenes Plato narrates in which two or more interlocutors, never Plato himself, discuss a specific theme, be it courage, love, virtue, or the just, the focus of the Republic. The multiplicity of voices poses a major interpretive challenge. If two or more figures speak in a dialogue, how do we ascertain which view is Plato’s? Moreover, many of the dialogues end without a definite conclusion, what the Greeks termed aporia, in which case how do we understand what the dialogue was at all intended to convey? These challenges are in turn complicated by the fact that the main protagonist and interlocutor in Plato’s dialogues is his mentor Socrates, the enigmatic Athenian philosopher whose life and thought we know of primarily through Plato’s writings. If Socrates is the main figure in Plato’s dialogues, is he there then to speak for Plato himself? Is there a difference between Plato’s and Socrates’ thought? Or in other words, how are we to properly conceptualize the relationship between Socrates the mentor and Plato the student? These challenges have preoccupied scholars of Greek philosophy for centuries, and while they have no definite answers they nonetheless help to account for the richness that makes Plato’s texts so engaging.

Plato’s Republic, which discusses the meaning of justice and the structure of an ideal society and soul, is considered by many as the cornerstone of Plato’s corpus. The dialogue seems to deviate from most of Plato’s other works in that it explicitly lays out philosophical ideas. Parts of the books present Plato’s “theory of forms” according to which the material world is an image or copy of a higher, abstract and unchanging world, while other parts closely detail Plato’s view of an ideal political society. The apparently systematic qualities of the Republic have only amplified the interpretive challenges inherent in Plato’s works. Some scholars claim Plato’s vision of an ideal society in the Republic is not one he genuinely hoped would come to life or rather merely a caricature, a philosophical demonstration of the futility of political utopianism. Most commentators take Plato’s Republic to be a prescription for a model society, and either embrace or balk at its totalitarian overtones. Others see a nascent feminism in the text’s recommendation that women should be political leaders and also, on a more negative note, find in the text a forerunner of state sponsored eugenics.

About a third of the the Republic is dedicated to a fierce criticism of Athenian poets and their mythologies - why would a book about justice dedicate so much attention to art? For a book ostensibly about politics, why spend so much time talking about education? The Republic, which heavily criticizes myth, ends with a myth of its own known as the “Myth of Er” – what are we to make of this and how does this shape our understanding of Plato’s critique of mythology and the success of Socrates and his interlocutors in responding to Thraysmachus’ challenge? These are just some of the interpretive challenges that appear in the Republic, challenges to which a close reading perpetually yields new answers.

Written by Gil Rubin, Department of History, Columbia University

PLATO and the History of Education Technology (That Wasn't)

The computer scientist Bret Victor gave a keynote back in 2013 that I return to again and again. (See? Keynotes need not be a waste of time and energy!) In “The Future of Programming,” he offers a history of programming – or more accurately, a history of programming developments that were never widely adopted. That is to say, not the future of programming.

The conceit of Victor’s talk: he delivers it as if it’s 1973, using an overhead projector in lieu of PowerPoint slides, and the future he repeatedly points to is our present-day. With hindsight, we know that the computer languages and frameworks he talks about haven’t been embraced, that this future hasn’t come to pass. But as Victor repeats again and again, it would be such a shame if the inventions he recounts were ignored it would be a shame if in forty years, we were still coding in procedures in text files in a sequential programming model, for example. “That would suggest we didn’t learn anything from this really fertile period in computer science. So that would kind of be a tragedy. Even more of a tragedy than these ideas not being used would be if these ideas were forgotten.” But the biggest tragedy, says Victor, would be if people forgot that you could have new ideas and different ideas about programming in the first place, if a new generation was never introduced to these old ideas and therefore believed there is only one model of programming, one accepted and acceptable way of thinking about and thinking with computers. That these new generations “grow up with dogma.”

Victor mentions an incredibly important piece of education technology history in passing in his talk: PLATO (Programmed Logic for Automatic Teaching Operations), built on the ILLIAC I at the University of Illinois. PLATO, which operated out of the university’s Computer-based Education Research Laboratory (CERL) from 1960 to 1993, does represent in some ways a path that education technology (and computing technology more broadly) did not take. But if and when when its innovations were adopted (and, yes, many of them were), PLATO remained largely uncredited for its contributions.

PLATO serves in Victor’s talk as an example, along with Douglas Englebart’s NLS, of the development in the 1960s of interactive, real-time computing. In forty years time, Victor tells his imagined 1970s audience, our user interfaces will never have any delay or lag because of Moore’s Law and because “these guys have proven how important it is to have an immediately responsive UI” – a quip that anyone who’s spent time waiting for operating systems or software programs to respond can understand and chuckle remorsefully about.

This idea that computers could even attempt to offer immediate feedback – typing a letter on a keyboard and immediately seeing it rendered on a screen – was certainly new in the 1960s, as processing was slow, memory was minute, and data had to move from an input device back to a central computer and then back again to some sort of display. But the “fast round trip” between terminal and mainframe was hardly the only innovation associated with PLATO, as Brian Dear chronicles in his book The Friendly Orange Glow. That very glow was another one – the flat-panel plasma touchscreen invented by the PLATO team in 1967. There were many other advances too: the creation of time-sharing, discussion boards, instant messaging, a learning management system or sorts, and multi-user game-play, to name just a few.

The subtitle of Dear’s book – “The Untold Story of the PLATO System and the Dawn of Cyberculture” – speaks directly to his larger project: making sure the pioneering contributions of PLATO are not forgotten.

If and when PLATO is remembered (in education technology circles at least), it is as an early example of computer-assisted instruction – and often, it’s denigrated as such. Perhaps that should be no surprise – education technology is fiercely dogmatic. And it was already fiercely dogmatic by the 1960s, when PLATO was first under development. The field had, in the decades prior, developed a certain set of precepts and convictions – even if, as Victor contends in his talk at least, computing at the time had (mostly) not.

Dear begins his book where many histories of education technology do: with the story of how Harvard psychology professor B. F. Skinner had, in the late 1950s, visited his daughter’s fourth grade classroom, been struck by its inefficiencies, and argued that teaching machines would ameliorate this. The first mechanisms that Skinner built were not computerized they were boxes with levers and knobs. But they were designed to offer students immediate feedback – positive reinforcement when students gave the correct answer, a key element to Skinner’s behaviorist theories. Skinner largely failed to commercialize his ideas, but his influence on the design of instructional machines was significant nonetheless, as behaviorism had already become a cornerstone of the nascent field of educational psychology and a widely accepted theory as to how people learn.

At its outset, the Computer-based Education Research Laboratory at the University of Illinois did not hire instructional technologists to develop PLATO. The lab was not governed by educational psychologists – behaviorists or otherwise. The programming language that was developed so that “anyone” could create a lesson module on the system — TUTOR — did not demand an allegiance to any particular learning theory. As one education professor told Brian Dear, CERL did not operate “under any kind of psychological banner. They just didn’t seem to be driven by psychological underpinnings. They were driven by a more pragmatic approach: you work with students, you work with content, you work with the technology, you put it together in a way that feels good and it will work. Whether it’s consistent with somebody’s psychology is a quickly irrelevant question.”

But it seems more likely, if we examine the history of PLATO (and perhaps even the histories of education technology and of computing technologies), that this is not really an irrelevant question at all – not in the long run at least. Certainly, the open-ended-ness of the PLATO system, as well as the PLATO culture at UI, fostered the myriad of technological innovations that Dear chronicles in The Friendly Orange Glow. But the influence of psychology on the direction of education technology – and to be clear, this was not just behaviorism, of course, but cognitive psychology – has been profound. It shaped the expectations for what instructional technology should do. It shaped the expectations for what PLATO should be. (I’d add too that psychological theories have been quite influential on the direction of computing technology itself, although I think this has been rather unexamined.)

The Friendly Orange Glow is a history of PLATO – one that has long deserved to be told and that Dear does with meticulous care and detail. (The book was some three decades in the making.) But it’s also a history of why, following Sputnik, the US government came to fund educational computing. Its also – in between the lines, if you will – a history of why the locus of computing and educational computing specifically shifted to places like MIT, Xerox PARC, Stanford. The answer is not “because the technology was better” – not entirely. The answer has to do in part with funding – what changed when these educational computing efforts were no longer backed by federal money and part of Cold War era research but by venture capital. (Spoiler alert: it changes the timeline. It changes the culture. It changes the mission. It changes the technology.) And the answer has everything to do with power and ideology – with dogma.

Bret Victor credits the message and content of his keynote to computer scientist Alan Kay, who once famously said that “the best way to predict the future is to build it.” (Kay, of course, appears several times in The Friendly Orange Glow because of his own contributions to computing, not to mention the competition between CERL and PARC where Kay worked and their very different visions of the future). But to be perfectly frank, the act of building alone is hardly sufficient. The best way to predict the future may instead be to be among those who mythologize what’s built, who tell certain stories, who craft and uphold the dogma about what is built and how it’s used.

To a certain extent, the version of “personal computing” espoused by Kay and by PARC has been triumphant. That is, PLATO’s model – networked terminals that tied back to a central machine – was not. Perhaps it’s worth considering how dogmatic computing has become about “personal” and “personalization” – what its implications might be for the shape of programming and for education technology, sure, but also what it means for the kinds of values and communities that are built without any sort of “friendly glow.”


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