Plato of Athens by Robin Waterfield review

Well-researched and attractively written, Plato of Athens: A Life in Philosophy by Robin Waterfield grapples with a life that left few records.

A white marble Roman head of Plato, 3rd century AD.
Head of the Greek philosopher Plato, worked for insertion into a Roman statue, mid-3rd century A.D. The J. Paul Getty Museum, Villa Collection, Malibu, California. Public Domain.

Plato was so devoted to the memory of his teacher Socrates, who in his view had been unjustly executed by his fellow Athenians, that he spent much of his life writing and disseminating his thoughts through Socrates’ voice rather than his own. Just as Christianity might have looked very different had it not been for St Paul’s writings and teachings, the nature of Greek (and subsequent Western) philosophy would have looked very different had it not been for Plato’s advocacy of what he presented, at least initially, as the thoughts and methods of his teacher. From Plato’s extensive writings, along with those of Xenophon and a few other contemporary and later sources, we can construct a reasonably full biography of Socrates, culminating with his trial and execution. We also get a strong sense of Socrates’ personality, as a challenging and ironic interlocutor and a tough, courageous soldier. But what of Plato himself? Did Socrates’ most adept pupil also live a life worth recording and describing?

The idea of subjecting Plato to biographical treatment seems unpromising. Evidence for his life is scarce or uncertain. He passed most of his later years ‘in the groves of Academe’ – the Academy that he founded as a school of philosophy. As Robin Waterfield tells us in this well-researched and attractively written book, ‘the last dedicated biography in English of any length was published in 1839’. There are grounds for renewing the attempt, especially if one argues (as Waterfield does) that at least some of the 13 letters attributed to Plato that have survived are from the philosopher’s own hand.

Plato’s long Seventh Letter in particular has been considered spurious, but there is a growing consensus that it is a genuine and crucial document of Plato’s experiences. In it, Plato describes how he attempted to put his political theories into practice by travelling to Sicily to educate Dionysius II, the tyrant of Syracuse, about how a just and harmonious city-state should be run. The attempt was a failure, with Plato suffering the disillusionment of learning that his ideas could not compensate for the capricious nature of a tyrant. The episode, however, in addition to testimonies about Plato’s earlier foray to Sicily (during which he was allegedly captured and ransomed by pirates), supports Plato’s assertion that he was for many years intent on a career of political action rather than philosophical investigation.

That proposition underpins a biography of Plato that was published in 1919 by the eminent Prussian philologist Ulrich von Wilamowitz-Moellendorff (which, surprisingly, is not mentioned in this book). Wilamowitz’s imaginative depiction of Plato and his world raised scholarly eyebrows at the time; but the Oxford Hellenist E.R. Dodds noted that ‘the enduring importance of Wilamowitz’s “biographical novel” or “Plato for housemaids” (as the stuffier sort of critics called it) is that it has compelled subsequent writers to think of Plato as a man and not as a self-generating system of metaphysics’. The latter impression tends to make an appearance from time to time in Waterfield’s account. While he discusses the Sicilian adventures, he is more comfortable talking about the corpus of philosophical dialogues (28 of which he considers genuine) than about Plato as a person. While we learn about Plato’s close friendship with the mathematician-inventor Archytas of Tarentum, it’s a shame that no mention is made of his most sensational invention – a mechanical bird that flew using steam power – presumably because Plato nowhere mentions it himself.

The biographical vexations that arise are illustrated by the opening line of the first chapter: ‘Plato was born in the Athenian year 428/7 bce.’ Just two pages later we learn that this confident assertion is incorrect: 424/23 is a more likely date for his birth. We know the names of Plato’s parents, brothers and stepfather, but nothing about their role in his life. We know even less about his friendship circle, though ‘as a high-born youth, it is very likely that Plato had a male lover as a patron’. Plato never married, and his sexuality remains opaque; we don’t know what he looked like; about his education and religious practices we can only make assumptions. He ‘certainly had a sense of humor’. One senses a tug of frustration, as evoked by Auden’s questions about the ‘Unknown Citizen’:

‘Was he free? Was he happy? The question is absurd:
Had anything been wrong, we should certainly have heard.’

The assertion of any kind of certainty is risky. While the sophist Protagoras may, or may not, have been impeached for atheism, for instance, ‘it is certain that another of Pericles’ associates (a kinsman by marriage), the Athenian musicologist and political theorist Damon, was banished “for seeming to be too much of an intellectual”’. Plutarch tells us this in his Life of Aristeides, written around ad 100. But even given the few ostraka (potsherds used for ostracism) bearing Damon’s name, how credible is Plutarch’s statement? Since one must rely on such circumstantial evidence
to elicit much of Plato’s experience, more searching questions might be in order. If Plato met Socrates when he was about 16 (around 408 bc), surely he knew more than he says about Socrates’ unprecedented act of civic duty as presiding officer of the Council in 406 bc?

In that role, Socrates sought vainly to argue that the generals accused of abandoning the dead after a naval battle should be tried not en masse but individually. One of those was Pericles Junior, son of Pericles by the intellectual Aspasia – a woman well known to Socrates and possibly also to Plato, who depicts her in an early dialogue, the Menexenus. Waterfield dismisses the Menexenus as ‘perhaps no more than a jeu d’esprit’, and mentions Aspasia once in passing. But did Plato know that Socrates had volunteered for duty in the hope of saving Aspasia’s son? Did he suppress that knowledge to avoid, say, tainting Socrates with a personal motive? What else, one might ask, did Plato suppress and why? But perhaps such thoughts are best left to a ‘Plato for housemaids’.

Plato of Athens: A Life in Philosophy
Robin Waterfield
Oxford University Press, 240pp, £21.99
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Armand D’Angour is Professor of Classics at Jesus College, Oxford.