Aristotle Biography 4: Athens


The life and time of the Greek Philosopher


  • Women
  • Classes
  • Schools
  • Isocrates
  • Plato
    • Syracuse
    • Plato's works
    • Plato's rebuttal of the written word
  • Grandfathers

Athens, to which Aristotle traveled, was by far the most populated city in the region. Already in the beginning of the 5th century BC it had reached 100,000 inhabitants. Among Greek cities, a population of more than 40,000 was very rare, since most of those reaching half of that would found a new city. The majority of the city-states, polis, were much smaller, still having their own laws and rulers — all in all around 1,500 of them.

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       Athens was not bound by its city walls. A significant part of the population lived in the rural areas outside of it. The constant wars took their toll — Aristotle estimated that about 2000 inhabitants of Athens died in battle each year, a number that does not seem unlikely to modern research, although it is hard to say how Aristotle can have reached it.

       Plato would have had his ideal republic significantly smaller than Athens. His city-state should have no more than 5,040 (a number easily divisible) citizens, that is heads of households, which would make a total of somewhere around 20,000 inhabitants.

       At its height, Athens reached a population of about 200,000, whereof a majority lacked citizenship. About one third of the adult males were citizens, with the exclusive right to own land, enter the government, et cetera.

       In 451/450 BC a law was passed, which stated that for a man to be citizen, both parents must be Athenian — the father a proper citizen and the mother, since women were not counted as citizens, still clearly Athenian, which would probably mean Athenian parents. An unplanned consequence of the law was that maternal lineage became important, and therefore a female citizenship of sorts was at least implied.


The women of Ancient Greece did not have much — no citizenship, no vote, no school, no office, and so on. This is sadly recognized also from other periods in history, and other regions. Upon close examination, though, the picture is usually altered considerably. I don't know that it has been done sufficiently with Ancient Greece, but in cultures and periods scrutinized, women's roles emerge with far more significance than they were traditionally granted in a history written exclusively by men.

       It is quite simple: where there is a clearly defined male culture in a society, there is a female one as well — often impenetrable to men, and therefore not documented in their writings.

       Ancient Greece cannot have been different in that respect. The few women who emerge from what sources we have, seem not at all to have been passive victims, paralyzed by a male society preoccupied by mirroring itself. On the contrary, the glimpses we have of historical women, as well as fictional ones in the Greek dramas, are strikingly impressive characters of no less pride and potency. We have to search to find, but when we do, I am sure that it will be an abundance.

       The male citizenship, for example, should probably not be interpreted as solely a way of degrading women, but a practical way of relating that honor to a family instead of individuals. One representative of the family. As in any case of representation, though, it developed into a situation where the representatives took more care in representing each other, than their families — wherever there was a conflict of interest between the two. Representative democracy has not changed much since, in that respect.

       Women were not allowed in the schools, or at least not readily invited. Some still went, even if they had to dress like men to do so. Two are mentioned as students of Plato — Lastheneia of Mantinea and Axiothea of Phlius, the latter in men's clothing but the former probably not. Yet, this does not mean that women were depraved of an education, though perhaps not an institutionalized one. When men were teaching men, and writing home about it, women were certainly doing the same to other women — with their doors closed to the men. There, they may have laughed at Plato's and Aristotle's low views of women in comparison to the limited experience they had of them.

       For one woman Plato had the highest esteem, quoted as stating: "Some say there are nine Muses; but they should stop to think. Look at Sappho of Lesbos; she makes a tenth."

       When it came to marriages, which were mostly arranged, men tended to enter them at about the age of thirty, while women did so already at 15 or 16. This implies a lot. Whatever they allowed themselves beforehand, and Greek society seems to have preferred pre-marital sex within the gender, men had scarce experiences of the opposite sex before they were well into their adult life, whereas the women commenced that particular education already in their formative years. They must have been much more knowledgeable about their counterparts, and knowledge is power.

       So is age, but with a significant shortcoming. The men may have guaranteed their superiority — of sorts — when marrying teens, but as the years passed, they would increasingly find themselves weakened, deteriorating hostages to women in their prime. And there must have been a multitude of widows about, carrying the burdens as well as the resources of their whole family, especially in a society frequently losing parts of its male population to war. Even when remarrying, their positions were quite something else from what they were served in their first marriages.

       A tell-tale example of women's true position in Ancient Greece is a will written in 284 BC, between a Dionysius and his wife Callista, none of them with a noted historical significance. In this will, which they both agree on, they state that each shall inherit the spouse's properties in case of death, and there is no difference between them. If the remaining spouse also dies, the properties go to their sons: "should aught happen to Dionysius, he shall leave the property to all his sons. In like manner Callista, should aught happen to her, shall leave the property to all her sons."

       Notice that the sons, presumably the same boys in both cases, are called his and hers, according to whose death it relates to. Likewise, I would say that much of the Greek culture, when seeming exclusively male, will at closer inspection reveal itself to be a practical way of speech.

       In reporting the lineage of a person, historians and others in antique times usually took care also to state the mother and her background, as in the cases of Aristotle and Plato. This, too, indicates another level of importance granted the women of antique Greece, than what has been assumed by later historians.

       Considerable injustices remain, of course. For instance, if the couple above had daughters, of which we know nothing, they seem to be left without a share. They would probably have to do with what was arranged as their dowry. This, Aristotle was careful to arrange in his will. I suspect that the couple above had no daughters, at least none still unmarried.

       The will also gave the sons reason for alarm. It states that they should contribute if the parents would become in need or in debt, when alive. Anyone refusing, "shall forfeit 1000 drachmae of silver and there shall be right of execution on him who is insubordinate." If the parents had a debt in death, though, the sons were free to refuse the inheritance.


The Greek democracy, commenced by Cleisthenes in 508 BC, was a fragile thing, again and again interrupted by oligarchy or a tyrant. In times of social distress, particularly, the people was sometimes anxious to find a strong leader, if there was one who seemed apt to solve the problems at hand. These swings were to quite an extent related to the ongoing conflict between Athens and Sparta, so that when the former dominated, demos tended to rule, and in the case of the latter, oligarchs.

       The citizens of Athens were a force necessary to consider, even for tyrants, and this force was quite unpredictable — easily convinced by one skilled orator, just to make a full turn at the words of another. Officials who did not manage that well, met with the temper of the citizens. This could also happen to someone uttering a view contrary to that of the majority. The sad fate of Socrates was not the only outcome in such a case. Ostracism, the expulsion of a citizen for ten years from Athens, was introduced in 487 BC. The decision needed 6000 ballots. Those ostracized had to stay away for a full decade, but they kept their citizenship and their property.

       The Greek society was certainly not democratic in any modern meaning. Using a term of a meaning given more than 2,000 years later, it can be readily described as a society of classes, differing much in influence and means. Apart from the clear grading of gender, with the men in every way privileged above the women, there are other levels in which to divide the population of the city-state, somewhat similar to classes.

       The rulers and their immediate families were the highest, and whatever the form of government at the time, they mostly kept the highest offices within their group. Next in line were those related to the former, though with some distance. After those, the citizens with both wealth and functions of some distinction, then those without one or the other, then those lacking both, then the ones also lacking citizenship, though managing well if they were wealthy or trusted with some important function, and finally the slaves.

       With the trio of philosophers connected in this text, there is a significant difference in classes. Plato belonged to the highest citizens of Athens, which had been ruled by relatives of his. Socrates seems to have been of a much less significant family, his father a mason and his mother a midwife. Suidas in his Lexicon states that Socrates started in his father's profession, but switched to philosophy when hearing Anaxagoras of Clazomenae. In a way, then, he began with his father's profession, but when becoming a teacher of the young approached that of his mother.

       Although no nobleman at birth, it is likely that Socrates was a citizen of Athens, something out of reach for Aristotle, who came from up north. His good connection was with Macedonian royalty, not at all the elite of Athens.

       This must have been frustrating to him, spending such a large portion of his life in Athens, and having the school of his making there. He left the city twice — first at Plato's death, which indicates that his teacher was also his protector in the city with little patience toward strangers. The next time he left Athens was at the death of Alexander III, which was quickly followed by Athenian hostility against anything Macedonian, and that led to the threat of a trial against Aristotle.

       So, although he lived most of his life in that city, contributing to its education and intellectual refinement, Aristotle was little but tolerated by the citizens, and had no chance of significantly altering their attitude to him. On the contrary, he had to be very careful not to provoke them, and to still his tongue when leaving the compound of the Academy, or later his Lyceum. For a man with as many views as his, that must have been a torment.



The concept of philosophical schools on fixed locations, was born in this period. Before that, sophists traveled about — either locally, like Socrates, or from one city to another. Athens in that time had two significant schools. One was that of Isocrates, devoted to rhetoric training — a skill of vast importance in the Greek world of that time, with a possibility of both fame and fortune for those most prominent at it. The other school was Plato's, formed just above twenty years before Aristotle arrived, giving its students a wider education with a mathematical basis. There was distinct rivalry between the schools, whereof that of Isocrates was the most successful. But Aristotle ended up in Plato's school, whether that was decided already at his departure from Stagira or his own choice when comparing the schools.

       Aristotle might have been set on Plato's school and its curriculum, which would have fitted somewhat better with his ancestry of physicians. Also, he started in the Academy although its prominent leader was absent at the time Aristotle arrived, which hints a conviction surpassing the circumstances of that moment. Both the prominent schools in Athens were very much framework and stage for their leading teacher, so if Aristotle had not made up his mind before arriving, it would have been tempting to enroll in the school with its central teacher present.

       Plato was at this time about 60 years of age, and his Academy had existed for two decades, since 388 BC, so he was definitely well-established in the Greek world. Aristotle, from an educated family with some means, was very likely to have come across some of Plato's writing already in Stagira. At 17, Aristotle was a young man, with years of study already behind him. He would not have gone to Athens without significant knowledge of its major teachers and their thoughts. If the choice of teacher had been made for him by his guardian Proxenus, it must have been one to Aristotle's liking, since he remained with Plato until the death of the latter.

       Yet, it is more likely that Aristotle did himself have a significant say in the choice of teacher. Already he had strayed away from the medical profession, or he would have remained at home — especially since neither Plato nor Isocrates had a reputation for any extraordinary medical knowledge. His guardian neither being his father nor a man of equal stature to the former doctor of the Macedonian king, Aristotle would have had no problem making up his own mind. Since he remained in Athens for so long, it is also clear that Aristotle did not have a specific future prepared for him in his native town, nor can he have been of minute economical means. He would be free to follow his own will, which he did.

       If we assume that Aristotle was already familiar with Plato's thoughts through his writings, it would not have made much difference to him that the teacher was gone at the time of his arrival to Athens. He knew what to expect, and patiently awaited it.

       On Aristotle's arrival, Eudoxus of Cnidos (408-355 BC) was leading the school, a teacher in his own right, who had formed a successful school in Cyzicus of northwest Asia Minor. Apart from his study under Plato, Eudoxus had a Pythagorean education and a special interest in mathematics and astronomy.

       Plato was away to Syracuse (367/366-365 BC), in an effort to educate its young new ruler Dionysius II, and try to make reality of his political ideals. This was not successful. He returned to Athens, leaving little of a mark behind him in Syracuse, except the ambiguous but persistent interest of its ruler.

       It is generally supported in the literature on Aristotle, that Plato was in Sicily when he arrived to Athens, but it is not certain. Aristotle got to Athens somewhere in 367-366 BC, and Plato left for Syracuse in 367 or 366. It is possible that they met before Plato's departure, but they would hardly have had the time to get to know each other properly, before Plato's journey. And again: it is quite probable that Aristotle did indeed arrive when Plato was gone.

       If so, that must have been a disappointment to Aristotle. Although philosophers often reached a baffling high age, Ancient Greece was not much safer to them than to any other. Mingling in politics, as Plato did in Sicily, was a risky business indeed, and Plato had moments when the ruler Dionysius II was very near of having his life ended. Aristotle could not have waited in any comfort for Plato's return. Instead, he must have worried about never getting to meet the distinguished philosopher at all.



Isocrates (436-338 BC) was the fourth among the ten Attic orators, the son of a wealthy flute manufacturer. He was taught by Prodicus, Protagoras, Theramenes, Gorgias, and to some extent Socrates. He opened his successful school of rhetoric about 392 BC, just a few years before Plato did the same. Its many students gave him considerable wealth. The total number of his pupils has been given at one hundred, including Timotheus, son of Conon, the orators Isaeus, Hyperides and Lycurgus, and the historians Ephorus and Theopompus. Each pupil paid him 1000 drachmae.

       He attempted to influence the political world by his writing, in a series of rhetorical declamations, intended to be read instead of spoken. There were sixty works bearing his name known to antiquity, less than half considered genuine. Some remain today.



Plato (428-347) was born at Athens, or nearby Aegina, of an aristocratic Athenian family. His father Ariston was a descendant of Solon's brother Exekestiades, and his mother Perictione was the sister of Charmides and cousin of Critias. When Plato was still a boy, his father died and his mother remarried to her uncle Pyrilampes. He had two brothers and a sister, Potone, the mother of Speusippus, who was to be Plato's closests pupil at the Academy, and its head after Plato's death.

       His name was originally Aristocles, after his grandfather, but he was to be called Plato, perhaps because of his broad (platus) forehead or his broad shoulders. According to Plutarch he was humpbacked, which might be a consequence of a long life of reading and writing. Other sources, on the contrary, describe him as quite athletic and of noble appearance.

       In his youth, says Heraclides according to Diogenes Laertius, "he was so modest and orderly that he was never seen to laugh outright." Diogenes Laertius has it from several sources that Plato had a weak voice, which seems odd with a man to spend his life giving lectures. A quote from Timon, also in the book by Diogenes Laertius, puts it differently, when describing the Academy: "Amongst all of them Plato was the leader, a big fish, but a sweet-voiced speaker, musical in prose as the cicala who, perched on the trees of Hecademus (Academy), pours forth a strain as delicate as a lily." We dare conclude that Plato's voice may have been low, but still caught the ears of his listeners. Perhaps he spoke softly as a method to capture the attention of his students, forcing them to come near and listen attentively.

       In his youth, Plato trained gymnastics, with such prowess that he entered a public contest. He studied painting and music, but his favourite was poetry. He made attempts in heroic verse, lyric poetry and dramatic composition. He wrote a tetralogy, consisting of three separate tragedies and one satyric drama, but a short time before the festival of Dionysus, when his pieces were to be performed, he happened to hear Socrates, and was so captivated that he abandonded poetry, and turned to philosophy. Reportedly, he threw his poetic writing to the fire.

       There are some few fragments remaining of Plato's lyrical efforts, written well after Socrates made him change his path. Diogenes Laertius mentions a fellow student of astronomy, named Aster, which means 'star', something that Plato played with in an affectionate verse to him: "Thou gazest at the stars, my star; would I were Heaven, that I might gaze at thee with many eyes!" Equally passionate are these words to Agathon, though they may be Plato personating Socrates, like in the dialogues: "When I kiss Agathon my soul is on my lips, whither it comes, poor thing, hoping to cross over."

       To his mistress Archeanassa, he wrote with a daring reference to the marks of ageing: "My mistress is Archaenassa of Colophon, on whose very wrinkles there is bitter love." Ageing is also a central theme, if not an argument, in the words to another lady: "I am an apple; one that loves you casts me at you. Say yes, Xanthippè; we fade, both you and I." Similar arguments of seduction are also shown in: "I cast the apple at you, and if you truly love me, take it and give me of your maidenhood; but if your thoughts be what I pray they are not, then too take it and consider how short-lived is beauty."

       Plato was twenty years of age when he became a pupil of Socrates. They may have been acquainted through relations, since Plato's uncle Charmides was a friend of Socrates, as was Critias. Plato remained his pupil for eight years, until the trial and execution of Socrates. After the sentence, he offered his master money to redeem his life, which Socrates refused.

       The fate of Socrates had a strong impact on Plato, making him turn his back forever on the idea of involving in Athenian politics. A few years before that, he had turned away from the short-lived oligarchy of the Thirty Tyrants in 404 BC, although his uncle Charmides was one of its leaders. It did not stop him from trying his luck with political matters in Sicily, later on, nor did it at all turn his interest away from the theory of politics. He was to write considerably on the subject, but from a philosophical standpoint.

       Upon the death of Socrates in 399, Plato and several of the other pupils withdrew to Eucleides in Megara, not far at all from Athens. From there, Plato set off on vast travels. He was also periodically doing military service at war. He returned to Athens, and began to publicly teach philosophy in the Academy, 388 or 387 BC. He had inherited a garden in the area, right outside the city, named after the previous owner Academus. His school soon became celebrated, and was attended by a number of young men, mostly from distinguished families.


Plato's major involvement in affairs of the state was not in Athens, but in Syracuse on Sicily. Most of the information about this, we have from Plutarch (45-125 AD) and from Plato's Letter 7, written in 352, the authenticity of which is not certain but generally assumed. He had become acquainted with Dion (409-354 BC), who was a highly appreciated advisor to the ruler Dionysius I (c.430-367 BC), also his brother-in-law.

       Dion was a devoted student of Plato, perhaps staying at the Academy for some time, being 21 when it opened. In Letter 7, Plato praised him as the fastest learner of all his pupils. Plato seems to have had affectionate feelings for his student, writing later in an epigram: "O Dion who didst make my heart mad with love of thee."

       Dion was convinced that Plato's teaching would do wonders also with the ruling of the state. He made Plato visit Syracuse in 387 and introduced him to its ruler.

       Dionysius was not impressed. He became increasingly hostile, as Plato expressed his philosophy without taking particular care in showing respect for the king. According to Diogenes Laertius, Dionysius finally exclaimed: "You talk like an old dotard," to which Plato replied: "And you like a tyrant." When things got tense, Plato hurried off, but Dionysius arranged for him to be sold as slave. A wealthy friend bought Plato and set him free.

       Dionysius died in 367, and his son Dionysius II (c.395-c.337 BC) succeeded him, at the age of about 28. Now, Dion saw a new chance to introduce philosophy into the castle, and persuaded Plato to return. Plato felt little hope of success in fostering young Dionysius into a philosopher-king, but out of his friendship with Dion he could not refuse.

       The king surprised him by indeed showing great interest in his teaching, and that interest would remain even through some calamity. Dionysius' patience was probably not vast, nor his trust in Dion, who was still much closer to Plato than he. Advisors of the king warned him that Plato's influence might bring a kind of Athenian rule to Syracuse, something they had recently avoided by victorious battle. After he dealt with Dion so, that he had him expelled to Italy, he had to keep Plato locked up in the castle to stop him from leaving. Dionysius continued to show both affection and respect for him. When war broke out, he sent Plato home to Athens, probably for his safety.

       Plato had no desire to ever visit Syracuse again. Dionysius, though, became more and more obsessed with getting him back, to continue his own quest of philosophy. Finally, the king used blackmail, promising to let Dion return if Plato did, or to confiscate Dion's considerable properties, and worse, if he did not. Plato went.

       The third and last journey to Syracuse (361-360 BC) was no more successful than the previous ones. Soon, the hostility between Plato and Dionysius II had erupted. Dion was not at all welcome back, instead his property was confiscated, and Plato had to wait in some suspense, before being allowed to return home. Apart from still wanting to enjoy Plato's company, the king voiced a concern that Plato would talk slanderously about him, when returning to the Academy. To this, Plato is reported to have replied: "The Academy, I am sure, will never be at such loss for subjects to discuss that we will seek one in you."

       Plato took his hands off the matter, but a few of his pupils, nephew Speusippus among them, participated when Dion in 357 conquered Syracuse, aided by 800 mercenaries he had hired with his own money. Dionysius managed to escape. Dion's reign was short. After three years, he was killed by one of his trusted men, whom his wife Arete and sister Aristomache had warned him about in vain. That man was Callippus, a member of the Academy. After Dion's death, there was a quick and dramatic succession of kings in Syracuse, a returning Dionysius in 347-345 being one of them.

       The main purpose of Plato's letter was to explain that his involvement in Syracuse affairs had always been reluctant, on the request of others — either Dion or Dionysius II. Plato, being the major ingredient through which those events have been characterized by history, has been portrayed as the poor victim of tyrants with few redeeming features, just like his letter had it. But it is equally possible that his interference was an additional complication to the situation in Syracuse, and that he was eager to try out his political ideas on it, although having limited skills at politics for real. He confessed in his letter that he wanted not only to be a man of words, but of deeds as well.

       As for Dionysius I, who rejected Plato forcefully at their first encounter, he managed to keep his rule for 38 years, until his death from disease, not the sword. So, it is understandable if he regarded himself as having little need of Plato's advise on political matters.

       Plato's support of his pupil Dion was strong and also a bit naive. That Dion was a real threat to the rule of Dionysius II, became evident when he ended it in 357. He might have had that intention early on — at least, he was likely to want an influence on matters of the state, not a bit inferior to that of Dionysius II. When the king initially exiled Dion, it was because he had come across a letter where Dion instructed the Carthaginians to consult him on a peace treaty, before talking to Dionysius about it. Enough to make any king furious.

       Plato himself had second thoughts on the matter, in his Letter 7, where he voiced some irritation as to Dion's actions, once he was in power. Plato also stated some remaining respect for Dionysius, and for the fact that the king had actually never treated Plato as rudely as a man of his power could. On the other hand, this was written when Dion was dead, but Dionysius not.

       This complicated and dramatic chain of events, in which Plato surely regretted having participated at all, was an issue at the Academy, from the time of Aristotle's arrival and on to the death of Plato in 347.

       According to Pamphila of Epidaurus (1st century AD), one of the very few women whose writing is mentioned in any of the sources, Plato was invited to be the legislator of newly founded Megalopolis, but declined when he learned that their leaders were opposed to equality of possessions. He may also have felt that for politics, the philosopher was badly equipped — outside of writing on it.

Plato's works

The philosophical writings of Plato have come down to us complete, which is quite remarkable, and not at all the case with Aristotle or any of the other philosophers of Ancient Greece. Although not the sole explanation, his popularity among his contemporaries is indicated by it. His books were well read and spread, already in his lifetime, and thereby more likely to remain than texts with a more select group of readers. The form in which they were written, as dialogues containing both elegant rhetoric and quite a portion of humor, presenting Socrates and his entourage as well-chiseled characters, made them attractive reading for a much wider audience than if they had, like Aristotle's esoteric works, been strict presentations of thought and theory.

       There are 27 works, on which there is a general consensus that they are authentic writings of Plato. A sure dating of them is not within reach, but by ordering the books as to how they relate to each other, and some other measures, a sorting in three groups has become standard, and for most of the titles there is no debate about to what group they belong.

       From 399 BC, the death of Socrates, to 388 BC, when Plato opened his Academy, spans the early period of his writing, often called the Socratic period, because here Plato is assumed to express the actual views of Socrates. It is regarded as unlikely that he wrote any of his books before the death of Socrates. The works of this period are: Apology, Euthyphro, Crito, Laches, Lysis, Charmides, Hippias Minor, Hippias Major, Ion, Euthydemus, Protagoras, Gorgias. As far as I have seen, it is only about Euthydemus that there are shifting opinions, some counting it as a work of the second period. It is generally assumed that the Apology is the first work of Plato, since it is not a dialogue at all, but simply Socrates' speech in the trial against him. About the order among the other eleven, it can only be done with little certainty, if not to say guesswork.

       The second period is called the middle or transitional one, because here Plato is developing his own view on things, using Socrates more freely in the dialogues. This period starts with the formation of the Academy in 388 BC, and ends by his second voyage to Sicily in 367. The works belonging to this period are the following seven: Meno, Menexenus, Cratylus, Republic, Phaedrus, Phaedo, Symposium. It seems only to be about Meno that there are differing opinions, where some authorities want to put it in the previous period.

       The third period starts from Plato's experiment in Sicily, 367 BC, and ends by his death in 347. This period is simply called the later or late one, and here Plato clearly expresses his own views, with little commitment as to what Socrates might have said about the matters at hand. How close or far from the principles of Socrates that really takes him, is a matter of discussion, and that discussion is a continuing one — just as with the relation between Plato's and Aristotle's thoughts in the writing of the latter.

       The works written in this period are: Parmenides, Theaetetus, Sophist, Statesman, Timaeus, Critias, Philebus, Laws. The very voluminous Laws is by all regarded as Plato's last work. That is easily concluded, since it was published right after his death and it is in several ways quite different from previous works. Socrates is not even hinted, instead there is an 'Athenian stranger', who is likely to be none other than Plato himself, and the setting is Crete instead of Athens — strong evidence of Plato this time wanting to make it clear that he expresses no other views than his own. Therefore, it also indicates that in dialogues where he had Socrates speak, he might have been quite truthful to his teacher's opinions, at whatever period he wrote them. Plato never appeared himself, under his own name, in a dialogue of his.

       Also in the Sophist and Statesman, the leading character of the dialogues is not Socrates, but a visitor from Elea, not given a name. Contrary to Laws, though, Socrates is also present in them. Some authorities place Theaetetus in the middle period, and that occasionally happens with Parmenides as well. They were probably written some time before the following six in this group.

       For the purpose of this text, the most interesting division of Plato texts is in two groups: before and after Aristotle arrived to the Academy. What was written before, Aristotle may have come across in his hometown. If so, it surely formed his impression of Plato, and must have been instrumental in his decision to enroll in the Academy. What was written after Aristotle's arrival to the Academy, the pupil must have had a much closer relation to, not only so that he read it with a keen eye and additional knowledge by which to penetrate it, but also he was present as the works formed, while Plato pondered his thoughts and how to put them in writing. Aristotle was a witness to the creation process, and to the extent he had his teacher's ear, he might even have influenced it some.

       Fortunately, Aristotle's arrival coincides with the start of Plato's third period. This, the late period, is always stated as starting with Plato's second stay in Sicily, and not Aristotle's arrival, which can hardly at the time have made the same impression on Plato's mind. Still, the fact that the events coincide is reason for reflection. Would that year have been just as evident a starting point for the late period, had it not been identical with that of Aristotle's arrival? The authorities refer to analysis of the content of the works in grouping them, but if so — in the twenty years remaining of Plato's life and writing, would not somewhere along the line Aristotle's influence mean more than that of the political failure in Sicily?

       When the teacher and the pupil are discussed and compared, it is generally assumed that there is pretty much a one-way communication, from the mouth of the former to the ear of the latter. It is not necessarily so, especially in the case of such a resourceful pupil as Aristotle no doubt must have been. At the Academy, the intellectual atmosphere was one of openness. In the twenty years Aristotle remained there, his lines of thought must have been familiar to all around him, including the prominent leader. There was bound to be some influence also from the pupil to the teacher.

The Baptism of Christ, by Verocchio.
Detail from "The Baptism of Christ" by Verrocchio. Leonardo's angel is to the left.

       I am reminded of the first painting, which Leonardo da Vinci contributed to. It is the Baptism of Christ, painted in Verrocchio's studio in 1472-75, where Leonardo in his early twenties as a apprentice painted one of the angels, and his master the other — enviously gazing at the incomparable beauty of Leonardo's angel. There, the teacher's own brush told him that he was surpassed by his student.

       The Academy, and its constant flow of thought, theory and argument, is likely to have been a sort of workshop, where no one's thoughts or writings were the exclusive products of that one person's mind — not even if the mind was Plato's.

Plato's rebuttal of the written word

There is an odd anomaly in Plato's attitude toward written presentation of philosophy. In his Letter 7, he stresses that the essence of his thoughts cannot be put down in writing — he even claims never to have done so, or ever will. In light of the voluminous texts he left behind, this is a confusing statement.

       He goes into this elaborate argument, after reporting the rumor he has heard that king Dionysius II of Syracuse would have written down Plato's teachings and presented them as his own. Plato also mentions, not giving any names, that others have done the same, whether knowingly or not. It is in connection to this that he claims his theories to be impossible for the written word. A true understanding of his teaching can only erupt from a person's soul, after considerable time of study.

       He is talking about the essence of his philosophy, which he is convinced that only very few can grasp from a written presentation, while the rest may, upon reading the same, come to despise philosophy unjustly. This is a hint of the provocative nature of his thoughts, perhaps even blasphemous. Trying to explain such high matters to the untrained mind leads not only to confusion, but to hostility. The writer would be in danger of persecution.

       This discretion about one's own doctrine is comparable with what is often the norm in secluded cults, secret societies, among mystics, et cetera, the bottom line being that only proper members of those groups know the whole truth, or are at all receptive to it. Something of that nature might very well have been stated by followers of Plato, in his Academy, to make a clear distinction from those only familiar with his books — but for the writer himself to say the same, is a strange discredit of his work. It raises the suspicion of the letter not being genuine. He even says in it, that the one who writes down his thoughts can do so for no other reason than simple thirst for acclaim. Would Plato judge himself by that measure?

       Actually, he would. In the dialogue Phaedrus, undoubtedly of his writing, the same opinion is expressed by Socrates. The text belongs to those generally regarded as written during the second period, between 388 and 367 BC, at least 15 years before the estimated time of Letter 7.

       In Phaedrus, Socrates claims that he who writes his teaching down in order to convey it to others, as well as he who reads it believing to have received it, are both fools. At best, the written text can serve as a reminder for the one already understanding its content. Socrates even warns about the risk of the written text making students lazy, by having them cling to books instead of training their own memory. Furthermore, the illusion of wisdom given by books, makes people self-conscious and presumptuous. In this context, it must be seen as some kind of critique that Plato is reported to have called Aristotle "the reader". No doubt, the latter put much more emphasis on books, also by collecting them, than his teacher did.

       What Socrates sees as the only way for the teacher to have his ideas survive, is by sowing them as seeds in the students, by the method he calls dialectic, the discussion in which the student uses his own reasoning to reach an understanding. Such seeds grow and spread, and thereby live on. By spoken dialogue, not one written down. The latter, he says, should not be taken seriously. It is only by the spoken word that clarity, perfection and sincerity can be contained.

       In Phaedrus this view is presented straightforwardly, without the slight mystification and solemnity of Letter 7. Nonetheless, it's an odd claim to find in Plato's writing. Socrates lived it, by not bothering to write his theories down, but Plato acted altogether differently.

       He may have intended his books to be introductions to his philosophy, little more than entertainment, for a crowd unable to come and stay at the Academy. With the massive effect his books have had since, this is difficult to fathom, but it would make less of a contradiction with the above views. Certainly, the texts have a considerable element of humor, Socrates often speaking with irony, joking and tossing his thoughts around, as if simply playing with his ability to reason. Even when very grave matters are discussed, the joke is never that far off.

       If Plato himself believed in such strict limitations of the potency of the written language, he must have believed it strongly, since it fits in well with his perception of the world as a whole, where he claims its essence and true structure to be other than what can be perceived of the physical world. Words on paper, then, must be equally insufficient tools. The dialogue person to person, on the other hand, could by its own dynamics lead to insight in the minds of the participants. Truth could be found in the process itself, not by reading a recount of the process. So, Plato must have had a much more modest conception of the importance of his books, than posterity has given them. Also, it means that he must have measured his success foremost, if not solely, on his influence of the people he had around him — his pupils.

       It's an entertaining thought, in itself, that the literature which is by our civilization regarded as its intellectual foundation, was initially little but a pastime. Somehow, that makes sense.

       Whereas Plato allowed himself to act in defiance of his theory, it seems that Aristotle lived more true to it. At least, that is what it looks like, with what remains to us of his writings. The small portion of Aristotle's work intended for a wider audience is lost in its entirety, while that which remains is his esoteric writing, believed to be notes made either by him in preparation of lectures or by his students on and after them. These texts were not to be read as such, but to be used in the ongoing teaching and study of the Lyceum. This comes very close to the function of writing supported by Plato.

       It may be the result only of a random selection done by fate, but there it is: the works we have of Aristotle differ from that kind of writing mocked by Socrates. Plato's texts, on the other hand, are not safe from such mockery.


It seems that Aristotle, until the time of his flourishing, was strongly connected to significantly older men. His father may very well have reached a high age when Aristotle was born, as stated above, and it is equally likely that Aristotle's guardian Proxenus was of an age similar to that of his father. In Athens, Aristotle found Plato at the age of 60.

       Aristotle was, so to speak, brought up not by fathers, but grandfathers. For a man of action, it would not be very encouraging, but quite likely for a man of letters and learning. The classical ideal of the old wise man — not only in Ancient Greece, but in practically every culture and era — was what Aristotle had up close, during all of his formative years, until the moment when he was himself of mature age in the Greek measure of things, that is 40, his age of flourishing.


© Stefan Stenudd 2003, 2006.



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The Greek Philosophers.

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Stefan Stenudd

Stefan Stenudd

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I'm a Swedish author of fiction and non-fiction books in both English and Swedish. I'm also an artist, a historian of ideas, and a 7 dan Aikikai Shihan aikido instructor. Click the header to read my full bio.