The important developments of his life time were the defeat of Athens in wars against Spartas, the establishment of tyrannical rule of reactionaries, execution of his master (Socrate) by reactionaries. The prevailing condition in the society was inhuman and unsatisfactory.
He grew up in a city at war: “The Peloponnesian war”, which began just before his birth and lasted until he was twenty three it ended in defeat and humiliation of Athens and in the breakup of the confederation.
Nature of Greek Society:
Greek society was plagued by violence and selfishness among the ignorant and incompetent politicians. The fierce spirit of factionalism often created instability of government in the city state.
Such conditions in Plato’s opinion were due to discrepancy between economic interests between owners and non-owners of property. Society exhibited high degree of conservatism. There was hardly any consideration for reason.
Citizenship was confined to rich make population. Slaves were an important component of Greek economy. The belief in the superiority of race influenced the thought of the period. In the political realm, lottery was used to political office. Politics was used for economic gain. The state itself was divided as Plato says “in every state there were two separate states”.
Schools Prior to Plato: Prior to Plato, there existed some school of thought which had profound impact on Plato’s thinking.
They were a group of teachers who gave practical education and left a deep impact on the history and thought of the Greeks. They believed in the selfishness of man and considered state as an artificial contrivance. They completely ignored the moral considerations. They held that force was the basis of all political authority and the political authority was justified in being selfish and even tyrannical.
Plato’s association with Socrates was the outstanding fact of his life. It was from Socrates that Plato derived what remained the central focus of his thought—the idea that virtue is knowledge. He saw a close relationship between ethics and politics. Socrates sentence to death at the age of 70 on the charge of corrupting the youth was turning point in Plato’s life.
The family took decision to abandon a political career that was most suited to him. Socrates deductive and dialectical reasons together with following three doctrines were adopted by Plato. 1. Socrates dictum that virtue is knowledge 2. His theory of Reality 3. His theory of knowledge From his theory of knowledge, Plato built up his whole structure of rule of philosophy, his ideal state and philosopher king. From Socrates doctrine of reality came the concept of “idealism” in philosophy and political thought. The outwardly things are merely the superficial appearance of things.
They are not real and permanent but ephesmal and phenomenal in nature. According to Socrates ‘Beauty exists without a beautiful thing—its outward manifestation. From Socrates idea, he thinks of an ideal state “city in Heaven”.
By the theory of knowledge Socrates meant real knowledge, i.e. permanent, scientific, and mathematically true and based on reason. For Plato it is the philosophers, the embodiment of real knowledge and not the slaves of opinions and superstitions, who have the commanding position in his ideal state.
Plato’s visit (388-387 B.C.) to Italy proved to be a factor of crucial importance. From him, Plato imbibed the spirit of mathematic as a philosophic discipline.
Thus, the prevailing state of anarchy in Athenian society had profound impact on Plato. Similarly, teaching of sophists and his meeting with Pythagorean thinkers influenced his outlook. But, it was Plato’s association with Socrates and execution of his master that substantially molded his life. Perhaps it won’t be unfair to say that in essence many of stances are Socratic.
Barker acknowledges “the image of his teacher never faded from his mind and he actually represents the greatest legacy bequeathed by Socrates to mankind”. Plato’s Works: The Republic The Statesman The Laws