The Sunday Telegraph - Sunday

Plato: unworldly philosophe­r, champion

- By Jane O’Grady


by Robin Waterfield 240pp, Oxford University Press,

£21.99 (0844 871 1514), ebook £15.50

Plato, often hailed as the greatest philosophe­r who ever lived, has not, until now, been given a full-length biography. The problem is a lack of primary sources, says Robin Waterfield, a scholar and translator of ancient philosophy – who, nonetheles­s, has written the first.

Plato founded his Academy in

Athens in about 390 BC, but “only snippets” of what his followers wrote about him survived its demolition a thousand years later, and few of the 13 Letters attributed to him are today considered authentic. His character, then, has had to be gleaned from the 28 or so dialogues that comprise his works. Their protagonis­ts debate the nature of virtue, knowledge, beauty, the ideal city and so on. They put forward answers, but, as these are successive­ly rebutted by “Socrates” (representi­ng Plato’s beloved teacher), they come to recognise their ignorance.

Plato never speaks in his own voice, although scholars usually judge “Socrates” to be serving as his mouthpiece in at least the middle and later dialogues. But the dialogues’ order is uncertain, they often end in aporia – unresolved confusion – and are inconsiste­nt. How far, asks Waterfield, can we actually talk of Plato’s “theories”? Even that of the famous Forms is soundly criticised in later dialogues – in fact, it’s never specifical­ly propounded at all.

Waterfield is at least categorica­l about Plato’s birth – 423 or 424 BC, he says – if speculativ­e about his youth in war-torn, plague-ridden Athens. Although from a wealthy family, he would have had a “haphazard and pretty basic” education. He was reputedly a good wrestler; was likely taken under erotic patronage by some older man; would have done military service; and was probably 16 when he first met Socrates. As to

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