Who Was Plato?

Plato was an ancient Greek philosopher from the 4th century BC who laid the first foundations for the fields of philosophy and theology.

Jul 25, 2023By Luke Dunne, BA Philosophy & Theology
who was plato
Plato, Giordano Luca, 1660


  • Plato, a prominent philosopher from Athens, lived during the end of the 5th and beginning of the 4th century BC. He was a student of Socrates and wrote extensively in the form of dialogues, discussing topics like ethics, politics, metaphysics, and epistemology.
  • After Socrates’ execution, Plato established the Academy in Athens, which became a significant center of learning and one of the earliest institutions of higher education known.
  • Plato’s work covered various branches of philosophy, with his theory of the Forms being one of the most famous. He used the allegory of the Cave to explain his metaphysical idea of perceiving the true nature of reality through philosophical inquiry.


Plato was a philosopher from Athens who lived during the end of the 5th and beginning of the 4th century BC. Along with Aristotle, he is one of the two most influential philosophers from Ancient Greece, and one of the most influential of all time. He wrote on an exceptional array of topics, while his preferred form of expression was the dialogue. Plato’s conception of many specific areas of philosophy have found themselves newly relevant over and over again, and we are always rediscovering aspects of Plato’s work which demand new or clearer articulations. We take a closer look at his life and work, and offer an appraisal of his widespread influence.


Plato: Early Life in Athens

Statue of Plato in the Centro Médico Nacional Siglo XXI
Statue of Plato in the Centro Médico Nacional Siglo XXI, via Wikimedia Commons


The facts of Plato’s life are less often discussed and less well known than either those of his mentor, Socrates, or of Aristotle. But we do know that Plato was born into an aristocratic family in Athens. He was a student of Socrates, another renowned philosopher of the time, and became deeply influenced by his teacher’s ideas and philosophical approach. Plato’s early education also took place primarily in Athens.


Plato’s Dialogues

The Death of Socrates Jacques Louis David 1787
The Death of Socrates, Jacques Louis David, 1787, via the Met Museum


Plato is best known for his philosophical writings in the form of dialogues, which feature Socrates as the main character, engaging in discussions on various topics such as ethics, politics, metaphysics, and epistemology. Through these dialogues, Plato presented his philosophical ideas and explored fundamental questions about reality, knowledge, and the nature of the human soul.


The Academy of Athens

The Odeon Athens Joseph Pennell 1913
The Odeon Athens, Joseph Pennell, 1913, via National Gallery of Art


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Socrates was executed by the state of Athens, and after his death Plato established a school of philosophy known as the Academy in Athens. The Academy became a prominent center of learning, attracting students from various regions. It has a plausible claim to be one of the first institutions of higher education that we know of, well over a thousand years before the first universities proper. 


Plato’s Theory of the Forms

plato illustration
Illustration of Plato from The Story of Philosophy by Plato, 1926, via Wikimedia Commons


Plato’s work covers more or less every major branch of philosophy. Indeed, his work (again, along with that of Aristotle) is responsible for the creation of many of these branches. He is probably best known for his theory of politics, and his metaphysics, which are somewhat intertwined. Plato’s metaphysics is often referred to as ‘Theory of the Forms’, which tends to be paraphrased as a conception of the world in which the true nature of things (the World of the Forms) is not immediately accessible to us, and that which is immediately accessible to us (the World of Appearances) bears only a passing, almost cursory relationship to the World of the Forms.


The Story of the Cave


Only philosophical enquiry allows us to bridge this divide, and understand things as they really are. Plato’s metaphysics is conveyed using what is perhaps the most famous analogy in all of philosophy – the story of the Cave. Plato asks us to imagine to the ‘World of Appearances’ is like a cave, on which shadows are cast in order to mislead those within the cave into thinking they know all there is to know, and can trust what they see in the cave as true knowledge. Whereas, in fact, it is only when we go outside of the cave, entering the open air and seeing real things for the first time, that we learn how things really are. 


Plato on Politics

Plato portrait bust capitoline rome
Bust of Plato, Capitoline, Rome


Plato was profoundly critical on the politics of his time, not least because the state of Athens was responsible for executing Socrates, who seems to have been Plato’s teacher and mentor. The emphasis on philosophy as the method by which we supplant our misunderstandings with true knowledge, which we have already explored above, is integral to Plato’s politics. He argues that society should be governed by the learned, who should be selected only from the very best and brightest and subjected to the most demanding possible education, of which philosophy is the very climax.


This government should be able to ask as much of its citizens, in terms of the changes that can be made to their lives, as they like. Plato’s politics is extremely authoritarian, and yet aspects of it have proven to be great inspirations for politicians and theorists from almost every possible political orientation. 


Theology and Religion


Along with his vast contribution to the fields of philosophy, Plato has also exercised an extraordinary influence on articulations of the Abrahamic religions – Christianity, Judaism and Islam – despite living before either the first or last of these existed, and having no discernible knowledge of Judaism.

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By Luke DunneBA Philosophy & TheologyLuke is a graduate of the University of Oxford's departments of Philosophy and Theology, his main interests include the history of philosophy, the metaphysics of mind, and social theory.