Plato (Latinized from Platwn) is one of those ancient Greek philosophers whom just about everyone has heard about and every student of philosophy knows at least a few things of. Given the influence Plato has and will probably continue to have on my own thinking, I’ve decided to create an introduction post about my dabbles in Platonic studies that can get any reader up to speed on the crucial background to Plato that some posts of mine will just assume the reader has.
The Man Himself:
First, Platwn (play-tawn) is a nick name of some disputed origins. Ancient biographers such as Diogenes Laertius claimed (at best, the text is dated from around the 3rd century of the common era) that the name was given for his broad shoulders, but others attributed it to his broad knowledge and even his broad forehead. Given the unreliable nature of ancient biographies concerning these kinds of details, I just assume the name came from something that was broad about the guy, whatever it was.
The dates for Plato’s birth and death can vary by a few years, but it universally agreed that Plato lived to be 80 years old at the time of his death. The dates I follow (427 B.C.E. to 347 C.E.) come from W.K.C. Guthrie  and are the best supported in my estimation.
Plato’s family was one of distinguished origins, what we know of Plato’s maternal lineage comes from Plato himself in Timaeus. Plato’s uncle from his mother’s side was Charmides, a prominent person in the oligarchy that ruled shortly after the Peloponnesian war. One of the grandfathers of this Charmides is a man named Critias, whose own great grandfather was Dropides whom was close to the great Solon. The paternal lineage is less detailed, but it is said that it stretches back to old Athenian kings and even back to the god Poseidon.
Plato was born into an elite aristocracy, and was probably groomed for the public service such a pedigree would grant him, but Plato’s route was a bit different than what his parents had probably wished, with Plato abandoning the standard route to power and wealth to a life of philosophy. That is not to say Plato gave up politics, but as you can see in the Republic that Plato’s ideal statesmen is nothing like the Periclean ideal he was probably raised with.
What is known about Plato’s life before age 60 is largely unknown, with the only evidence being remarks made by unreliable and apocryphal accounts. We know from a student of Plato (Hermodorus) and some comments from Plato himself that after Socrates was executed, he fled to Megara to stay with a fellow philosopher Euclides. After that, he visited Italy and Sicily around his 40th year before eventually returning to Athens to found his famous academy in Athens 387/86.
In 367 (Aristotle also entered Plato‘s academy that year), the tyrant of Syracuse Dionysius II needed an educator and mentor, so with the help of his brother-in-law Dion (former student of Plato), Plato was brought in to fill that role. There is speculation if Plato went to Syracuse in an attempt to mold Dionysius into an ideal ‘Philosopher King’ or rather he went to lend aid to the state that was keeping the growing threat of Carthage in check, but what ever the reason, he returned finally to Athens in 360 for good.
Like other swaths of his life, Plato’s twilight years are not well known to us, but it is assumed that he spent the rest of his days at the academy until his death. Plato had a knack for keeping himself out of his own writings, making it hard to get a clear picture of him and leads me to the next topic at hand…
The Canon of Plato:
Plato’s writings have been in and out of fashion since they began to be circulated. Even when Christianity had assumed control of the Roman empire and had become the dominant force, Greek philosophy was essentially platonic philosophy at that the time. As the Latin West moved into Middle Ages, Plato was largely ignored by scholastic philosophers in favor of Aristotle, while in the Greek East, Platonic philosophy was dominant until the fall of Byzantium. Plato’s reintroduction to the Latin West seemed to be ignited by Byzantine philosopher and theologian George Gemistos when he was visiting Florence in 1439 and he scandalized the Italian humanists by his preference of Plato over that of Aristotle .
The Plato Canon as we have it today comes from a 1st (C.E.) century philosopher in Alexandria known as Thrasyllus, whom all surviving manuscripts from medieval times come from. Most of Plato’s texts today get published with marginal references that are a combination of letters and numbers, these act similar to the way a bible is numbered with verses, for easy reference. The system corresponds to the pages of a Greek text that was published in the 16th century in Paris by Henri Estienne, and allow for easy comparisons between English translations of Greek textual variants (this 16th century text is commonly referred to as the ‘Stephanus text’). The standard Greek text most commonly translated or used by students is John Burnet’s Platonis Opera which was published in parts through the first decade of the 1900s.
Ordering The Canon:
How someone orders the canon of Plato betrays assumptions they’ve made about Plato’s philosophy and it’s development. For example, if someone puts the Parmenides at the tail end of the canon, right before Laws, that could be used as good evidence that Plato ended up rejecting his celebrated concept of the Forms due to the Third Man Argument presented by Parmenides to a young Socrates.
Another issue that crops up when discussing Platonic canon is authorship. This issue has many parallels within Biblical Studies, questions about what Plato actually wrote and didn’t are also simmering just beneath the surface, and can have a huge impact. Thrasyllus included a number of epistles, poems, and dialogues in his canon and of a few of these, even he reckoned them to be pseudographical in nature, for reasons that are not entirely clear to us. An example would be the 7th epistle, where Plato boldly writes that he would never abandon the concept of the Forms. If one could convincingly argue that the 7th epistle is indeed from Plato’s hand, that would be weighty evidence to counter the assertion that Plato found the Third Man Argument fatal.
In an attempt to resolve these issues, people generally resort to the methods and techniques of textual criticism similar to that in biblical studies, which helps shed some light on the issue, but is a long ways away from establishing any solid and authoritative chronology. The first (of two) orderings I’d like to present is that of Thrasyllus’ himself, his motivation for his preserved order is unknown to us. Thrasyllus organized Plato’s works in nine tetralogies (groups of four works) and also included a list of works that deemed important enough to include even though he considered them to be pseudographical (spuria) in nature. Attached to Thrasyllus’ order I’ve also listed works he included that have been deemed by the majority of scholars to be pseudographical (confirmed spuria) and the list of works Thrasyllus included where no consensus has been reached (disputed spuria). None of the works considered to be pseudographical by Thrasyllus are considered to be written by Plato today.
The next order is a chronology by German scholar C. Ritter  from the late 19th century. Inspired by previous research that attempted to order Plato’s canon in a chronological fashion based on the number of occurrences of certain Greek linguistic features and different reply formulas utilized by Plato in his dialogues. This strategy used a simple but effective method, the more complex the dialogue is correlates to Plato writing it later in his career. I would like to stress that this rule of thumb isn’t followed slavishly, but can be used effectively to break Plato’s canon into roughly three groups; early, middle, and late dialogues. While scholarship has moved on to finer grained distinctions (late-middle and early-late categories), Ritter’s ordering gives a nice establishment of a rough chronology that I like to use as a reference point in my own work.
 A History of Greek Philosophy Volume 4 by W.K.C. Guthrie, Cambridge University Press, 1975.
 George Gemistos Plethon: The Last of the Hellenes by C. M. Whoodhouse, Claredon Press, 1986.
 Untersuchungen uber Platon: Die Echtheir and Chronologie der Platonischer schriften by Constanin Ritter, Kohlhammer, 1888.