Plato was born around the year 428 BCE into an established Athenian household with a history of political connections -- including distant relations to both Solon and Pisistratus. Plato's parents were Ariston and Perictone, his older brothers were Adeimantus and Glaucon, and his younger sister was Potone. In keeping with his family heritage, Plato was destined for the political life. But the Peloponnesian War, which began a couple of years before he was born and continued until well after he was twenty, led to the decline of the Athenian Empire. The war was followed by religious movement that led to the execution of Plato's mentor, Socrates. Together these events forever altered the course of Plato's life.
Plato studied in many forms of poetry as a young man, only later turning to philosophy. Aristotle tells us that sometime during Plato's youth the philosopher-to-be became acquainted with the doctrines of Cratylus, a student of Heraclitus, who, along with other Presocratic thinkers such as Pythagoras and Parmenides, provided Plato with the basis of his teachings. Upon meeting Socrates, however, Plato directed his thoughts toward the question of virtue. The formation of a noble character was to be before all else. Indeed, it is a mark of Plato's brilliance that he was to find in metaphysics and epistemology a host of moral and political implications. How we think and what we take to be real have an important role in how we act. Thus, Plato came to believe that a philosophical approach toward life would lead one to being just and, ultimately, happy.
It is difficult to determine the precise chain of events that led Plato to the intricate web of beliefs that unify metaphysics, epistemology, ethics and politics into a single inquiry. We can be certain, however, that the establishment of a government by Sparta (after the chaos of Athens' final defeat in 404), and the events that followed, dramatically affected the direction of his thinking. Two of Plato's relatives, Critias (his mother's uncle) and Charmides (his mother's brother) played roles in politics. Critias was identified as one of the more extreme members and chief advocate of the government, while Charmides played a smaller role as one of the Eleven, a customs/police force which oversaw the Piraeus.
The government made a practice of confiscating the estates of wealthy Athenians and resident aliens and of putting many individuals to death. In an effort to implicate Socrates in their actions, the government ordered him to arrest Leon of Salamis. Socrates, however, resisted and was spared punishment only because a civil war eventually replaced the corrupt government with a new and most radical democracy. A general amnesty, the first in history, was issued absolving those who participated in the reign of terror and other crimes committed during the war. But because many of Socrates' associates were involved with the corrupt government, public sentiment had turned against...