Plato, whose dialogues on Truth, Good and Beauty have significantly shaped Western thought and religion, wrote and taught under a nickname. His real name was Aristocles.
Names In Ancient Greece
In ancient Greece a child was given the name of the grand-parent; the grand-father if a boy and grand-mother if a girl. The remembrance of the dead was a sacred duty to the Greeks in that, by remembering those who had passed on, the living kept the departed `alive' in the better planes of the after-life. When the child who would grow up to be known as `Plato' was born (in either 428 or 427 BCE, either in Athens or on the nearby island of Aegina) he was named Aristocles, son of Ariston, of the deme(borough) of Colytus.
Aristocles of Athens
The ancient writer Diogenes Laertius tells us that Plato, "...learnt gymnastic exercises under the wrestler Ariston of Argos. And it was by him that he had the name of Plato given to him instead of his original name, on account of his robust figure, as he had previously been called Aristocles, after the name of his grandfather, as Alexander informs us in his Successions. But some say that he derived this name from the breadth (platutês) of his eloquence, or else because he was very wide (platus) across the forehead, as Neanthes affirms (Lives and Opinions). All accounts of Plato confirm that he was a very broad-chested man and Laertius further passes on the report that Plato wrestled at the prestigious Isthmian games. Aristocles, son of Ariston, was a member of the aristocratic elite of Athens and, though he would have been raised and educated for a career in politics, the young noble instead gravitated toward the arts. He wrote lyric poetry and tragic dramas and also studied painting.
Aristocles Becomes Plato
Though it would seem, from all the information available to us, that Aristocles went by the nickname `Plato' in his youth, an encounter in the market place of Athens one day would change the young man's life and, in so doing, change the course of western philosophy and forever give us Plato the philosopher instead of Aristocles the artist. When Aristocles was around twenty years old he heard Socrates teaching in the market square. He understood, it is said, that what Socrates was teaching was more noble a pursuit than the arts he was presently engaged in and, summoning the god of the hearth, he burned all of his plays and poems. For the next eight years Plato would be the student of Socrates until the latter was executed in 399 BCE having been convicted of impiety by an Athenian court.
That the artist within the philosopher did not die out with the burning of his early works can be easily seen in reading Plato's famous Dialogues. Each of the dialogues is a carefully crafted piece of drama with a sharp focus, rising action, subtle characterization and dramatic conclusion - if one understands how to read them. As a highly educated writer, Plato relies heavily on a reader's understanding of allusion and, equally, on the reader having a sense of humor. Plato's Euthyphro, on the subject of piety, though considered a serious inquiry into the nature of the Greek concept of Eusebia (piety) can be read as a character study of a young man boasting, as young men now as then do, to knowledge he cannot possibly have in trying to impress an elder. Plato wrote thirty-five dialogues and thirteen letters before he died in 347/8 BCE "with the pen in his hand", as Cicero tells us and there is no doubt these dialogues have made an enormous contribution to the formation of western philosophy, culture and religion with Plato's emphasis on the immortality of the soul. One wonders, though, what the purely artistic efforts of young Aristocles, son of Ariston would have revealed about the nature of our mortal, rather than immortal, journey.
This article was first published on the site Suite 101. C. 2008 Professor Joshua J. Mark