Stories of the Ancient Greeks - Charles D. Shaw

The Man Called the "Broad"

The Greeks were very fond of philosophy, which means "the love of wisdom." By this study they were trying to find out two things,—first, where the world and all things upon it came from, and secondly, what was the best and noblest way for man to live.

One of the wise men said that water was the beginning of everything. Another said that all came from fire. Still another taught that somehow everything came from the air. At last one wiser than the rest said that everything came from one great Mind, wise and strong and everlasting.

They did not all think alike as to how men ought to live. Some said, "Do everything that will make you happy." Their pupils thought that meant to eat and drink and dance and be gay.

Another school said, "Do not try to be happy but to do your duty. Do not love anybody very much, do not seek after pleasure, do not be afraid of pain. Eat simple food, wear plain clothes, be honest and faithful, wrong no one, serve your country. Do not be too eager to live, do not be afraid to die. Do right no matter what comes or goes."

These last teachers were called "Stoics," and many of their scholars were good and noble men who would rather die than do wrong.

It is hard to say which of all the philosophers was greatest, but one of the wisest was called Plato. That was not his real name. Plato means "broad," and he was called so because his shoulders, or his forehead, or both, were so broad. His real name was Aristocles.

He is said to have been born in Athens the year that Pericles died. Others say his birthplace was in the island of AEgina. He was related to Solon the lawgiver. After he had become famous as a writer and speaker it was said that, when he was a little child and asleep, bees settled on his lips to sip honey from them.

In his youth he tried many things. He ran and wrestled in the Olympic games; he wrote poetry, he studied grammar, music, and gymnastics. Nothing satisfied him until he met Socrates. Then he said, "Now I know what to do. I shall be a philosopher."

After the death of Socrates, Plato went away from Athens to Megara and spent several years in writing books. He tells much about the life and teaching and death of his old master and friend, Socrates, whom he loved and honored.

He then traveled into Egypt and Sicily and among the Greek cities in lower Italy. In Syracuse, the capital of Sicily, he became acquainted with the king, Dionysius the Elder. He tried to teach him philosophy and to make him a better man; but the king did not wish to be wise or good. It is said that in order to get rid of this troublesome teacher he sold him as a slave. When a rich friend of Plato heard of it, he bought the philosopher from his owner and set him free. We are not sure that this part of the story is true, but we know that Dionysius was not pleased with Plato.

He was away from Athens twelve years, then returned and began to teach. Near the city was a lovely garden with shady walks, which was called "the Academy," after the hero Academes. Plato taught there, but some pupils went to him in his own house. Over the door was painted, "Let no one enter here who does not know geometry."

He made no charge for teaching, but accepted presents if any one wished to give. Like Socrates, he talked much with his scholars but also delivered regular lectures. Often his pupils sat down with him to a plain common meal, in the garden. Many great men went to his school and it is said that some women attended.

After a while he went again to Syracuse, to teach philosophy to Dionysius the Younger. He was treated better than on his first visit, but did not succeed as he desired. He had hoped that the king would let him try to make Syracuse a perfect city, but he found that nobody wished to be perfect.

Going back to Athens, he gave up politics entirely but taught as before.

When he was eighty-one years old he went to a wedding, and died suddenly in the midst of the feast. He left his property to the school he had established. He had enemies as well as many friends, but Athens built monuments to his memory.

He was a great writer and a very deep thinker. He said that a true philosopher was one who understood the inner reality of things instead of seeing only the outside appearance. He taught that the soul lives forever, and advised men to find the real and true and to love that instead of following and loving the deceitful and false.