When Socrates was executed in 399 B.C. he was about seventy years of age. Plato, the friend and pupil to whose genius and devotion we owe so much of our knowledge of Socrates, was then about thirty. The history of Greece in their lifetimes had been both brilliant and disastrous.
At about the time when Socrates was born the enormous threat to Greece of the vast Persian empire had passed away. At the beginning of the century the Ionian cities of Asia Minor, Thales' birthplace among them, had been ruthlessly punished for revolt against the satraps of Darius. The assistance given to the rebels by Athens and Eretria, while powerless to save them, was enough to expose Greece itself to the Persian vengeance. But at Marathon in 490, at Salamis ten years later, and again at Plataea in 479, the Greeks had triumphed against the huge armies and navies of Darius and his successor Xerxes, and in doing so had established, not only their own independence, but a heroic legend that worked as an inspiration to the magnificent achievements of the following years. Athens in particular, on which had fallen the major burden of the Persian Wars, rose not only to the height of her political power, but to the height of that achievement in literature and the arts by which she has earned "the undying gratitude of mankind". Throughout the early years of Socrates, Athens, at the head of the Confederacy of Delos, was an imperial power; and by the initiative of her great democratic statesman Pericles, the city itself was so adorned as to be a worthy visible symbol of its own pre-eminence, and indeed of the ascendancy of all Greeks over "the barbarians." Work on the Parthenon began in 447.
But by the time that Plato was born Athens was again at war. From about 435 she had come into conflict, perhaps inevitably, with Sparta, her powerful rival, and the Lacedaemonian Confederacy; and in 431 began the Peloponnesian War. Its course was costly, and for many years inconclusive. Athens, a sea power, could strike no decisive blow against the Spartan armies; while they, though they could invade and ravage Athenian territory, could neither capture the strongly fortified city nor prevent sea-borne supplies from entering it freely. But after the death of Pericles in 429 the Athenian leadership was less prudent and more bellicose, and an attempt in 421 to, bring the conflict to an end failed for lack of the will on either side to keep the peace. The real turning point carne in 413. In that year the Spartans occupied Decelea in Attica, thus denying to Athens the resources of her own territory, and in the autumn her ambitious expedition to Sicily ended in total defeat in the harbor of Syracuse. Thereafter her allies began to fall away; her own internal politics fell into confusion; and at last, her sea power broken at the battle of Aegospotami, Athens herself was blockaded, occupied and garrisoned by the Spartans. This was in 404, the twenty-eighth year of the war.
The effects of this protracted struggle were in many ways disastrous. The mere destruction, the sheer waste of manpower and resources, was serious enough — far worse, it seems certain, in proportion to the numbers involved, than that suffered by any country in either of the two great wars of our century. But more serious still, perhaps, was that other effect which Thucydides stressed: the decline, particularly steep in once splendid Athens, in the quality and temper of political life. In the course of the struggle men had become familiar with a new ruthlessness, with a newly anarchic employment of power, and with a new disrespect for established usage and tradition. Plato, no doubt owing in part to the influence of Socrates, seems never himself to have been inclined towards the skeptical, even cynical, "realism" that was so much in the air in his youth, and that was indeed preached by many of the sophists. But the wretched course of Athenian politics in his early years, culminating (in his view) as it did in the execution of his beloved Socrates, affected him profoundly nevertheless. It seems in fact to have made him a philosopher. His family was one of the most illustrious in Athens, and therefore had been, inevitably, prominent in politics; and Plato's own early ambitions were also political. But gradually he had become disenchanted. "Whereas at first," he wrote afterwards, "I had been full of enthusiasm for public work, now I could only look on and watch everything whirling round me this way and that. . . . In the end I came to the conclusion that all the cities of the present age are badly governed." And so he drew back from the political arena, in the hope of finding in "true philosophy" some basis for the conduct of affairs that might eliminate the confusion and gross error that he saw around him. It is clear too that, when he turned to consider the theory of political life, he had lost all faith in the system of democracy. He seems to have regarded it simply as grossly inefficient, as calculated merely to endow with authority and power those who happened to gain the ear of the ignorant populace, and who most probably themselves would be ignorant and incompetent men; and it must be said that the post-Periclean democracy of Athens appeared to bear out this opinion to the letter. In theory then, and in practice in two interventions in the affairs of Sicily, Plato inclined to the idea of a despotism, not so much benevolent as philosophically enlightened, a government of the expert, but of the expert in metaphysics. His ideal was the authoritarian rule of the "philosopher-king." But he saw little hope of his ideal being realized in Greece, and in the end his hopes for Sicily were also disappointed. Athens, after 404 B.C. was quite unable to regain either her old political position or her political vitality. The Spartan pre-eminence as a result of her victory in the war was both misused and brief. And the succeeding supremacy of Thebes was also brief and precarious. The Politics of Syracuse, not seriously influenced by Plato's intervention, followed a depressing course of intrigue and violence.
The association between Aristotle and Plato dates probably from 368-67 B.C. when Aristotle, at the age of eighteen, came to join Plato's Academy in Athens. He was a native of Stagira in northern Greece. His father had been employed as a doctor at the Macedonian court, and but for his premature death it seems likely that Aristotle would have followed him in that profession. But in fact he remained in the Academy for twenty years, leaving it only when Plato died in 348. A brief migration to Assos, on the coast of Asia Minor, where an important branch of the Academy had been established, ended abruptly when his patron Hermeias was detected by the Persians in treasonable negotiations with Philip of Macedon; and after a few years spent apparently in Lesbos Aristotle was summoned himself to the Macedonian court, to be tutor to the heir and future emperor, Alexander.
This was in about 342 B.C., and by that time it was already apparent that the balance of power in the Greek world had changed. The old city-states, the political units to which Plato and Aristotle had been accustomed, and beyond which even their political thinking did not go, were in fact no longer a match for the kingdom of Macedonia. Even in combination — and their combinations were at all times highly precarious — they were outweighed by the resources and by the armies developed and deployed by the sagacious and enterprising Philip; and this was made terribly clear in 338, when at Chaeronea a joint army of Athens and Thebes met decisive defeat at the hands of the Macedonians. But Philip's design was not in fact the subjection of Greece. Regarding himself (though he was only half-accepted) as a Greek, his ultimate aim was to lead all the forces of Greece against the Persian empire. His plans for this enterprise were far advanced when, in 336, he was assassinated. Their execution fell to his heir, Aristotle's pupil, the great Alexander.
At about this time Aristotle returned to Athens. The head of Plato's Academy was now one Xenocrates of Chalcedon, with whose somewhat mystical mode of philosophy Aristotle was not in sympathy. He therefore set up a school of his own, which became known as the Peripatos — "the covered walk" — and its inmates as the Peripatetics. This school, which was a center of highly organized scientific research as well as of philosophical inquiry, flourished greatly. But the sudden death of Alexander at the age of thirty-two was the occasion for an impetuous revolution in Athens, in which Aristotle, because of his close Macedonian associations, became an object of attack. He was accused, even more absurdly than Socrates had been, of "impiety"; but unlike Socrates, he lost no time in making his escape. He retired to the town of Chalcis in Euboea, where he died in the following year at the age of sixty-three.
The lifetimes of Plato and Aristotle thus span a period of just over a hundred years, in which the history of Greece, on the whole, makes depressing reading. During and after the long-drawn disaster of the Peloponnesian War, Greece could not recover the glories of the old wars against the Persians. Her victories and defeats were internecine, almost suicidal. And it seems in retrospect obvious enough that her amalgam of brilliant but contentious political entities was destined quite inevitably to be overborne by some centralized power, as it was by the northern state of Macedonia. It would be, however, a grave mistake to suppose that Greece in this period was somehow decadent, and even more so to suppose that the Greeks themselves felt this to be so. It is easy to exaggerate the extent to which her city-states had been formerly self-sufficient and independent; some form of "hegemony" or near-empire had long been familiar; and it is easy to exaggerate also the extent to which the rise of Macedonia altered the picture: As has been said, the Greek cities were not brought into subjection. In any case military and political power was by no means all that a Greek desired for his city; he thought as much, or more, of its educative and civilizing influence upon its citizens and others. It is accordingly not really absurd that both Plato and Aristotle, in their political and ethical thinking should have continued to assume as the ideal basis of both the stable political structure of a city-state. In spite of the long tale of disasters in the history of Greece, such states still existed. This was the great age of political oratory, and the orators dealt with live issues in still living communities. In some cases, Rhodes for example, particular cities achieved in this period their highest prosperity. And in any case the city-state, the restricted community living together, could still be regarded as the ideal setting for the pursuit of the good life. It was not in these years, but in the course of those that came after, that a real sense of breakdown and of utter insecurity became widespread. To Plato and Aristotle, Isocrates and Demosthenes, the conditions of public and political life in Greece appeared, if not always good, at least always remediable. They had not lost hope.