Alfred North Whitehead said 'The safest general characterization of the European philosophical tradition is that it consists of a series of footnotes to Plato'.

I'm not interested (in this question) as to what Whitehead meant by this, but simply that he points towards Plato as the pre-eminent ancient philosopher in the European tradition.

Before Plato there appears to be several schools of philosophy primarily concentrated in the colonies of the Greeks. Whereas Plato is based in Athens, the pre-eminent polis of the time.

How much of Platos dominance is due to the glamour of Athens, and presumably (in contrast) the shabbiness of the colonies. For example, it may mean that his work was more often copied and commented on because he worked in Athens, and not simply because of his originality (if any). And how much of his work is a gathering together rather than a synthesis of diverse philosophical positions developed elsewhere.

It maybe that this question is unanswerable, but it does seem to me to be an obvious question that may have been addressed by an expert of ancient greek philosophy.

Addendum: Guthrie in his A History of Greek Philosophy – The Presocratic tradition from Parmenides to Democritus (1979) has this to say:

Few would deny originality to Plato, yet his philosophy could be plausibly represented as arising simply from reflection on the utterences of Socrates, the Pythagoreans, Heraclitus & Parmenides. What distinguishes the Hellenistic systems is a difference of motive.

Also the SEP entry on Heraclitus has:

From an early time Heraclitus was seen as the representative of universal flux in contrast to Parmenides, the representative of universal stasis. Cratylus brought Heraclitus' philosophy to Athens, where Plato heard it. Plato seems to have used Heraclitus' theory (as interpreted by Cratylus) as a model for the sensible world, as he used Parmenides’ theory for the intelligible world.

There are Pythagorean elements throughout Plato's Dialogues,

especially the middle ones, which are dedicated to the soul, the Phaedo is explicitly Pythagorean. Evidence of this connection is apparent in the way that Plato deals with the general topics of the dialogue, the immortality and transmigration of the soul. Furthermore, Phlius, mentioned at the outset, was the home of an established Pythagorean community, and Echecrates was one of its members. (See 57a-58a). Philolaus, mentioned at 61d, was also a Pythagorean. In addition, the metaphysical doctrines concerning the separation of the soul from the body through the practice of philosophy (see especially 80c-84b) strongly resemble the practice of ritual purification through the contemplation of numbers, and the doctrine of recollection (see 72e-77d) would seem to be Pythagorean as well. The Phaedrus also deals with some of these themes.

2 Answers 2


First: if one wishes to examine the writings of the known pre-Socratic philosophers, these have been widely published and are readily available. From these, it is difficult to find anything that Plato borrowed from anyone prior to Socrates.

Next: if one wishes to look at the contemporary documentation of Plato's place in Greek philosophy, one must turn to Aristotle; this is the only significant source we have. Naturally, this is skewed by the fact that Aristotle was a student of Plato's.

Then: if one wishes to take a broader historical view, one can turn to Diogenes Laertius, who remains the best (relatively) early historiographical source regarding Greek philosophy; however, he was writing many centuries after Plato, and although many of the sources he relied upon are now lost, we have no way of knowing how many other sources were lost before his time.

And this takes us to our final, Rumsfeldian point: there's no way that we can possibly know how many philosophers or texts are lost to history-- we necessarily know only that which has survived.

However, I would suggest that there's no particular reason to suspect that Athenian chauvanism was a major factor since many of the pre-Socratic philosophers that have come down to us are from other places (such as the Ionian school, or the Eleatic school, etc.) and these appear not to have been suppressed.

  • I wasn't suggesting that the pre-socratics were actively suppressed, but simply relatively ignored with respect to the Athenian school. That their record is fragmentary can be used as evidence of this. Also one would expect the fragments to survive would be those that are saliently different from the Athenian school, for why write on them, if the Athenian school had written about them, and written about them better as they came later. Commented Jun 12, 2012 at 18:06
  • I've briefly dipped in Diogenes Laertius, and in his intro he says that there is an ongoing debate as to the origins of philosophy, whether it was Greek, or whether invented elsewhere. He goes on to affirm that Philosophy is Greek. The manner of his rhetoric suggests to me that their is a certain amount of Greek chauvinism at play there. Commented Jun 12, 2012 at 18:09
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    Greek chauvanism is present, without a doubt. And even today, it is necessary for the New York Times to run editorials such as this: opinionator.blogs.nytimes.com/2012/06/03/… Commented Jun 12, 2012 at 18:12
  • I don't mean to disparage chauvinism, it is only natural, I think to centre the world on yourself, and your own world. It takes a special sense of will to decentre oneself, and one could suggest that actually this is not possible, but only the sense of ones own world has been enlargened. Commented Jun 12, 2012 at 18:18
  • The article is well-written and am in full agreement with it. Commented Jun 12, 2012 at 23:03

The pre-socratic philosophers (also known as phyσical philosophers, the materialistic thinkers, mainly appearing in Ionia) influenced Plato considerably. In essence, his whole admiration for "ideals" and "sacred numbers" and "notions" is a response to their attitude for love of nature and its phenomena.

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    Could you expand on this a little. I've not heard of 'sacred numbers' and 'notions' in connection with Plato. Commented Jul 25, 2012 at 10:42
  • @Mozibut, I apologize I am a native Greek so my translations are far from successful. The notion of 'ideals' as depicted in the myth of the man captivated in the Cave, described in The Republic, symbolizes the sacred nature of ideals, which the moral man can only guess, while he watches mere shadows in the cave where he is captivated. The true 'ideals', the true values, lie in the spiritual world, which is the world beyond the cave, towhich man should try to escape, and find the true values. Additionally, Plato valued numbers, geometry, steroids as belonging to a family of true values.
    – p.a.
    Commented Jul 25, 2012 at 10:56
  • please refer to this regarding Plato and numbers philosophy.stackexchange.com/questions/2148/…
    – p.a.
    Commented Jul 25, 2012 at 11:45
  • Correction. In english his ideal spiritual structures are called 'forms'.
    – p.a.
    Commented Jul 30, 2012 at 10:05

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