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Our panel of 88 professional philosophers has responded to

Question of the day

Readers sometimes forget that Plato and Aristotle, and most other philosophers of their time, belonged to the economic and intellectual elite of their society. Even Socrates, despite his reputation for poverty, actually must have been a land-owning Athenian citizen of the hoplite (infantry) class -- not one of Athens' wealthy by any means, but not poor and perhaps not even having to work for a living.

But the question doesn't include Socrates, and he's the much more controversial figure to speak of, so let's focus on Plato and Aristotle.

Plato came from a prosperous family. He had the resources to offer to pay a substantive fee on Socrates' behalf at Socrates' trial. There is no evidence that he ever worked a profession, let alone that he farmed. (Farming was by far the most common livelihood in ancient Greek cities, yet although many of Plato's dialogues refer often to the professions and the knowledge in them, they rarely include farming. It is an odd oversight.) The ancient tradition that he competed in pan-Hellenic games as a wrestler does not prove anything, but again suggests that he had the time and money to spend training for athletic competition rather than earning a living.

If you accept some ancillary evidence from the so-called "Seventh Letter" attributed to Plato, or from much later authors like Diogenes Laertius, he seems to have had ample but not overwhelming wealth. So we can infer that he had some household slaves (several testimonies support this claim, none denies it) and lived in comfort with the slaves tending to him. Unusually for Athenian men, Plato did not marry, so there must have been at least one slave in his household.

When we speak of Plato's school, the Academy, we are forced to speculate even further. He did not charge tuition. The school represented some expense to him, because it seems he bought land near or in the gymnasium known as the Academy and ran his school there. Then he bequeathed the school to his nephew Speusippus in his will, as if it were property. Perhaps this was the main investment of his life. We don't know enough to say.

Aristotle came from an educated family in Macedonia, and must have had some family money in order to travel to Athens and spend twenty years there as Plato's student. Although he spent some years away from Athens, he returned later to run his own school, the Lyceum. But in Aristotle's case we have the complicating factor to bear in mind that he lived in Athens as a resident alien, a "metic (metoikos)." He could not become a citizen, and as non-citizen he could not own property. So whatever his family background was, he remained in financially and legally a more precarious condition. He was not poor by any means, but again we can assume that he lived in a comfortable house with some slaves.