Plato (c. 428 B.C.E. – c. 348 B.C.E.) was a Greek philosopher and is perhaps the most famous and influential thinker in the history of Western thought. He was a student of Socrates and a teacher of Aristotle. He founded the Academy in Athens where he lectured and taught. He also wrote dialogues on a variety of philosophical subjects such as metaphysics, epistemology, ethics, psychology, politics, and aesthetics. Because he wrote in dialogue rather than treatise form, however, his ideas on these subjects are not systematically analyzed but presented in the more ambiguous and ironic form of the drama. This has resulted in a variety of interpretations of Plato’s work and debates continue today over the precise meanings of his main philosophical ideas.
Among the most famous of his philosophical contributions are the accounts he provides of his teacher Socrates and the Socratic method of teaching, his doctrine of the Ideas or “forms,” his theory of recollection, and his notion of dialectic as collection and division. His Republic remains one of the classic works in all of western civilization.
Plato was born in Athens in approximately 428 B.C.E. He was raised in a moderately wealthy, aristocratic family with high political connections. His father was named Ariston and his mother Perictione. According to a late Hellenistic account by Diogenes Laertius, Plato's given name was Aristocles. Various alternatives are offered at how Plato received his name. One possibility is that his wrestling coach, Ariston of Argos, dubbed him "Platon" (meaning "broad") on account of his robust figure. Another alternative is that his name derived from the breadth (platutês) of his eloquence, and still a third from the fact that he was very wide (platus) across the forehead. In any case, in his youth Plato was a gifted wrestler and his intellectual abilities were so advanced that his fellow Greeks declared him to be the son of Apollo. In fact, it was rumored that in his infancy bees had settled on his lips as a prophecy of the honeyed words which would flow from them.
At some point in his youth Plato became a devoted pupil of Socrates, the famous “wandering scholar” who sat on the street corners of Athens and engaged the young men of the city in intellectual discussions. It was primarily through the texts of Plato, in fact, that we learn of the life, teachings, and death of Socrates. It is considered a matter of record that Plato attended his master's trial and execution so that the Apology, although written in dramatic form is nonetheless considered to be a fairly accurate historical account. Moreover as he was deeply affected by the city's unfair treatment of Socrates much of Plato’s work is devoted to the problem of social and political injustice. During the twelve years following the death of Socrates, Plato traveled extensively throughout Italy, Sicily, Egypt, and Cyrene. During his travels, however, he did not merely wander about in search of pleasure but rather engaged in a sustained and comprehensive quest for knowledge.
After his return to Athens at the age of 40, Plato founded one of the earliest known organized schools in Western civilization on a plot of land in the grove of Academe. The “Academy,” as it was famously called, was a large, protected plot of land that was supposedly named after either an Athenian citizen named Academus or else some ancient Greek hero. The school operated until 529 C.E., which makes it the longest running academic institution in the history of western civilization. Many intellectuals were schooled in the Academy, the most prominent one being Plato’s pupil Aristotle.
Plato died around 348 B.C.E. at the age of 80 or 81.
Although not the first Greek philosopher, Plato is arguably the most famous and influential; the twentieth-century philosopher Alfred North Whitehead famously said that the history of philosophy is merely a footnote to Plato.
One of the main reasons for Plato’s primacy is that in Plato we have the first collected body of philosophical literature. Unlike Socrates, who did not write at all and unlike the pre-Socratics whose writings are retained in fragmented form in Plato, there is a body of work which scholars have pored over for centuries. Interestingly, however, unlike Aristotle, Plato did not write in the form of philosophical treatises; rather he chose to write in the dramatic form of dialogue. Although the specific dialogues differ in various ways, in general they approach philosophical subjects through the conversation of characters, who pose questions to one another. In most of the dialogues Socrates figures as the protagonist and a number of interlocutors are defeated by his logical form of questioning initially known as “elenchus” and later in the more sophisticated form called “dialectic.”
Some scholars believe that the nature of the dialogues changed a great deal over the course of Plato's life. According to this theory, works believed to date from earlier in Plato's life are more closely based on Socrates' thought, whereas later writings increasingly break away from the views of his former teacher. This theory holds that in the so-called middle dialogues, Socrates becomes a mouthpiece for Plato's own philosophy, and the question-and-answer style is more formal: the main figure represents Plato and the minor characters have little to say except "yes," "of course" and "very true," or "by Zeus, yes." The late dialogues, then, read more like treatises, and Socrates is often absent or quiet. It is assumed by defenders of this theory that while some of the early dialogues could be based on Socrates' actual conversations, the later dialogues were written entirely by Plato. The question of which, if any, of the dialogues are truly Socratic is known as the “Socratic problem.”
Given that he wrote in the artistic style of a dialogue means that to some extent Plato can be considered a poet as much as a philosopher. This makes the reader’s interpretation of Plato’s texts more ambiguous and problematic, for the form of dialogue distances both Plato (as author) and the given reader from the ideas that are being discussed in the text.
For this reason, scholars tend to read the dialogues in one of two ways. Some scholars choose to participate in the dialogues by concentrating on the ideas and arguments under discussion and in doing so ignore the “aesthetic” aspects, such as the personalities of the different characters, the use of irony, and the specific contexts in which the discussions take place. Other scholars, however, read the personalities, ironies, and contexts as contributing to the philosophical meanings contained within the text as well as Plato’s overall understanding of philosophical discourse. In doing this, the latter often interpret Plato as putting unpopular opinions in the mouth of unsympathetic characters (such as with Thrasymachus in the Republic). In this way, Plato lets his readers observe and compare the conversations that Socrates has with different characters and so ponder why some of these conversations are more fruitful than others.
The exact order in which Plato's dialogues were written is not known, nor is the extent to which some might have been later revised and rewritten. However, according to scholars there is enough information internal to the dialogues to form a rough chronology, although the exact criteria to determine this chronology are often disputed. In any case, as mentioned above the dialogues are normally grouped into three fairly distinct periods, with a few of them considered transitional works, and some just difficult to place. So although the ordering is still highly disputed, the generally agreed upon chronology is divided into early, middle, and late dialogues.
Socrates figures in all of these dialogues, and they are generally considered to be the most faithful representations of the historical Socrates; hence they are also called the “Socratic dialogues.” Most of them consist of Socrates discussing a subject, often an ethical one (such as friendship or piety) with a friend or with some presumed expert on the subject. Through a series of pointed questions Socrates usually demonstrates his interlocutor’s ignorance. These dialogues usually end inconclusively and so the reader is left to figure out how much Socrates (or the reader) really understands. These dialogues tend to be considered examples of Socrates’ method of "indirect teaching,” which allows readers to come to answers themselves without being directly told. This period also includes several pieces surrounding the trial and execution of Socrates. The dialogues from this period are as follows:
The following dialogues are variously considered transitional or middle period dialogues:
Late in the early dialogues, Plato's Socrates actually begins supplying direct answers to some of the questions he poses and so puts forth positive doctrines on the subject under discussion. That is, he offers “hypotheses” or scientific regarding the various subject matter. This is generally interpreted to be the first appearance of Plato's own views. The perhaps most prominent idea offered in the middle dialogues is the idea that knowledge derives from unchanging forms or essences (“Doctrine of Ideas”). Other Platonic theories include the immortality of the soul, recollection, and specific doctrines about justice, truth, and beauty. The Symposium and the Republic are considered to be the centerpieces of Plato's middle period.
In the Parmenides Plato presents a series of criticisms of his “Doctrine of Ideas,” which are often taken to indicate Plato's abandonment of this theory, though some scholars have challenged this characterization. In most of the remaining dialogues, however, the theory is either absent or at least appears under a different guise in discussions about kinds or classes of things. In these later dialogues Socrates is either absent or a minor figure in the discussion. An apparently new method for doing dialectic known as "collection and division" is also featured, most notably in the Sophist and Statesman.
A basic description of collection and division would go as follows: interlocutors attempt to discern the similarities and differences among things in order to get a clear idea about what they in fact are. One understanding, suggested in some passages of the Sophist is that this is what philosophy is always in the business of doing and is doing even in the early dialogues. In the later dialogues, however, this way of doing philosophy is made explicit while it was only implicit in the earlier dialogues.
As mentioned above, the early dialogues of Plato are usually considered to reflect the teachings of the historical figure Socrates. The greatest legacy of Socrates is perhaps his ethical striving for the “good life.” For both Socrates and Plato, the ethical life was inextricably connected to the intellectual life such that “the unexamined life is not worth living.” Now for the ancient Greeks, ethics was not as much about the instruction of moral rules as it was the cultivation of a “way of life” which involved both the acquisition of virtues as well as the practice of reflection.
“Philosophy” involved both of these and only through the practice of both does one attain the happy or good life. This close connection between knowledge and goodness meant that “evil” was aligned with ignorance. This means that no one willing does evil, but only what one thinks to be good (i.e., the apparent good).
The Socratic dialogues are devoted, then, to the questioning of what are individual virtues (e.g., friendship, piety) as well as what is virtue itself. Whereas the early Socratic dialogues raise significant ethical questions by refuting those who are often reputed to be “wise” (such as the Sophists), these dialogues often end inclusively. Plato’s middle dialogues, on the other hand, tend to offer hypotheses (or possible answers) to such questions of what is justice (the Republic) or what is love (the Symposium).
Plato’s analyses of these ethical concepts are usually presented by first considering the most popular or ordinary ways of thinking of these concepts and moves to higher more metaphysical ways of considering them. In fact, some interpreters view Plato’s philosophy as mystical such that the ethical or good life is essentially an ascent of the human soul to the Good. Other scholars, however, claim this mystical element is “read into” Plato texts (mainly by his followers, called the Neoplatonists). Instead these other commentators insist that Plato be understood as a rationalist. In any case, the one undeniable aspect that Plato shares with both his mentor Socrates and his pupil Aristotle is the centrality of the good life and the human search for happiness through the practice of philosophy.
While pursuing the subject of justice in the Republic Plato examines the notion of the human soul (book IV). Although in the hindsight of 2,500 years it is easy to view Plato’s separation of the soul into three fundamental parts as being overly simplistic, in doing so we often overlook both the groundbreaking work Plato was doing as well as the complexity of his ideas when studied in the relation to the complete texts in which we find these ideas. In any case, Plato divided the soul into three parts: the appetitive part, the spirited or emotional part, and the intellectual part. The appetitive part seeks the fulfillment of various bodily pleasures such as food, drink, sex, etc. The spirited or emotional part seeks honor and dignity. Finally, the intellectual part seeks truth and knowledge.
Although Plato is often thought of as a dualist who degrades the bodily desires in favor of the higher, intellectual pleasures of learning, it is important to see that his understanding of justice and the happiness of the human soul is directed at attaining a certain harmony or integration of the different parts or powers of ourselves. So he did not hold that we should “starve” the physical desires of our bodily appetites but merely to control them in an intelligent and wise manner.
This means that the intellectual part or power must be in control, or otherwise our bodily desires will wreak havoc in its reckless striving for its own fulfillment (Plato uses the metaphor of a many-headed beast, which devours itself in self-consumption). But if our bodily appetites are to be directed by the intellect in an intelligently ordered way it requires the discipline of the spirited part to tame and to cultivate the bodily desires in an appropriate way. The harmonious or rightly ordered soul, then, is one which practices the virtues of each part. The virtue of the appetites is moderation; the virtue of the spirit is courage; the virtue of the intellect is wisdom. Through these virtues the human soul attains a certain concord or integrity, which Plato understood as the only real happiness worthy of the name.
We should note, then, that Plato’s division into three parts was not intended to be exhaustive but merely points to the need for a well-ordered integration of all the different powers of our being in order to attain happiness. At the same time, however, we can see the longstanding impact his analysis of soul has had on western civilization, particularly in the Christian tradition where the soul is considered to be a tripartite relation of mind, body, and spirit. Moreover, various modern psychologies continually draw from Plato, such as Sigmund Freud’s theory of the ego, superego, and id. Finally, in the Phaedo, Plato offers arguments for the immortality of the soul such that philosophy is to be understood primarily as a preparation for death.
One of the most famous elements in Plato’s philosophy is his theory of recollection. Although the exact nature of this theory is disputed, it is commonly held that Plato believed that all our ideas are innate such that all learning is a remembering. As said above, for Plato the soul is immortal. At birth, however, as the soul is cast into a body it is thrown into a state of forgetfulness. Learning, then, is a process of reawakening to what we already know in the depths of our souls but is nonetheless concealed to our normal, everyday consciousness.
Plato often viewed the process of life as a moving from darkness or a state of sleep toward the light and full wakefulness. Given this view Plato viewed teachers such as Socrates to be not instructors who instill knowledge but rather as “midwives” whose job is simply to help give birth to those ideas that are already within us. In the Meno, for example, Plato presents Socrates at work with a slave-boy who initially thinks he knows the answer to a geometry problem but is shown that he really is ignorant. Once shown his own ignorance, however, the boy is “perplexed” and so is now ready to learn. Socrates walks him through the problem by asking the boy questions and eventually the boy arrives at the correct answer. Plato uses this example in order to demonstrate that our ideas are already within us, for how else could the boy “recognize” the correct answer. The example, though, hardly offers indisputable proof and so Plato’s theory of recollection has been widely contested by later philosophers, notably Aristotle.
Besides being devoted to Socrates, Plato was also deeply influenced by a number of earlier philosophers, known today as the “Pre-Socratics.” This included Pythagoras and Pythagoreans, whose notions of numerical harmony have clear echoes in Plato's notion of the Ideas; Anaxagoras, who was Socrates’ teacher and who held that the mind or reason pervades everything; Parmenides, who argued for the unity of all things and who may have influenced Plato's concept of the soul; and Heraclitus, who held that fire is the fundamental element of the universe and who also said that “all is in flux” or in a state of becoming.
In regard to the theory of knowledge it was the attempt to find a “middle way” between Parmenides’ notion that “all is one” and Heraclitus’ notion that everything is in movement and so changing that led Plato to introduce his famous Doctrine of Ideas. Plato recognized with Heraclitus that everything in the material world is constantly changing. And yet, if we can acquire knowledge (and Plato thought we could), something must be stable or permanent such that when we know “it” we know the truth. For this reason Plato held that our “Ideas” were these stable and permanent entities that did not change. To know or “see” these Ideas is to know the truth, the unchangeable. Today, these ideas are often called “universals.”
Plato considered philosophical knowledge to be closely aligned with mathematics because in math we achieve perfect knowledge (e.g., 2 + 2 = 4 and no other answer is possible). A mathematical example, then, helps us to understand his Doctrine of Ideas. For example, we can come to know the definition of a triangle: an enclosed three-sided figure whose lines are perfectly straight and whose angles add up to exactly 180 degrees. Now any individual or particular triangle that we draw, no matter how fine our technical instruments, will always be slightly flawed even if only by the smallest fraction (e.g., the angles only add up to 179.99999 degrees). These particular or material triangles, therefore, are imperfect. Moreover, since they were drawn in some material or sensible form means they can be destroyed (by burning the paper, chalkboard, etc.) What and where, then, is the perfect triangle? It must be an Idea, one that exists only in the immaterial realm that our minds can participate in. The Idea of a triangle, which is perfect, will never change. It is permanent, ideal, or eternal.
Plato applied this theory, in turn, to all living things. The Idea of a human being is eternal, permanent and perfect (ideal), although we individual humans are mortal, changing, and imperfect. We will die (at least physically for Plato), though the Idea will not. The same holds for the Idea of dog or flower. All the individual human beings, dogs, and flowers merely participate in the one, eternal Idea (of Human Being, Dog, Flower).
Plato’s theory of Ideas has led many scholars to consider his philosophy to be a “metaphysical dualism” (which is sometimes referred to as a “Platonic or metaphysical realism”) in that the Ideas are not merely abstract entities in our minds but ontological realities that exist in some higher, eternal realm. And so, Plato's metaphysics seems to divide reality into two distinct worlds: the intelligible world of Ideas, and the perceptual, sensible, or physical world of the earthly realm. The sensible world consists of imperfect copies of the intelligible Ideas. Again, these Ideas are unchangeable and perfect, and are only accessible and comprehensible by the use of the intellect or understanding. In Plato the intellect often seems to be equated with the soul so that essentially it does not include sensible perception or the imagination.
In the Republic books VI and VII, Plato uses a number of metaphors or analogies to explain (or at least suggest) his metaphysical view. They are: the Analogy of the Sun, the Divided Line and the Allegory of the Cave. Taken together, these metaphors offer a complex but suggestive metaphysical and epistemological theory whose exact meaning significance, and relation scholars have debated for over two millennia. Let us look at each one in turn.
In all of Plato’s analogies it is important to remember that he often uses metaphors from the physical world in order to reflect a relation that is similar in the intellectual world. In the analogy of the sun, then, he compares the medium of light that allows us to perceive visible things as similar to the medium of understanding that allows us to perceive intellectual things. In order to see a physical object, like a tree, the organ of our eyes requires light to shine on the object we are seeing. Without the light we would see nothing, but remain in darkness. The source of the light that enables us to see is the sun. A similar relation holds in the intellectual world of our minds. In order to see an intellectual object (an idea) it requires the light of understanding. We may, at first, perceive an idea dimly. That is, we have a sense of what something means, but only vaguely. Often only after working at it or thinking about it, do we come to grasp the concept or idea in a precise and clear manner. That is, we understand it or “see” it for ourselves. But what, then, is the source of this light of understanding? Plato calls it the Good. The Good is comparable to the sun in being the source of all the Ideas and the source of the light that illuminates them so we can see or understand them.
In the Analogy of the Divided Line, Plato again divides the physical and intellectual worlds. In the center of the line there is a dividing mark which separates the two realms. Two other lines are drawn which further separate each of those two realms. There are, then, four distinct regions. On one side of the line Plato marks the human power that functions at a certain level of perception; on the other side of the line he marks the kind of object that is being perceived. So at the very bottom region there is the human power of imagination which perceives objects that are likened to shadows. This region is considered to be a kind of fantasy made possible by our power of dreaming. The objects we perceive are not “real” but fabricated or devised by our own fancy. In the next region we have the power of our senses through which we perceive actual physical objects (physical trees, flowers, humans, etc). As we saw earlier these objects in being physical are susceptible to change. For this reason, the “knowledge” we achieve of these sensible things is merely opinion.
In the third region we have now passed from the sensible world to the intellectual world. The power we use here is the faculty of thought in which we now question and think about those things in the lower realm that we had merely perceived through our senses. In asking questions we inquire into what a flower or a tree or a human being really is. What is their nature or essence? In doing this, we begin to form hypotheses or possible answers to what these things really are. But only by passing into the fourth level do we arrive at knowledge in the full sense of the word. In this region we perceive through the power of understanding and now see the Idea itself. The exact nature of this fourth region is often debated about, but it would seem that for Plato in understanding the mind grasps the Idea through a kind of immediate intuition, a flash of illuminating recognition where we “see the truth.”
We grasp the Idea of flower, tree, or human being. This Analogy of the Divided Line, then, suggests an ascending order in the degrees of knowing both in terms of the human faculty that is being used in knowing and the object which is being known or perceived. At the conclusion of the analogy Plato even suggests a highest order of knowing which relates to the analogy of the sun. This highest level of knowing is the direct perception of the source of light itself, that is, the Good.
Whereas the Analogy of the Divided Line is often criticized as being too static in its divisions of knowledge, the Analogy of the Cave captures in a more dynamic manner the idea of knowing as a passing through various stages. As with the Divided Line there are four distinct stages, which ultimately culminates in the mind’s beholding the Good, but in this analogy there is a more narrative structure, which suggests the journey of the soul in its ascent to the Good.
The first stage depicts prisoners inside a cave whose bodies and necks are chained so that they so are forced to stare at the wall before them. Behind their backs is a great, blazing fire which casts light and before the fire are artifacts, which have been made in the form of real things like trees, animals, and human beings. Shadows of the artifacts appear like puppets on the wall and so from the prisoners’ perspectives these shadows appear to be real things, for they are the only reality they know.
Stage two commences when one of the prisoners is suddenly freed from his chains and so is able to turn his head around. At first the strength of the light of the fire blurs his vision. Over time his eyes adjust, and so he begins to see the artifacts and the fire behind them. This, then, appears to be reality.
Stage three begins when this prisoner is dragged along the path that winds up and out of the cave. Eventually the prisoner arrives above ground and out into the world above. He now beholds the daylight and his eyes are even more bedazzled. Again, it takes time to adjust but when he does he sees the reflections of things (such as trees, animals, and human beings) as they appear in the water of ponds.
After that he enters stage four where he can look directly at the things themselves, the real trees, animals, and people. Finally, at the highest degree he looks up into the light itself and sees the sun. In this way, the former prisoner is finally free from the illusions below and is able to see things as they really are. In fact, he pities the prisoners below who are still in the dark and so only see images and imitations of real things but not the things themselves.
Having arrived at this enlightened state (of philosophy) the man wishes he could remain above ground in contemplation of the light of truth. Having pity on those below who are still imprisoned, however, he descends back down into the cave. It is so dark, though, his eyes again need time to adjust and everything looks disoriented and unclear. Although the returned philosopher tries to help the others see, he is not welcomed but ridiculed. In fact, when he persists in revealing to them their illusions, he ultimately is killed. For the people prefer to live in the darkness than to make the difficult ascent into the light above ground.
Throughout these stages, then, we see how Plato conceives the process of education and learning as an intellectual ascent from darkness into light. This ascent involves transitioning into higher degrees of knowledge that ultimately is aimed at beholding the Good itself. Moreover, we can see how the stages in the Allegory of the Cave correlate with the divisions in the Divided Line. The shadows on the cave wall are analogous to the shadows of the deluded images created by our imagination. The artifacts are like the physical objects that are illuminated by the fire of the physical sun. Making the ascent out of the cave and into the sunlight above is like moving from the sensible world into the intellectual world of the mind.
Initially in asking questions we begin to think for ourselves and form pseudo-ideas of possible answers in the form of scientific hypotheses. Eventually, though, if persistent, we come to grasp the “real things,” so like the freed prisoner we now see in the light of day the Ideas themselves. Finally in the decent of the philosopher back into the cave we see Plato’s obvious allusion to Socrates as the enlightened one who in trying to open the eyes of his fellow citizens is greeted with death.
Plato's philosophical views had many societal implications, especially on the idea of an ideal state or government. There is some discrepancy between his early and later views. Some of the most famous doctrines are contained in the Republic during his middle period. However, because Plato wrote dialogues, it is assumed that Socrates is often speaking for Plato. This assumption may not be true in all cases.
Plato, through the words of Socrates, asserts that the ideal society would have a tripartite class structure corresponding to the appetite/spirit/reason structure of the individual soul.
According to this model, the principles of Athenian democracy (as it existed in his day) are rejected as only a few are fit to rule. Instead of rhetoric and persuasion, Plato held that reason and wisdom should govern. This does not equate to tyranny, despotism, or oligarchy, however. As Plato puts it:
Until philosophers rule as kings or those who are now called kings and leading men genuinely and adequately philosophize, that is, until political power and philosophy entirely coincide, while the many natures who at present pursue either one exclusively are forcibly prevented from doing so, cities will have no rest from evils,... nor, I think, will the human race. (Republic 473c-d)
Plato describes these "philosopher kings" as "those who love the sight of truth" (Republic 475c) and supports the idea with the analogy of a captain and his ship or a doctor and his medicine. Sailing and health are not things that everyone is qualified to practice by nature. A large part of the Republic then addresses how the educational system should be set up to produce these philosopher kings.
However, it must be taken into account that the ideal city outlined in the Republic is qualified by Socrates as the ideal luxurious city, examined to determine how it is that injustice and justice grow in a city (Republic 372e). In addition, the ideal city is used as an image to illuminate the state of one's soul, and how the desires, emotions, and reason are combined in the human soul. Socrates is attempting to make an image of a rightly ordered human, and then later goes on to describe the different kinds of humans that can be observed, from tyrants to lovers of money in various kinds of cities. The ideal city is not promoted, but only used to magnify the different kinds of individual humans and the state of their soul.
According to Socrates, then, a state that is made up of different kinds of souls will eventually decline from an aristocracy to a timocracy to an oligarchy to a democracy and finally to tyranny. It is often thought that Plato is trying to warn us of the various kinds of immoderate souls that can rule over a state, and what kind of wise souls are best to advise and give counsel to the rulers that are often lovers of power, money, fame, and popularity. In contrast, though, the philosopher king image has been used by many political thinkers after Plato to justify an aristocratic system of rule.
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