“The safest general characterisation of European philosophical tradition is that it consists of a series of footnotes to Plato” – Alfred North Whitehead.
Plato came from an aristocratic family and was probably born in Athens sometime around 428 BC. He died in 347 BC of natural causes. Today, he is still the most well known and widely studied of the ancient Greek philosophers. His fellow Athenian, Socrates played a significant role in inspiring Plato’s enthusiasm for philosophy. Plato is said to have travelled to Egypt and Italy after the forced suicide of Socrates. After his return to Athens he set up the Academy, just outside the city. This is sometimes regarded as the first ever ‘university’.
Plato is most well-known for his doctrines on the theory of Forms and the view that logical and/or mathematical entities subsist independently both of the empirical world and of human thought.
The Apology is widely regarded as his first philosophical work, which purports to be a collection of the speeches that Socrates delivered at his trial. Apart from this text, the rest of his philosophical works are all written in dialogue form. They are divided into three periods: early middle and late. The early dialogues include Crito, Ion, Hippias minor, Euthyphro, Lysis, Laches, Charmides, Meno, Apology, Euthydemus, Protagoras, and Gorgias. These dialogues are concerned with the meaning of virtue. Plato was interested in how we define virtue and whether or not it is teachable. None of the dialogues endorses a positive conclusion, and the argumentative procedure used in these dialogues is known as the ‘Socratic method’.
The middle period includes Phaedo, Symposium, Republic, and Phaedrus. These dialogues expound metaphysical, political, and psychological doctrines. These are the dialogues which are most often referred to as ‘Platonic’.
The late period consists of Parmenides, Theaetetus, Sophist, Statesman, Timaeus, Philebus, and Laws. These dialogues reassess and modify the doctrines of the middle period.
In his early dialogues, Plato writes about the importance of ethically significant concepts, since otherwise we will not know how to live. Here, Plato is mainly concerned with Socrates’ philosophy; he gives no concrete conclusions and is merely exploring ideas. He neither agrees nor disagrees with the Socratic claim that virtue is knowledge, and to its associated paradoxes that all wrongdoing must be due to ignorance and that all virtues must somehow be the same. The dialogues typically begin with propounding a problem for discussion, during the discussion several answers are proposed and then rejected; no conclusions are officially reached.
In The Apology and Phaedo, Plato lays out his theory of The Soul (or psyche). He believes that the soul is divided into three ‘parts’, which roughly correspond to reason, emotion, and desire. The ‘reasoning’ part is associated with the desire for knowledge and wisdom, the ‘spirited’ or ‘emotional’ part with the desire for honour, prestige and courage, and the ‘desiring’ part with bodily desires. It is due to this division that we experience conflict within the soul; however, we experience justice when all three of these parts are in harmony. Plato also regards the soul as immortal and subject to reincarnation, those who live virtuous lives will somehow be rewarded, but the detail will differ.
In the middle period Plato’s interests broaden significantly, and his own metaphysical and epistemological doctrines begin to form the background against which he works out his new thoughts on how one ought to live, the true role of love, and the structure of the physical world.
Plato believes that we come to understand what certain things mean because we have examples of them, however, how do we attach meaning to words such as ‘just’, ‘good’, and ‘beautiful’ which we cannot perceive? This problem led Plato to suppose that there must be an unambiguous example of justice, not in this world, but in some other, and that we must once have been acquainted with it. This is what he calls the ‘Form’ of justice. His theory is that we are born into this world with a dim recollection of this Form, and that is why we have some sort of conception of what justice is; even though it is only an imperfect conception, which explains why we cannot answer the Socratic question ‘What is justice?’
For example, we know different instances of justice, but how do we define justice as a unifying concept? The Form is the answer to what justice is; it is the one thing that is common to all instances of justice in which they all ‘participate’. The Forms are thus perfect paradigms and universals, of which perceptible things always ‘imitate’ but fall short.
In the Republic, Plato sets out his ‘ideal state’, which is decidedly authoritarian. Only those who know what the good is and have been taken out of their cave of illusions are fit to rule. This means that they must first have gone through vigorous intellectual training which has given them access to the world of Forms, available to the intellect but not to the senses. This can be accomplished through a study of mathematics which will turn one’s attention towards the Forms, since it is an a priori study and does not concern itself with what is perceptible; and after that a study in dialectic, or rather philosophical debate.
Those who have completed this training successfully will know what the good is, and they will govern with a view to maximizing the happiness of the state as a whole. In order to achieve this, a strict censorship must be imposed to prevent wrong ideas from being expressed, and to ensure that each people stick to their allotted jobs and don’t meddle with affairs that are not their own. Plato was firmly against democracy and made no connection between happiness and individual liberty.
In the Parmenides and the Theaetetus, a series of objections are raised to the middle period’s theory of Forms, but in the end Plato resumes his initial position. In the Sophist, he gives us a new metaphysics and a more sophisticated investigation of language, in the course of a long investigation of ‘not being’. In the Statesman, he reaffirms his view that ruling is a task for experts, and the experts should not be bound either by law or by the wishes of the people. However, law is a second best where experts are not available. In the Philebus, he once more weighs the claims of knowledge and of pleasure to be the good, and undertakes a full examination of what pleasure is. Finally, in the Laws, Plato again describes his ideal state, but this time he places a higher value on the law.
His Continuing Influence
After Plato’s death, the term ‘Platonism’ was coined to refer to the doctrines held by Plato. Platonism then branched out as a tradition which falls into six broad periods: (1) the Old Academy; (2) the Hellenistic Academy; (3) ancient Neo-Platonism; (4) medieval Platonism; (5) the Renaissance; (6) the modern period. He even influenced scientific thinkers such as Galileo, who endorsed his mathematical theories in their own studies. Plato often provides an essential ingredient for much of subsequent Western philosophy.
Article submitted by Ivalena Dineva
The Oxford Companion to Philosophy, Oxford University Press Philosophy of Plato and Aristotle, Cornell University Press Continental Philosophy, Oxford University Press The Republic of Plato, Basic Books Aristotle on Happiness, VDM Verlag Dr. Mueller e.K