Welcome back, awesome nerds. I continue my journey through philosophy, in this text reaching the very famous philosopher that was Plato. He is often considered the most influential philosopher in history, with his philosophical ideas shaping even most Christian theology and philosophy (Russel, 1946). Thus, whenever we are looking at the history of philosophy, he and his ideas are an obligatory stop. Before taking a general look into the many ideas Plato presented us with, let’s start by learning a bit more about him as a person.
Plato is said to have been born around 428-7 BC (Adamson, 2014; Kenny, 2010) into an aristocratic Athenian family, with some of his relatives being among the Thirty Tyrants of Athens (Kenny, 2010; Russel, 1946) Plato is also said to have fought in the Peloponnesian War with two of his brothers (Kenny, 2010). A neat bit of trivia is that the name “Plato” was actually a nickname, that came from the Greek platus, meaning ‘broad’ or ‘large’, with his real name being Aristocles. The nickname supposedly came from one of the following three reasons, or all of them: Plato being physically so well-built due to also being a wrestler, from the wide breadth of topics in his writings, or just because he had a large forehead (Adamson, 2014). To avoid confusion, I will continue to call this philosopher by their widely known nickname.
As mentioned in a previous text, Plato was a student of Socrates. At the time of the latter’s death, Plato was in his late twenties and had been his pupil for approximately 8 years (Adamson, 2014; Kenny, 2010). This had a significant impact on Plato’s world and political view, as besides being a pupil of Socrates, he also had a profound respect and affection for him. Thus, Socrates being sentenced to death by democracy, together with the influence of his social position and family, led to Plato despising democracy (Russel, 1946).
Besides Socrates, the other significant influences on Plato’s philosophy were said to have been Pythagoras, Parmenides, and Heraclitus (Adamson, 2014; Russel, 1946).
From Pythagoras, Plato is said to have kept what are known as ‘Orphic’ elements: a religious trend, the belief in immortality and other-worldliness, and a respect for mathematics, all this in an intermingling of intellect and mysticism (Russel, 1946). This can be seen in Plato’s opinion on the type of education necessary to make a good ruler: he thought that without mathematics no one could achieve true wisdom and that some of Greece’s tyrants would have been better rulers if they had learned geometry (Russel, 1946).
Parmenides influenced Plato’s belief that reality is eternal and timeless, and thus, any perception of change will be illusory (Russel, 1946). In contrast to this, from Heraclitus Plato took the notion in the sensible world nothing is permanent (Russel, 1946). The synthesis of these two doctrines led Plato to hold that true knowledge cannot come from the senses, but only be gained intellectually. (Russel, 1946).
From Socrates, we can say Plato inherited his focus on ethical problems and using the notion of “The Good” to guide his reasoning – thus seeking to explain the world through purpose as opposed to more mechanical explanations (Russel, 1946).
Together with being a philosopher, Plato was also a great writer, being able to show much imagination and charm in his written works (Adamson, 2014; Russel, 1946). These written works were mainly in the form of dialogues, which Plato is said to be the first to use in philosophy (Adamson, 2014), and are how we have access in present-day to Plato’s philosophical ideas. We seem to be lucky to the point that all written works that have in antiquity been attributed to Plato have survived until the present-day (Kenny, 2010). Some authors suggest that Plato wrote in dialogues because he believed that you could write the theory of a philosophical idea in a book, but you could not actually pass on or understand the actual idea in the same way (Adamson, 2014). He believed that true philosophy happens during the discussion between a teacher and student (Adamson, 2014). This is because, though written words are prone to be misunderstood or distorted, in an in-person discussion one can explain ideas, respond to critiques and clarify misunderstandings (Adamson, 2014). Plato settled for a middle ground: he wrote his ideas but wrote them in the form of dialogues (Adamson, 2014).
This choice of writing style offered Plato benefits but presents us with some problems in trying to understand Plato. For Plato writing in dialogues helped him developed his philosophical ideas, as taking a third person perspective helped him present the strongest arguments he could come up with for both sides of the ideas he presented (Kenny, 2010). However, because Plato himself never participates in the dialogues he writes, it makes it difficult for us to understand from among all the philosophical ideas presented throughout the texts, which come from the character or figure expressing them, and which actually come from Plato – a notable example being Plato’s Socrates (Adamson, 2014; Kenny, 2010).
Usually, scholars will group the Platonic dialogues into early, middle and late periods, through a striking correspondence between dramatic, philosophical and stylometric sets of criteria (Adamson, 2014; Kenny, 2020). This division was achieved through the way some dialogues reference another one in their philosophical content, analysis of the role attributed to Socrates, as well as statistical analysis of style of writing (Adamson, 2014; Kenny, 2010) – I didn’t even know this last one was a thing. According to this division, Plato started writing close to Socrates’ execution, with the dialogues in the “early period” being shorter and somewhat adhering to Socrates’ practice in discussion: Socrates is described as questioning about a certain concept together with someone, the concept usually being a virtue like piety or courage, but ultimately both fail to achieve clarity at the end (Adamson, 2014). This period includes the dialogues of Lysis, Apology, Crito, Charmides, Laches, Ion, Euthydemus and Hippias Minor (Kenny, 2010).
Following this comes the “middle period”, during which Plato wrote more ambitious, longer works, and moved away from representing typical Socratic encounters (Adamson, 2014). In these dialogues, Socrates also changes his role from someone who questions others to a teacher with a fully established system of philosophy, which is believed to represent Plato’s own philosophy instead of Socrates’ (Kenny, 2010). This period includes the dialogues of Phaedo, Republic and Symposium (Kenny, 2010).
Finally, there were the “late” works, which often tended to be more technical and less dramatic in their setting. Often there is one lead character who controls the discussion by taking advantage of an interlocutor who doesn’t give him much trouble. In this later period, Plato also often reduces Socrates role to a minimum and allows other characters to take the leading role (Adamson, 2014; Kenny, 2010). This period includes the dialogues of Philebus, Critias, Sophist, Statesman, Timaeus and Laws (Kenny, 2010).
Throughout this body of texts, we can find what are considered to be the most important ideas in Plato’s philosophy (Russel, 1946):
- The Theory of Ideas.
- The idea of a Utopic Society
- Plato’s cosmogony, or how he believes the universe originated.
- The idea that knowledge is something to be remembered (reminiscence) instead of acquired.
Focusing again more on his life, when Plato was about 40 years old he founded a philosophical community close to his house, named the Akademeia – this is where we got the word ‘Academy’ from (Adamson, 2014; Kenny 2010). There, a group of thinkers would, under Plato’s instruction, debate and share their interest in mathematics, astronomy, metaphysic, ethics and mysticism (Kenny, 2010). And finally, Plato is said to have died peacefully at a wedding feast in 347 BC, at the age of 80 (Adamson, 2014; Kenny, 2010).
Concluding, many central debates in philosophy, such as the immortality of the soul or the nature of language are for the first time presented by Plato (Adamson, 2014), and as we explore some of his dialogues in future texts, we will see how these philosophical doctrines will be developed. Interestingly, despite being often considered his most famous doctrine, throughout the dialogues, Plato’s Theory of Ideas is rarely clearly stated or explained (Adamson, 2014). We will also see that the Sophists will play a major role in a lot of Plato’s dialogues (Adamson, 2014).
However, Plato is not without his flaws. Russell (1946) has presented the critique that often Plato is not quite intellectually honest. He judges doctrines based on their social consequences but during his dialogues often pretends to be judging the argument and following to its conclusions based on theoretical or logical standards. In reality, he is often concerned with arguing for what he thinks are the characteristics that make someone virtuous and twisting the debate with this end – a habit he introduced into philosophy, which has lasted until the present day (Russell, 1946). Russel (1946) also argues that this bias, together with Plato’s genius as a writer, allowed him to present illiberal, and sometimes even tyrannical ideas, in a way that made them be admired by future generations.
With the background set, in the next text, I will start to delve a bit deeper into each of Plato’s most influential ideas and their corresponding dialogues, hopefully illustrating how these influenced a lot of the common ideas in contemporary society.
I hope to see you amazing nerds in the next text,
Adamson, P. 2014. Classical Philosophy: A history of philosophy without any gaps, Volume 1. 1st edition. Oxford University Press: Oxford.
Kenny, A. 2010. A New History of Western Philosophy: In Four Parts. Reprint Edition. Oxford University Press: Oxford.
Russel, B. 1946. History of Western Philosophy. Routledge – Taylor and Francis Group: New York.