“So,” the Significant Other asked me recently, “now that you’ve finished reading ‘The Republic’ when are you going to do a blog post on Plato?” It’s a fair question: Plato, along with Aristotle, who studied under him, effectively laid the basis for Western philosophy and was also massively influential in the development of Christian theology.
And yet in terms of biography we don’t really know a great deal about him. Even his name is only a nickname, meaning ‘broad’, and possibly referring to the shape of his head. His real name might have been Aristocles, but then again it might not. He was born into an aristocratic Athenian family. His family may have expected Plato to enter into politics himself, but instead he became a student of Socrates.
And it is from Plato that we know much of what we know, or think we know, about Socrates and his philosophy, because Socrates features prominently in Plato’s works. How many of the ideas which ‘Socrates’ expresses in Plato’s dialogues (almost all Plato’s writing is in dialogue form) are actually Socrates’, and how many are really Plato’s own, has been the subject of debate for centuries.
Plato’s work is divided into three periods. In the early period he focuses primarily on Socrates and his ethical views. One of the most famous works from this period is the ‘Apology’, which outlines Socrates’ defence at his trial in 399 B.C.E on charges of corrupting the young and rejecting the gods of the city while advocating other gods. In his second, or middle, period, Plato focuses far more upon epistemology (how we know what we know) and metaphysics (underlying ‘first principles’ such as being, knowing, time, and space). In his late period Plato revisited, revised, and expanded upon the ideas of his middle period.
Plato’s most famous work, which contains what are arguably the best-known of his ideas amongst laypeople today, is The Republic, which dates from the middle period. The significance of The Republic is why I prioritised reading it. Although today it is often understood as being primarily political in nature, the ideal ‘State’ which Plato describes in the ten books of The Republic is actually a metaphor for the ideal person.
In this ideal person the three aspects of the soul – reason/intellect, emotion/sentiment, and desire/instinct – are kept in balance, ruled over by the intellect without any aspect being lost. Only the true philosopher will possess the level of reason necessary to attain this ideal, making philosophers the ideal rulers of society, as everyone else needs them to help them live better lives. Of course, philosophers are too smart to want to be rulers, which may be why an ideal society has never been achieved (Plato’s efforts to become involved in real-life politics may or may not have had something to do with his temporary departure from Athens, possibly to Egypt. Theory does not always translate well into practice).
The other big idea from The Republic which is still floating around today is that of Forms (sometimes transliterated into English as ‘Ideas’, which can get confusing). Basically, if we can think of a thing then not only the thing itself must exist but also a sort of collective mental picture of the ideal essence of the thing, and this essential idea is the Form. Forms also apply to abstract nouns like beauty or justice, and reflect the fact that they are ‘real’ even if not tangible or observable. At least, that’s my understanding.
To express this idea, Plato developed the analogy of the cave. Imagine a group of people chained all their lives in a cave, unable even to look around but only to stare at the wall. Imagine that behind them there is a brilliant light, and that sometimes objects pass in front of the light and cast their shadows on the wall. These shadows are all the cave-people know, so naturally they will consider the shadows themselves to be the ‘real’ things, unaware that they are only imperfect images. Now imagine that one of the people somehow got loose. They would turn and make their way towards the light, which at first would blind them but later would enable them to see, not shadows, but real things (the Forms). Naturally they would be thrilled by their new knowledge, and after exploring their expanded world would likely want to return and enlighten their fellow cave-people. These enlightened people are the philosophers.
Plato also established the very first ‘university’, and it was here that he taught Aristotle, among others. Situated in an olive grove known as ‘Akademia’, it is the origin of the modern terms ‘Academy’ and ‘Academic’. It was the Academy which kept Plato’s teaching and works alive following his death around 348 B.C.E.