For 2,400 years, Plato’s writings have been interpreted, re-interpreted, debated, and taught as the foundational issues and methods of Western philosophical discourse. Plato studied with, and represented in writing, Socrates, “the wisest man in the world.” He founded what some consider the first institution for higher learning, the Academy, where he taught Aristotle, whose ideas and influence were probably greater even than his teacher’s.
At the same time, Plato’s role in Western philosophy is ambiguous in some senses. The works for which Plato is famed, such as the Apology and the Republic, are semi-fictional dialogues starring Socrates, other philosophers, and Plato’s friends and family. It may never be known which ideas were Plato’s, which Socrates’, nor how accurately Plato represented his teacher’s thought; Plato’s dialogues are nearly our only sources for Socrates. Plato was a playwright before he became a philosopher and his works need to be understood as literary in addition to philosophical. Aristotle, Plato’s student, confirmed that Socrates did express some of the ideas Plato credited to him, and this justifies accepting Plato’s Socrates as factual for some, while others insist the dialogues must be considered creative literature, and their content credited fully to Plato.
Plato wrote in all major areas of philosophy, including science and mathematics, and is most famous for his metaphysical “theory of forms,” the idea of “Platonic love,” and for inventing political philosophy in The Republic and The Laws. Some credit him with a formative role Christian thought, especially through his influence on St. Augustine. The metaphysics and epistemology of Christianity, and the repressive sexual ethos and social authoritarianism of some forms of Christianity, could all find much support in Plato’s writings.
In perspective, Plato’s status comes more from his interests and methods than theories. Plato is said to have more-or-less invented philosophy in the sense of the rigorous and systematic investigation of ethical, political, metaphysical, and epistemological questions. Plato’s use of dialogues and the principle of dialectic discussion remain fundamental model for philosophical activity.
The details of Plato’s birth and early years are not surely known, except that he was born in Athens or on a nearby island, to a wealthy and politically active family, between 429 and 423 B.C.E. Ancient sources claim that he was an excellent student, and it is believed that he received a comprehensive education from some of the era’s most respected teachers.
Apparently, Plato’s given name was Aristocles, after his grandfather, and “Plato” was a nickname. Platos means “broad” in Greek and is said to have referred either to Plato’s physique (he was a wrestler), the breadth of his writing, or the breadth of his forehead. In any case, he was named Aristocles on his tomb although the world knows him as Plato.
Socrates may have been a friend of Plato’s family for most of his life, but it is known only that Plato studied with him from about the age of 20 until the older philosopher’s execution-by-suicide when Plato was 28. It is believed that Plato traveled then for many years, in Italy, Sicily, and Egypt, and then returned to Athens at the age of 40 to found the Academy – the earliest known institution for higher learning in the Western World.
The politics of Plato’s family seems relevant to his work, especially to The Republic, a book rather anti-democratic and elitist in its political theory. Plato’s uncle, Charmides, who has a Platonic dialogue named after him, belonged to a group who overthrew Athenian democracy, for about a year, in 404 B.C.E. when Plato was around 20 years old. One of their leaders, Critas was also a student of Socrates, and according to Plato, a bad man—and one of the reasons Socrates might have been suspected of anti-Athenian associations. The Republic is believed among the first dialogues written, or at least begun, after Socrates’s execution for heresy by the democratic Athenian government. Several other members of the Academy also rejected democracy and supported political ideals we might call tyrannical or totalitarian today, all of which is consistent with Plato’s vision in The Republic.
Various unreliable, and unremarkable, accounts are given of Plato’s peaceful death at the age of 80 or 81, in 348-347 B.C.E.
We have many more complete and authentic works from Plato than any other western philosopher of the era — thirty-five dialogues and thirteen letters according to the usual count, although the authenticity of a few may be disputed. They are normally grouped chronologically (although the dating is uncertain):
Early: Apology (of Socrates), Charmides, Crito, Euthyphro, Gorgias, Hippias (minor), Hippias (major), Ion, Laches, Lysis, Protagoras
Middle: Cratylus, Euthydemus, Meno, Parmenides, Phaedo, Phaedrus, Republic, Symposium, Theaetetus
Late: Critias, Sophist, Statesman / Politicus, Timaeus , Philebus, Laws
The chronological approach, although disputed, makes sense because the divisions mark significant changes in style and content. The pivotal and unifying event in Plato’s works is the trial of Socrates. Although Plato’s writing about the event includes both early and middle dialogues, Socrates’ actual death occurred (setting aside dating disputes) between the writing of the early and middle works, which marks a change in Plato’s representation and use of the older philosopher – from seemingly faithful description in the early works to using Socrates as a mouthpiece for his own ideas in the middle, and in the late dialogues, as a mere bystander, or not at all.
Plato himself is not represented in any of the dialogues, and there is no indication that he heard them first-hand, except for The Apology, which includes the record of Socrates self-defense at his trial. Socrates’ arguments concern justice, citizenship, Athens, the nature of philosophy, and people’s misunderstanding of his character and goals.
The Republic and later works seem to present Plato’s own perspectives on ethics, politics, psychology, epistemology, and metaphysics in a systematically interconnected philosophy.
Plato’s late work Timaeus is famous for the myth of Atlantis. The same work contains Plato’s creation story, in which the creator (the “demiurge”) does not create the world out of nothing, but rather out of chaos, a mixture of the four elements (earth, air, fire, and water). Timaeus also presents Plato’s most detailed speculations about physics, astronomy, chemistry, and biology.
“Platonism” refers to the philosophy espoused by Socrates in various dialogues that material reality is an illusion or shadow, ultimate reality being abstract, non-physical, and accessible only to reason and imagination. Socrates believed that our physical senses blind us to truth. This is part of the “theory of forms” which claims that all physical things are the shadows, or images, or copies, or abstract “forms” (Greek eidos, or “idea”) which exist outside of space and time and embody the perfection of whatever they represent – i.e. the form of goodness is perfect goodness. Scholars are unsure how many forms Plato believed in; early works seem to reserve the forms for archetypal ideas, such as Good, Truth, Beauty, etc. while later works allude to more, perhaps to the point where Plato may have postulated that everything has a “form.”
In “the Allegory of the Cave” in The Republic, which probably represents Plato’s own philosophy, Socrates says that believing the evidence of our senses is ignorance and leads to immorality. Those who leave the cave and see the light – rare philosophers – are neither understood nor believed by the rest of humanity. In The Republic, this argument motivates the idea of the “philosopher king” – that only philosophers, because they have climbed out of the cave and seen reality, are fit to rule, and should be compelled to do so.
Most people have heard of “Platonic love,” which means love without physical affection. Indeed, Plato believed that the highest form of love must be non-physical and non-romantic – the experience of the divine, or the “form” of Beauty. Plato believed that personal love could perhaps fuel the passion necessary to enter that altered state of consciousness wherein a person has direct experience of the divine, but not through sexual activity, which he regarded as a waste of that energy and its potential to uplift the mind.
Plato’s ideas about politics have had enduring influence despite their un-democratic nature. Plato, through Socrates, claims that societies do and should have a class structure based on the natural inherent qualities of three kinds of people – the workers, the military / police, and the rulers (who should be philosophers). He also considered these three to correspond to three aspects of the human soul. Most qualities of his ideal state are justified by the idea that the best society depends on citizens with the best qualities. Music and poetry were to be forbidden as they excite the senses, leading to immorality and delusion. There were to be eugenic breeding programs employing police force and to ensure cooperation. Although most scholarship takes Plato’s Republic at its word, some argue that it was intended ironically, or as a learning exercise, not as a serious political platform. But, it must be admitted that Plato’s totalitarian recommendations in The Republic are consistent with other elements of his later philosophy.
Plato seems to have been most influenced by Socrates, Pythagoras (and the Pythagoreans), Parmenides, and Heraclitus; much that we know of these philosophers comes through Plato himself.
Many of Plato’s ideas seem to show Pythagorean influence and both Aristotle and Cicero mentioned Plato’s fascination with Pythagorean thought. Plato shared the Pythagorean ideas that ultimate reality has the perfection and abstraction of mathematical thought (the “forms”) and that such thought is the surest foundation for philosophy. They also shared a mystical bent, believing that the human soul was capable of direct experience of the divine (through philosophy and mathematics). The Pythagorean belief in numbers and mathematics as the foundations of reality also influenced Heraclitus and Parmenides who followed Pythagoras, among the first to take a philosophical approach to explaining reality, instead of mythological (religious).
It is convenient to think of Heraclitus and Parmenides as complementary, since Heraclitus spoke for the ever-changing nature of reality while Parmenides focused on the changelessness of Being. These can be understood as the two sides of Plato’s metaphysics – the unreliable sensible world and the perfect unchanging world of “forms.”
As for Socrates, although debate continues concerning Plato’s representation of the older philosopher’s thought, there is no doubt that Plato was close to Socrates in the years before his trial and execution, and supported his methods and ideas. The fact that Socrates plays the role of teacher and narrator in the dialogues shows the depth of the impression he made on the young Plato.
Quote #1: “The price good men pay for indifference to public affairs is to be ruled by evil men.”
This often-repeated quote, which seems to voice a universal and self-evident truth of society, also alludes, more specifically, to Plato’s argument for philosopher-kings. Plato knew that those who crave power are the least well-suited to wield it (at least for everyone else’s benefit) and argued that that a better government would educate the right children to be philosophers and require them to serve their city by ruling – because otherwise, self-made philosophers tend to avoid such responsibilities, preferring to be left alone to their investigations! One also wonders if the quote above may refer, bitterly, to the execution of Socrates.
Quote #2: “Love is born into every human being; it calls back the halves of our original nature together; it tries to make one out of two and heal the wound of human nature.”
Countless people have repeated and built on Plato’s image of human beings as divided in halves which complete each other through love. It reminds one that Plato had sentiments we might call “romantic” despite negative attitudes towards lust and sex. Plato saw human interpersonal love as a low-grade shadow of the highest love – communion with the divine – but he also believed that interpersonal love (not sex) could lead to experience of the divine. This quote suggests that interpersonal love is ultimately an effect of divine love working through one’s personal life to heal “the wound of human nature.” It is easy to see, in this vision, a source of later Christian attitudes.
Quote #3: “Musical innovation is full of danger to the State, for when modes of music change, the fundamental laws of the State always change with them.”
The dark modernity of this quote is startling; it seems to imply that governments who wish to remain in power should limit or forbid musical innovation. This is an idea which we have seen acted on in the modern age by several totalitarian governments and forces of religious extremism. Mainland China, North Korea, and many religious fundamentalists (both Islamic and Christian) tightly regulate or outright ban much music, especially new music, claiming that it corrupts listeners either morally or ideologically and therefore constitutes a danger to the soul or society. Plato’s quote here does not spell out such a repressive conclusion, and Plato does also praise art as potentially providing contact with divine truth, but he also advocates limiting music in the society of The Republic.
VIII. In Pop Culture
Both “The Allegory of the Cave” and The Republic have influenced countless works of fiction.
Example #1: “The Allegory of the Cave” in the film The Matrix. Like the characters in Plato’s allegory, human beings in The Matrix live in a world of illusion (a computer simulation), incapable of imagining the true nature of their situation. The specific focus in the film on the characters’ eyesight as they are awakened and blinded by light seems to allude specifically to Plato’s allegory, which also uses light as a metaphor for truth. While Plato’s world outside the cave is one of truth, beauty, and freedom, the world outside the matrix is dark and dangerous and the characters have greater powers within the simulation.
Example #2: The Republic is generally considered the first fictional utopia (perfect society) in western literature (although the word “utopia” was coined later). Like nearly all ostensible utopias, fictional or real, it seems more truly a dystopia (a society gone horribly wrong), and some scholars suggest that it was intended satirically, not as an actual recommendation for government, although this is not the most common interpretation. The classic novels 1984 by George Orwell and Brave New World by Aldous Huxley both incorporate elements of The Republic. The society in Brave New World is closer — ruled by philosopher-scientists who believe in the quest for maximum happiness through rational policies, citizens bred and educated specifically for their role in the caste-system, and reproduction divorced from love and scientifically engineered to produce “better” humans.