Biography (Encyclopedia of Science and Religion)
In his written dialogues, Plato developed accounts of knowledge, reality, humanity, society, goodness, God, and beauty. Usually, when people speak of Platonism, they are referring to his theory of Forms, accompanied by a doctrine of the immortality of the soul and values that transcend power, prestige, and pleasure. Western thought has developed either by following and adapting his accounts or by reacting to them, either directly or indirectly through, most notably, Aristotle, Plotinus, Philo, and Augustine. The theory of Forms established the most basic concept of science as it came to be practiced in Europe, namely, that science aims to discover objective principles, in other words, "Forms." Plato's doctrine of the immortality of the soul and values that transcend the material world have reinforced and shaped systematic thinking within Judaism, Christianity, and Islam.
Life and times
Plato (428-347 B.C.E.) was born in Athens to a rich and politically powerful family. Instead of taking his place in the ruling class, he became a philosopher. He founded the Academy and invented a new form of literature, the dramatic dialogue. His dialogues, featuring the philosopher Socrates (469-399 B.C.E.), have profoundly shaped history, in a way comparable to the writings of Paul about Jesus.
Plato chose philosophy because he fell under the spell of Socrates as a young man while witnessing the horrors of political life in his time and city. At the time of Plato's birth, Athens, a city-state in Greece, was the world's first democracy, inventing such wonders as trial by jury, as well as some of the greatest sculpture, architecture, and drama of any age. But during this time of extraordinary human achievement, the wisest man of all, as confirmed by a religious oracle, was one who professed to have no wisdom at all: Socrates. Socrates would closely question people who professed to know politics, religion, or any deep wisdom about life, and he would show that their pretenses to wisdom were false. Socrates would also use his chains of questions to lead anyone who would speak with him to agree human excellence was exclusively a matter of wisdom, and that the search for wisdom was the best way to spend one's life.
Plato was fascinated by Socrates and joined other young men in spending time in his company. At the same time Plato observed how demagogues led Athens to prolong its Peloponnesian War (431-304 B.C.E.) against Sparta, a war that ended in utter defeat for Athens. The Spartans installed an antidemocratic government that included members of Plato's family. This government ruled murderously, but briefly, until a citizens' armed rebellion restored the democracy, although Athens's empire and military preeminence were gone forever. Under this same democracy, just a couple of years later (399 B.C.E.), a religiously conservative prosecutor brought Socrates to trial on charges of atheism, heresy, and corrupting the young. The jury found Socrates guilty and sentenced him to death. It is no wonder that Plato became disillusioned with a life aimed at political rule, and decided instead to devote his life to developing Socrates's ideas.
Plato spent his time in private conversations with friends about Socrates' ideas, honoring his memory by continuing to seek wisdom. Some of these friends were Pythagoreans. Pythagoras lived about a hundred years before Plato in Greek colonies in the south of Italy. According to reports, Pythagoras had supernatural powers and formed a religious school of followers. He believed that human souls are reincarnated in animal and human bodies. Pythagoras also was aware of the mathematical structure of musical harmony and believed that numbers provide the explanation of all the order in the universe. Plato traveled to southern Italy a couple of times in his life, at least in part because of his interest in Pythagoras. In his written dialogues, Plato developed Pythagorean as well as Socratic ideas. Plato also followed Pythagoras in forming a school, which became known as the Academy.
Next to nothing is known of the way the Academy was run, but a great deal is known about Plato's writings, since all of his dialogues have survived. The dialogues present at least three different theoretical systems, probably from Plato's early, middle, and late periods, though any such dating is speculative and controversial. The early dialogues focus on ethical issues, and usually end with the speakers admitting their ignorance. For example, in the Laches the question is "What is courage?" in the Euthyphro "What is reverence?" in the Charmides "What is moderation?" in the Lysis "What is a friend?" and in the Protagoras "How are the virtues alike?" Though the arguments are inconclusive, they give an account of virtue as purely a matter of intellect, which is contrary to the widespread belief, then and now, that virtue requires proper desires or a good will in addition to technical know-how.
The middle and late dialogues end with the speakers reaching positive conclusions that are not limited to ethics. In the middle dialogues, such as the Phaedo, Symposium, Phaedrus, and Republic, Plato uses arguments to prove, as well as myths and metaphors to embellish, an account of the soul as having three parts: reason, which aims at truth; emotion, which seeks social values such as prestige; and desire, which aims at material satisfaction. This soul is immortal and destined to enjoy the beauty of divine objects that are not seen with the senses but understood, in much the way one understands mathematics with the intellect. It is the nature of these souls to be constantly reincarnated into various human and animal bodies. The process of reincarnation disorients the soul and makes it believe that sense objects are the only realities. Proper reflection on human crafts and sciences, as reflected in the use of language, enables human souls to recognize ultimate reality. The crucial turning point comes when one realizes that all well-made or beautiful or good objects share the same qualities or structure or Form. For example, it is not by sensory perception of particular beds that an expert carpenter or engineer designs and builds a bed, but by an intellectual recognition of what function beds are meant to perform. When the soul recognizes the reality of the Forms, and turns away from the senses towards such intellectual, math-like reasoning, it begins its path towards salvation. The soul achieves salvation by recognizing that the realm of Forms, not the material world, is true reality, so that one's desires for bodily and social goods cease to attach the soul to the material world, with the result that, at death, the soul is not drawn back into another body but ascends to the realm of the gods, if only for a limited time.
In the Timaeus, perhaps his most influential contribution to the dialogue between science and religion, Plato extends this account to general cosmology, explaining the design in the visible world by referring to a divine craftworker who fashioned the whole (by referring to Formal reality, of course) and insured its proper function by making it a living thing with a soul. Plato begins the tradition of perfect-being theology, which argues that God must be perfect, hence good, unchanging, eternal, and so on. In the later dialogues, beginning with the Parmenides, Plato raises problems with his theory of Forms, leading him not to abandon it but to abandon his middle period confidence that the Forms are simple enough that human minds can unmistakably know them without possibility of error.
Plato's influence on science and religion is probably greater than any other single person's. He lived at a time when there was no sharp distinction between the methods of religion and of science, and he was early enough in the history of western civilization to cast his shadow over the development of western science and religion. His influence on science is largely through Aristotle, who accepted with modifications Plato's view that the world can be explained in terms of form and matter and teleology, that is, the function objects are designed to perform. These categories dominated, and perhaps stifled, scientific thinking until the scientific revolution of the 1600s, when mathematical advances allowed scientists to try to explain the laws of nature in purely mechanistic terms (of particles pushing and pulling particles). Even in that revolution, Plato's influence continued. For instance, Galileo Galilei (1564-1642) used Plato's method of writing dialogues in the great debate between Ptolemaic and Copernican world systems to challenge the weight of religious authority by appeal to the light of reason.
Plato's influence on religion is even more profound. Philo (c. 20 B.C.E. to 50 C.E.) attempted to explain Jewish religion in Platonist terms and set a model that would be followed by Christians. In the three centuries after the death of Jesus, Christians had to choose between different interpretations of their faith as found in their sacred writings. As they worked to establish a biblical canon and creeds, they found themselves engaging in discussions shaped by Plato's and Aristotle's metaphysical and theological ideas. Some of these early writers, such as Tertullian, deplored any attempt to produce a platonic Christianity. Others, such as Origen, used platonic reasoning to defend the faith in a manner that would be followed by Augustine of Hippo, who in turn influenced all later Christian theology. Christian apologists appealed to platonic arguments to show that God exists and is perfectly good, that God designed the world, and that human beings have immortal souls. Then they supplemented these arguments with revelations from scripture. While critics of Christianity's Hellenization continue to this day, orthodox Christianity remains in the mold of perfect-being theology, and apologists continue to use platonic arguments.
See also ARISTOTLE; AUGUSTINE; CHRISTIANITY; GALILEO GALILEI; IDEALISM; JUDAISM; SOUL; TELEOLOGY
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GEORGE H. RUDEBUSCH
IntroductionHis writings laid the foundation for all of Western Philosophy, and his ideas still generate intense discussion. Plato was the foremost philosopher of golden age Athens and a student of the legendary Socrates. Socrates, however, left nothing in writing, so it is through Plato’s eyes that we see him and the Socratic method at work. Plato was mostly concerned with the essence of reality and the higher realm of eternal ideas, which are sometimes called “forms.” His discourses often employed the Socratic method featuring Socrates as the central philosopher debating and teaching others. In works such as Apology and , Plato raised questions about the nature of goodness, truth, and justice that continue to resonate today.
- Plato was born around 428 BC into a wealthy and prominent Athenian family. He benefited from a good education and studied under Socrates before starting the first organized school of philosophy in 384 BC.
- His actual name may have been Aristocles. The nickname Plato (which means “broad” or “wide” in Greek) was given to him in reference to his broad shoulders.
- As a young man, Plato did not only study: he was also a wrestler and a playwright.
- Plato’s philosophical works can be divided into three periods. The first period, heavily influenced by Socrates, represents Plato’s attempt to convey his mentor’s ideas in writing. The second period reflects Plato’s own development concerning central philosophical ideas. His classic work The Republic, which deals with questions of virtue, justice, wisdom, courage, and government, comes from this period. In the third period, he uses dialogue less often and tries to obtain a deeper understanding of individual subjects.
- One of the most enduring of Plato’s discussions in The Republic is his metaphorical use of a cave. If men are chained in a cave so that all they see are shadows reflected on the wall, will they not think the shadows are real? And if one man then breaks free and goes outside to see the “real,” will the other men in the cave believe him? This scenario explains Plato’s concept of "forms." Most of us can only ever see the shadow of goodness, justice, or wisdom.
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