Who Was Plato?
Plato was a famous and influential Greek philosopher who lived from 424 or 423 B.C.E. to 348 or 347 B.C.E. He was a student of Socrates, who is the central figure in Plato's works. Plato wrote a number of dialogues which present the teachings of Socrates in a narrative form in which Socrates instructs others by asking them questions and leading them to learning and wisdom. Given that Socrates did not compose any writing himself, we can credit Plato's books as the foundation of much of Western philosophy.
Plato's writings introduce a number of important themes into philosophy. He wrote on politics, metaphysics, ethics, the mind, and the nature of knowledge. Perhaps the overarching theme in his work is the idea that there exists a plane of reality which is true, and good, and against which everything in our experience must be compared. For example, there is an ideal "chair" which every actual chair in the world is similar to, and this is how we know what a chair is.
Chairs make for boring examples, though, and where this idea is most important is in the way it frames meaning for human activity. If there is an ultimate standard of goodness, then there is something to live up to, for example; if there is a perfect virtue, then humans can strive to be more virtuous, more like the ideal. The same goes for other human endeavors. Plato's Republic describes an ideal state (well, ideal for Plato), and a real state would try to mold itself to conform to this ideal. Also, the idea of "goodness" encompasses not only morality, but knowledge, so it is a call to try to learn more about the world, to achieve a more perfect state of knowlege of things.
Plato (428–347 B.C.), along with Socrates (469–399 B.C.) and Aristotle (384–322 B.C.), is one of the three ancient Greek thinkers credited with originating Western philosophy. Born in Athens, Plato (whose real name was Aristocles) studied under Socrates. From Socrates, Plato learned the Socratic or dialectic method, which used logic (the use of reason in thought processes) to achieve clear thinking. After Socrates's death, Plato traveled for more than a decade before founding a philosophy school called the Academy, near Athens. Donors supported the school so students were able to attend free of charge. The Academy flourished after Plato's death, until Emperor Justinian I (483–565 B.C.) ordered it closed in A.D. 529 soon after the beginning of the Middle Ages (c. 450–c. 1500).
A main feature of Plato's philosophy is the Theory of Ideas (or Forms), which he developed throughout his life. Plato maintained that everything we see around us is only an appearance, and the true reality of objects lies in the abstract realm of ideas. In Plato's view, if we ignore the changing details of objects, we may perceive timeless and universal reality. Thus we may partly understand such abstract concepts as Beauty, Truth, and Goodness. Plato believed that by using reason, a person could better understand the nature of goodness and apply it to life through a system called ethics (rules of right and wrong).
While Plato is thought to have presented many of Socrates's ideas in his early dialogues, later works, such as The Republic, are thought to represent his own views. In The Republic, Plato discussed the nature of a just society and an ideal State, or form of government. Among his other works are Symposium, which examines the nature of love; Apology, an account of Socrates's speech at his trial; and Phaedo, a discussion of the immortality of the soul.
Further Information: "Greece." Exploring Ancient World Cultures. [Online] Available http://eawc.evansville.edu/grpage.htm, November 7, 2000; Strathern, Paul. Plato in 90 Minutes. Chicago: Ivan R. Dee, 1996; Weate, Jeremy. A Young Person's Guide to Philosophy. New York: Dorling Kindersley, 1998, pp. 14–15, 51–52; Ziniewicz, Gordon. Shadows on the Wall: Philosophy East and West. [Online] Available http://www.fred.et/tzaka/shadows.html, November 7, 2000.