Who was Plato?

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One of the most respected philosophers in history, and a noteworthy figure of his time in ancient Greece, Plato 's writings continue to be studied thousands of years after his death.  His relationship to and defense of Socrates, his one-time mentor, provided the basis for one of the most eloquent...

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One of the most respected philosophers in history, and a noteworthy figure of his time in ancient Greece, Plato's writings continue to be studied thousands of years after his death.  His relationship to and defense of Socrates, his one-time mentor, provided the basis for one of the most eloquent statements ever produced.  Born in 428 or 427 B.C., Plato's writings, particularly his "dialogues," a series of fictitious conversations, often involving Socrates, between the brilliant philosopher and another individual, provide the basis for the study of philosophy today, and are routinely adapted for academic and intellectually-stimulating entertainment in the modern era.  More a series of interviews than discussions, the "dialogues" were Plato's way of helping the reader understand the development of rational thought.  

Ancient Greece was characterized by impressive intellectual debate and unceasing conflict.  A harbinger of the phenomenon best articulated the the late David Halberstam in his use of the title The Best and the Brightest, Plato's musings reflect the incompatability of extraordinarily intelligent men making extraordinarily bad decisions.  His observation, for exampe, that "we can easily forgive a child who is afraid of the dark; the real tragedy of life is when men are afraid of the light," is astonishingly prescient when considered in a contemporary context in which well-educated and presumably smart leaders fall prey to common psychological phenomena that unfailingly lead to disaster, such as the refusal to believe information that contradicts preexisting beliefs.

Similarly, Plato's suggestion that "the price good men pay for indifference to public affairs is to be ruled by evil men" is a warning, seldom heeded, against failures to remain informed and engaged in public affairs.  The Founding Fathers of the United States of America were heavily influenced by the writings of Plato, and Thomas Jefferson would pay his respects to the ancient philosopher when noting that "every government degenerates when trusted to the rulers of the people alone.  The people themselves, therefore, are its only safe depositories.  And to render them safe, their minds must be improved to a certain degree."  Jefferson understood, as did Plato many years earlier, that democratic government could not succeed absent an informed citizenry.  

Plato died in 347 B.C.  

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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.

 

 

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