The Dialogues of Plato rank with the extant works of Aristotle as among the most important philosophical works of Western culture. The extent of Plato’s influence is partly due to the survival of his works, unlike those of earlier Greek philosophers, as well as to the fact that at various times in the history of the Christian church his ideas were used in the process of constructing a Christian theology (though in this respect Aristotle’s influence was greater). The principal cause of his past and continuing effect on human thought, however, is the quality of his work.
The distinctive character of Platonic thought finds adequate expression in the dialogue form. Although Plato, like all philosophers, had his favored perspectives from which he interpreted and, consequently, saw the world, he realized better than most philosophers that philosophy is more an activity of the mind than the product of an investigation. This is not to say that philosophy does not, in some legitimate sense, illuminate the world. In the process of making sense out of experience, the philosopher is restless: No single way of clarifying an idea or a view is entirely satisfactory, and there is always much to be said for an alternative mode of explanation. When distinctive Platonic conceptions finally become clear, they do so against a background of penetrating discussion by means of which alternative ideas are explored for their own values and made to complement the conception that Plato finally endorses. As an instrument for presenting the critical point-counterpoint of ideas, the dialogue is ideal, and as a character in control of the general course and quality of the discussion, Socrates is unsurpassed.
Socrates was Plato’s teacher, and it was probably out of respect for Socrates the man and the philosopher that Plato first considered using him as the central disputant in his dialogues. Reflection must have reinforced his decision, for Socrates was important more for his method than for his fixed ideas, more for his value as a philosophical irritant than as a source of enduring wisdom. The Socratic method is often described as being designed to bring out the contradictions and omissions in the philosophical views of others; better yet, it can be understood as a clever technique for playing on the ambiguities of claims so as to lead others into changing their use of terms and, hence, into apparent inconsistency.
The extent to which Plato uses the dialogues to record Socrates’ ideas and to which he uses Socrates as a proponent of his own ideas will probably never be conclusively answered. The question is historical, but in the philosophical sense it makes no difference whose ideas found their way into the dialogues. A fairly safe assumption is that it was Socrates who emphasized the importance of philosophical problems of value, knowledge, and philosophy itself. He probably argued that it is important to know oneself, that the admission of one’s own ignorance is a kind of wisdom possessed by few individuals, and that virtue is knowledge.
Certainly Socrates must have had a devotion to his calling as philosopher and critic: No one who regarded philosophy as a game would have remained in Athens to face the charge that by philosophy he had corrupted the youth of Athens, nor would he have refused a chance to escape after having been condemned to death. Socrates’ courage and integrity are recorded with poignant power in the Apology, the dialogue in which Socrates defends himself and philosophy against the charges brought against him; the Crito, in which Socrates refuses to escape from prison; and the Phaedo, in which Socrates discusses the immortality of the soul before he drinks the hemlock poison and dies.
Of the ideas presented in the dialogues, perhaps none is more important than Plato’s theory of Ideas or Forms. This theory is most clearly expressed in the Republic, the dialogue in which the problem of discovering the nature of human justice is resolved by considering the nature of justice in the state. Plato distinguishes between particular things, the objects experienced in daily living, and the characters that things have, or could have. Goodness, truth, beauty, and other universal characters—properties that can affect a number of individual objects—are eternal, changeless, beautiful, and the source of all...
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