A key feature of Plato’s style is the fact that he not only wrote about matters of intrinsic and enduring importance but also wrote about them well. Not many philosophers are known for their impressive literary style, but Plato is a sparkling exception in this regard. Because he was a poet as well as a philosopher, he succeeded in transforming the philosophical work into an art form. He communicated his ideas through the medium of what might be called a drama of ideas. In these dramas, or dialogues, there is to be found an array of fascinating characters who command attention not only for the ideas that they articulate but also because they are interesting people in and of themselves.
In reading Plato’s works, one quickly becomes convinced that philosophy is a vibrant and significant subject. A Platonic dialogue presents philosophy in action. Plato does not simply provide conclusions; he also shows the ways in which he arrived at them. Sometimes those ways lead over hill and dale. Sometimes they follow a line of thought up a certain road, only to reach a dead end. On occasion it will happen that a dialogue will be concluded without all the problems treated in it having been neatly resolved. There are loose ends—questions that have not been answered, or answered only in a tentative, incomplete manner. Yet rather than detracting from the worth of the dialogue, this method is a reminder that the ultimate concern of philosophy is the truth, and that a philosopher must not be satisfied with easy solutions if they are not true solutions.
Plato’s lively manner of communicating his ideas suggests something else about him that is quite important: For him, philosophy was not simply an intellectual exercise, but a way of life. As Plato saw things, the philosopher’s goal is not merely to be a good thinker, one who reasons well; he must also be a good man, one who lives well. There is, then, a distinctly moral dimension to the whole of Plato’s philosophy.
Of the many characters that are to be found in the Platonic dialogues, there is none that enjoys a more prominent place or plays a more critical role than Socrates. Exactly how is the Socrates of the dialogues to be understood? Because Socrates was an actual historical figure and was, furthermore, Plato’s own teacher, the question naturally arises: Is the Socrates of the Platonic dialogues the historical Socrates? The most appropriate answer to that question would seem to be “yes and no.” In the early dialogues of Plato, a reliable picture of the historical Socrates, both the man and his ideas, is being presented. The philosophy learned from these dialogues is, in the main, the philosophy of Socrates. The Socrates confronted in the later dialogues, however, is more fictional than historical, in the sense that he acts mainly as a mouthpiece for Plato’s own ideas. Plato’s philosophy was built upon a Socratic foundation, but over the years he refined and developed ideas that he had originally learned from Socrates. In some instances, he moved into areas of investigation that had not formed major parts of Socrates’ philosophic concerns.
One of the major elements in Plato’s philosophy is what is called the doctrine of the Forms, or Ideas. This doctrine expresses Plato’s notions concerning the fundamental nature of reality. According to him, the essence of reality is nonmaterial, spiritual. He believed that material things enjoyed a kind of second-class existence. In the case of a physical object such as a chair, for example, Plato taught that it exists only to the extent that it somehow shares or participates in the Form of a chair, which exists from all eternity in a realm that transcends the earthly, material realm.
In the doctrine of the Forms, one finds a definite personalistic dimension, as well as Plato’s ever-present concern for morality. Plato believed that the transcendental realm of the Forms is the place where the human race found itself before it became earthbound. There, human beings were in direct contact with the Good and, as a result, were supremely happy. Then something happened. Human beings somehow managed, through their own fault, to alienate themselves from the Good, and they were therefore deprived of their heavenly home. By way of further punishment, they were encased in matter, their bodies, and placed upon this earth to endure a period of exile.
For Plato, a human being, the real person, was essentially a soul. The present earthly state of human beings, then, is in the deepest sense unnatural. Because their proper home is the realm of pure spirit, human beings are hindered by their bodies from attaining true humanness. It is as if the body were a prison, severely inhibiting the freedom of the soul. Because of its immersion in matter, the sensitivities of the soul have been dulled. In their previous existence in the realm of the Forms, human beings were filled with perfect knowledge. When they were transferred to the earthly realm, however, they forgot all that they once knew. What in their present state is called learning is simply a matter of human beings’ recollecting what they knew in their former state.
Plato believed that the whole purpose of the earthly life of humans was to discover who they really are, and then, eventually, to get back to where they really belong. The importance of the philosopher in this matter is to act as a guide for his fellow human beings. The philosopher attributes worth to material things only to the extent that they point him toward the deeper realities that are immaterial and eternal. He lives a simple life, unencumbered by useless possessions. When his life draws to a close he displays no fear of death. To the contrary, he welcomes death, for it represents a release from bondage, allowing him to return to his true home.
First published: Apologia Skratous, 399-390 b.c.e. (English translation, 1675)
Type of work: Philosophical dialogue
Socrates, having been put on trial by the city-state of Athens, courageously defends his way of life.
In the Apology, Plato has provided posterity with one of the most memorable portraits of his teacher Socrates. In Plato’s view, Socrates was a paragon of virtue. Perhaps the essence of his virtue can be summarized in a single word—integrity. Socrates’ dedication to the truth was so total and so unswerving that the very thought of compromising that truth was repugnant to him.
One of the things that makes the Apology so effective a piece of literature is the fact that it is, at bottom, the account of a trial. By their very nature, trials tend to be dramatic and interesting affairs, especially when, as was the case with Socrates, the stakes are high. Yet what gives this particular trial—surely one of the most famous in the history of the world—a special twist is that, although Socrates was on trial for his life, he did not fight for his life. He fought for something that he regarded as immeasurably more important—the truth.
In the spring of 399 b.c.e., when Plato would have been in his late twenties, Socrates was accused by Meletus, Anytus, and Lycon of two criminal offenses: corrupting the youth of Athens and adopting an atheistic attitude toward the gods of the city. The trial was held before a large assemblage of people, very likely numbering in the thousands, but the verdict was to be decided by a corps of five hundred judges. Although the Apology is in dialogue form, it tends at times to be more of a monologue, with Socrates himself doing most of the talking. There were no lawyers in ancient Athens, and those who were accused of capital crimes were expected to defend themselves. By the same token, their accusers were obliged to face them in public, and the accused had the right to examine these accusers before the court.
Socrates begins by giving a general explanation of his philosophical way of life. Why does he behave the way that he does, roaming about the city and constantly questioning the citizens? He realizes that his manner of life is irksome to many people because he exposes their ignorance to public view. The whole business started, Socrates explains, when a friend of his brought back from the sacred shrine at Delphi the divine oracle that declared Socrates to be the wisest of men. This message baffled Socrates completely. On the one hand, he firmly believed that the gods do not lie; on the other hand, he was equally convinced that he was in fact not wise. What, then, could the oracle possibly mean? In attempting to answer that question, he made a practice of approaching people who had the reputation of being wise—politicians, poets, artists—with the purpose of trying to discover the nature of their wisdom. What he actually discovered, however, was that these people, despite their reputations, were not wise at all. Although in fact ignorant, they labored under the illusion that they were knowledgeable. Socrates found the clue to the meaning of the Delphic oracle in this discovery. Socrates himself was ignorant, but unlike all the supposedly wise people whom he had met, he admitted his ignorance. A wise man, he decided, is one who is ignorant and does not pretend that he is otherwise. Put another way, a wise man is simply one who is honest with himself.
When Socrates examines one of his accusers, Meletus, he makes short work of him, revealing the complete absurdity of the charges that had been leveled against him. This scene makes it evident that the real reason that Socrates is on trial is to satisfy his enemies’ desire for revenge. That does not mean, however, that his execution, or even a lesser penalty such as being sent into exile, is inevitable. Socrates is astutely aware of the fact that if he were to...
(The entire section is 4039 words.)