(Literature and the Ancient World, Critical Edition)

0111201571-Plato.jpg Plato (Library of Congress) Published by Salem Press, Inc.


One of the most profound thinkers of Western civilization, Plato (PLAYT-oh) is the only author from Greek antiquity whose writings survive whole and intact. Though very critical of writing, Plato perhaps exemplifies the greatest command of Greek prose from antiquity. A collection of thirty-five dialogues and thirteen letters has been handed down under his name, though the authorship of some has been contested. Follower of Cratylus and Socrates and teacher of Aristotle, Plato was the first writer to bring together the chief components of philosophy: metaphysics, epistemology, ethics, and political theory.

Plato’s family was prominent and of ancient nobility. His ancestors included Solon and Pisistratus. Plato’s stepfather Pyrilampes was an intimate of Pericles, and his relatives included Charmides and Critias, both of whom served in the regime of the Thirty Tyrants. As a young man, Plato was a wrestler and playwright. He considered pursuing a public life, but the Peloponnesian War (431-404 b.c.e.), which ended in Athens’ defeat and the oligarchy of 404 b.c.e., followed by a civil war and then a radical democracy, compelled Plato to withdraw from political affairs. He shunned public life altogether after his mentor Socrates was put to death by Athens in 399 b.c.e. Plato subsequently founded the first European institute of higher learning: the Academy.

Plato’s writing and instruction continued for fifty years. Pythagoras, Empedocles, Anaxagoras, Heraclitus of Ephesus, Parmenides, and especially Socrates were influential in Plato’s development. The solutions Plato crafted for the problems uncovered by those earlier thinkers were unparalleled. Plato also strongly opposed the relativistic teachings of the Sophists, and he viewed philosophy as the intellectual successor to Homer and the poets. Though Plato himself never engaged in public affairs, he did travel to Sicily on three occasions and tutored the young ruler Dionysius I the Elder of Syracuse. Plato died attending a wedding celebration, leaving his largest work, the...

(The entire section is 850 words.)


(Critical Guide to Censorship and Literature)

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Plato’s Republic advocates circumscribing the subject matter of fictional and religious narratives and recommends the expulsion of certain kinds of artists from the ideal state on the grounds of the power that art has to corrupt. The Republic differs considerably from Plato’s Ion, in which art is not considered a potential danger to the state or the character of its citizens. The Republic, then, provides a series of arguments, some still voiced in modern times, that might be held to warrant censorship of certain forms of art.

The second and third books of Plato’s Republic focus on narrative representations of gods and heroes, warning against portrayals that depict such figures as vicious or intemperate. Narratives of this sort might lead one to believe that the behavior and characteristics portrayed are as worthy as their possessors, and thereby provide a rationale for unjust conduct. Likewise, harrowing tales of Hades might make soldiers fear death, thereby disinclining them to risk battle. In each case, the narrative supplies a motivation for behavior undesirable in a citizen of the ideal state.

The power of drama and poetry is emphasized in book 10 of the Republic. Unjust characters are easier for the poet to imitate than just ones, and are thought to be more frequent and perhaps more popular subjects of representation. Thus, a poet or tragedian tends to embody inferior characteristics of the soul in his characters, a tendency that may weaken the moral judgments of an auditor or spectator, and that may even incline some to outright emulation.

Further, the capacity of poetry and drama to elicit emotion is regarded as evidence of their appeal to inferior parts of human nature that ought properly to fall under the rule of reason. Such responses lead to a breakdown of restraint and diminish the shame that should be felt upon indulging baser emotional impulses. To permit emotion to overwhelm judgment can set a precedent that is difficult to resist in other contexts.

As are the representations of the poet, those of the painter are...

(The entire section is 888 words.)


(Critical Survey of Ethics and Literature)

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Plato’s writings are in a dialogue format. He discusses philosophical topics through question-and-answer sessions conducted by Socrates. The Socrates of the Platonic dialogues is very closely modeled after the historical Socrates (469-399 b.c.e.), whose life and death had a tremendous influence upon Plato. The Socrates of the dialogues is, however, at least in part, a fictional character used to impart Platonic themes.

Plato’s dialogues are divided into three groups: the early, or Socratic, dialogues; the dialogues of middle age; and the dialogues of old age. The early dialogues employ a particularly rigorous dialectic form. These dialogues frequently deal with ethical topics. In Protagoras and Meno, Plato asks whether virtue can be taught. In Protagoras and Euthydemus, he argues both for and against the supposed Socratic doctrine that virtue and knowledge are identical. In Gorgias, Plato considers whether it is better to do a wrong than to suffer one. In Protagoras, he accepts the hedonistic position that one ought to seek pleasure, but in Gorgias, he argues against it. Plato also considers definitions of major ethical terms. He questions the nature of courage, justice, temperance, and piety.

Theory of Forms and Importance of Knowledge for Ethics

Plato is perhaps best known for the theory that true reality belongs to eternal, immutable forms. All other things are poor copies of these realities. According to Plato, there are two “worlds”: the world of being and that of becoming. Physical objects and copies of these objects (for example, a horse and the shadow of a horse) belong to the two levels of the world of becoming. These things change, come into being, and perish. Forms (such as beauty and justice) and mathematical concepts belong to the world of being. These entities are eternal and possess more reality than do mutable objects. Everything is made possible by the form of the good.

The theory that more knowledge can be had at higher levels is central to Plato’s epistemology and ethics. One important aspect of Platonic ethical theory is that the moral individual strives to obtain more knowledge and thus to come closer to the good.

Two important points are illuminated through this discussion of the moral individual’s movement toward the good. The first of these is the Platonic/Socratic doctrine that “to know the good is to do the good.” Plato argues that a failure to do good is simply a lack of knowledge. Ignorance causes one to behave wrongly.

Plato also argues that reason is more important for ethics than is pleasure. Reason is primary because one must determine which things bring more or less pleasure. Again, the moral individual is the knowledgeable individual.

Definition of Justice

In Republic, Plato puts forward his conception of the ideal state. In book 1, Socrates is concerned with the definition of...

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Discussion Topics

(Masterpieces of World Literature, Critical Edition)

Did Plato have the right to make Socrates a spokesman for himself in some of his dialogues?

To what extent does the Apology reveal the reasons for the enmity against Socrates?

What indications of his audience’s reaction to Socrates’ remarks do you see in the Apology?

By what techniques does Plato in the Symposium draw the contrast between the theory of love proposed by Socrates and love as commonly understood by his contemporaries?

Socrates, as presented by Plato, resembles Jesus in his inclination to use dramatic and literary devices to enhance his message. Compare their use of one such device, such as the parable.

Plato is one of the most readable of philosophers. What stylistic trait or traits would you identify as most outstanding in this respect?