Analysis

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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.

Apology

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 “cooperate”—to abandon his principles—he could gain his freedom.

Yet Socrates also knows that his enemies are able to inflict upon him the supreme penalty. The possibility of death, however, does not intimidate him. In fact, he emphasizes the point that the fear of death is foolish, for death is not at all the worst thing that can happen to a human being. For a person to betray what he knows to be true is worse than death. Socrates would not abandon his commitment to philosophy, the pursuit of wisdom, if he were to be set free. Furthermore, Socrates boldly informs his judges that if they were to execute him, they would be doing a great disservice to Athens. Painful though it might be at times, his pursuit of wisdom is, in the final analysis, a benefit to them. He is like a gadfly that is incessantly pestering the lethargic horse that is Athens, so as to prevent that horse from going astray. In other words, he is the conscience of the city.

The vote is taken, and Socrates is found guilty. At this point, the defendant has the right to propose to his judges what punishment he thinks is most fitting for him. After facetiously suggesting that he should be made a ward of the state, Socrates reviews the three alternatives to the death penalty: imprisonment, a heavy fine, and exile. He concludes that none is acceptable to him. If he were to agree to accept exile, for example, that would be almost the same as agreeing to death. In exile, he would not be able to live the inquiring life of a philosopher. The unexamined life, he tells his judges, the life of the nonphilosopher, is not worth living.

A second vote is taken. Socrates is condemned to death. He accepts the decision calmly, but not silently. He reiterates an attitude that he has maintained consistently throughout the trial; his concern is not to avoid death but rather to avoid unrighteousness, at all costs. Then, addressing himself directly to those who condemned him, he prophesies that they will live to regret their decision. For those who supported his cause, he has words of encouragement. He frankly admits that he does not know for certain what death involves, but that there are at least two possibilities to be considered. One is that after death, there is eternal, peaceful sleep. Socrates would gratefully welcome that. Another possibility is that life continues after death; in such a life, he could have exciting encounters with great men and women of the past, with whom he would talk philosophy. Socrates would most gratefully welcome that. Either way, Socrates concludes, death is good, and he cannot lose by accepting it.

The dialogue ends with Socrates having the last word: “The hour of departure has arrived, and we go our ways—I to die, and you to live. Which is better God only knows.”

Symposium

First published: Symposion, 388-368 b.c.e. (English translation, 1701)

Type of work: Philosophical dialogue

Socrates demonstrates that love, in its deepest meaning, refers to that profound impulse by which human beings seek eternal beauty and goodness.

In ancient Greece, a symposium was an after-dinner drinking party that commonly included such amusements as music, dancing, and conversation. The symposium that this dialogue, the Symposium, describes was held in the house of Agathon, and its purpose was to celebrate the fact that the host had recently won a prize for a drama that he had written. Because much celebrating already occurred on the previous day, the guests at this gathering decide that they will go easy on the drinking and devote their energies chiefly to conversation. They agree that the topic of their conversation will be love, and that each guest will be required to address the subject. For the ancient Greeks, love was considered to be a god. There was no consensus, however, concerning the precise nature of love’s divinity, as is shown by the diverse views found in the speeches recorded in the Symposium.

Socrates is among the guests at Agathon’s house, and he is the last to give his speech. The first speeches are given by Phaedrus, Pausanias, Eryximachus, Aristophanes, and the host, Agathon. The speakers agree that love is somehow a divine being, but opinions differ as to his origin and his exact relationship to the other gods. The speakers agree that love plays an important role in the lives of human beings, but they do not agree on the quality of love’s influence. Is it good or bad? Much is revealed in these speeches about prevailing attitudes toward human sexuality. When it comes to his turn, Agathon offers a scintillating display of his poetic ability, and his speech receives an enthusiastic response. Next comes Socrates, and it is apparent that he has a difficult act to follow.

He is, however, equal to the task. In addressing the subject of love, Socrates takes an approach that was typical of the way that he handled many other subjects. He begins by setting aside the conventional notions of love and then proceeds to talk about it in an entirely new light, bringing to it fresh and penetrating insights. All the previous speakers had spoken of love in terms imposed upon them by Greek mythology. Despite their attempts to spiritualize love and raise it to lofty heights, love nonetheless seems tediously hedonistic and earthbound.

In effect, Socrates treats everything that has thus far been said about love as so much empty chatter. His own point of departure is unique. He claims to know the truth about love, a truth that was once revealed to him by a wise woman named Diotima, of Mantineia. It was she who made him realize that love was essentially an impulse that causes human beings to rise above the deceiving appearances of this world and to seek beauty in its absolute and purest form. To spend all of one’s energies in striving to attain beauty is of the utmost importance, for upon it depends nothing less than one’s true fulfillment as a human being. That is so because absolute beauty is one and the same as absolute goodness, and it is precisely goodness that all human beings seek if they are genuinely in pursuit of happiness, for goodness, and goodness alone, is capable of making them happy.

Yet if absolute beauty, a beauty that transcends all earthly experiences, is the true goal of love, does humanity reach that beauty by attempting to ignore the world around it and leaping directly into the transcendent realm? Not at all. According to Socrates, individuals reach absolute beauty, or Beauty, through the specific manifestations of beauty in the material world—the beauty of a flower, for example, or of another human being. Particular beautiful things are explained only in terms of absolute beauty; they exist only because absolute beauty exists, somehow participating and sharing in that absolute beauty. When people respond with delight to the beauty of a flower, the delight indicates a deep longing on their part for absolute beauty, which alone is capable of satisfying them. Ideally, particular instances of beauty urge people on and encourage them in their pursuit of absolute beauty, which is the ultimate goal. Nothing could be more disastrous, however, than to become so enamored of specific instances of beauty that Beauty itself is never attained.

When Socrates finishes his speech, all the guests concede that he has made the most valuable contribution to their discussion on love. The Symposium ends with an episode in which a new character, Alcibiades, is introduced to the drama. Through him it is revealed that Socrates is possessed of many other virtues besides the ability to philosophize in a brilliant and profound manner. Socrates is revealed as a person who is impressively superior, not only intellectually but also morally.

Republic

First published: Politeia, 388-368 b.c.e. (English translation, 1701)

Type of work: Philosophical dialogue

The essence of morality, for individuals as well as for societies, is, first, to focus attention upon absolute goodness, the Good, and then to pursue it relentlessly.

The Republic is among the longest of Plato’s dialogues, and it is very probably his best-known and most popular work. There are only seven characters in the dialogue, despite its length, and three of these, Socrates, Glaucon, and Adimantus, carry the conversation. Like most of Plato’s dialogues, this one is characterized by a dominant theme, which, in the case of the Republic, is justice, or, more broadly, morality. What is the essence of morality? To state the problem with greater precision, what is the nature of a truly good human being, one whose life points toward a genuine fulfillment of one’s humanity? The rich and multifaceted discussion found in the ten books of the Republic is an attempt to answer that question.

Early in the discussion, it is decided to seek the nature of morality on the level of society as a whole rather than on the level of the individual. Because everything on the level of society is on a larger scale, it would therefore be more easily observed and studied. This approach reveals an interesting feature of Plato’s thought, his conviction that whatever is discoverable about the nature of morality on the level of society will, with appropriate qualifications, be applicable on the level of the individual. He did not believe that there were two separate types of morality, one for individuals and one for societies as a whole. Plato taught that there is but a single morality, and that it applies with equal force to both individuals and societies.

After providing a brief sketch of how the organized state first came into existence, Socrates and his two fellow philosophers carefully develop a detailed picture of what they conceive to be the ideal state. Such a state would comprise three major divisions, or classes. It would be governed by a very special type of aristocracy, composed of people possessed of both profound philosophical knowledge and moral righteousness. An individual in this class would have gained his philosophical prowess through long years of difficult study; his moral superiority would result from having experientially arrived at a certain degree of understanding of absolute goodness. This absolute goodness, which is the same as the absolute beauty found in the Symposium, and to which Plato refers simply as the Good, is the supreme principle of all reality. It is the foundation and source of morality, not only for the philosopher-kings, the members of the Guardian class, but also for all members of the ideal state, if indirectly.

The second class, a considerably larger one, has the name Auxiliaries, and its principal function is to protect the state against external aggression and internal dissension. The Auxiliaries could be regarded as a combination of an army and a national police force. Although not as philosophically sophisticated as the Guardians, the Auxiliaries are closely allied to, and cooperate fully with, the leaders of the state. The Auxiliaries’ main task is to implement the enlightened directives of the Guardians. Both the Guardians and the Auxiliaries lead a rigorous, highly disciplined life. They cannot own private property, for example, nor can they marry in the conventional sense and raise a family. They sleep in dormitories and have their meals in common. The purpose behind the strict regimentation is to allow the Guardians and Auxiliaries to devote all of their attention and energies to the good of the state.

Perhaps the best way to identify the third class in Plato’s ideal state is to say that it comprises all those who are neither Guardians nor Auxiliaries. In other words, this class comprises the vast majority of the populace and would include professionals, artisans, wage laborers, and farmers. Unlike the upper two classes, the members of this class are free to marry and establish families, and they own property. Although the three classes are quite distinct, they are not isolated from one another, and there is fluid movement among the membership of each. As far as individuals are concerned, one’s membership in a particular class is determined, not simply by one’s birth, but rather by one’s talents, and by how one takes to education. Therefore, someone born into the lowest class could end up as a Guardian, whereas, conversely, the child of a Guardian could be demoted to the lowest class for failure to display the characteristics expected of a future Guardian.

Education plays a strategically important role in the ideal state, for on it depends the citizenry’s being rightly oriented to the Good. The chief task of education is to produce Guardians, philosopher-kings. In the same way that there can be no real difference, in a Guardian, between intellectual and moral excellence, so also in the education that is dedicated to producing Guardians, equal emphasis must be given to both intellectul and moral formation. Plato’s theory of education, as found in the Republic, never separates these two. Children must not be exposed to art forms such as epic poetry and the drama, or to certain types of music. These would have a corrupting effect upon them. Art is corrupting to the extent that it provides children with a distorted view of reality. In the ideal state being contemplated, girls are provided with the same education as boys, and the reason for this is the belief that the only difference between men and women is purely physical. Women are eligible for all the positions that are open to men, including Auxiliary and Guardian.

The society that Plato delineates in the Republic is ideal. Yet it would be incorrect to consider it a utopia, if doing so implies the understanding that Plato was committed to the possibility of establishing upon this earth a perfect social organization that would completely fulfill the human person. As is evident in the last book of the Republic, which includes a stirring “last judgment” scene, Plato believed that human beings could not completely fulfill themselves in this life. That is something that comes only after death, with the vision of the Good.