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...
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