Plato

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Life

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 Nomoi (360-347 b.c.e.; Laws, 1804), unfinished.

Plato crafted dramas: dialogues that feature his mentor Socrates (in all of the dialogues save two) engaged in conversations with a large number of leading intellectuals and prominent historical figures from the previous generation. These dialogues differ widely and are open to a variety of interpretations. Uncovering Plato’s philosophy is an exceedingly difficult task because he does not present ideas in his own name, compelling readers to contemplate philosophical problems for themselves.

Influence

Plato’s impact cannot be quantified. His writings affected the entire intellectual development of Western civilization. Though Plato did not leave a well-rounded, dogmatic philosophical system and controversies exist on how to present Plato’s thought, he serves as the father for all forms of philosophical idealism and dualism. Plato also is considered the inspiration for Platonism: a series of specific philosophical views, which Plato’s companions and followers at the Academy initiated from Plato’s dialogues and oral discussions. The movement produced over time an ever-changing but seemingly continuous philosophic dogma well into Roman times, and it claimed Plato as the founder.

Further Reading:

Cropsey, Joseph. Plato’s World: Man’s Place in the Cosmos. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1995. Discusses Plato’s views on human nature, with attention to his political theories.

Gonzalez, Francisco, ed. The Third Way: New Directions in Platonic Studies. Lanham, Md.: Rowman and Littlefield, 1995. A helpful sampling of late twentieth century research on Plato, his continuing significance, and trends of interpretation in Platonic studies.

Irwin, Terrence. Plato’s Ethics. New York: Oxford University Press, 1995. A thorough study of Plato’s moral philosophy, including its political implications.

Kahn, Charles H. Plato and the Socratic Dialogue: The Philosophical Use of a Literary Form. New York: Cambridge University Press, 1996. A study of Plato’s use of the dialogue form as a means for exploring and developing key philosophical positions and dispositions.

Kraut, Richard, ed. The Cambridge Companion to Plato. Cambridge, England: Cambridge University Press, 1992. Eminent Plato scholars analyze and assess key Platonic dialogues and issues in Plato’s thought.

Moravcsik, J. M. E. Plato and Platonism: Plato’s Conception of Appearance and Reality in Ontology, Epistemology, and Ethics and Its Modern Echoes. Cambridge, Mass.: Blackwell, 1992. A scholarly study of Plato’s key distinction between appearance and reality and the continuing impact of that distinction.

Pappas, Nikolas, ed. Routledge Philosophy Guidebook to Plato and the “Republic.” New York: Routledge, 1995. Helpful articles that clarify key Platonic concepts and theories.

Rutherford, R. B. The Art of Plato: Ten Essays in Platonic Interpretation. Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 1995. Well-informed essays on key elements of Plato’s theories.

Sayers, Sean. Plato’s “Republic”: An Introduction. Edinburgh: Edinburgh University Press, 2000. An accessible commentary on the works of the philosopher.

Tarrant, Harold. Plato’s First Interpreters. Ithaca, N.Y.: Cornell University Press, 2000. An examination of the earliest debates about Plato’s ideas.

Tuana, Nancy, ed. Feminist Interpretations of Plato. University Park: Pennsylvania State University, 1994. Scholarly essays evaluate Plato’s understanding of gender issues and appraise his philosophy from the perspectives of feminist theory.

Williams, Bernard A. O. Plato. New York: Routledge, 1999. An excellent biographical introduction to the thoughts of the philosopher, clearly presented. Includes bibliography.

Plato

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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 also held to be at several removes from reason and truth. Representational painters do not imitate the forms or concepts of objects—a concept with which Plato holds them to be unacquainted. Neither do they represent the objects themselves. That exercise falls to the craftspersons, whose labors Plato regards as superior to those of the artist. The painter only represents a single appearance or aspect of a particular thing (which is in turn only a single embodiment or instantiation of a form), just as the poet only imitates an inferior aspect of a human being. Paintings are at the same remove from truth as shadows or mirror-images. Representational painting preys on a weakness in human nature, for it relies on a tendency to succumb to visual illusion in spite of reason, just as the emotions elicited by drama can be at odds with reason. Thus, both can lead to a contradiction within the soul.

The arts can, according to Plato, be thought to lead to a lack of understanding of things as they really are. They may consequently be regarded as a source of dangerous distortion, both of the truth and of an individual’s own nature.

Further Reading:

Cropsey, Joseph. Plato’s World: Man’s Place in the Cosmos. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1995. Discusses Plato’s views on human nature, with attention to his political theories.

Gonzalez, Francisco, ed. The Third Way: New Directions in Platonic Studies. Lanham, Md.: Rowman and Littlefield, 1995. A helpful sampling of late twentieth century research on Plato, his continuing significance, and trends of interpretation in Platonic studies.

Irwin, Terrence. Plato’s Ethics. New York: Oxford University Press, 1995. A thorough study of Plato’s moral philosophy, including its political implications.

Kahn, Charles H. Plato and the Socratic Dialogue: The Philosophical Use of a Literary Form. New York: Cambridge University Press, 1996. A study of Plato’s use of the dialogue form as a means for exploring and developing key philosophical positions and dispositions.

Kraut, Richard, ed. The Cambridge Companion to Plato. Cambridge, England: Cambridge University Press, 1992. Eminent Plato scholars analyze and assess key Platonic dialogues and issues in Plato’s thought.

Moravcsik, J. M. E. Plato and Platonism: Plato’s Conception of Appearance and Reality in Ontology, Epistemology, and Ethics and Its Modern Echoes. Cambridge, Mass.: Blackwell, 1992. A scholarly study of Plato’s key distinction between appearance and reality and the continuing impact of that distinction.

Pappas, Nikolas, ed. Routledge Philosophy Guidebook to Plato and the “Republic.” New York: Routledge, 1995. Helpful articles that clarify key Platonic concepts and theories.

Rutherford, R. B. The Art of Plato: Ten Essays in Platonic Interpretation. Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 1995. Well-informed essays on key elements of Plato’s theories.

Sayers, Sean. Plato’s “Republic”: An Introduction. Edinburgh: Edinburgh University Press, 2000. An accessible commentary on the works of the philosopher.

Tarrant, Harold. Plato’s First Interpreters. Ithaca, N.Y.: Cornell University Press, 2000. An examination of the earliest debates about Plato’s ideas.

Tuana, Nancy, ed. Feminist Interpretations of Plato. University Park: Pennsylvania State University, 1994. Scholarly essays evaluate Plato’s understanding of gender issues and appraise his philosophy from the perspectives of feminist theory.

Williams, Bernard A. O. Plato. New York: Routledge, 1999. An excellent biographical introduction to the thoughts of the philosopher, clearly presented. Includes bibliography.

Plato

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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 justice. He believes that justice is preferable to injustice but needs support for this conviction. He moves the discussion to a different level. If one can discern justice in the larger context of a state, then one should be able to understand the meaning of justice at the level of the individual. Plato thus develops a political model for his theory of justice.

In the same way that the just state is the state in which each individual is doing what he or she does best, so the just soul is the soul in which each “part” is performing its unique function. The soul, according to Plato, has three parts: reason, spirit, and appetites. It is, as he explains in Phaedrus, like a charioteer (reason) trying to control two horses, a wayward one (the appetites) and one that can take orders (the spirited one). The charioteer can reach his goal only when the horses are in control. Likewise, the soul is in harmony only when reason controls and sets the goals, the spirited element moves toward the goals, and the appetites are in control.

Plato explains that there is a virtue that corresponds to each division of the soul. Properly functioning reason has wisdom. The spirit that moves in accordance with reason has courage. The appetites, which are under the control of reason, have temperance. All three parts of the soul working in harmony exhibit the virtue of justice. These four cardinal virtues are an important part of Plato’s ethical theory. His concern is more with what kind of person one should be than with what kinds of things one should do. Again, to be wise is to do good.

Place in History

Plato develops an absolutist ethical theory. There is a “right” and a “good” toward which to aspire. He develops this theory to respond to the skepticism and the relativism of the Sophists. One person may be more or less just than another, but each is just in that he or she copies or participates in the form of justice. This form is eternal and unchanging—an absolute.

Alfred North Whitehead (1861-1947) claimed that all philosophy after Plato is a series of footnotes to Plato. This is especially true with regard to ethics. Aristotle (384-322 b.c.e.) developed a virtue-based theory of ethics similar to that described above and yet with its own peculiarly Aristotelian slant. Other ethical theories are patterned after that of Aristotle and, thus, that of Plato. Furthermore, any ethical theory insisting upon absolutes is Platonic.

Further Reading:

Cropsey, Joseph. Plato’s World: Man’s Place in the Cosmos. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1995. Discusses Plato’s views on human nature, with attention to his political theories.

Gonzalez, Francisco, ed. The Third Way: New Directions in Platonic Studies. Lanham, Md.: Rowman and Littlefield, 1995. A helpful sampling of late twentieth century research on Plato, his continuing significance, and trends of interpretation in Platonic studies.

Irwin, Terrence. Plato’s Ethics. New York: Oxford University Press, 1995. A thorough study of Plato’s moral philosophy, including its political implications.

Kahn, Charles H. Plato and the Socratic Dialogue: The Philosophical Use of a Literary Form. New York: Cambridge University Press, 1996. A study of Plato’s use of the dialogue form as a means for exploring and developing key philosophical positions and dispositions.

Kraut, Richard, ed. The Cambridge Companion to Plato. Cambridge, England: Cambridge University Press, 1992. Eminent Plato scholars analyze and assess key Platonic dialogues and issues in Plato’s thought.

Moravcsik, J. M. E. Plato and Platonism: Plato’s Conception of Appearance and Reality in Ontology, Epistemology, and Ethics and Its Modern Echoes. Cambridge, Mass.: Blackwell, 1992. A scholarly study of Plato’s key distinction between appearance and reality and the continuing impact of that distinction.

Pappas, Nikolas, ed. Routledge Philosophy Guidebook to Plato and the “Republic.” New York: Routledge, 1995. Helpful articles that clarify key Platonic concepts and theories.

Rutherford, R. B. The Art of Plato: Ten Essays in Platonic Interpretation. Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 1995. Well-informed essays on key elements of Plato’s theories.

Sayers, Sean. Plato’s “Republic”: An Introduction. Edinburgh: Edinburgh University Press, 2000. An accessible commentary on the works of the philosopher.

Tarrant, Harold. Plato’s First Interpreters. Ithaca, N.Y.: Cornell University Press, 2000. An examination of the earliest debates about Plato’s ideas.

Tuana, Nancy, ed. Feminist Interpretations of Plato. University Park: Pennsylvania State University, 1994. Scholarly essays evaluate Plato’s understanding of gender issues and appraise his philosophy from the perspectives of feminist theory.

Williams, Bernard A. O. Plato. New York: Routledge, 1999. An excellent biographical introduction to the thoughts of the philosopher, clearly presented. Includes bibliography.

Discussion Topics

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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?

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