Plato (circa 428-c. 347 BC), Greek philosopher, one of the most creative and influential thinkers in Western philosophy. Plato was born to an aristocratic family in Athens. When Plato was a child, his father died, and his mother married Pyrilampes, who was an associate of the statesman Pericles As a young man Plato had political ambitions, but he became disillusioned by the political leadership in Athens.
Plato witnessed the death of Socrates at the hands of the Athenian democracy in 399 BC. In 387 Plato founded the Academy in Athens, the institution often described as the first European university. Aristotle was the Academy’s most prominent student. Pursuing an opportunity to combine philosophy and practical politics, Plato went to Sicily in 367 to tutor the new ruler of Syracuse, Dionysius the Younger, in the art of philosophical rule. Works
Plato’s writings were in dialogue form; philosophical ideas were advanced, discussed, and criticized in the context of a conversation or debate involving two or more persons. The earliest collection of Plato’s work includes 35 dialogues and 13 letters. The earliest represent Plato’s attempt to communicate the philosophy and dialectical style of Socrates. Several of these dialogues take the same form. Middle and Late Dialogues The dialogues of the middle and later periods of Plato’s life reflect his own philosophical development.
The writings of the middle period include Gorgias (a consideration of several ethical questions), Meno (a discussion of the nature of knowledge), the Apology (Socrates’ defense of himself at his trial against the charges of atheism and corrupting Athenian youth), Crito (Socrates’ defense obedience to the laws of the state), Phaedo (the death scene of Socrates, in which he discusses the theory of Forms, the nature of the soul, and the question of immortality), the Symposium (Plato’s outstanding dramatic achievement, which contains several speeches on beauty and love), the Republic (Plato’s supreme philosophical achievement, which is a detailed discussion of the nature of justice). The works of the later period include the Theaetetus (a denial that knowledge is to be identified with sense perception), Parmenides (a critical evaluation of the theory of Forms), Sophist (further consideration of the theory of Ideas, or Forms), Philebus (a discussion of the relationship between pleasure and the good), Timaeus (Plato’s views on natural science and cosmology), and the Laws (a more practical analysis of political and social issues). At the heart of Plato’s philosophy is his theory of Forms, or Ideas.
Ultimately, his view of knowledge, his ethical theory, his psychology, his concept of the state, and his perspective on art must be understood in terms of this theory. Plato’s theory of Forms and his theory of knowledge are so interrelated that they must be discussed together. Influenced by Socrates, Plato was convinced that knowledge is attainable. First, knowledge must be certain and infallible. One consequence of this view was Plato’s rejection of empiricism, the claim that knowledge is derived from sense experience. Furthermore, the objects of sense experience are changeable phenomena of the physical world. Hence, objects of sense experience are not proper objects of knowledge.
Plato’s own theory of knowledge is found in the Republic, particularly in his discussion of the image of the divided line and the myth of the cave. In the former, Plato distinguishes between two levels of awareness: opinion and knowledge. Claims or assertions about the physical or visible world, including both commonsense observations and the propositions of science, are opinions only. The higher level of awareness is knowledge, because there reason, rather than sense experience, is involved. The myth of the cave describes individuals chained deep within the recesses of a cave. The shadowy environment of the cave symbolizes for Plato the physical world of appearances.
Escape into the sun-filled setting outside the cave symbolizes the transition to the real world, the world of full and perfect being, the world of Forms, which is the proper object of knowledge. The theory of Forms may best be understood in terms of mathematical entities. For Plato, therefore, the Form “circularity” exists, but not in the physical world of space and time. It exists as a changeless object in the world of Forms or Ideas, which can be known only by reason. Forms have greater reality than objects in the physical world both because of their perfection and stability and because they are models, resemblance to which gives ordinary physical objects whatever reality they have. Circularity, squareness, and triangularity are excellent examples, then, of what Plato meant by Forms.
An object existing in the physical world may be called a circle or a square or a triangle only to the extent that it resembles (“participates in” is Plato’s phrase) the Form “circularity” or “squareness” or “triangularity. ” Plato extended his theory beyond the realm of mathematics. An object is beautiful to the extent that it participates in the Idea, or Form, of beauty. Everything in the world of space and time is what it is by virtue of its resemblance to, or participation in, its universal Form. The ability to define the universal term is evidence that one has grasped the Form to which that universal refers. Plato conceived the Forms as arranged hierarchically; the supreme Form is the Form of the Good, which, like the sun in the myth of the cave, illuminates all the other Ideas.
In philosophical language, Plato’s theory of Forms is both an epistemological (theory of knowledge) and an ontological (theory of being) thesis. The Republic, Plato’s major political work, is concerned with the question of justice and therefore with the questions “what is a just state” and “who is a just individual? ” The ideal state, according to Plato, is composed of three classes. The economic structure of the state is maintained by the merchant class. Security needs are met by the military class, and political leadership is provided by the philosopher-kings. Plato associates the traditional Greek virtues with the class structure of the ideal state.
Temperance is the unique virtue of the artisan class; courage is the virtue peculiar to the military class; and wisdom characterizes the rulers. Justice, the fourth virtue, characterizes society as a whole. Plato divides the human soul into three parts: the rational part, the will, and the appetites. Ethics Plato’s ethical theory rests on the assumption that virtue is knowledge and can be taught, which has to be understood in terms of his theory of Forms. As indicated previously, the ultimate Form for Plato is the Form of the Good, and knowledge of this Form is the source of guidance in moral decision making. Art Again, his approach is related to his theory of Forms. The physical flower is one step removed from reality, that is, the Forms.
This also meant that the artist is two steps removed from knowledge, and, indeed, Plato’s frequent criticism of the artists is that they lack genuine knowledge of what they are doing. Artistic creation, Plato observed, seems to be rooted in a kind of inspired madness. Plato’s influence throughout the history of philosophy has been monumental. Plato’s impact on Jewish thought is apparent in the work of the 1st-century Alexandrian philosopher Philo Judaeus. Under the leadership of Marsilio Ficino, members of the Academy studied Plato in the original Greek. Plato’s influence has been extended into the 20th century by such thinkers as Alfred North Whitehead, who once paid him tribute by describing the history of philosophy as simply “a series of footnotes to Plato. “