Plato: The Ideal Philosopher
Welcome to the third installment in this Ancient Greek philosophy course. In this lesson and the one that follows, we are going to explore the work of Plato, one of the most influential of all philosophers. We’re going to look at the way that Plato transformed the way we think about appearance and reality.
The Broad-Shouldered Philosopher
Plato was born in Athens between 428 and 427 BCE. We don’t know much about his life: Plato wrote many things about other people but very little about himself. We know that his family was well-off, and that when he was young, he fell under the spell of Socrates. It is also likely that he traveled as far as Egypt, where he may have studied for several years. Plato’s name, Platon in Greek, means “broad” (think of the platy-pus).
Some accounts say that he got his name because he had broad shoulders. In Greek mythology, a Titan called Atlas is said to have carried the skies on his shoulders. Similarly, it could be said that Plato’s influence has been so great that he carries the weight of the whole European philosophical tradition on his shoulders. He is so important that one 20th century philosopher, Alfred North Whitehead, said that European philosophy could be seen as “a series of footnotes to Plato.”
Dialogues on Things That Matter
Much of Plato’s philosophical writing has survived. Plato often wrote in dialogue form, and the hero of his dialogues was Socrates. In The Symposium, Socrates gets into a discussion about the nature of love. In The Republic, we see Socrates talking about politics and education. In Theaetetus, Plato has Socrates talking about the nature of knowledge.
Because these are dramatic dialogues, it can sometimes be hard to disentangle the historical Socrates from the dramatic character in the dialogues and even more difficult to disentangle Plato’s own views from those of his teacher. But however we read the dialogues, they set up basic questions that were to preoccupy European philosophers for the next 2,500 years.
In the Cave
In The Republic, Plato tells a strange story, perhaps his most famous thought-experiment. He asks us to imagine a group of prisoners chained up in a cave from birth, facing a wall. and unable to turn round. Their only reality is the wall in front of them. Behind them, Plato says, a fire casts a flickering light on the wall of the cave. Between the prisoners and the fire is a walkway where a procession of puppeteers passes by, holding up puppets of all kinds of things: people, cats, dogs, horses, etc. The prisoners see the shadows of the puppets thrown on the wall and think that this is the only reality.
Now, imagine that a prisoner is released. When they climb to the surface, they see people, cats, dogs, and horses. They realize that the images on the walls are only shadows of models and are removed from reality. But if this prisoner wanted to go back into the cave to tell their friends about the exciting, rich world they have seen, it is likely that the other prisoners would accuse them of being mad. For Plato, philosophers always risk being misunderstood and wisdom always risks being taken for madness.
This may sound strange, but Plato insists that we are all like the prisoners in the cave. We think that we see reality itself, but what we see are only appearances, mere shadows of the underlying reality.
But what is this reality? Thales says that it is water, and Empedocles says that it is made up of four elements; for Plato, the underlying reality is intellectual. It is made up of “forms,” or eidilon (sometimes referred to as “ideas”). The cats, dogs, and horses that we can perceive through the senses are, he says, imperfect copies of the perfect forms of cats, dogs, and horses. These perfect forms are eternal and unchanging and can be accessed only by the intellect.
A Divided World
In this way, Plato splits the world into two: the world of appearances and the world of forms. This split was to have a long history in the West. The distinctions that people make in the contemporary world between “material” and “spiritual” things or between “higher” intellectual knowledge and “lower” knowledge of the senses can all be traced back to Plato.
Plato is such an important philosopher that in this course, he is the only one who gets two lessons! In the next lesson, we will look more closely at Plato’s Republic and what Plato has to say about the ideal city and the human soul.
• There’s a claymation version of Plato’s cave on YouTube.
• Roy Jackson’s Plato: A Complete Introduction: Teach Yourself is a great introduction to Plato and puts him in the context of the philosophers who preceded him.
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