Plato (Greek: Πλάτων Plátōn) (ca. May 21? 427 BC – ca. 347 BC) Plato was an immensely influential classical Greek philosopher, student of Socrates, teacher of Aristotle, writer of philosophical dialogues, and founder of the Academy in Athens.
Plato lectured extensively at the Academy, and wrote on many philosophical issues. The most important writings of Plato are his dialogues, although a handful of epigrams also survive, and some letters have come down to us under his name. It is believed that all of Plato's authentic dialogues survive. However, some dialogues ascribed to Plato by the Greeks are now considered by the consensus of scholars to be either suspect (e.g., First Alcibiades, Clitophon) or probably spurious (such as Demodocus, or the Second Alcibiades).
Socrates is often a character in the dialogues of Plato. How much of the content and argument of any given dialogue is Socrates' point of view, and how much of it is Plato's, is heavily disputed. However, Plato was doubtless strongly influenced by Socrates' teachings, so many of the ideas presented, at least in his early works, were probably borrowings.
Plato was born in Athens or Aegina in May or December in 428 BC or 427 BC. He was raised in a moderately well-to-do aristocratic family. His father was named Ariston, and his mother Perictione. His family claimed descent from the ancient Athenian kings, and he was related—though there is disagreement as to exactly how—to the prominent politician Critias. According to a late Hellenistic account by Diogenes Laertius, Plato's given name was Aristocles, whereas his wrestling coach, Ariston of Argos, dubbed him Platon, meaning broad on account of his robust figure. Diogenes mentions alternative accounts that Plato derived his name from the breadth (platutês) of his eloquence, or else because he was very wide (platus) across the forehead. According to Dicaearchus, Plato wrestled at the Isthmian games.
Plato became a pupil of Socrates in his youth, and—at least according to his own account—he attended his master's trial, though not his execution. He was deeply affected by the city's treatment of Socrates, and much of his early work records his memories of his teacher. It is suggested that much of his ethical writing is in pursuit of a society where similar injustices could not occur.
Plato was also deeply influenced by a number of prior philosophers, including: the Pythagoreans, whose notions of numerical harmony have clear echoes in Plato's notion of the Forms; Anaxagoras, who taught Socrates and who held that the mind, or reason, pervades everything; and Parmenides, who argued for the unity of all things and may have influenced Plato's concept of the soul.
When he was 40 years old, Plato founded one of the earliest known organized schools in Western civilization on a plot of land in the Grove of Academe. The Academy was "a large enclosure of ground which was once the property of a citizen at Athens named Academus... some, however, say that it received its name from an ancient hero" (Robinson, Arch. Graec. I i 16), and it operated until AD 529, when it was closed by Justinian I of Byzantium, who saw it as a threat to the propagation of Christianity. Many intellectuals were schooled in the Academy, the most prominent one being Aristotle.
Unlike Socrates, Plato wrote down his philosophical views, leaving behind a considerable number of manuscripts.
In Plato's writings are debates concerning the best possible form of government, featuring adherents of aristocracy, democracy, monarchy as well as other issues. A central theme is the conflict between nature and convention, concerning the role of heredity and the environment on human intelligence and personality long before the modern "nature versus nurture" debate began in the time of Thomas Hobbes and John Locke, with its modern continuation in such controversial works as The Mismeasure of Man and The Bell Curve.
Another key distinction and theme in the Platonic corpus is the dichotomy between knowledge and opinion, which foreshadow modern debates between David Hume and Immanuel Kant, and has been taken up by postmodernists and their opponents, more commonly as the distinction between the 'objective' and the 'subjective'.
Form and basis
Plato wrote mainly in the form known as dialogue. In the early dialogues, several characters discuss a topic by asking questions of one another. Socrates figures prominently, and a lively, more disorganized form of elenchos/dialectic is present; these are called the Socratic Dialogues.
The nature of these dialogues changed a great deal over the course of Plato's life. It is generally agreed that Plato's earlier works are more closely based on Socrates' thought, whereas his later writing increasingly breaks away from the views of his former teacher. In the middle dialogues, Socrates becomes a mouthpiece for Plato's own philosophy, and the question-and-answer style is more pro forma: the main figure represents Plato and the minor characters have little to say except "yes", "of course" and "very true". The late dialogues read more like treatises, and Socrates is often absent or quiet. It is assumed that while some of the early dialogues could be based on Socrates' actual conversations, the later dialogues were written entirely by Plato. The question of which, if any, of the dialogues are truly Socratic is known as the Socratic problem.
The ostensible mise-en-scene of a dialogue distances both Plato and a given reader from the philosophy being discussed; one can choose between at least two options of perception: either to participate in the dialogues, in the ideas being discussed, or choose to see the content as expressive of the personalities contained within the work.
Platonism has traditionally been interpreted as a form of metaphysical dualism, sometimes referred to as Platonic or Exaggerated Realism. According to this reading, Plato's metaphysics divides the world into two distinct aspects: the intelligible world of "forms", and the perceptual world we see around us. The perceptual world consists of imperfect copies of the intelligible forms or ideas. These forms are unchangeable and perfect, and are only comprehensible by the use of the intellect or understanding—i.e., a capacity of the mind that does not include sense-perception or imagination.
In the Republic Books VI and VII, Plato uses a number of metaphors to explain his metaphysical views: the metaphor of the sun, the well-known allegory of the cave, and most explicitly, the divided line.
Taken together, these metaphors convey a complex, and, in places, difficult theory: there is something called The Form of the Good (often interpreted as Plato's God), which is the ultimate object of knowledge and which, as it were, sheds light on all the other forms (i.e., universals: abstract kinds and attributes), and from which all other forms "emanate". The Form of the Good does this in somewhat the same way as the sun sheds light on, or makes visible and "generates" things, in the perceptual world. (See Plato's metaphor of the sun)
In the perceptual world, the particular objects we see around us bear only a dim resemblance to the more ultimately real forms of Plato's intelligible world; it is as if we are seeing shadows of cut-out shapes on the walls of a cave, which are mere representations of the reality outside the cave, illuminated by the sun. (See Plato's allegory of the cave)
We can imagine everything in the universe represented on a line of increasing reality; it is divided once in the middle, and then once again in each of the resulting parts. The first division represents that between the intelligible and the perceptual worlds. This is followed by a corresponding division in each of these worlds: the segment representing the perceptual world is divided into segments representing "real things" on the one hand, and shadows, reflections and representations on the other. Similarly, the segment representing the intelligible world is divided into segments representing first principles and most general forms, on the one hand, and more derivative, "reflected" forms, on the other. (See the divided line of Plato)
The form of government derived from this philosophy turns out to be one of a rigidly fixed hierarchy of hereditary social classes, in which the arts are mostly suppressed for the good of the state, the size of the city and its social classes is determined by mathematical formulae, and eugenic measures are applied secretly by rigging the lotteries in which the right to reproduce is allocated. The exact relationship of such a government to the lofty philosophy presented in the book has been debated.
Plato's metaphysics, and particularly its dualism between the intelligible and the perceptual, would inspire later Neoplatonic thinkers, such as Plotinus and Gnostics, and many other metaphysical realists. Although Platonistic philosophers like Plotinus rebuked Gnosticism (see Plotinus' Enneads). One reason being the Gnostic vilification of nature and Plato's Demiurge from Timaeus. Plato also influenced Saint Justin Martyr. For more on Platonic realism in general, see Platonic realism and the Forms.
Although this interpretation of Plato's writings (particularly the Republic) has enjoyed immense popularity throughout the long history of Western philosophy, it is also possible to interpret his suggestions more conservatively, favoring a more epistemological than metaphysical reading of such famous metaphors as the Cave and the Divided Line. There are obvious parallels between the Cave allegory and the life of Plato's teacher Socrates (who was killed in his attempt to "open the eyes" of the Athenians), for example. This example reveals the dramatic complexity that often lies under the surface of Platos' writing (remember that in the Republic, it is Socrates who relates the story.).
Plato also had some influential opinions on the nature of knowledge and learning which he propounded in the Meno, which began with the question of whether virtue can be taught, and proceeded to expound the concepts of recollection, learning as the discovery of pre-existing knowledge, and right opinion, opinions which are correct but have no clear justification.
Plato's philosophical views had many societal implications, especially on the idea of an ideal state or government. There is some discrepancy between his early and later views. Some of the most famous doctrines are contained in the Republic during his middle period.
Plato asserts that individual people have three distinctive functions, just like the soul:
- Productive (Workers) - The laborers, carpenters, plumbers, masons, merchants, farmers, ranchers, etc. These correspond to the "appetite" part of the soul.
- Protective (Warriors) - Those who are adventurous, strong, brave, in love with danger; in the armed forces. These correspond to the "spirit" part of the soul.
- Governing (Rulers) - Those who are intelligent, rational, self-controlled, in love with wisdom, well suited to make decisions for the community. These correspond to the "reason" part of the soul and are very few.
According to this model, the principles of Athenian democracy (as it existed in his day) are rejected as only a few are fit to rule. Instead of rhetoric and persuasion, Plato says reason and wisdom should govern. This does not equate to tyranny, despotism or oligarchy, however. As Plato puts it:
- "Until philosophers rule as kings or those who are now called kings and leading men genuinely and adequately philosophize, that is, until political power and philosophy entirely coincide, while the many natures who at present pursue either one exclusively are forcibly prevented from doing so, cities will have no rest from evils,... nor, I think, will the human race." (Republic 473c-d)
Plato describes these "philosopher kings" as "those who love the sight of truth" (Republic 475c) and supports the idea with the analogy of a captain and his ship or a doctor and his medicine. Sailing and health are not things that everyone is qualified to practice by nature. A large part of the Republic then addresses how the educational system should be set up to produce these philosopher kings.
Plato's thought is often compared with that of his most famous student, Aristotle, whose reputation during the Western Middle Ages so completely eclipsed that of Plato that the Scholastic philosophers referred to Aristotle as "the Philosopher". However, in the Byzantine Empire, the study of Plato continued.
The Medieval scholastic philosophers did not have access to the works of Plato—nor the knowledge of Greek needed to read them. Plato's original writings were essentially lost to Western civilization until they were brought from Constantinople in the century before its fall, by George Gemistos Plethon. Medieval scholars knew of Plato only through translations into Latin from the translations into Arabic by Persian and Arab scholars. These scholars not only translated the texts of the ancients, but expanded them by writing extensive commentaries and interpretations on Plato's and Aristotle's works.
Only in the Renaissance, with the general resurgence of interest in classical civilization, did knowledge of Plato's philosophy become widespread again in the West. Many of the greatest early modern scientists and artists who broke with Scholasticism and fostered the flowering of the Renaissance, with the support of the Plato-inspired Lorenzo de Medici, saw Plato's philosophy as the basis for progress in the arts and sciences. By the 19th century, Plato's reputation was restored, and at least on par with Aristotle's.
Notable Western philosophers have continued to examine Plato's work since that time, diverging from traditional academic approaches with their own philosophy as a basis. Nietzsche attacked Plato's moral and political theories, Heidegger expounded on Plato's obfuscation of Being, and Karl Popper argued in in The Open Society and Its Enemies (1945) that Plato's proposal for a government system in The Republic was prototypically totalitarian.
Plato's writings (most of them dialogues) have been published in several fashions; this has led to several conventions regarding the naming and referencing of Plato's texts.
One tradition regarding the arrangement of Plato's texts is according to tetralogies. This scheme is ascribed by Diogenes Laertius to an ancient scholar and court astrologer to Tiberius named Thrasyllus.
In the list below, works by Plato are marked (1) if there is no consensus among scholars as to whether Plato is the author, and (2) if scholars generally agree that Plato is not the author of the work. Unmarked works are assumed to have been written by Plato.
- I. Euthyphro, (The) Apology (of Socrates), Crito, Phaedo
- II. Cratylus, Theaetetus, Sophist, Statesman
- III. Parmenides, Philebus, (The) Symposium, Phaedrus
- IV. First Alcibiades (1), Second Alcibiades (2), Hipparchus (2), (The) (Rival) Lovers (2)
- V. Theages (2), Charmides, Laches, Lysis
- VI. Euthydemus, Protagoras, Gorgias, Meno
- VII. (Greater) Hippias (major) (1), (Lesser) Hippias (minor), Ion, Menexenus
- VIII. Clitophon (1), (The) Republic, Timaeus, Critias
- IX. Minos (2), (The) Laws, Epinomis (2), Letters (1)
Works not in tetralogies
The remaining works were transmitted under Plato's name, most of them already considered spurious in antiquity:
- Axiochus (2), Definitions (2), Demodocus (2), Epigrams, Eryxias (2), Halcyon (2), On Justice (2), On Virtue (2), Sisyphus (2)
The usual system for making unique references to sections of the text by Plato derives from a 16th century edition of Plato's works by Henricus Stephanus.
Loeb Classical Library
James Loeb provided a very popular edition of Plato's works, still in print in the 21st century
- Oxford University Press publishes scholarly editions of Plato's Greek texts in the Oxford Classical Texts series, and some translations in the Clarendon Plato Series.
- Harvard University Press publishes the hardbound series Loeb Classical Library, containing Plato's works in Greek, with English translations on facing pages.
- Les Belles Lettres also publishes Plato's complete works in Greek with French translations.
- "Plato & The Theory of Forms," at Philosophical Society.com
- Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy:
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