Key Concepts of the Philosophy of Plato

Updated on June 14, 2016

There were philosophers before Plato but they mostly served as tutors for children of the rich. Plato on the other hand, decided to follow a strange semi-homeless man named Socrates around as he annoyed people with a battery of questions that were carefully designed to reveal that they didn’t know what they were talking about. His parents weren’t very happy about this decision, as you can imagine, but he would be responsible for creating the foundation of philosophical thought as we now know it. Plato was the first to ask many of the questions that philosophers would be obsessed with for the next couple thousand years. What follows is the main points of Plato’s philosophy put simply.

Plato and Socrates

It is difficult to talk about Plato without talking about Socrates and it is difficult to talk about Socrates without talking about Plato. Socrates was Plato’s teacher and he appears as the protagonist of Plato’s early dialogues and his most famous work The Republic. Socrates never wrote anything down and so a lot of our perception of who he was and what he thought comes from Plato. What we know of Socrates is mostly as a literary character. Since Plato wrote all of his early philosophical works as dialogues, we get to see a version of Socrates brought to life but it is Plato’s version.

The legend about Socrates goes that the Oracle of Delphi proclaimed him the wisest man in all of Athens. Confused by this, Socrates went around and talked to all the men who he thought were wiser than he was. After talking to them and questioning them he found that their beliefs were full of contradictions and when he pointed this out to them they became upset. Afterwards, he came away with the belief that the oracle had been right. Even though Socrates was convinced that he knew nothing he was indeed the wisest man in Athens because he “knew that he did not know.”

This is the beginning of what we now call Socratic irony. Socrates established the role of the philosopher to question everything. Plato’s early dialogues all feature Socrates engaged in debate with other characters on a number of issues. Because he constantly questioned the values of society, criticized politicians and proposed ideas that made the establishment nervous he was finally put on trial for corrupting the youth and for not worshipping the correct Gods. Plato’s dialogue The Apology portrays Socrates defending himself against the accusations of the state. After being sentenced he willingly drank hemlock saying, “I do not fear death.”

The early dialogues by Plato are essentially his attempt to explore the philosophical views of Socrates, though we cannot be sure how much he actually deviated from them. With The Republic, Plato struck out on his own philosophical territory, and while it still has a literary structure with Socrates as our hero, we are seeing a systematic philosophy start to take hold for the first time.

Plato’s Ethics

Anybody who is interested in ethics should read The Republic. While the work touches on the ideas of Plato’s metaphysics, aesthetics and epistemology, it is essentially a work of ethical and political philosophy. The question that Socrates asks at the beginning is “what is justice?” and the discussion takes us on a fascinating journey. Early in the book Socrates encounters the character of Thrasymachus who insists that justice is the interest of the stronger. This was a common viewpoint in ancient Greece. This was a society that valued strength above everything else and it was Thrasymachus who held the view that it was acceptable to dominate others, lie, cheat and steal if one of strong enough to get away with it. The question that this brings up is “why should one be just?” If being ethical led to a happier life then there would be no problem in knowing what to do but while Socrates rejects this definition of justice by getting Thrasymachus to contradict himself he still must define justice and try to justify why it is valuable in itself, not just as a means to an end.

A story we are given to illustrate this is the ring of Gyges. Gyges is given a ring that makes him invisible and the story is used to argue that no man would be just if he could commit unjust acts without being caught or punished.

Explaining Plato’s ideas on ethics is very difficult and The Republic is a complex book so I will try to form the basics of what is argued without losing too much of the essentials and not simplifying so much that I will be misrepresenting the ideas. Plato’s ethics could be best described as Virtue Ethics, a philosophical school of thought that is most often associated with Plato’s student Aristotle. What Virtue Ethics states is that the reasoning of what is moral is determined by the person (moral agent) rather than by rules or consequences.

In Plato’s version of this he contends that the human soul is divided into three parts. These parts are reason, spirit and appetite. Exactly what these mean is under a lot of debate by different philosophers and at times it doesn’t seem as if Plato has a very clear sense of what they mean. He argues that the human soul must have at least two parts in order to explain why we have so many psychological conflicts. It could be seen that reason is our thinking ability to judge, spirit our emotional ability to feel empathy and appetite our desires but you will always have people who read the book and see it differently. The point for Plato however, is that we need to balance these three parts of our souls in order to make good ethical choices. The whole point of being moral is to balance these three parts of us to keep us healthy and sane. Letting one take too much control of our minds is not good for us and leads to bad decisions.

Plato’s Political Philosophy

What is often mentioned about Plato is his dislike of Democracy and the fact that he considered it “mob rule.” This was not an unnatural position for him to take since it was the Democratic government of Athens that executed Socrates. However, since that government did not allow women to vote and had a number of slaves, to call Athens an ideal Democratic state would be an absurd statement by most people’s standards. Many commentators have seen Plato’s idea of the ideal government to be fascist. His defenders point out that while it may seem that way to us today we must look at it in historical context. Plato was thinking of his ideal government as a city state and this is a relatively small area where those who did not approve of the government could move to another city state that they found less objectionable.

Describing Plato’s ideal city in great detail would be very lengthy but his idea of the perfect society is radically communitarian where every person works for the whole of society. Private families no longer exist and the social mobility of women is greatly increased because they are no longer expected to simply play the role of wife and mother. Plato gives his central government even enough power to censor all artists. Plato contends that artists portray a copy of reality that deceives those who experience it. He goes into great detail about what art would and would not be acceptable in his new society and such passages do not do well to defend him against those claims of fascism.

This is an interesting stance since Plato’s government is based on a lie in itself. It is specifically called “the noble lie” or “myth of the metals.” What this myth entails is that each citizen will be told that they are destined to a certain station at birth and their soul is matched with a corresponding metal. This is a lie that is presented to citizens in order to keep social order and assure that everybody stays within their position of society. At the top of the order are the “philosopher kings” that Plato feels are the only ones wise enough to rule over the city. It is worth noting that though he placed them at the top of the hierarchy he gave them little monetary reward for their status. Wealth was always distributed within Plato’s society.

Plato, Epistemology and Metaphysics

Another famous myth that is associated with Plato is The Allegory of the Cave. Luckily I do not have to explain this one.

 The allegory has been studied tirelessly so giving my interpretation would just be one of many.  It is essentially about the process of becoming a philosopher and looking beyond the surface of things.  It is also worth noting that Plato was distrustful of the senses when it came to the ability to preceive knowledge.  Plato knew that our senses could be fooled and he placed an emphasis on our abilities to think and reason than knowledge gained from the study of the physical world.

This leads us to another famous metaphysical idea, The Theory of the Forms.  Plato was facinated by the problems of universals.  An example would be as if I told you I had a dog.  If I told you this you might picture a poodle or you might picture a mastiff or a chow or a border collie.  These are all dogs yet each one is so different in its particulars.  What makes a dog have its essential "dogness"? 

Plato came up with the idea that all physical manifestations of things are imperfect.  An ideal form of the thing could never exist in the physical world but it could exist in in a higher reality.  This concept was extremely influencial on medieval religious thinkers who found its literal idealism irresistable.  While it still remains an interesting idea to discuss, modern philosophers have long disgarded it as a path to any useful knowledge.    

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    • profile image

      Kervenslouissaint 

      2 months ago

      Who is God?

      God did not create man, but man invented God. Nothing is created but everything is transformed. According to Auguste Compte, any progress must be proven.

      Man invented the existence of God in relation to his lack of knowledge on given subjects (riddles). In conclusion, God is the limit of man in terms of knowledge. An unfinished subject of study, unable by some to prove by the scientific method becomes an enigma. With the fertile imagination of man, he has invented an imaginary person (God) endowed with specific characteristics who holds the supreme power, through an absolute (omniscient) plenary path based on subjectivity by abstract convictions (spiritual doctrines).

      What is life?

      Life is something that many define, but few of them succeed.

      Since life is not a thing, that's all; the existence of species; conscious, subconscious and unconscious knowledge. Life is you; thoughts, decisions, actions. Your brain generates thoughts based on observation. The purpose of observation is to make a decision; to transform it into an action becomes an experience through space and time, be it the consequences.

      Ex: Thoughts + decisions + action = consequences

      Everything about life is a lesson. So you are continually learning from yourself through the experiences and consequences of your thoughts, decisions and actions.

      Errors are not human nature, they are empirical experiences that hinder the survival and progression of humanity's existence before it is transformed into a new material.

      Existence is a pain. Use your pain to push yourself to personal success (happiness). Do not look for social success, pursue inner peace and self preservation. Therefore, success is self-satisfaction. There is no need to be conventional, traditional or even orthodox. Be a deviant. Invent your own way of living with your principles, establish your own rules of life. Expressing yourself is the key to success. Success is self-satisfaction. Success is a winning equation = subjectivity of your perception (personal feelings, likes or opinions) + objectivity (rational and logical thoughts) + action - emotions (instinctive or intuitive feelings).

      In life, there is no end. Because we (humans) are immortal; the state of life is the power of being.

      "Death does not exist. Death does not concern us because as long as we exist literally, death is not there. And once that happens, we no longer exist physically but we are still there. "-Epicurus

      Nothing is created but everything is transformed. As soon as we leave physically, the body decomposes and turns into a new matter but we still exist.

      There is neither good nor bad, it is a question of collective perception and personal interest. Good or bad are two terms involved or derived from the moral code of interpersonal behavior considered acceptable and unacceptable in a particular society that determines by examining the nature of ethics and the notion of behavior described by society. Indeed, it is society that distinguishes the concept of good and evil. Everything is a matter of personal interest or collective perception. The perception of reality is more real than reality itself.

      What is love ?

      Conventionally, love should be a feeling of acceptance from one to another. But in reality, it does not exist. Why? Love must be a mutual feeling, a sense of becoming ones, a feeling of taming, something describes as a feeling of attachment, a feeling of human nature because what we love we accept it without any type criticism (constructive and destructive). Love must be loved for what we are and not for what we give, or at least for what we project because sooner or later the real person will appear. In other way, there is no human on earth who will accept you as you are. Humans does nothing without having a few things in return, even if it is invisible to your logical and rational thoughts, but somewhere there is some interest. Often, we know the occasional cause but never the root cause. There are people whose interests are for-profit, others not. There is always an interest. A long-term relationships are often based on compromises (fear of losing a particular interest). Your happiness is only inside of youreslf and nowhere else. As soon as you know this, then you will have to seek inner peace and self-preservation. That's why I think we are all unique and perfect. We accept who we are only when we have self-love. There is only self-love. Even your mother whom you think that love you doesn’t. Why? She does everything for you as result of self-preservation. On the other hand, we also confuse sex and love. They are two different things; sex is a primary need, conventionally love is an emotion, at least a feeling.

      How to understand women and men?

      First, it is imperative that the species in question become a subject of study objectively analyzed according to the scientific method. Interest for the subject of study + observation of the subject of study (perception) = a hypothesis allowing a complete evaluation of the subject of study in relation to the given result, this result is then interpreted with the data acquired in space and time. Then, we conclude the process. However, it is important to focus on the perception of the reality of the society in particular vis-à-vis the species in order to philosophize on its integrity. The main objective of the female is to breed for the survival and progression of her species. However, the main objective of the male is to allow the female to reproduce for the survival and progression of her species.

      For the male and the female, each has its particular effect in reproduction, whereas, there is no difference between man and woman, everything is a matter of personal interest and collective perception in relation to conventional principles; the rules of law and moral ethics that precede the rule of law.

    • profile image

      florah 

      4 months ago

      Plato did a greet job in our county "big up to Plato"

    • profile image

      Andrea 

      12 months ago

      Hawkins was right based on his little understanding of the supreme being, life cannot start in a vacuum there is always supernatural power controlling life on earth and God controls all things our small minds can't understand the nature of God because he is beyond our imagination it's foolish to imagine that there is no God . The ultimate of it is when you will come for judgement in the end of this age. free will given to us by God has created liberal imagination for people to question even the existence of the Omniscient GOD.

    • profile image

      rajarajan 

      2 years ago

      plato is greatest western thinker

    • jadesmg profile image

      Jade Gracie 

      7 years ago from United Kingdom

      Can't say i agree with most of Plato's ideas but he is fascinating and a great foundation for modern Western philosophy. Thanks for the summary, it's nice to be reminded of the small things i always forgot, the three parts of the soul in this case.

    • Bill Akleh profile image

      Bill Akleh 

      7 years ago from Vancouver

      I do find it quite funny that democracy lovers and "humanists" praise Plato/Socrates when both, according to their writings, opposed homosexuality (even the action of it) and democracy.

    • Robephiles profile imageAUTHOR

      Robephiles 

      8 years ago

      Thanks. I'm nervous about trying to put the ideas of philosophers in "simple" terms but I'm going to see how many of these I can write before I get one that just seems too complicated to summarize in under 2,000 words.

    • sanctasapientia profile image

      sanctasapientia 

      8 years ago

      Thanks for this hub!

      I will definitely refer my students to it.

      Great job!

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