Key Concepts of the Philosophy of Plato
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.
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.