Plato (429-347 B.C.) – One of the Founders of Western Philosophy

Plato was born in Athens, Greece, around 429 B.C. to parents who were members of the Greek aristocracy. Because of his social class, Plato was taught by many distinguished educators. However, no individual would have as great an impact on him as Socrates and his ability to debate and create a dialogue. In fact, the written works of Plato are where much of the information we know about Socrates comes from. 

While he was expected by his family to pursue a career in politics, two events would lead Plato away from this lifestyle: the Peloponnesian War (in which, upon Sparta’s victory, several of Plato’s relatives were part of a dictatorship, but were removed for being corrupt) and the execution of Socrates in 399 B.C. by the new Athenian government. 

Plato then turned toward philosophy and began writing and traveling. He studied under Pythagoras in Sicily and, upon returning to Athens, founded the Academy, a school where he and other like-minded individuals taught and discussed philosophy and mathematics. Among Plato’s students was Aristotle.

Like Socrates, Plato believed philosophy was a process of continuous questioning and dialogues, and his writing appeared in this format.

Two of the most interesting things about these dialogues are that Plato’s own opinions on the subject matters he wrote about were never explicitly stated (though with in-depth research, one might be able to infer his stance) and that he was never a character in his writing. Plato wanted readers to have the ability to form their own opinions on the subjects and not be told how to think (this also proves how skillful a writer he was). For this reason, many of his dialogues do not reach a concise conclusion. Those that do, however, allow for possible counterarguments and doubts. 

Plato’s dialogues dealt with a variety of subject matters, including things such as art, theater, ethics, immortality, the mind, and metaphysics. 

There are at least thirty-six dialogues written by Plato, as well as thirteen letters (though historians dispute the letters’ authenticity).

One of the most important concepts Plato developed was his theory of Forms. Plato states that reality exists on two specific levels:

  1. The visible world that is made up of sights and sounds 
  2. The intelligible world (the world of Forms) that gives the visible world its being

For example, when a person sees a beautiful painting, that person has the ability to identify beauty because he has an abstract concept of what beauty is. Therefore, beautiful things are seen as beautiful because they are a part of the Form of beauty. While things in the visible world can change and lose their beauty, the Form of beauty is eternal, never changes, and cannot be seen.

Plato believed that concepts like beauty, courage, goodness, temperance, and justice exist in an entire world of Forms, outside of space and time, unaffected by what happens in the visible world. 

While the idea of Forms appears in many of Plato’s dialogues, Plato’s concept of Forms differs from text to text, and sometimes these differences are never completely explained. Through Plato’s theory of Forms, Plato incorporates abstract thought as a means to achieve a greater knowledge.

In The Republic and another well-known dialogue, Phaedrus, Plato discusses his understanding of rationality and the soul. The soul, according to Plato, can be broken down into three parts: reason, spirit, and appetite. 

  1. Reason: This is the part of the soul responsible for thinking and understanding when something is true versus false, real versus not apparent, and making rational decisions. 
  2. Spirit: This is the part of the soul responsible for all desires that want victory and honor. If an individual has a just soul, the spirit should enforce reason so that reason leads. The frustration of the spirit will lead to feelings of anger and feeling mistreated. 
  3. Appetite: This is the part of the soul where very basic cravings and desires come from. For example, things like thirst and hunger can be found in this part of the soul. However, the appetite also features unnecessary and unlawful urges, like overeating or sexual excess.

To explain these different parts of the soul, Plato first looked at three different classes in a just society: Guardian, Auxiliary, and Laborers. According to Plato, reason should rule an individual’s decisions; spirit should aid reason; and appetite should obey. By maintaining the relationship among these three parts in the correct way, an individual will achieve individual justice. 

Similarly, Plato believed that in a perfect society, reason would be represented by a Guardian class (rulers who led based on philosophy, which society would wholeheartedly follow); spirit would be represented by the Auxiliary class (soldiers who would force the rest of society to obey the Guardian class); and appetite would be represented by the Laborers, the workers and merchants of society.

Plato placed great emphasis on the role of education and believed it to be one of the most important pieces in creating a healthy state. Plato saw the vulnerability of a child’s mind and understood how easily it could be molded. He believed children should be taught early on to always seek wisdom and to live a virtuous life. Plato even went so far as to create detailed directions on what exercises a pregnant woman could perform so that she would have a healthy fetus and what types of art and exercise children should immerse themselves in. To Plato, who considered the Athenian people to be corrupt, easily seduced, and gullible to rhetoric, education was essential to having a just society.