Absurd Being

A place to take a moment to reflect on what it all means

Plato c. 428-347 BCE

Philosophy Categories


Ancient Greece





Recommended Reading

The Dream of Reason   Great Dialogues of Plato   Plato at the Googleplex  


->  Dialogues of Plato (Ion/Meno/Symposium/The Republic/The Apology/Crito/Phaedo)

The Man

Plato was born into a rich, aristocratic family. He had two uncles in the oligarchy which would come to be known as the Thirty Tyrants, a group of rulers established by the Spartans after Athens lost the Peloponnesian War in 404 BCE, and was invited to join them but declined.

Things seemed to improve when a rebellion deposed the tyrants and democracy was reinstated, but then this democracy sentenced Socrates, a man whom Plato had studied with for a number of years and come to deeply respect and admire, to death. Plato would never forget nor forgive this act and his views on politics never recovered.

In the years after Socrates’ death, which happened when Plato was twenty eight, he did a lot of travelling and met a number of other philosophers and mathematicians. He met a few wise men, among them some followers of Pythagoras who would strongly influence his later philosophy, but he mainly encountered people who were just interested in banquets, food and sex; in short, living self-indulgent lives.

While in Syracuse, Italy, Plato met and befriended Dion, brother-in-law to the reigning tyrant, Dionysius I. Dion was very impressed with Plato’s ideas but was unable to convince the king and Plato’s first visit to Syracuse ended badly. According to one commentator, Dionysius I sold him into slavery and his friends had to free him.

After this disaster, around 387 BCE, Plato returned to Athens and set up his own school. The Academy, as it was known, functioned as a kind of proto-university, mainly catering to a well-off elite and providing instruction on a diverse range of topics; from geography and botanical classification to political history and abstract philosophy. Given Plato’s Pythagorean leanings, it was especially renowned in mathematics and astronomy.

Twenty years later, when Dionysius II succeeded his father in Syracuse, Dion persuaded the new king to have Plato advise him. Although the son was less cruel than his father, he wasn’t particularly amenable to tuition. Four months after Plato arrived, Dion was banished for allegedly plotting against him. Plato returned to Athens just over a year later. Amazingly, Plato returned again four years later at Dionysius’ ardent request after he promised to allow Dion back into the city. Things were no better this time. Dionysius broke all of his promises, stole Dion’s property and held Plato virtually a prisoner. After making good his escape, Plato never returned.

The Philosophy

Bertrand Russell points to four key influences on Plato’s philosophy. From Pythagoras, Plato came to hold a number of Orphic beliefs including; the belief in immortality and the other-worldly focus he is famous for. His respect for mathematics also obviously came from here. Parmenides supplied the idea that reality is eternal and timeless. Heraclitus gave him the opposite idea that everything that happens in the world is impermanent. Last but not least, Socrates filled him with ethical ideals that manifested most clearly in the central role Plato gives to the Good.

The Forms

The theory of the Forms is Plato’s most enduring contribution to philosophy and caters to the both the ideal and the mystical in Plato’s thought. It is essentially an attempted answer to the problem of universals; that is the problem of what universal terms such as, human, dog, cat, and so on, actually mean.

In book 5 of The Republic, Plato discusses the difference between knowledge, opinion and ignorance in very Parmenidean terms. Knowledge must be about something, i.e. something that exists, hence it concerns that which is and is, by definition, infallible. Ignorance, on the other hand, concerns that which is not, since one cannot have knowledge of what is not. So how about opinion? Opinion cannot be about something which is or then it would be knowledge and it can’t be about something which is not because it is impossible to have any thoughts at all about non-Being. That means that opinion must be about both what is and what is not.

But how can this be? Plato asks us to consider particular instances of something beautiful. Assuredly, he says, they will not all be beautiful; some of them will be ugly. This represents a contradiction for Plato. In true Parmenidean fashion, he thinks it is impossible for something to be both beautiful and not beautiful at the same time, hence, he concludes that it cannot be real. It certainly cannot be (or to think of it would be knowledge) but it cannot not be (or we wouldn’t be able to think of it at all). Therefore, it is in between and amenable only to opinion.

It is on these grounds that Plato held that ‘real’ objects lie in some realm beyond the physical; the physical being a mere shadow of this higher world. These ‘real’ objects are what Plato calls the Forms and they are a metaphysical reality, not just linguistic conventions or conveniences used in everyday speech.

Take a circle. If you and I both draw circles on a piece of paper, they will be quite different objects and yet we can recognise them as both being similar in some way. We recognise them as both being circles; that is, of sharing in something ‘circle-ish’. Now, neither of our circles will be perfect circles, in Platonic terms, they will both be and not be circles, which means we are not talking about knowledge but nor are we talking about ignorance. We are concerning ourselves with opinion, specifically opinion about things that both are and are not, i.e. particular instances of some universal, true Form of a Circle, about which we both have knowledge, even though we have never actually seen such a perfect, true circle.

Plato thought that all particular things interacted with the Forms in a way he called “participation”. Through this, a physical horse could participate in the eternal Idea of Horse. I like to think of the doctrine of participation as working in the same way as a mirror. Every physical thing has a special ‘mirror’ inside it which allows it to reflect the image of its Form from the world of Ideas. In this way, the Form is able to participate with an infinite number of things, giving all of its character without losing anything. So, despite the fact that every horse is different (in colour, shape, size, etc.), we know that a horse is a horse and not something else because every horse participates in the Form of Horse giving it that quality of ‘horseness’ that we immediately recognise.

The Analogy of the Cave

The philosopher’s goal is to see through this physical, sensory world of opinion to the ‘true’ world of the Forms. Plato recorded a famous story, his Analogy of the Cave, to illustrate this. Imagine a group of people kept chained in a cave, unable to move, their heads firmly held in place so that all they can see is the rear wall of the cave. They can’t see each other or even their own bodies.

Outside the cave is a wall, the shadow of which the captives are able to see thanks to a large fire burning in the distance. There are people outside who walk past the wall and if we imagine these people carrying various implements shaped like every imaginable kind of thing, then the shadows of these things will be projected onto the captive’s cave wall for them.

Plato says that because our fettered folk have no other experiences, they will believe that the shadows are actually reality and all of their knowledge will be based on this fact; distorted as it is. If we were to free one of these men and bring him outside, at first he wouldn’t be able to see anything. He wouldn’t be able to identify things whose shadows he was nevertheless familiar with and would maintain that the shadows were real and the objects themselves nothing more than illusion. Slowly, over time, he would be able to see more and more. He would identify reflections first and then scenes at night before finally being able to see reality as it is during the daytime.

Plato feels that this is what is like for us to learn to see things as they truly are, beyond the imperfect, changing world of matter to the perfect world of the Forms. The path we must follow to attain true knowledge is the same as that of the cave dwellers and philosophy is the vehicle which carries us along this path.

Plato’s Utopia

The Republic actually begins by trying to answer the question, what is justice? Socrates (who plays the role of Plato’s voice) suggests that we may better understand justice at the individual level by first considering justice at a societal level. It is this which precipitates the reflection into the ideal state.

Plato’s utopia is divided into three classes; merchants and craftsman, soldiers and guardians. He isn’t terribly concerned with the lowest class of merchants and craftsman and most of his comments concern the top two classes, which end up shouldering most of the burdens Plato wishes to impose on the state. Social standing will be decided by birth although some upwards mobility is allowed depending on ability. One of the most remarkable things about Plato’s city is that girls are to have exactly the same opportunities as boys and receive exactly the same education and physical training.

The soldiers form the military arm of the state and as such, must live hard lives dedicated to training and warfare and they must be pure and focused. (Plato almost certainly took Sparta as his inspiration regarding his soldier class) He says both the soldiers and the guardians will live austere, frugal lives in simple barracks, own no property, have no private lodgings, receive as wages just enough food from the farmers as is necessary for health and above all have nothing to do with money.

It is somewhat unclear just how much of what follows applies to the children of the lowest class and how much only for the upper classes. All aspects of life for the citizens in Plato’s utopia are to be strictly controlled and censored. Plato wants nothing in his city that could arouse fear or vice in them. They will receive instruction in music (something like what we might term, ‘culture’) and gymnastics (athletics). Poets are only permitted to speak of the gods in the most reverent of terms and must depict them as perfectly holy in every way. No references may be made to ‘undesirable’ behaviours such as excessive laughter or weeping over the dead. Only certain kinds of music (no relaxed or mournful melodies) may be played. Plato wavers over drama but when he realises that no one in his city should be allowed to consent to playing an evil or weak role, even in a play, he decides to simply ban drama altogether. Physical training is harsh and diet is strictly regulated; no alcohol, sweets or sauces are permitted. In general, this education regime is designed to produce serious, hard, fearless, temperate and loyal fighters.

Those children who will become guardians must undergo a rigorous programme of study including the standard education all soldiers receive plus a decade or so of advanced science, five years of training in dialectic and then fifteen years of training in politics. After all of this, they will be about fifty years old and ready to step into their roles as guardians. When Plato talks about the “philosopher-king”, far from your typical run-of-the-mill philosopher slapping a crown on his or her head, it is these people whom Plato has in mind.

When it comes to childbirth, Plato really takes the gloves off. Women are to be common to all men and children are common to the city so that no one shall know their parents. The guardians will arrange festival days where people are paired up through seemingly random and fair lots that are in actuality fixed by the rulers so that the best men are paired with the best women to produce the best offspring. The rulers will take all children immediately after birth, giving the healthy to the nurses to be raised apart from their parents and the defective “put away… in some mysterious, unknown place.” Preventing children from knowing their parents means that the community as a whole will be closer for all adults will be treated as parents and all children as offspring.

Plato considers a few objections in the course of all this. First, the soldiers and guardians’ lives won’t be particularly happy. Plato responds by saying that this is irrelevant. The welfare of the state takes precedence over the happiness of its citizens. Second, it is unworkable in practice. Plato doesn’t mind this. He says he is only concerned here to outline the ideal state so that they can learn something from it. Third, why does he think the citizens will put up with all of these rules, restrictions and invasions into their private life? Here, as if all of this totalitarianism wasn’t enough, Plato introduces his “royal lie” which explicitly uses religion to keep the people happy (like an “opiate”) with their lot. The wise rulers are to tell the citizens that when God creates the children he mingles a certain metal in with them to determine the role they are fit for. A ‘gold’ child will become a guardian, a ‘silver’ child will be one of the soldiers and ‘iron’ and ‘brass’ children, farmers and craftsman. The first generation will know this lie for what it is but if they tell it to their children sincerely, it will require only one generation to come into effect.

It is fairly clear from this brief sketch that life in Plato’s utopia would amount to a totalitarian nightmare. The state may be successful in the way a colony of ants is successful but when it comes to: 1) actually being workable, I think it clearly has major problems, if for no other reason than it fails to account for basic human psychology, and 2) success, as it applies to self-aware and fully conscious human beings, it must be acknowledged as a resounding failure.

The Individual Human

Halfway through The Republic, Plato turns his discussion back to the original topic; justice. He begins by analysing his state in line with four primary Greek virtues; wisdom, courage, temperance, and justice. Wisdom he locates in the ruling philosopher-kings, courage lies in the soldiers and temperance (as in ‘moderation’ or ‘self-restraint’) is a unifying trait linking the upper classes with the lower class of common people. That leaves justice.

Justice means that “each one must practice that one thing… for which his nature was best fitted” and not “meddle” in other businesses. As far as the state is concerned, this means that the division between the three different classes be respected by all citizens and that none should aspire to a different class than the one it has been determined he or she is best suited for.

So how does this translate to justice in the individual? As in the state, there are three ‘classes’ in the individual soul; the ruling part, the spirited part and the desiring part. The first is characterised by reason, the second by honour and the third by base physical things such as sex, food, etc. These three parts of the human being ought to function in the same way as the state, i.e. reason should exert control over the other two and ensure they don’t run riot. So justice in the individual simply consists in the harmonious functioning of these three separate parts, without any seeking to take on ‘duties’ outside their respective role.

Platonic Dualism

Plato’s belief that true knowledge amounts to familiarity with perfect, unchanging Forms coupled with the idea that the impermanent, ever-changing, illusory, physical world of matter yields nothing more than opinion, naturally commits him to some kind of dualistic thinking. This dualism tears apart the world we inhabit along the lines of a number of pairs of opposites including; permanent/temporary, changing/unchanging, knowledge/opinion, being/becoming, and so on, but it had another manifestation that was just as important.

Plato’s dualistic thinking extended to the human individual herself. He believed that the soul and the body were separate entities. The body was the baser, inferior of the pair while the soul was eternal and perfect. It is important to note that Plato didn’t think of the soul as a part of the complete human, the soul was the human. The body was little more than a vessel. He considered the partnership to be more like that of a captain (soul) and her ship (body).

Like Pythagoras before him, Plato thought the philosopher’s principle task was to free himself as much as possible from the lower, grosser desires of the body while embracing the pure, edifying desires of the intellect and reason. This can only be achieved by focusing on the Forms.