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Plato

In preparation for this section on ancient philosophy on this website, I basically reviewed four books besides online sources.  Look at the emphasis on Plato in these books:  Chapter 1 of “The Story Of Philosophy” is entitled “Plato”.[1] In the first paragraph on the first page of the book, the first reference to particular philosophers in “Philosophy, The Basics” reads, “the easiest way of answering [what is philosophy] is to say that philosophy is what philosophers do, and then point to the writings of Plato, Aristotle, Descartes, Hume, Kant, Russell, Wittgenstein, Sartre, and other famous philosophers.” (Plato is the first philosopher named in the list of famous philosophers.)[2]   “Philosophy 1” says,

“Few would contradict the statement that Plato is one of the greatest philosophers. He is also one of the world’s great writers.  He has left us more than twenty-five works which touch every area philosophy has subsequently investigated, and display an unequalled blend of argument and creativity. One can find one’s way around Plato’s works with greater ease than any other ancient philosopher.”

(Note that the author writes that Plato displayed an unequaled blend of argument and creativity. That means that no philosopher ever has surpassed Plato for argument and creativity in this author’s view) [3] “Ancient Philosophers” is a school primer that gives an overview of ancient philosophy, and in the process has a chapter on five philosophers. Plato is one of these philosophers.[4]

I went through the Roman Catholic education system.  I can remember references to the Greeks throughout my education there. In particular, I remember that part of my physics class in my junior year of high school concentrated on metaphysics. I can still remember Brother Raymond posing questions, and discussing philosophers like Socrates, Plato, and Aristotle.  He also drew attention to the fact that the church has intertwined philosophy and theology since the apologists of the second century.

Plato was a brilliant man who spent the beginning of his career at the foot of another brilliant man, Socrates. He was profoundly impacted by the unfair prosecution and execution of his mentor by the Athenian civil authorities, one of the earliest examples of democracy.  After Socrates death, Plato traveled to some of the most cultured civilizations of his time, traveling through Greece, Egypt, and Italy.  His purpose was to go out and apply the philosophical instruction which he had received at the foot of Socrates in evaluating life in the world.  Plato continued the tradition started with Socrates in focusing philosophy on the spiritual as opposed to the pre-Socratics which focused on the physical side of life.

Anyone who promotes the idea of higher education as fundamental to success and leadership, who accepts the idea of an immortal soul as reasonable, or who tries to explain beauty and justice as intrinsic qualities is following the lead of Plato.

To say that Plato has impacted philosophy and western thought would be an understatement. Plato was the first Greek philosopher to promote the concept of the immortal soul, although it had been promoted in religions prior to him. [5]   This is a concept accepted by nearly every Christian church on every corner around the world.

It was Plato who said that ordinary people are often politically and intellectually unenlightened.[6]   Plato said that the way to train the mind was to master subjects like arithmetic, geometry and astronomy.  By studying subjects like this people will get to the point where they are capable of understanding goodness and justice.  In Plato’s view this is the training for the true philosopher, and only the true philosopher is fit to rule. This philosophy continues to this day in the premise that what builds great leaders is a liberal education in the arts and sciences.  Plato’s view was that this education was required to overcome the moral corruption that happens to untrained people as they gain wealth and power.

Plato founded the first university like school, which he named the Academy.  He is thus the founder of the higher education ideal that so many of us value.

One of the ideas that Plato presented was his theory of Forms. Plato used his theory of Forms to explain things like beauty and justice.  Part of the point in presenting the theory of Forms is that in order to truly understand something we need to explain it by more than being able to just give an example.  For example, we could try to explain kindness with the example of a young man helping an elderly person cross the street. The problem is that just one example never really explains the concept.  The untrained person, upon hearing the exhortation to be kind, only tries to follow the examples of kindness that he has been taught. He has been taught that it is kind to help elderly people cross the street, perhaps carry their groceries.  He may have been taught that it is kind to help clean up after dinner. But he will never do more than that those things until he understands that kindness is the quality of being warmhearted, considerate, and sympathetic, and that kindness is shown by doing things that help others.

Philosophers, despite that they are all seekers of reason and wisdom (or some would say because they are), debate every nuance of philosophy so I am sure there will be those that disagree with my next statement. The definition of kindness is what Plato is talking about as a Form. A definition here that I think would be plausible to Plato’s philosophy is that kindness is a quality of life constructed by the Demiurge that has the qualities of warmheartedness and compassion and is expressed in acts that help others.

So kindness is a Form to Plato. All of the acts of kindness are just examples.  Plato himself used a similar analogy in explaining his concept of Forms:

“There are beds and tables in the world – plenty of them, but there are only two ideas or forms of them – one the idea of bed, the other of the table.… And the maker of either of them makes a bed or he makes a table for our use, in accordance with the idea.… [The Carpenter] cannot make true existence, but only some semblance of existence.… God knew this, and he desired to be the real maker of the real bed, not a particular maker of a particular, and therefore he created a bed which is essentially and by nature one only.”[7]

Note that Plato references God in the above explanation. In Plato’s view there is a God who is a craftsman, and he is called the Demiurge. The Demiurge makes the Forms which are perfect, but invisible and untouchable. Everything that man makes or does are imperfect versions of these Forms.

As is common in philosophical discussion, there is no precise philosophical definition of the theory, and it appears that even Plato may have changed it during his lifetime.   I’m going to present a definition that I found online about this theory, but I’ll warn you that is neither simple nor precise.  If it is too confusing, don’t worry about scan over it and move onto the next section:

“Forms (usually given a capital F) were properties or essences of things, treated as non-material abstract, but substantial, entities. They were eternal, changeless, supremely real, and independent of ordinary objects which had their being and properties by ‘participating’ in them.

But Plato puzzlingly treated them as both universals (see Platonism), suggesting they were immanent in things, and paradigms (see paradigmatism), suggesting they were transcendent and themselves had the properties they represented: Beauty is beautiful (but Change changes – despite being, as a Form, unchanging).” [8]

I present this definition as an illustration to show that despite what appears to be a beautiful and simple concept; philosophy as the love of wisdom, it invariably becomes complicated to the point where there is strong disagreement among philosophers about even basic processes like explaining justice or beauty.  This level of complexity becomes a source of confusion for many.

Here is another level of complexity in studying Plato. Plato’s views changed throughout his lifetime. His early work was heavily focused on his instruction from Socrates.  Because of that people said to have been influenced by his writing during this period are said to have an early Platonic influence. Additionally, there are two other periods, the middle and late Platonic periods or writings.  And, as an example, in the second century A.D., there was a resurgence of middle Platonism.

After all is said and done, as respected as Plato is, and as broad as his impact is, many of his basic ideas were rejected as quickly as the next generation.  Another brilliant philosopher, coming on the heels of Plato, was Aristotle. Look at Aristotle’s response to Plato’s theory of Forms, for example:

“Aristotle (384-322 BC) too believed in forms (with a small F), but no longer as transcendent objects. ‘Idea’ is a misleading synonym for ‘Form’; Forms were objects of knowledge but in no way themselves mental or in the mind.”[8]

We see here that Aristotle changed what he had learned at the foot of Plato, and the wisdom of the ancients again started going in a different direction.  We will talk more about Aristotle in the future articles.

I don’t think that any discussion of Plato would be complete without mentioning Plato’s Republic, which is considered by some the finest work of the ancient philosophers. That will be the subject of the next article.

[1]  The story of philosophy, Will Durant, Touchstone, Simon & Schuster New York, 1961
[2]  Philosophy 1, A. C. Grayling, Oxford University Press, Oxford, 1998
[3]  PHILOSOPHY, The Basics, Nigel Warburton, Routledge, New York, 2004, p.
[4]  Ancient philosophers, Don Nardo, Lucent books, Farmington Hills, Michigan, 2002, p. 38
[5]  Philosophy 1. p. 367
[6]  Ancient philosophers, p. 45
[7] Ancient philosophers, p. 44
[8] www.philosophyprofessor.com, the actual page is http://www.philosophyprofessor.com/philosophies/platos-theory-of-forms.php

© copyright 2010 Mark W Smith, All rights reserved.

September 5th, 2010 Posted by | Philosophy | no comments

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