Over the past few weeks, I have been studying the dialogues of one of the most famous philosophers of the classical West – Plato. Often seen as the fountainhead of all western philosophical traditions, Plato is an accessible and engaging author – although he has garnered a negative reputation in some circles as a proto-authoritarian, communist and censor. In this final reflection on his work, I will examine Plato’s influences and the role of his teacher and friend Socrates before providing some remarks on his system of thought and his hard-to-overstate influence on Western society and philosophy. I will then conclude with some remarks as to Plato’s beliefs and his ongoing importance as a great thinker in the Western tradition.
To understand Plato, we need to understand the intellectual tradition from which he springs. Greek culture, from the period following the bronze age collapse up until the time of Pericles, was dominated by the works of the great poets. Homer and Hesiod were the most authoritative voice in the intellectual, cultural and moral discourse of Greek life. The great tragedians – Aeschylus, Sophocles and Euripides – and the great comedian – Aristophanes – followed in the wheel ruts of these giants, shaping the Greek understandings of good, evil and morality. However, the monopoly of these artists had come under assault in the centuries before Plato’s birth.
In rejection of the poetic understanding of the world, the Naturalists – from Thales to Heraclitus – attempted to use naturalistic, mechanistic explanations of the world. They sought primal substances which explained the construction and order of the universe – including water, air, fire or the primitive theory of atoms. In contrast to the naturalistic explanation of the world existed the Monists, including luminaries such as the Pythagoreans and Parmenides. Their philosophy of oneness in the world, the immortality of the soul and cycle of rebirth shows suspicious similarities to Indic thought. Although Plato both drew from and criticised these different strains of thinking, he reserved some of his harshest criticism for the next group: The Sophists
Sophism, linked to thinkers such as Gorgias, Protagoras, Thrasymachus and Hippias (all antagonists in Plato’s dialogues), is an ill-defined movement of itinerant teachers who primarily sought to exchange money for education – an action abhorred by Plato and many traditionalist Athenians alike. The broad strokes of this movement appear to have been relativistic – more focused on teaching individuals to be able to argue a point from any side rather than a search for absolute truth. The critique of sophism was a significant aspect throughout Plato’s work, but it pales in influence when compared to Plato’s greatest teacher.
It is impossible to talk about Plato without referring to his most important influence, and the protagonist of the majority of his dialogues: Socrates. Reams of paper and rivers of ink continue to be expended in the attempt to separate the individual Socrates from the creature of Plato’s writings – an effort which ultimately doomed to failure. Despite the futility of the task, the attempt to divide Plato and his Mouthpiece is useful as a means of understanding his early thought – and the reasons he moved beyond his great teacher. Thus, in our quest to divide the indivisible, we should look to the extant material concerning Socrates outside the Platonic canon.
Besides Plato, we have two other sources which point to the character and nature of Socrates: The Memorabilia of Xenophon and the Clouds of Aristophanes. Xenophon, like Plato, writes to exonerate his friend following the trial and death of Socrates in Athens. The Socrates of Xenophon is a font of pragmatic wisdom, giving aphoristic advice to all-comers – and demonstrating a sensible, no-nonsense intelligence squarely situated within the bounds of Athenian law, morality and tradition. On the other hand, the Socrates of Aristophanes is a combination of all the tropes most despised by the traditionalists of Athenian society: The Naturalist and the Sophist. It is better to suggest that these two images are two sides of the same coin – Socrates as perceived by those who engaged with his thought at a superficial level only. To the unengaged listener, he was either a wise man who sought to give advice or a dangerous thinker who sought to corrode the bonds of traditional society. These two images, however, are significantly less interesting than the Socrates of Plato.
The Socrates of the early dialogues is considered by many to be the most faithful depiction of the thinker who refused to write down any of his own beliefs, doctrines or teachings – if he even had such a systemized form of thinking. The most noticeable aspect of this dialectician is his harsh irony when facing those who professed to know the great truths of this world – knowledge regarding virtue and the good – while at the same time a continual profession of knowing nothing about these things himself. It is, in fact, his professed belief that his knowledge of his own ignorance is the only thing that makes him wiser than those who profess wisdom. Due to the enigmatic nature of Socrates, thinkers have struggled with how to interpret him.
Those who are attracted to the idea of Socrates as the martyr of inquiry see him as a moralist, a brilliant social critic who, like the gadfly, bites and prods society in an attempt to bring about positive change and reveal hypocrisy. This image of Socrates sees a fearless seeker of truth, who used irony to engage otherwise unassailable minds and refused to bend the knee to either the mob or the tyrant during the period of democratic and oligarchic rule in Athens. Beyond this, they see a proponent of virtue who demonstrated the inherent goodness of his soul through a life of sobriety and moderation, neither rejecting the pleasures inherent to social intercourse nor falling prey to the baser desires of the soul.
To those who reject Socrates as the deceiver, they see a man who uses harsh irony to disguise his disdain for his fellow citizens. They also see not a fearless proponent of truth, but a man who engaged only with the elite upper crust, resplendent with anti-democratic tendencies, and whose associates went on to become ringleaders during the reign of the thirty tyrants. In the posturing of the trial, they see a man who, despite feigned fearlessness, had collaborated during this period of despotism. His harshest critics even find fault in his supposed virtuous apathy towards bodily pleasure – instead they see a depraved addict who could only function by quelling his unbounded desires with the harsh whip of rationality.
I would posit that this multi-faceted view of Socrates is due not only to the dearth of written records, but also the fundamentally mysterious nature of Socrates. He is a figure who appeared to hold no dogmatic understanding of the world, but who in the absence of a solid basis lead a moral life. He is a man desperately in search of truth, and at the same time critical of anyone who dares to hold any certain opinion on anything. To me, he is one of the first individualists, not a teacher but a wrecking ball who leaves behind a society smarting as he casts aside everything in the pursuit of understanding. He is a deeply ironic figure, whose words appear to be like an onion, layers upon layers which when finally stripped back appear to reveal – nothing. In this sense, Socrates is a mirror, and when held up to ourselves we see the ugliness in our souls.
Regardless of who Socrates was, we know that his behaviour enabled his enemies to try and convict him for corrupting the youth and introducing new gods to the city. This conviction led to his death, forced to swallow hemlock while surrounded by his friends and associates. Whether it was his anti-democratic attitudes, his opinions which undermined the traditional values of Athenian society or the anger of so-called wise men who felt foolish in the wake of his acidic irony which motivated this conviction will remain forever unknown. However, why Athens killed Socrates is less important than his refusal to flee the conviction to save his life, instead choosing to face death cheerfully. Socrates destruction would become the greatest influence on the most beautiful mind of classical Greek philosophy.
Plato, like Xenophon and the other associates of Socrates, were devastated by the trial and death of his friend and mentor. To him, it appeared that the mob had tried the most just of men and the ignorance and jealousy of those found wanting in virtue had destroyed him. With this in mind, the early writings of Plato can be seen as an attempt to exonerate his teacher and at the same time an attempt to understand the man who had embodied virtue while claiming no knowledge on the subject. As Plato’s thought began to progress, the Socrates of the dialogues began to diverge from the historical Socrates, the ideas of Plato articulated by his fictional tongue.
Plato’s turned his considerable talents to developing a metaphysical system which could answer the questions of his mentor, while at the same time explaining the life of virtue which he followed. This metaphysical system divided the world into the sensible, objects understood through the bodily senses, and the intelligible, objects understood through thought. In this dualistic universe, Plato subordinated the sensible to the intelligible, in the same fashion that objects are superior to the shadows they cast. He did this by suggesting that the intelligible objects, being the ‘forms,’ were the true objects from which our souls derived their sensible counterparts in the physical world: beauty, courage, virtue and goodness.
With the concept of the forms, Plato rejected the knowledge that could be attained by sensible pursuits as fundamentally subordinate to the truth found in the life of contemplation. As such, he believed that the life of the lover of wisdom – the Philosopher – was infinitely superior to the life of the sensible, exemplified in the one who pursues sensible pleasures to its logical extreme – the tyrant. A large part of the middle writings of Plato deals with attempting to demonstrate how the life of the tyrant is inferior to the life of the philosopher, against the grain of sophistic wisdom.
Throughout his discourse, Plato attempts to show that power and influence without justice are harmful to the tyrant, attempting to portray that such a figure would be miserable. They would be unable to satisfy their unquenchable desires, while at the same time constantly fearful that the same violence with which they maintained power would be used against them. However, I think that Plato was either not completely convinced of this argument himself, or felt that his readers may be incredulous, and fell back upon the concept of the immortal soul – drawn from the Pythagoreans – and divine retribution after death to persuade those who rejected this discourse on justice. With both a system of metaphysics and virtue in place, Plato now turned his attention to its implementation in broader society.
The first and most shocking aspect of Platonic thought is its harsh criticism of poetry (in the broad sense of literature) and advocacy of censorship. This stance is all the more puzzling as Plato himself appears to be a consummate poet, able to quote the great bards and compose works of exquisite beauty. However, this should be seen not as a criticism of poetry as a medium of communication, but rather a realisation that poetry is the means by which the majority of Greeks received their education in morality and justice. Plato fundamentally understood that our education set the discourse of virtue and that the language we used and the heroes and heroines we emulated shaped our minds – for better or worse.
This understanding throws the politics of Plato’s ideal state into sharp relief – a harsh, authoritarian system of differing castes defined by intellectual potential. The system of education funnelled the most talented minds to the top, exposing them to virtuous poetry to shape their minds correctly and protecting them from potential malevolent influences which would undermine the virtue of the young and old alike. The end product of this system is the ‘Philosopher King,’ an individual able to unite political power and wisdom in the same body. With this in mind, Plato authorisation of the use of deceit – a ‘noble lie’ – to protect the virtuous mind makes sense: sensible truth is nothing when compared to the intelligible truth of contemplation. Even if we take Plato’s depiction of a just society in the Republic in a purely allegorical description of the human soul, it would appear a cautionary tale against the influence of bad poetry. These opinions have resulted in many moderns accusing Plato of being a fascistic authoritarian – but the truth is more complex.
Plato, though Socrates, shows some admiration for democracy – largely in that a free society allows its citizens to engage in debate and philosophy, permitting all forms of people and politics to exist – although he was suspicious of the system which had killed his beloved teacher. Despite his supposed fondness of censorship, he also was a fierce proponent of dialectic – a form of education which is fundamentally based upon individuals being able to hold opinions, but also to defend them rather than lazily lapsing into sophistic relativism. We need to be cautious before casting Plato and Socrates in the dualistic light of despot and martyr.
As Plato’s thought progressed his writings become more difficult for the layperson to understand, focusing on more complex understandings of the metaphysical, exhaustive attempts at categorisation and a long dialogue, the Laws, on establishing a society based upon a complex interlocking legal code to ensure the virtue of its citizens. In these works, Socrates takes an increasingly smaller role, before disappearing entirely in the Laws, replaced by ‘the Stranger’ a shadow acting as Plato’s avatar in the dialogue. The direction of these middle dialogues and more complex later works are seen by many as Plato moving beyond Socrates – but opinions on the success of this transition are divided.
For some, the increasing metaphysical complexity, the removal of Socrates and the in-depth legal code in the Laws are symptoms of a mind in damage control, as Plato sees cracks appearing in his philosophy. Although cognizant of the failings of his thought Plato is unable to ‘jump ship’ to another system of, and through his final works, he attempts a desperate rearguard action – dying a dissatisfied and unhappy old man.
For others, the Plato of the early dialogues, the Republic and the Laws are the same, an individual going through the incremental development of thought. In this model, Plato starts with the dialectic questioning of Socrates, moves through an allegorical understanding of the Soul, Reality and Justice in the Republic, and finishes with a handbook for creating the best possible society in the Laws. In this theory, the final work creates a garden where the seeds of the Philosopher King will germinate and the perfect society could take root. Regardless of how Plato’s career unfurled, what is clear is the significant impact that Plato had on western thought.
The Platonic Legacy
Alfred North Whitehead once said that “the safest general characterisation of the European philosophical tradition is that it consists of a series of footnotes to Plato.” I very much agree with this comment, but I feel that it is important to explain why. Plato forms the fountainhead of Western philosophy not because he is the only one with anything to say, but merely because he started the conversation. His writings cover the breadth and depth of philosophical inquiry, whether it be metaphysics, ethics, aesthetics, epistemology and political philosophy. I think it is important to dwell on a few key points of his philosophy and then summarise with a final look at this intellectual titan.
The first point I want to touch on is Plato’s treatment of slaves and women. When it comes to slavery, Plato may have called for slave owners to be kind to their slaves but he never called for the abolition of such an institution. This is partly to do with the fact that imagining a world without slavery was perhaps beyond the paradigm of a classical author – imbued with the cultural prejudices of his time – but also was likely due to his perception of individuals as being fundamentally unequal in their faculties. With such ‘lesser’ individuals it would have been Plato’s preference that they were under the control and servitude of their ‘superiors,’ rather than free to cause damage to themselves or others.
When considering Plato’s opinions on women, it is interesting to reflect on one of the first thinkers who called for a radical redistribution of power between the sexes, pushing the opinion that women should participate in government, military service and public education. However, I would be hesitant to call Plato a feminist – he still considered women as unequal to men in fundamental attributes. In his perfect society, he would have delayed their participation in politics and would have made their participation in military service voluntary as opposed to the mandatory conscription of their male peers. Despite this, these suggestions of female engagement in power and education were radical when compared to the harshly patriarchal Greek society of the day which saw women veiled, excluded from public life and largely confined to the home.
The second point I want to examine is the characterisation of Plato as an advocate of authoritarianism. The majority of Plato’s modern critics focus on his anti-democratic attitudes and use of censorship. They cast him as a puritan despot who would burn the books of his enemies and put the masses under the yolk in the pursuit of the first and most ambitious of utopias. However, as I have mentioned above, Plato’s suspicion of democracy is qualified – he respects the freedom it grants and sees it as a prerequisite state to the pursuit of virtue through dialectic. We should hesitate before condemning Plato as a handmaiden to tyranny – something he vehemently denounced throughout his discourses.
The third and final point is Plato’s metaphysics. Since classical times the metaphysical world of Plato has been under assault, primarily under the guise of the third man argument. The synopsis of this quibble is that if an object derives its ‘object-ness’ from a form, then there must exist another, greater form to define the first – and so on ad infinitum. Although the argument is more complex than this, and a more detailed understanding of the debate can be gleaned from the recommended readings, I would argue that the nature of this debate neglects the forest for the trees. The argument that something beyond the physical defines our values, virtues and reality still holds water in the larger debate on determinism vs. free will, relativistic vs. absolute morality and the nature of cognition. Although at this stage of my understanding I do not know enough to either discard Plato’s metaphysics as wrong or accept it as reasonable, I am happy enough to set it aside sceptically, willing to examine it as part of the larger whole as my self-education progresses.
So in the end, what do we make of this figure of whom we possess so much of his writings, but thanks to the irony and esotericism of his protagonists and thought we ascribe so little with absolute certainty? Plato is first and foremost a critic, of the status quo traditions, of relativistic sophistry, of monistic mysticism and absolute certainty. Although he may not have held the same sceptical irony of his teacher, Plato often leaves me feeling that when he mocks his antagonists, he is mocking me and my certainties. I sense that when he posits answers that he is not giving me solutions, but instead challenging me to question, dispute and overcome his theories. I would say that we should read Plato, not to become him or to find some mystical wisdom hidden between the lines of his text, but instead as a catalyst to our thought. He is a flint which the steel of our mind will strike casting a thousand sparks, igniting a passion for learning and understanding. There is no-one who can read Plato for you, to summarise his arguments is to do little justice to the real deal. Instead, I implore you to pick up one of his works and commence the journey of philosophy with one of the most eloquent and challenging authors that I have read to date.
- (Editor) Donald R. Morrison, Cambridge companion to Socrates
- (Editor) Richard Kraut, Cambridge companion to Plato
- (Editor) G. R. F. Ferrari, Cambridge companion to Plato’s Republic
- Gregory Vlastos, Socrates: Ironist and Moral Philosopher
- Alexander Nehamas, The Art of Living: Socratic Reflections from Plato to Foucault
- Eric Havelock, Preface to Plato
- Danielle S. Allen, Why Plato Wrote
- Joseph Norio Uemura, Reflections on the mind of Plato
- Michael Sugrue, Plato, Socrates, and the Dialogues
Plato statue at the Academy of Athens building in Athens