On completion of this chapter, you should be able to answer the following questions:
What was the Academy? Where did it get its name? What was its chief purpose?
How did Plato distinguish between knowledge and opinion?
What are the Platonic Forms?
Are Forms the same as Ideas?
What is the Allegory of the Cave?
What are the three basic levels of reality according to Plato?
What are the cardinal virtues?
What are the parts of the soul?
Plato (c.427-348 B.C.E.) is actually the nickname of Aristocles, which came from Platon, meaning wide or broad (one story has it that he had wide shoulders, and another that he had a wide forehead). Aristocles meant “best, or most renowned,” and he did well in practically everything.
Plato was the son of one of the oldest and most elite families in Athens.Through his mother’s family he was related to the celebrated lawgiver, Solon. His father’s family traced its lineage back to the ancient kings of Athens.
Plato’s Philosopher Mother
Plato’s mother is believed to have been Perictione (c. 450-350 B.C.E.) and may have had more influence on Plato’s thought than has been recognized.
In her On the Harmony of Women, Perictione calls women to philosophy in terms reminiscent of Socrates – in particular, a disdain for vanity, the ideal of self-control, and the superiority of inner beauty.
Like Plato in the Republic, she argues that wisdom and individual self-control generate other virtues, which lead to harmony and happiness for the entire community.
Our chief source of information on Plato comes from Plato himself. We still have all the works attributed to him by ancient scholars, the most important of which are the philosophical dialogues.
These include the Apology, Crito, Phaedo, Theaetetus, Timaeus, Gorgias, Protagoras, Meno, and the Republic.
We probably have more biographical information about Plato than on any other ancient philosopher – much of it from Diogenes Laertius’s Life of Plato.
And it’s likely that no single work of Western philosophy has been read by as many people as Plato’s Republic.
Plato became discouraged by the “mob” – represented by the jury at Socrates’ trial – whom he thought were irrational and dangerous.
He also became discouraged by the “elite” – represented by the nobles who formed the Thirty – whom he thought were cruel, greedy, and self-centered.
As a result, he felt that justice, and the avenging of Socrates’ death, would have to come through philosophy rather than political action.
To this end, he sought to develop an ideal form of government which avoided both extremes.
After the revolt of the Thirty and execution of Socrates, Plato left Athens and wandered for nearly twelve years. He studied with Euclid.
He traveled to Egypt where he studied mathematics and mysticism, both of which influenced his later philosophy.
At about age forty, after finishing most of his writings, he founded his Academy (c.388 B.C.E.), named after the Greek hero, Academos. It was a philosophical retreat, isolated from the turmoil of Athenian politics.
His chief function was probably as teacher and administrator. Here Plato spent the next forty years, lecturing “without notes” until he died.
Plato was determined to show that skepticism and relativism of the Sophists was mistaken.
He also aimed to reconcile the claims of Heraclitus (“change alone is unchanging”) and Parmenides (“change is an illusion”).
He did both by dividing knowledge from belief. Beliefs are gotten through the senses and are about physical change (becoming).
Knowledge is gotten through reason and is about what is always the same (being). Beliefs are about appearances, while Knowledge is about reality, about how things really are.
The Theory of Forms
In Plato’s metaphysics, the level of being consists of timeless essences or entities called Forms.
Such a metaphysics is sometimes called transcendental, because it asserts that there is a plane of existence that transcends, or goes beyond, our ordinary perception of things.
The Greek root for form (eidos) is sometimes translated as idea or concept. A form, then. is a purely mental entity, but one that is independent of all minds (in other words, its reality does not depend on the minds that think it). And although the forms actually exist, they are not physical objects. Their reality is purely ideal or conceptual.
Why Plato Needed the Forms
Plato wanted the theory of Forms to provide a rational explanation of how knowledge is possible. Since we do have knowledge (e.g., mathematics and geometry), how does it happen, and what is its object?
He also wanted a way of identifying those who are wise and those who are not – in other words, a means of determining when something was actual knowledge versus when something was simply a matter of opinion.
As he says in the Timaeus, “That which is apprehended by reason is always in the same state, but that which is conceived by opinion is always in a process of becoming and never really is.”
The Divided Line
Plato used the concept of the divided line to illustrate the relationship of knowledge to opinion, of appearance to reality.
He claimed there are levels of awareness – from imagination to perception to reasoning to understanding – and that one can move from the lowest to the highest by thinking in terms of a hierarchy of Forms.
Plato’s Divided Line
The Form of the Good
At the top of this divided line is “the Form of Forms,” the Form of the Good. This Form cannot be observed with the senses, but known only by pure thought.
Comprehension of the Good is unlike other forms of knowing, in that it is holistic, rather than partial.
Plato compares the Good to the Sun in order to give an idea to those at a lower level of awareness: just as the Sun enables vision, so the Good enables understanding and intelligibility.
This “Simile of the Sun” occurs in a passage from the Republic in which Plato (as Socrates) contemplates their likeness as sources of seeing and “seeing.”
The Allegory of the Cave
In Book VII of the Republic, Plato tells a tale to illustrate the idea of the divided line.
At the beginning, prisoners are shackled to images and mythical accounts, and then one breaks free to find that the images are being produced by perceptible objects.
The shift from perception to reason is then illustrated by someone leaving the cave entirely (Plato, thanks to Socrates).
That person then realizes that they have been in a “cave” all along, and that what they had taken to be most real is simply the limitations of their senses. If they use their minds, they are able to “see” that there is much more to the world than meets the eye.
The Rule of the Wise
The person who makes the ascent out of the cave, from illusion to enlightenment, is wise. They can return to the cave – to inform the others of their predicament – but they should not expect to be understood when they return.
Plato believes that these people – who have escaped the cave of opinion, who think in terms of the Forms – should be the rulers of the state, for they better than anyone are able to rule for the sake of the whole community.
Hence, Plato’s fundamental vision is deliberately hierarchical and aristocratic rather than egalitarian and democratic.
The Search for Justice
This “rule of the wise” is the idea behind Plato’s ideal state, the Republic.
Plato argued that a reciprocal relationship exists between the individual and the kind of society he or she lives in.
He claimed there was a dynamic relation, so that a good society makes it easier to produce good people, and good people make it easier to produce a good society.
And if the wise are in charge of ordering things, that reciprocal relationship is more likely to occur.
Function and Happiness
The Republic contrasts two views of morality: the instrumental and the functionalist.
In the instrumental theory of morality, right and wrong are treated as means to, or instruments for, getting something else (in other words, being good for some ulterior motive).
In the functionalist theory of morality, happiness is the result of living a fully functional life (in other words, being good is part of functioning well).
The Parts of the Soul
Plato felt that there were three parts of the human soul: appetite, spirit, and reason.
Our appetites cause us to move in order to get things we want, such as food and mates.
Our spirit drives us to achieve things, to do better (than others) in school, at work, etc.
Our reason guides our appetites and spirit, like a charioteer does the horses that pull the chariot, so that things don’t get out of control. Reason is the only part of the soul capable of fulfilling this function, because it is the only part that is capable of “knowing.”
The Cardinal Virtues
Plato identifies four “cardinal virtues” that are necessary for a happy individual. They are:
Temperance – self-control or moderation.
Courage – necessary for one’s protection.
Wisdom – necessary for training and guiding.
Justice – balanced functioning of the whole.
All of these virtues are also necessary for a good society, so Plato decides that the ideal state should be comprised of people who exhibit such virtues.
Just as there are three parts to the human soul, so there should be three parts to the ideal state.
There should be workers who provide for our basic needs for food and shelter.
There should be warriors who protect us – as the military does from foreigners and the police do from neighbors.
And there should be guardians who watch over us and order things for our collective welfare. This job would go to the wise and able leaders, to those Plato called “philosopher-kings.”
Societies and Individuals
In Plato’s ideal state, justice results from individuals acting well in relation to each other, just as a happy individual results from the parts of its soul functioning well together.
Plato believes that it is in each individual’s own best interest to act well – even when it might seem better to do whatever they can get away with.
Here Plato is thinking of long-term happiness, of the state we have to live in after we have done whatever we could get away with (think back to his dialogue between Socrates and Thrasymachus).
The Tyranny of Excess
Just as individuals can let their appetites and spirit get the best of them, “tyrannizing” their lives, so states can be controlled by individuals who rule for their own sake – tyrants.
For this reason, Plato thought tyranny the worst form of government.
Overindulging wouldn’t be beneficial for an individual’s overall well-being. Likewise, Plato thought that letting the unwise, the “masses,” run things was hardly any better for society as a whole.
The utopia that Plato envisioned would avoid such problems (by ensuring that people performed duties dictated by their natural abilities, just as the parts of the soul were controlled to perform their proper functions).
The Republic, then, is the form of government best suited to human happiness.