Plato is one of the founding fathers of philosophy and has had a massive impact on the history of western thought. He was probably born in Athens or the nearby island of Aegina. He was given the name Aristocles, but was called Plato, which means ‘broad’ or ‘flat’, a possible reference to his broad shoulders (he used to wrestle).
Although there were a number of outstanding Greek philosophers before Plato, only fragments of their writings survive. However, we are fortunate to possess a great deal of Plato's work. What distinguishes Plato from earlier philosophers is his development of a more cogent and rational approach to philosophy which laid the foundations for all philosophers who came after him. This is why the British philosopher Alfred North Whitehead famously said that the history of philosophy is but ‘a series of footnotes to Plato’.
During his lifetime, Plato witnessed the decline of Athens and experienced the moral uncertainty that resulted. Plato was born into a wealthy and politically powerful Athenian family, and he was encouraged to enter politics himself. But his experience of unscrupulous politicians and the constant strife amongst various political groupings soon disillusioned him. However, he had a deep concern for the welfare of Athens and its citizens and so it was philosophy he looked to as a way of voicing these concerns.
At around twenty years of age, Plato encountered a remarkable man: Socrates. Socrates was deliberately provocative. It was for this reason he jokingly referred to himself as a gadfly, biting away at his victims. However, this also resulted in him making many enemies and, in BCE, he was placed on trial for ‘corrupting the youth’ with his ideas. He was condemned to die by drinking a cup of hemlock.
Socrates' death had a profound impact upon Plato. Undoubtedly, the fact that his friend and teacher was condemned by democrats was one reason why Plato distrusted democracy and, as he saw it, the rule of the mob. He was determined to keep the spirit of Socrates alive by engaging in philosophy in the Socratic tradition. He set about writing a series of dialogues with Socrates as his mouthpiece.
Plato's works can be divided into three periods: early, middle and late. The early period was mostly concerned with moral issues and is heavily influenced by the teachings of Socrates. The late period contains works that are less dramatic and original, although they help to show how Plato developed his earlier philosophy. However, it is in the middle period that Plato really comes into his own, dealing with such issues as politics and metaphysics. The best-known work of this period is his magnum opus, the Republic.
The Republic is one of the world's greatest works of philosophy and literature. It set the standards and boundaries for future western philosophy. It is the first major work of political philosophy and presents a comprehensive and radical theory of the state which views its role as not merely an agent of control, but as an agent of virtue. The state is an educational tool to nurture, nourish and develop individual behaviour. In this respect, Plato had great faith in the ability of the state to wield its power wisely.
However, the Republic is more than just a political theory, for it is also very personal. It concerns justice in the state and in the individual. Further, the individual is inextricably linked to the state and cannot exist outside of it.
Plato has been criticized, most notably by Karl Popper, for presenting us with a utopia, and utopias are always destined to fail because by their nature they are static and therefore unable to adjust to changing circumstances.
Underlying all of Plato's philosophy is his belief in an eternal and unchanging truth, the realm of the ‘forms’, and that it is possible to have access to these ‘forms’. Plato was concerned that if there are no such things as universal standards then we are confronted with moral relativism. For Plato, however, there are such things as ‘good’ and ‘bad’, ‘beautiful’ and ‘ugly’, and if it is indeed possible to know these things, then those who have this knowledge should be in a position to educate and rule. In this respect, Plato was the founder of political science: the belief that political rule can be studied scientifically.
After over two and a half thousand years, Plato continues to be educative and controversial. A huge achievement considering that he was at the very beginning of western philosophy.
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