Plato


There is no doubt that Plato has had a lasting impact on Western philosophy. As recent posts here remind me some of his ideas are still around today. Just what is it about Plato that makes him so attractive as a writer? As a philosopher? Is it the form of his work? Or is it the content of his ideas? What are his central ideas?

It is true that in some way he touched on all the main topics of philosophy: epistemology, ethics, metaphysics, political philosophy, religion; and that, as has been said, all philosophy is a footnote to Plato.

Some read him as if his texts were sacred. But again why? What did he get right?

A good place to start is the Stanford Encyclopedia article.

Plato (429-347 B.C.E.) is, by any reckoning, one of the most dazzling writers in the Western literary tradition and one of the most penetrating, wide-ranging, and influential authors in the history of philosophy. An Athenian citizen of high status, he displays in his works his absorption in the political events and intellectual movements of his time, but the questions he raises are so profound and the strategies he uses for tackling them so richly suggestive and provocative that educated readers of nearly every period have in some way been influenced by him, and in practically every age there have been philosophers who count themselves Platonists in some important respects. He was not the first thinker or writer to whom the word “philosopher” should be applied. But he was so self-conscious about how philosophy should be conceived, and what its scope and ambitions properly are, and he so transformed the intellectual currents with which he grappled, that the subject of philosophy, as it is often conceived — a rigorous and systematic examination of ethical, political, metaphysical, and epistemological issues, armed with a distinctive method — can be called his invention. Few other authors in the history of philosophy approximate him in depth and range: perhaps only Aristotle (who studied with him), Aquinas, and Kant would be generally agreed to be of the same rank.

30 thoughts on “Plato

  1. I think the key to Plato’s longevity is in the fact that he was a great writer.
    His dialogues are plays, not philosophical arguments. For a guy who argued that poetry and theatre should be censored at least, banned at best, he sure depends constantly on metaphor!
    I expect a clash here soon between B and ~B.

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  2. Chew on this from Book X of the Republic:
    BOOK X

    Of the many excellences which I perceive in the order of our State, there is none which upon reflection pleases me better than the rule about poetry.

    To what do you refer?

    To the rejection of imitative poetry, which certainly ought not to be received; as I see far more clearly now that the parts of the soul have been distinguished.

    What do you mean?

    Speaking in confidence, for I should not like to have my words repeated to the tragedians and the rest of the imitative tribe — but I do not mind saying to you, that all poetical imitations are ruinous to the understanding of the hearers, and that the knowledge of their true nature is the only antidote to them.

    Explain the purport of your remark.

    Well, I will tell you, although I have always from my earliest youth had an awe and love of Homer, which even now makes the words falter on my lips, for he is the great captain and teacher of the whole of that charming tragic company; but a man is not to be reverenced more than the truth, and therefore I will speak out.

    Very good, he said.

    Listen to me, then, or, rather, answer me.

    Put your question.

    Can you tell me what imitation is? For I really do not know.

    A likely thing, then, that I should know.

    Why not? for the duller eye may often see a thing sooner than the keener.

    Very true, he said; but in your presence, even if I had any faint notion, I could not muster courage to utter it. Will you inquire yourself? Well, then, shall we begin the inquiry in our usual manner: Whenever a number of individuals have a common name, we assume them to have also a corresponding idea or form; do you understand me?

    I do.

    Let us take any common instance; there are beds and tables in the world — plenty of them, are there not?

    Yes.

    But there are only two ideas or forms of them — one the idea of a bed, the other of a table.

    True.

    And the maker of either of them makes a bed or he makes a table for our use, in accordance with the idea — that is our way of speaking in this and similar instances — but no artificer makes the ideas themselves: how could he?

    Impossible.

    And there is another artist — I should like to know what you would say of him.

    Who is he?

    One who is the maker of all the works of all other workmen.

    What an extraordinary man!

    Wait a little, and there will be more reason for your saying so. For this is he who is able to make not only vessels of every kind, but plants and animals, himself and all other things — the earth and heaven, and the things which are in heaven or under the earth; he makes the gods also.

    He must be a wizard and no mistake.

    Oh! you are incredulous, are you? Do you mean that there is no such maker or creator, or that in one sense there might be a maker of all these things, but in another not? Do you see that there is a way in which you could make them all yourself?

    What way?

    An easy way enough; or rather, there are many ways in which the feat might be quickly and easily accomplished, none quicker than that of turning a mirror round and round — you would soon enough make the sun and the heavens, and the earth and yourself, and other animals and plants, and all the other things of which we were just now speaking, in the mirror.

    Yes, he said; but they would be appearances only.

    Very good, I said, you are coming to the point now. And the painter, too, is, as I conceive, just such another — a creator of appearances, is he not?

    Of course.

    But then I suppose you will say that what he creates is untrue. And yet there is a sense in which the painter also creates a bed?

    Yes, he said, but not a real bed.

    And what of the maker of the bed? were you not saying that he too makes, not the idea which, according to our view, is the essence of the bed, but only a particular bed?

    Yes, I did.

    Then if he does not make that which exists he cannot make true existence, but only some semblance of existence; and if anyone were to say that the work of the maker of the bed, or of any other workman, has real existence, he could hardly be supposed to be speaking the truth.

    At any rate, he replied, philosophers would say that he was not speaking the truth.

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  3. Here’s my favourite part:
    if anyone were to say that the work of the maker of the bed, or of any other workman, has real existence, he could hardly be supposed to be speaking the truth.

    What could possibly lead a philosopher to say such a nonsensical thing as that? Only one who had slaves to do all the labour could think that such a position was even understandable!

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  4. Oh pish tush, b. It only seems nonsensical because of a selected criteria we use to define ‘real’. Plato has selected the notion that ‘real’ must be stable and unchanging; thus using his criteria only the forms are ‘real’ and everything else in time and space is an imitation. But you already know that and can argue quite successfully that although the notion may have philisophical merit, it has little ‘real’ world value compared to using a different – and very useful – criteria of what constitutes something real.

    I think that what often gets lost in translation – especially by those who favour Aristotle’s criticisms – is that meaning is an essential ingredient of ideas or forms. I think that the arguments should revolve around whether or not meaning is a ‘real’ or a ‘relative’ conceptual object and this is where it gets a bit dicey.

    I often couch this in terms of meaning as objective – a term that describes an idea or concept that exists independently of those who grasp it – or subjective – a term that describes an idea or concept dependently on each person who grasps it. I favour the notion that meaning is objective even if we subjectively experience it. Thus I feel kinship to a platonic version of forms. But just because we subjectively experience the meaning of an idea – say the concept of 4 – does not mean that the concept itself is subjective. The concept itself is stable and unchanging, thus meeting the criteria of a Platonic form. What is subjective is the experience of coming to grasp the concept of 4, regardless of culture, language, mathematical system, or what have you.

    But does stability of form automatically translate a conceptual object into a thing that exists somewhere with dimension and substance as Plato argued? I would argue that this is an unnecessary complication. A conceptual idea that defines a particular meaning simply is. As a concept, idea, or Platonic form, I think that this meaning – usually a relational explanation – exists independently of time and space and therefore requires no place or sphere of existence. Plato might disagree with me, but that would be his problem to solve. His previous attempts I think fall short but this failure should not pollute the notion that forms can objectivley exist as a stable meaning.

    Now I must get back to my yogi flying.

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  5. Plato might disagree with me, but that would be his problem to solve. Well, I disagree with you ~B, but remember I am a novice so perhaps I am out to lunch here. If as you say those conceptual objects –forms- are nowhere to be found, they simply are, then reality is nowhere to be found, reality simply is (sounds like a contradiction to me). To know reality I need to see it, find it and put it in my mind somehow. And how am I going to do that? Plato failed to find the unchanging, stable reality because that reality according to his criteria does not exist.

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  6. Thank goodness you disagree with me, L. I was beginning to think that the universe was out of kilter.

    You write To know reality I need to see it, find it and put it in my mind somehow. And how am I going to do that? A very good question indeed.

    If reality is forms and only forms, then how can you access these mataphysical truths? Only through the one organ capable of seeing what’s real: the mind. But I suggest that Plato’s main point is that you are making a mistake to think that what you see and hear, touch and taste and feel is actually reality; these are just the shadows of what is truly real.

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  7. By Plato’s idea, it seems to me that we live lives of illusion. What calls me desperately to study Philosophy is a feeling of living in an illusionary world. However I believe that it is not that what we see, feel and sense is a shadow of reality, but a reality that creates illusion. For example, wealth brings the illusion of happiness, a big wedding party brings the illusion of completion, a setback at work the illusion of failure etc. I believe it is the meaning of those profound sentiments like happiness that are the highest truths which I will only know through my mind. I expect it to be a state independent of the reality that we create in this world.

    Mmm… I am going to be chewing on this for a while.

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  8. I agree, SOB89, Plato is a fine writer. And it is deeply ironic, that although he denounces poets for speaking in metaphor and myth, he uses myth at every difficult part in his Republic to assign people to their respective places in the hierarchy. “The Noble Lie” is still a lie!

    Sorry, B, but I don’t think, as you do, that Plato’s metaphysics is a harmless word game. By the time that John in his Greek Gospel, cobbles it onto the Judeo/Christian religion [“In the beginning was the Word and the Word was God…”] the idea that what is of value is other-worldly has become a part of scripture. John’s Greek Jesus does not cry out on the cross “My God, my God why hast thou forsaken me?” but rather announces “It is finished,” as if fulfilling a predetermined plan.

    Contemptus mundi becomes doctrine and instead of directing our attention at the problems in this world we are encouraged to look to another world where justice will be provided (not to all but to some).

    Contemplation is, for Plato and for Augustine, more important than commitment. Some other world (of Forms or of Heaven) is where human problems will be sorted out by some God in the Sky. In order to save Souls we will burn bodies at the stake. After all, it’s the Idea of Man that is real not, Bob or George, they are mere particulars of a universal type.

    Bodies, flesh, dirt, blood; farmers, mechanics, furniture makers, engineers are less valuable than priests and philosophers who contemplate pure ideas employing pure reason.

    It is, I think, a good thing that Ideas are not fixed, eternal, always true etc. If we were still following the fixed, eternal always true ideas of Plato we would still have slavery, women would be second class citizens, and children chattel owned by the State to be “molded” according to their mythical metal.

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  9. It seems to me that most religions have this other-worldy place where souls apparently go. But blame only Plato? Theocratic abuse of people in the here and now had been going long before and long since Plato’s time. Granted, the Greek culture at the time of Plato had abhorent elements but I think you might be a little too willing to throw out the baby with the bathwater.

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  10. “Baby with the bath water”? Oh, you Platonists and your love of metaphor!!

    ~B, think about the differences between the Hebrew stories and the Greek stories in the New Testament. Or, contrast Mark’s Jesus with John’s Jesus.

    Result: existentialism versus essentialism! Or, God in the garden versus God in the sky…

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  11. The Rorty obit is interesting in the context of this debate about Plato:

    “There is no basis for deciding what counts as knowledge and truth other than what one’s peers will let one get away with in the open exchange of claims, counterclaims and reasons,” Mr. Rorty wrote. In other words, “truth is not out there,” separate from our own beliefs and language. And those beliefs and words evolved, just as opposable thumbs evolved, to help human beings “cope with the environment” and “enable them to enjoy more pleasure and less pain.”

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  12. ~B writes, L, what you say is bang on – the notion that meaning is the only ‘thing’ that really counts!
    I can’t tell if he is being ironic here. But to think that meaning is fixed, static, is problematic.

    In everyday speech we throw the term ‘meaning’ around quite happily without giving it a lot of thought:

    ‘…if you see what I mean.’
    ‘…if you take my meaning.’
    ‘What’s that supposed to mean?’
    ‘I always say what I mean.’
    ‘”Cochon” means “pig”.’
    ‘I didn’t really mean it.’
    ‘I meant to write.’
    ‘A green light means “go”‘
    ‘What is the meaning of life?’
    ‘Health means everything.’
    ‘His look was full of meaning
    ‘What’s the dictionary meaning of “meaning”?’

    That’s fairly typical of the sort of things we might say. You can see from those that we don’t even use the word ‘meaning’ with the same meaning every time. Some of the examples are taken from The Meaning of Meaning by Ogden and Richards (1923), in which they identified 16 different meanings of the word!

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  13. ~B writes in his attempt to defend Plato: “It seems to me that most religions have this other-worldy place where souls apparently go.”

    I think there is a big difference between Hebrew and Greek beliefs about reality. B puts it nicely in his book, Reading the Bible:

    After reading the book of Esther in the Old Testament then you should read the version that appears in the apocrypha. The second version differs from the first in having about 140 more lines and all of those additional lines tell of God’s involvement in the plot. Dreams and portents are suddenly present and the intention of the author is clear in the additional lines. God, who does not appear in the Hebrew version, is suddenly omnipresent in the Greek version, and we can read the intentions of the Greek author in those added lines. Now God is the author of human events and is directly involved through dreams and intervention in the unfolding of events. We readers are to see that God is directly responsible for the outcome of stories and is controlling the events from afar.

    Much of the great writing of our Western tradition comes from a Judeo-Christian culture. It is difficult to read Dante, Spinoza, Milton, Goethe, Shakespeare, Descartes, Newton, Kant and hundreds of others without some knowledge of the stories and the ideas of the Bible. Contemporary artists continue to draw on the images and forms of the biblical stories to create their stories, and whether they are believers or not the basic patterns of the Bible are still present to be considered, incorporated or dismissed. The biblical stories, of course, have special meaning for Jews and Christians because they are believed to be a record of God’s covenant with a chosen people. In the Old Testament this covenant is in the form of a promise of land in return for obedience to a set of rules. In the New Testament the covenant is in the form of a promise for salvation in return for obedience and belief. The “promised land” of the Old Testament is land on this earth; the “promised land” of the New Testament, as described by Paul and other early Christians, is not of this earth. [emphasis added]

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  14. ~B claims, “If reality is forms and only forms, then how can you access these mataphysical truths? Only through the one organ capable of seeing what’s real: the mind.”

    But that’s not Platos’ position, ~B. His is much more scientific!

    The part of the soul which desires meats and drinks and the other things of which it has need by reason of the bodily nature, they placed between the midriff and the boundary of the navel, contriving in all this region a sort of manger for the food of the body; and there they bound it down like a wild animal which was chained up with man, and must be nourished if man was to exist. They appointed this lower creation his place here in order that he might be always feeding at the manger, and have his dwelling as far as might be from the council-chamber, making as little noise and disturbance as possible, and permitting the best part to advise quietly for the good of the whole. And knowing that this lower principle in man would not comprehend reason, and even if attaining to some degree of perception would never naturally care for rational notions, but that it would be led away by phantoms and visions night and day — to be a remedy for this, God combined with it the liver, and placed it in the house of the lower nature, contriving that it should be solid and smooth, and bright and sweet, and should also have a bitter quality, in order that the power of thought, which proceeds from the mind, might be reflected as in a mirror which receives likenesses of objects and gives back images of them to the sight; and so might strike terror into the desires, when, making use of the bitter part of the liver, to which it is akin, it comes threatening and invading, and diffusing this bitter element swiftly through the whole liver produces colours like bile, and contracting every part makes it wrinkled and rough; and twisting out of its right place and contorting the lobe and closing and shutting up the vessels and gates, causes pain and loathing. And the converse happens when some gentle inspiration of the understanding pictures images of an opposite character, and allays the bile and bitterness by refusing to stir or touch the nature opposed to itself, but by making use of the natural sweetness of the liver, corrects all things and makes them to be right and smooth and free, and renders the portion of the soul which resides about the liver happy and joyful, enabling it to pass the night in peace, and to practise divination in sleep, inasmuch as it has no share in mind and reason.

    Looks to me like for Plato we get “knowledge” of the forms from the gods thru the liver while we are asleep.

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  15. It seems to me that the main goal of science is to find objective truths – knowable, repeatable results not based on relative criteria but on objective (independently verifiable or, in Popper’s suggestion, falsifiable). There is no such thing, for example, as Nigerian physics somehow qualitatively different from Somalian physics, Jewish chemistry from Christian. Yet there is no hue and cry that the quest for objective, consistent, and independently verifiable results is bigoted nonsense best left alone to age ignored in the dust of hitory.

    The particulars of any one chemical composition, for example, is not held to be some kind of proof that other chemical compositions must be false and that therefore chemistry as an area of study that must be subjective; instead, we look for a broader theoretical framework that accounts for all chemical compositions regardless of local and relative influences. We don’t argue that chemistry must be subjective because it takes people to grasp beakers and go around burning things and measuring what’s left. We understand the importance of objectivity to lend veracity to the results and we quite rightly hold a healthy mistrust of subjective claims.

    We don’t think chemistry itself must exist as a thing in some other-worldly place; we understand that the term is a metaphor for the study of basic elements and how they combine and reconstitute to make various substances. Because the theory of a single underlying framework seems to work time and time again when we manipulate various quantities of compounds by adding and removing heat, we give credence to the ‘reality’ of the theory. This doesn’t make the meaningful term ‘chemistry’ any more real in and of itself, nor do we judge its truth by how useful or terrible are its worldly applications. We accept that chemistry is all around us and active even when we cannot see it. But if we were to argue that chemistry to be real must be a verifiable object to be objective and that otherwise it must be all bunk, we’d be making a mistake.

    I think that platonic forms are knowable, verifiable, independent objective truths. But these forms represent a theoretical framework of meaning we use to empower our reliance first on symbolic language for meaning and then in worldy applications. We borrow their meaning to facilitate communication. In other words, language, like chemistry, is made up of many particulars but behind all these local expressions is a broader theoretical framework that accounts for all linguistic compositions regardless of local and relative influences in its expression. Yeah, yeah, yeah, you might be tempted to mutter. But the liver is not an organ to enlightenment.

    I will continue to insist that Plato is really on to something well beyond the quality of his writing: meaningful terms like beauty, justice, virtue, and so on are not relative. Like chemistry, each reveals a unified conceptual framework expressed in local particulars that only seem subjective but which represent an objective truth. But, unlike chemistry, we do not yet have the scientific tools to independently verify what these concepts consistently look like. That doesn’t mean we shouldn’t look nor that such a possibility is inconceivable. The goal of philosophy, I think, is to define what criteria this unified framework – say, justice – looks like against which anyone, anywhere, can then measure their local pariticulars.

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  16. This is fun! I think I disagree with only a few of your statements, ~B:

    “science is a search for objective truth” – no, it isn’t; science is always tentative and subject to change.

    “I think that platonic forms are knowable, verifiable, independent objective truths” – examples or an argument would be useful.

    “I will continue to insist that Plato is really on to something well beyond the quality of his writing: meaningful terms like beauty, justice, virtue, and so on are not relative.” – insisting is not arguing, ~B. We are to accept this claim on your authority? What kind of philosophy is that?

    I’ll post an example from biology to contrast with your discussion of chemistry.

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  17. B writes:

    “If we were still following the fixed, eternal always true ideas of Plato we would still have slavery, women would be second class citizens, and children chattel owned by the State to be “molded” according to their mythical metal.”

    B, didn’t Plato, in his envisioning a communal situation, promise women autonomy, as they had in Sparta?

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  18. b writes: This is fun! I think I disagree with only a few of your statements ~B

    Only a few? Pish tush, b, you’re just getting warmed up!

    The findings of science may very well be tentative and subject to change, but I’ve heard Dawkins state over and over again that what he as a scientist is most concerned about in the battle between reason and belief, science and religion, is the truth.

    A form as a conceptual idea that is knowable as an objective truth? You know what I’m going to write: how about the number four?

    Sorry about the lack of clarity in my paragraph about insisting. What I should have written is that until a more convincing argument comes across my horizon of reasoning, I shall continue to think that platonic forms (like the rose that by any other name still smells as sweet) are knowable, verifiable, independent objective truths that can be subjectively experienced. Feel free to disagree. In fact, if you think you have good reasons to do so, then I insist!

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  19. A, some parts of the Republic talk of equal education for men and women (but rulers are to be Philosopher Kings not Queens!) and more troubling in the Timaeus is this:

    “Of the men who came into the world, those who were cowards or led unrighteous lives may with reason be supposed to have changed into the nature of women in the second generation. And this was the reason why at that time the gods created in us the desire of sexual intercourse, contriving in man one animated substance, and in woman another, which they formed respectively in the following manner.”

    ~B, small case truth not Platonic TRUTH is what Dawkins is talking about. Contingent truths, not the necessary Truth of LOGOS.

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  20. Interesting stuff B; I wonder if one needs to be stoned, in order to fully ‘get’ Plato?

    I will get back to you on this!

    I find it difficult to tease out that which a person, such as Plato, said, without judging it too harshly. And I guess, this is what empathy is about huh? For example, how influencial did the word on the ‘street’ toward women affect Plato? I imagine it to be different, at the time; more difficult to be a proponent of equality, even in imagining any advantages.

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  21. Let me try again to say what I find lacking in Plato. In a way it is all caught in the familiar phrase “Platonic love” or “Platonic relationship”. If I have a Platonic relationship with a woman, what does that mean? It means that we are connected by our minds but not by our bodies.
    W: Are you screwing that woman?
    H: No, it is a Platonic relationship.

    But what of the body? Plato wants to get rid of the body!

    It’s like this:
    Body/Soul dualism – separate kinds of things. How to live in harmony? For Plato, get rid of the body; for Lucretius get rid of the soul. For existential Christians try to be like Jesus: body + soul. For Pagans, like me, try to synthesize the two in this world, try to live the eternal in time; live now but with joy, recognize that you are neither angel nor brute.

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  22. B, you are not romantic! You suggest that Platonic Love is not good because it does not connect the bodies. B, have not you heard of beautiful friendships that go down the drain when they decide to have sex? : Love is gone, just trouble…. Platonic Love is sweet, you still get to love… Oh la la.

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  23. I don’t know, Laura, I may be a romantic but not a Platonist. I agree with you on the value of friendship but have always been suspicious of “platonic relationships” – the phrase always strikes me as a cover-up!

    Anyway go
    here for two short papers on Plato from TPM.

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  24. Given this definition: PLATONIC LOVE, a term commonly applied to an affectionate relation between a man and a woman into which the sexual element does not enter.

    Then, Alexandra, like Platonic Forms, “Platonic Love” is the name of an empty set.

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