Who was Plato and Why Should We Care

April 22, 2020

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Plato has become something of a synonym for philosophy. A figurehead that encapsulates the idea of searching for meaning. In doing so, his philosophy has escaped us. And yet, his works from almost 2500 years ago reflect on matters that we still grapple with today.


Plato has become something of a synonym for philosophy. A figurehead that encapsulates the idea of searching for meaning. In doing so, his philosophy has escaped us. And yet, his works from almost 2500 years ago reflect on matters that we still grapple with today.

Plato in the time of Plato

Plenty has been written about the origins of Plato, and despite there being few surviving accounts of his life before his 40's you can read endlessly on the topic. We won't do that here, but there are some key attributes worth exploring before we dive into his philosophy. In particular, how Plato reflected his time, and his time reflects ours.

Plato was of an aristocratic family, born into comfort, and well-educated. He appears to have excelled in his studies, and in his military service. By all accounts a successful youth taking advantage of the opportunities afforded him by his position.

His time, however, was a time of turmoil. Athens had repurposed its wartime fleet from the time of the Persian invasion of 470BC into a merchant navy. As such, by Plato's birth, Athens had experienced forty years of rapid economic growth. Economic prosperity typically brings about the comfort from which scientific enquiry can grow. And enquiry grew.

The Sophists reflect society today

While much of the philosophy of the period preceding Plato was materialistic in nature (i.e. on the nature of things), one of the dominant lines of enquiry came in the form of sophistry: so-called 'wise men' whose form of questioning everything against the lens of reason is best remembered today as the 'Socratic Method'. The sophists, for which Socrates is our best remembered example, prided themselves on challenging every institution of knowledge and politics (i.e. on the nature of thinking, or the nature of power). Indeed, Socrates appears to have heavily influenced Plato, both as a teacher and, after Socrates' death, as a symbol of the errors of Plato's society.

By the time of Plato, the sophists could be distinguished across two political camps. One camp positioned themselves as champions of equality: all humans are equal and it is those class-made institutions that engender inequality. The other camp saw humans as inherently unequal, and the talents of the strong should be harnessed by a government of elites in the form of aristocracy.

It's a little difficult not to see the parallels between these camps and political situation today. The ideals of intersectional equality held by the academic left pitted against the meritocratic thinking of what some call 'the establishment' is much the same divide. We'll come to see that these parallels aren't just superficial.

The role of Socrates and a shitty government

As Socrates, and his demise, appears to have had a particular influence on Plato's journey, a brief profile proves illuminating.

Socrates represented in many ways this more meritocracy-minded philosophical camp. Socrates' preoccupation was the nature of man. His famous words "know thyself" well represents his quest: what is the nature of virtue, or justice? What does it mean to be moral? What is the 'self', and why is one man important in the context of a community?

These topics themselves were perhaps a product of time when the traditional moral ideals that fell out of the Olympian pantheon of gods had been eroded. The increasing commercialisation of Athens meant the infiltration of foreign gods and ideals. Alongside the incessent questioning of the sophists, an objective sense of morality was becoming increasingly distant, replaced by a more willful individualism and a growing opportunism in the Athenian people.

Socrates appears convinced that the failures of men were the result of the ignorance of his nature. That the true value of a man lay in his intelligence, and his wisdom in the application of that intelligence. Only by having sight of our failings could one could control one's more base impulses.

Socrates and his followers had a correspondingly dim view of the Athenian democracy of the time. The democracy comprised a general assembly where, in theory, every free citizen of Athens could debate the policies of the day. From this assembly, governing bodies comprised of hundreds of these citizens, chosen by lot, determined the implementation of those policies. If any democracy deserved the title, the Athenian democracy did. Yet, a rising antipathy was growing at the chaotic debates and hasty decisions of this crowded theatre. If ignorance was the enemy, then surely this mob-like rule was its worst manifestation.

Here we take a brief dip into Plato's work: Protagoras. Plato taught in the form of dialogues, often with Socrates as a speaker. Indeed much of our knowledge of Socratic thought is inferred from Plato's use of him in the dialogues. These dialogues aren't supposed to be taken as literal events, but rather a representation of the characters' thinking. Protagoras has Socrates in discussion with another famous sophist named Protagoras, and Socrates' views on the politics of the day is made apparent:

Socrates begins...by derogating long speeches: “If a man were to go and consult...any of our great public orators...he might perhaps hear as fine a discourse; but then when one has a question to ask of any of them...they can neither answer nor ask; and if any one challenges the least particular of their speech, they go ringing on in a long harangue, like brazen pots, which when they are struck continue to sound unless some one puts his hand upon them”

The state, then, could not be ruled by these ignorant men, who themselves were dominated by orators without substance. How could a chaotic government hope to encourage these increasingly individualistic people to abide by its chaotic decisions? The state should instead by ruled by its wisest men, whose decisions people could trust were in the interests of everyone.

The sophists' attack on the Athenian democratic tradition was mirrored by a group of aristocrats who similarly held the Athenian democracy in disdain. Though, it should be pointed out, it seems less likely that the reasoning of these aristocrats held the good of the people at heart. With the intellectual support of the sophist camp, this aristocratic group become a prominant political force.

When the Pelopennesian War came along, spanning Plato's youth, the Spartan state defeated the Athenians and catalysed the events that made Plato who he was. The aristocratic group held the democratic government to blame for the defeat, and led a rich man's revolt against the democrats. The aristocrats lost, and Socrates was put to death as their intellectual leader. His final moments are documented by Plato, with characteristic artistic licence taken, in Phaedo. Here, Plato has Socrates put forth arguments for the immortality of the soul, in the hours before his execution, and says of the event (through the mouthpiece of his characters):

such was the end of our friend, whom I may truly call the wisest, justest, and best of all men whom I have ever known

In Socrates' death was the birth of Plato

As you might have gathered, Plato was enamoured of Socrates, was a student of his, and was rather displeased by his execution. Already aristocratic by birth, the execution of Socrates by the democrats appears to have consolidated his feelings on the matter. Plato's writings are often starkly anti-democratic, with an emphasis on the perils of the mob. Instead, he holds out the hope for "philosopher kings", as outlined in his Republic:

The human race will have no respite from evils until those who are really philosophers acquire political power or until, through some divine dispensation, those who rule and have political authority in the cities become real philosophers

It is also thought that he was in danger for his support of Socrates, and this danger was the pretext for Plato to leave Athens and travel the world. We know very little about his decade-long journey, except that he was impressed by the powerful Egyptian state who viewed the Greeks as uncivilised barbarians, came under the tutelege of the communist-like Pythagorian school, and worked in Sicily to create a model political rule. These events, and perhaps others, appear to have strengthened his thinking that power should be placed in the hands of the wise, out of the reach of the whims of the many.

His works reflect the complexity of someone well-educated and well-travelled. It is the combination of his arresting logic, with the art of his poetic tendencies that have captivated generation after generation and which catapulted his name into our public consciousness today. But our love of Plato appears to be borne on the back of his personality and what he represents, and less so on his ideas in the minds of everyday people.

On the back of Plato's ideas, our world was born

Plato's ideas are well worth exploring, but this article is dragging along so we shall leave the detail of that for another time. It is enough for now to roughly draw out one theme from his Republic. This work is the closest to a treatise of Plato, and spells out clearly this notion of the philosopher kings.

In the Republic, Plato sketches out a utopia called 'Kallipolis'. In this utopia men (and women, to some extent) are shaped by a lifelong series of education, trial, and testing into those fit to rule (those made of gold) and those fit for other roles in society (the silver and bronze). Those of gold would be integrated into a communistic community of other golden men and women to rule without the influence of money, or of love—simply the application of their intellect and their wisdom.

Plato's central justification for the rule of the wise is their knowledge of what became known as 'virtue': the skills and dispositions required to achieve eudaimonia (happiness, well-being, flourishing). By understanding virtue, one may act wisely and mete out justice appropriately, but also have understanding of this most important characteristic of humanity and so inculcate it in society.

In spelling out his utopia, Plato repeatedly criticises democracy. Indeed, he criticises even the sophists that formed the foundation of his training. His thesis is that power should be limited to those worthy of it, challenges to power should be restricted to those who have the skill to understand it, and knowledge given only to those who have earned it. In the context of Plato's time, these ideas seem sensible in contrast to the moody and chaotic politics of the Athenian democracy. But today, we might see these ideals as rather totalitarian.

And yet, this Platonic notion of the value of virtue has embedded itself in western civilisation. Not least because it heavily influenced his student, Aristotle. In Aristotalian 'virtue ethics', virtue flows from the virtuous man. It is in the practical wisdom of the virtuous man that one might achieve the 'golden mean' in the complex circumstances of life.

Much of Catholicist politics was influenced by Plato's ideas, as was many of its practices: the notion of heaven and hell traced from the final book of the Republic, the scholastic approach to theology from his other work Timaeus, and even the curriculum in Plato's schools were applied to the learning of the priest class. Plato’s utopia appears time and time again, reflected in works like Thomas More's 16th Century "Utopia", or Durkeims 18th Century "The Division of Labor in Society". And where Plato's ideas were integral to modern spiritual and political thought, Aristotle's work because the foundation of modern day scientific enquiry.

All of these ideas have at their base the notion of the virtuous man, through whom justice and wisdom flow. These ideals are still present today. Modern democracies are nothing like the truer democracy of Athens, but rather something mixed between competence and representation, and organised along a separation of powers.

So why is Plato important? Because he birthed our world, or at least a non-trivial part of it. Our ideas about leadership and governance stem from generations of political leaders looking to Plato for inspiration. And Plato's ideas aren't wrong, if restrictive. Of course we want our wisest people to govern us. But the utopia Plato paints is an idyllic snapshot, not a true society. It fails to account for the flux that characterises real life. Economic struggle, militaristic interventions, famine, disease and poverty. His society has no need to struggle with these circumstaces. So we must cherry-pick, because:

Today is like then, in many ways

The reflection of Plato's circumstances in today's society is pretty high-fidelity in many ways. We also have an educated faction advocating for greater and greater equity, headed by the academic pull toward intersectional and identity politics. Similarly, we have an educated faction advocating for greater global government, controlled by an elite and powerful few. We too have our advocates for the superiority of small, talented groups, and our advocates for the redistribution of opportunities. We too have our 'virtuous leaders', who despite their promise, fail to represent swathes of the population. We too have our 'brazen pots' who go on ringing until someone puts out their hand. And these factions are at war with more and more prominance on the global stage, under the watchful eye of the media.

It is too easy to set those ideas that oppose ours as ignorance, or racism, or idealism. Instead we should recognise that these factions have some kind of permanence in human societies. As the circumstances change, one will be favoured over the other. In times of growth and prosperity, equity appears to be our preference. In times of difficulty, we seek our 'virtuous' and strong philosopher kings to better manage the resources.

There seems no doubt that now is one of those times of hardship, and like the sophists who valued the power of the strong in Plato's time, we are seeing a resurgence of similar sentiment. Our management of the situation doesn't seem much better than the Athenians. Perhaps Plato's lifeling career of thinking on the issue might provide helpful illumination. He himself noted that his republic was far from perfect but:

in heaven...there is laid up a pattern...and he who desires may behold it, and beholding govern himself accordingly...whether there really is or ever will be such a city on earth is no matter; for he will live after that manner...having nothing to do with any other

- Plato - Republic, Bk IX

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