There were three seminal Greek philosophers that lived during the Classical age of Athens. These three were Socrates, Plato, and Aristotle. One of the most widely recognized philosophers, Plato was the student of Socrates and teacher of Aristotle. His ideas shaped modern day philosophy and his beliefs are still revered today. At the forefront of Western philosophy, Plato laid down his theories of government, Forms, knowledge, love, and recollection in his memorable dialogues.
Born circa 428 B.C, Aristocles lived with a wealthy family probably in Athens. There is a scarcity of knowledge in regards to his childhood. You may be wondering what the difference between Plato and Aristocles is. Wrestling was a very popular sport in Greece; Aristocles was reportedly an amazing wrestler, and one theory suggests that his teacher called him Plato, Greek for broad. Because his mentor Socrates was sentenced to death by the state, Plato felt great antipathy for democracy. This led him to formulate his own ideal city later on in his life. Plato taught his philosophy at his school the Academy for nearly 800 years until it was closed by Justinian.
The most important theory in Platonism is the Theory of Forms. Plato’s take on metaphysics posits that what we are seeing is not, in fact, the real world. He insisted that there was another world out there. If that is the case, then what are we seeing? Plato said everything we are sensing is actually a faulty representation of what is really there. Every object has properties that allow them to be classified. A cup, for example, should be able to hold liquid, they are usually round in some way, and they are used for drinking. Not all cups are perfect, per se, and Plato uses this imperfection to conclude that only perfect cups exist in that perfect world. Not only do physical paradigms exist there but ideas, too. One key idea is beauty. The Form of Good is vital in Plato’s theory of recollection and knowledge. Another thing Plato is famous for is his Allegory of the Cave. To sum up the allegory, we are used to seeing shadows, and only when we are freed from our restraints do we finally see reality.
Plato then takes a shot at epistemology, which deals with the concept of knowledge, particularly if it exists and how we acquire it. Here we are introduced to Plato’s Theory of Recollection. Several dialogues, e.g. Republic, Symposium, Phaedo, and Meno, support Plato’s belief in the immortality of the soul. The soul cannot be destroyed and so it takes a new form every death. For all I know, I could have Plato’s soul right now as it has passed through multitudes of generations. Anyway, this all ties into Plato’s explanation of how we acquire knowledge. Once the body dies and the soul is released, it first makes a trip to The Good. As I mentioned previously, The Good is Plato’s representation of the world of Forms. Think of it almost like Heaven — peaceful and in all ways perfect. The soul is able to see these perfect Ideas. Now the soul knows what a perfect cup looks like. It is here that the soul achieves equanimity and supreme knowledge. The soul knows all there is to know. When it reincarnates, it finds a new person. But now the soul is no longer in The Good, so it loses the knowledge of perfection. There are still fragments of Forms left in the soul, though. Plato’s views on beauty are then laid out. We sense its presence, but we will never be able to really see it. Plato states that we never actually learn new things, rather we remember them from The Good. And since our senses are not accurate — because they do not experience the truth — Plato thought that we could find the truth through math. He was a rationalist.
The Symposium and Phaedrus (c. 370 BC), both dialogues by Plato, use Socrates to communicate Plato’s views on love. Other personalities, such as Pausanias and the comic Aristophanes, help to accomplish this task. Plato begins by identifying two types of love, characterized by two personalities of the god of love, Eros. There is the Common Eros and the Heavenly Eros. Common Eros is the love we should try to avoid: irrational, carnal, and desiring only physical beauty. Heavenly Eros, on the other hand, is the love we should be seeking: rational, balanced, and in the pursuit of wisdom. Plato would be lauded for dismissing good looks. He explained that because the physical body is impermanent, it should not be sought after. Lovers should do it not for looks, but for inner beauty and wisdom. Through Aristophanes, Plato details the origin of Man and his search for love. Originally, we were individuals composed of male and female beings. We had two noses, four arms, four eyes, et cetera. But the gods feared us so they split us up. The rest of our lives are spent looking for our missing part, trying to reunite. During a conversation with Phaedrus, Socrates explains love in a metaphor: There is a charioteer and his two horses. One of the horses embodies Heavenly Eros; he is moral and controlled. The other is Common and is immoral and very impetuous. The rash horse goes towards pleasure, but the charioteer and his loyal horse try to resist. Plato says that when we finally unite with our soulmate, we catch yet another glimpse at The Good. The reason it is so hard to explain love and how we feel is because it is impossible to describe The Good in words. But according to Socrates, love, or Eros, is a paradox: Eros is not beautiful because he desires beauty. But you cannot want what you already have, right? Nor is he a god, because he is not all good, for again, he desires goodness. Beauty is then the act of loving love as put by Socrates.
The work most people are interested in is The Republic (c. 380 BC). Arguably Plato’s magnum opus, the dialogue preaches Plato’s idea of a perfect society. Right off the bat, we know it will not be a kind democracy, for as explained in the exposition, he hated democracy. This utopian society was separated into a hierarchy, almost like the Indian caste system. The three classes were the philosophers, the warriors, and the workers. At the top were the kings, fittingly called philosopher kings. Perhaps Plato was a bit biased making philosophers kings — but for good reason. He claimed that philosophers would make great rulers because one, they were wise and would make decisions that hoi polloi (Greek slang for common folk) would not be able to, and two, they had access to The Good. As lovers of wisdom (philo-sophers), the kings could see Forms. Below the kings were warriors. Warriors were important to the society because they provided protection and enforced the law. Only the philosophers and warriors had the right to education. Lastly, the workers were the artisans who made products. Less important, they did not get many rights. Woman and children did not get many rights, either. In addition, art was forbidden and children were practically abducted. The Republic was a communal society, so anyone could live in another’s home. Upon birth, children were taken from their homes to be educated by the philosophers. Clearly, Plato had no faith in parents. Art, he espoused, was a crude and disrespectful representation of the Forms. They had no right to tarnish such perfection.
For further reading:
501 Things You Should Have Learned About Philosophy by Alison Rattle (2012)
Philosophy: An Illustrated History of Thought by Tom Jackson (2014)
Visual Reference Guides: Philosophy by Stephen Law (2012)
The Symposium/Phaedrus edited by Tom Griffith (1986)
The Essentials of Philosophy by James Mannion (2006)
Philosophy as a Way of Life by Pierre Hadot (1995)