Plato was a more systematic and positive thinker than Socrates, but his writings, particularly the earlier dialogues, may be regarded as a continuation and elaboration of Socratic insights. Plato carried on Socrates’ interest in moral questions and the Socratic idealism was organized by Plato into a philosophy.
Plato came from an ancient, noble Greek family; on his mothers side he was related to Solon, on his father’s to the early kings of Athens. He seemed slated for an easy life. However, the Greece of his youth was no paradise for aristocrats. In the unrest following the Peloponnesian War, two of Plato’s relatives led a rebellion against the oligarchical government and were killed in the attempt. Not long after, Socrates, who was Plato’s mentor, was tried and condemned to death.
Plato fled from Athens and traveled for years – perhaps as far as Egypt, where he may have studied mathematics and history under the priests. After a 12-ear return to Athens, he went on another intellectual pilgrimage, during which he was sold into slavery. Ransomed by his friends and back in Athens, he founded the Academy. It was supported by parents of students and by the aristocracy. Dionysius II was supposed to have given Plato 80 talents (the equivalent of over half a million dollars).
Students of the school studied mathematics, philosophy, music and law. Plato believed that ideas were the sole reality. His most famous works were The Laws and The Republic, in both of which he described his utopia. In spite of his high-mindedness, he also had an earthy streak and an eye for human detail.
Like Socrates he was concerned to show that there were objective standards of right and wrong and that justice was not just a matter of convention. Plato also continued the speculations of the pre-Socratic philosophers on change, and endeavored to reconcile Heraclitus’ doctrine with that of Parmenides through his famous doctrine of the Forms. Thus Plato believed, with Heraclitus, that the things of the world are subject to change and impermanence, but that these things, observed by the senses, are participators in ideal Forms, which exist apart from the material world and are unchanging and, as such known only by the mind. The goal of the philosopher is to learn to know the eternal forms and to instruct others in that knowledge.
Plato regarded ethics as the highest branch of knowledge; he stressed the intellectual basis of virtue, identifying virtue with wisdom. This view led to so-called “Socratic paradox that, as Socrates asserts in the Protagoras, no man does evil voluntarily”.
Plato also explored the fundamental problems of natural science, political theory, metaphysics, theology, and theory of knowledge and developed ideas that became permanent elements in Western thought. His theory of knowledge also is implicit in his theory of ideas. Plato stated that both the material objects perceived and the men perceiving them as constantly changing; but, since knowledge must be concerned only with unchangeable and universal objects, knowledge and perception are fundamentally different.
The basis of Plato’s philosophy is his theory of Ideas, or doctrine of forms. The theory of Ideas which is expressed in many of his dialogues, particularly the Republic and the Parmenides, divides existence into two realms, an “intelligible realm” of perfect, eternal and invisible Ideas, or forms, and a “sensible realm” of concrete, familiar objects.
In the Republic Plato describes mankind as imprisoned ina cave and as mistaking shadows on the wall for reality; he regards the philosopher as the man who penetrates the world outside the cave of ignorance and achieves a vision of the true reality, the realm of Ideas. Plato’s concept of the Absolute Idea of the Good, which is the highest form and includes all others, has been a main source of pantheistic and mystical religious doctrines in Western culture.
Plato’s Life and Influences
Born in Athens to a distinguished family with political connections, he was tempted to enter government service but was disillusioned by the extreme nature of contemporary politics. The execution of the philosopher Socrates in 399 BC shocked him profoundly and in company with friends he fled to Megara where Euclid taught. Plato traveled in Greece and possibly Egypt, Italy and Sicily during the next few years, befriending Dion, brother of Dionysius, tyrant of Syracuse. Returning to Athens he founded the Academy in 387, aiming to train men as philosopher rulers.
Attempting to put his ideas into practice, Plato returned to Syracuse in 367 and again in 361 as tutor to Dionysius II. The young ruler resented Plato’s efforts and broke with his uncle, Dion, who was eventually assassinated. Plato returned to Athens and the Academy where he taught until his death.
Probably the greatest formative influence on the young Plato was Socrates. Although not regarding himself as a disciple of Socrates, Plato counted the older man his and was deeply distressed by his death at the hands of Athenian democrats. He used many of Socrates’ ideas in his Dialogues and also used him as a mouthpiece for his own thoughts.