Island of Freedom
To make light of philosophy is to be a true philosopher. -- Blaise Pascal
The Tao
Confucius Corner
Bhagavad Gita


427-347 B.C.


Plato and his dialogues
Art, Science, and Transcendence: a comparison between Tolstoy and Plato - compares Plato's doctrine of Eros with Tolstoy's expression theory of art


On-line Works by Plato

Plato was born to an aristocratic family in Athens. His father, Ariston, was believed to have descended from the early kings of Athens. Perictione, his mother, was distantly related to the 6th-century B.C. lawmaker Solon. When Plato was a child, his father died, and his mother married Pyrilampes, who was an associate of the statesman Pericles. As a young man Plato had political ambitions, but he became disillusioned by the political leadership in Athens. He eventually became a disciple of Socrates, accepting his basic philosophy and dialectical style of debate: the pursuit of truth through questions, answers, and additional questions. Plato witnessed the death of Socrates at the hands of the Athenian democracy in 399 B.C. Perhaps fearing for his own safety, he left Athens temporarily and traveled to Italy, Sicily, and Egypt.

In 389 B.C. he founded the "Academy" in Athens, the institution often described as the first European university. It provided a comprehensive curriculum, including such subjects as astronomy, biology, mathematics, political theory, and philosophy. The main purpose of the Academy was to cultivate thought to lead to a restoration of decent government in the cities of Greece. Pursuing an opportunity to combine philosophy and practical politics, Plato went to Sicily in 367 to tutor the new ruler of Syracuse, Dionysius the Younger, in the art of philosophical rule. The experiment failed. Plato made another trip to Syracuse in 361, but again his engagement in Sicilian affairs met with little success. The concluding years of his life were spent lecturing at the Academy and writing. He died at about the age of 80 in Athens in 347 B.C.

Plato wrote 26 dialogues on various philosophical themes, with Socrates as the main character in most of them. The exact ordering of the dialogues is not known, but they can be roughly assigned to three periods, the early, middle, and late. The early dialogues, begun after 399 B.C., are seen by many as memorials to the life and teaching of Socrates. Three of them, the Euthyphro, Apology, and Crito, describe Socrates' conduct immediately before, during, and after his trial. The early writings include a series of short dialogues that end with no clear and definitive solution to the problems raised. Characteristically, Plato has Socrates ask questions of the form "What is X?" and insist that he wants not examples or instances of X but what it is to be X, the essential nature, or Form, of X. In the Charmides the discussion concerns the question "What is temperance?"; in the Laches, "What is courage?"; in the Euthyphro, "What is holiness?"

The dialogues of the middle period were begun after the founding of the Academy. Here he shows some dissatisfaction with his earlier negative procedure and adopts more openly positive doctrines in the discourses of Socrates. The dialogues of this period include Plato's generally accepted greatest work, the Republic. It begins with the question "what is justice?" and articulates his ideal political community and the proper education of its citizens. Justice is revealed to be a principle of each thing performing the function most appropriate to its nature. This principle is embodied politically in the idea that citizens perform the tasks for which they are best suited. In individuals the principle is to be discovered when each part of the soul performs its proper function. Reason is the ruler in both instances, and combined with the virtue of temperance the rule of reason is the harmonious rule of the individual and society. The society would be ruled by philosopher-kings, and their children would receive a superior education with a very military gymnastic part and a non-degrading music part, since degrading art corrupts the soul. The best students who were destined to be leaders would receive further education in advanced mathematics. Other middle dialogues include the Phaedo, in which he considers the nature of the soul and portrays the philosophical life as a separation of soul from body, the Symposium, in which Socrates portrays love as the creative attraction toward the beautiful and the good itself, Gorgias, a consideration of several ethical questions, and Meno, a discussion of the nature of knowledge.

In the late dialogues Socrates recedes into the background. The best of the late dialogues are Parmenides and Theaetetus. In the Parmenides the theory of Forms is examined closely, and arguments are presented to show that the Forms cannot be entities of the same sort as those whose being they explain. The Theaetetus is Plato's most successful work in analytical philosophy, in which perception, knowledge, truth, and subjectivity are examined. The Sophist shows the relation between particulars and Forms. The Timaeus presents a description of the origin and nature of the universe, and the Laws considers a model constitution for an ideal city. The Philebus devotes time to a problem left open in the Republic; "what is the Good?"

Plato's theory of knowledge is found in the Republic, particularly in his discussion of the image of the divided line and the myth of the cave. In the former, Plato distinguishes between two levels of awareness: opinion and knowledge. Claims or assertions about the physical or visible world, including both commonsense observations and the propositions of science, are opinions only. Some of these opinions are well founded; some are not; but none of them counts as genuine knowledge. The higher level of awareness is knowledge, because there reason, rather than sense experience, is involved. Reason, properly used, results in intellectual insights that are certain, and the objects of these rational insights are the abiding universals, the eternal Forms or substances that constitute the real world.

The myth of the cave describes individuals chained deep within the recesses of a cave. Bound so that vision is restricted, they cannot see one another. The only thing visible is the wall of the cave upon which appear shadows cast by models or statues of animals and objects that are passed before a brightly burning fire. Breaking free, one of the individuals escapes from the cave into the light of day. With the aid of the sun, that person sees for the first time the real world and returns to the cave with the message that the only things they have seen heretofore are shadows and appearances and that the real world awaits them if they are willing to struggle free of their bonds. The shadowy environment of the cave symbolizes for Plato the physical world of appearances. Escape into the sun-filled setting outside the cave symbolizes the transition to the real world, the world of full and perfect being, the world of Forms, which is the proper object of knowledge.

The theory of Forms may best be understood in terms of mathematical entities. A circle, for instance, is defined as a plane figure composed of a series of points, all of which are equidistant from a given point. No one has ever actually seen such a figure, however. What people have actually seen are drawn figures that are more or less close approximations of the ideal circle. In fact, when mathematicians define a circle, the points referred to are not spatial points at all; they are logical points. They do not occupy space. Nevertheless, although the Form of a circle has never been seen—-indeed, could never be seen—-mathematicians and others do in fact know what a circle is. That they can define a circle is evidence that they know what it is. For Plato, therefore, the Form "circularity" exists, but not in the physical world of space and time. It exists as a changeless object in the world of Forms or Ideas, which can be known only by reason. Forms have greater reality than objects in the physical world both because of their perfection and stability and because they are models, resemblance to which gives ordinary physical objects whatever reality they have. Circularity, squareness, and triangularity are excellent examples, then, of what Plato meant by Forms. An object existing in the physical world may be called a circle or a square or a triangle only to the extent that it resembles ("participates in" is Plato's phrase) the Form "circularity" or "squareness" or "triangularity."

Plato extended his theory beyond the realm of mathematics. Indeed, he was most interested in its application in the field of social ethics. The theory was his way of explaining how the same universal term can refer to so many particular things or events. The word justice, for example, can be applied to hundreds of particular acts because these acts have something in common, namely, their resemblance to, or participation in, the Form "justice." An individual is human to the extent that he or she resembles or participates in the Form "humanness." If "humanness" is defined in terms of being a rational animal, then an individual is human to the extent that he or she is rational. A particular act is courageous or cowardly to the extent that it participates in its Form. An object is beautiful to the extent that it participates in the Idea, or Form, of beauty. Everything in the world of space and time is what it is by virtue of its resemblance to, or participation in, its universal Form. The ability to define the universal term is evidence that one has grasped the Form to which that universal refers.

Plato conceived the Forms as arranged hierarchically; the supreme Form is the Form of the Good, which, like the sun in the myth of the cave, illuminates all the other Ideas. There is a sense in which the Form of the Good represents Plato's movement in the direction of an ultimate principle of explanation. The Good is perfect and desired by all who know it. In the Philebus he wonders, Is it pleasure or knowledge? He shows that pleasure cannot be the Good; pleasures are often accompanied by false opinions, and great pleasures and pains occur in bad states of body or soul. Knowledge is not perfect either, because some arts are more exact than others. The Good can be neither knowledge nor pleasure alone, but a mixture of the best parts of both, which include the sciences and those pleasures that are pure and necessary. The best parts of this mixture are beauty, symmetry, and truth, which are all closer to knowledge than pleasure. He finally gives the order of value as measure, beauty, mind, science, and pure pleasure.

Plato had an essentially antagonistic view of art and the artist, although he approved of certain religious and moralistic kinds of art. His approach is related to his theory of Forms. A beautiful flower, for example, is a copy or imitation of the universal Forms "flowerness" and "beauty." The physical flower is one step removed from reality, that is, the Forms. A picture of the flower is, therefore, two steps removed from reality. This also meant that the artist is two steps removed from knowledge, and, indeed, Plato's frequent criticism of the artists is that they lack genuine knowledge of what they are doing. Artistic creation, Plato observed, seems to be rooted in a kind of inspired madness.

Plato's influence throughout the history of philosophy has been monumental. When he died, Speusippus became head of the Academy. The school continued in existence until AD 529, when it was closed by the Byzantine emperor Justinian I, who objected to its pagan teachings. Plato's impact on Jewish thought is apparent in the work of the 1st-century Alexandrian philosopher Philo Judaeus. Neoplatonism, founded by the 3rd-century philosopher Plotinus, was an important later development of Platonism. The theologians Clement of Alexandria, Origen, and St. Augustine were early Christian exponents of a Platonic perspective. Platonic ideas have had a crucial role in the development of Christian theology and also in medieval Islamic thought.

During the Renaissance, the primary focus of Platonic influence was the Florentine Academy, founded in the 15th century near Florence. Under the leadership of Marsilio Ficino, members of the Academy studied Plato in the original Greek. In England, Platonism was revived in the 17th century by Ralph Cudworth and others who became known as the Cambridge Platonists. Plato's influence has been extended into the 20th century by such thinkers as Alfred North Whitehead, who once paid him tribute by describing the history of philosophy as simply "a series of footnotes to Plato."

1996 Grolier Multimedia Encyclopedia, Copyright 1996 Grolier Interactive, Inc.

Microsoft Encarta 98 Encyclopedia, Copyright 1993-1997 Microsoft Corporation.
The Concise Encyclopedia of Western Philosophy and Philosophers, J. O. Urmson and Jonathan Rée, editors. London: Unman Hyman, 1991.