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Brief Lives

Plato (427-347 BC)

William Dante Deacon looks at the life of a founding father of Western philosophy.

Among the many eulogies of Plato (real name Aristocles, 427-347 BC), it has become a common trend to reference A.N. Whitehead’s famous quote that a “general characterisation of the European philosophical tradition is that it consists of a series of footnotes to Plato.” However, one need only to look to Whitehead’s student and collaborator Bertrand Russell to sour that grandeur. Russell treated the Athenian “with as little reverence as if he were a contemporary English or American advocate of totalitarianism” (A History of Western Philosophy, 1945).

This discrepancy of interpretations presents a problem to the modern reader. Plato’s presence will forever loom large in every philosophy department, but who was this man who inspires equal admiration and controversy, and what can we practically take from his life into our lives? For the answers, we will briefly delve into Plato’s education, his epistemology, and his political idealism, to reveal a body of ideas that involves stripping back the world of the senses and focusing instead on life’s pure moral essentials.

Plato portrait by Clinton Inman

Portrait of an Illusive Dramatist

Of his early life we know few facts: his nickname ‘Plato’ was gained when he was a professional wrestler, due to his broad shoulders (‘ Platon’ translates as ‘broad’). In his youth he pursued a career in either politics or poetry. The latter he is said to have discarded upon meeting Socrates in the 410s BC.

As a member of the aristocracy, before meeting Socrates, Plato’s philosophical education would have been in what we might call a materialist tradition: the astronomy of Thales, Democritus’ atomism, and, more specific to Plato’s dialogues, Heraclitus’ doctrine of flux and the logic of Parmenides. But as a student of Socrates, Plato would have been exposed to a diversity of young minds (though admittedly all wealthy), including the founder of Cynicism, Antisthenes, and the ethical hedonist Aristippus. Socrates had made a name for himself by bringing philosophy to the world of everyday life, debating ethics, questioning peoples’ ideas, and punching holes in the arguments of sophists – those learned men who peddle the art of rhetoric rather than promoting wise discussion. All of Plato’s dialogues star Socrates as the main interlocutor.

The social and political landscape of Classical Athens is also essential to understanding Plato’s intellectual development. Born two years before Athens’ Peloponnesian War with Sparta, by the time he was twenty-four (404 BC), the Athenian democracy had been defeated by the Spartan oligarchy. A pro-Spartan puppet oligarchy known as ‘the Thirty Tyrants’ took control, led by Critias, a former pupil of Socrates who was also Plato’s great-uncle. During the eight month reign of the tyrants, approximately 5% of Athens’ population were killed for opposing the new regime, and even more were exiled. Of this regime Plato wrote, “they made the former government seem by comparison something precious as gold” (Seventh Letter). However, only four years after democracy was restored, Socrates was put to death by the tyrant’s antithesis, democracy’s easily-persuaded mob. Attacked from both ends of the political spectrum, it is exactly this double disappointment which must always be in one’s mind when reading Plato, who represents the search for an ideal in a lifetime of diametrically-opposed tragedies.

Plato was twenty-eight at Socrates’ death. When he was marked with suspicion for trying to save his mentor, he fled Athens, not to return for another twelve years. During this period it is said that he visited Egypt, becoming influenced by the priestly class there; studied at Pythagoras’ school in Crotone; travelled to Libya, meeting the mathematician Theodorus of Cyrene; and (dependent on one’s suspension of disbelief) travelled to Judea and to the Ganges. He would return to Athens at forty, in 387 BC, founding a school of philosophy outside the city in a grove sacred to the hero Academos (hence the word Academy).

The decade 390-80 is most probable for the compositions of Plato’s ‘early period’ – the dialogues Apology, Euthyphro, Crito, Charmides, Cratylus, Hippias Minor, Menexus, Ion, Laches, Lysis, Protagoras, Euthydemus, Meno, Gorgias, Symposium, and Phaedo – while the next decade encompasses his most recognisable ‘middle period’, with the writing of Republic, Phaedrus, Parmenides, and Theatetus. From around the age of sixty, Plato would spend seven years (367-361 BC) on failed attempts to apply his beliefs in practice by educating the young Tyrant of Syracuse, Dionysius II, into becoming a philosopher king. He had previously advised the boy’s father while on his travels, with similarly disappointing results. With dismay he returned to his Academy and the realm of ideas to write his ‘later period’ works – Sophist, Statesman, Timaeus, Critias, and Laws.

Plato’s early dialogues are brief and conform to a pattern. In structure they provide an argumentative blueprint that prevails in the majority of his works, regardless of length, poetic digressions or complexity. It can be summarised as:

1) Socrates asks his interlocutors to provide a definition of some moral virtue or other popular concept (Q: “What is bravery?” A: “To stand and fight”);

2) Socrates declares the definition to be insufficient because it fails to apply in every instance of the concept’s use (“But do we not praise the bravery of those who know when to engage as well as run? Moreover, does this [definition] apply to the brave in illness, politics, or under temptation?”);

3) Elenches – ‘refutation’ via dialectic, whereby open discussion draws us closer to the essential features of the concept in question. (So for example Laches says: “Bravery is endurance”; Nicias says “Bravery is knowledge of the fearful” and so on);

4) The final step is the culmination of the argument in aporia (‘bewilderment’) – a state of anticlimax where no absolute definition of the virtue or other concept is found, but the debaters have a firmer understanding of the concept’s practical uses and everyday interpretations (bravery is endurance in the knowledge of what is feared). They see the difficulty in capturing what we would call ‘grey’ terms in ironclad definitions, and how one can easily miseducate oneself in morals and other judgements by taking language and concepts for granted.

Error, Truth, & Innate Knowledge

Morality underlies the first of Plato’s doctrines I want to consider: ‘No one does wrong willingly’ (Gorgias 509d-e). However, as we noted with bravery, the vagaries of ‘goodness’ allows a variety of interpretations. For instance, Callicles would win the heart of Friedrich Nietzsche when he claims that “if a man is born in whom nature is strong enough, he’ll shake off all his limitations, shatter them to pieces, and win his freedom” (Gorgias 484a). For him, goodness is simply the “expansion of one’s desires” (429a). Plato would argue that Callicles is talking about goodness, but in ignorance, for he is applying a flawed definition of ‘what is good’. Desires are desirable, even pleasurable; however this sense alone when obtaining your desires provides no indication that ‘desires are morally good’, as Callicles seems to be assuming. For Plato, goodness will always come back to the soul, since the practice of philosophy is preparing and educating one’s soul to transcend the body upon death. Conflating the short-term gains of injustice as ‘justice’ in a ‘might is right’ sense will cause a harmful life to the doer (Gorgias 472e), polluting their soul, creating an isolated, violent, and materially obsessed mind-set. Instead, to identify goodness with a life that neither harms nor repays a harm with a harm (Republic 335e) will create a better soul, in this life and the next. Plato’s first doctrine is thus a call for moral education, for if we can’t agree a precise definition of goodness, we can at least use reasoning to counteract some of reason’s misuses.

The second doctrine we find builds upon this notion of educating the soul: ‘learning is recollection’. This is an early theory of innate knowledge. When Meno (Meno 80e) poses this paradox ­– how can you know or find out about what you have no idea of? and if you did know of what you didn’t know, how would you even recognise this unknown? – Socrates presents an uneducated slave boy with a mathematical problem. After providing him with the tools to solve the puzzle, upon his success, Socrates declares that the knowledge must have been in him all along. The truth “has been in the soul forever… and that means that if there’s something you do not happen to know about right now, or rather, happen not to have remembered yet, you mustn’t be afraid to try and find out about it” (86b). This opens up Plato’s mysticism: Plato argues that the soul is imperishable and lives outside of the material world, until it is born into the body with innate knowledge of truths seen outside worldly experience. Knowledge is therefore recollection of the soul’s past experience.

If we apply this idea back to Plato’s dialogues, we find that innate knowledge does not simply concern arithmetic, but also knowledge of moral virtue, and of goodness in itself. Perhaps you noticed that in steps 1 and 3 of the dialogical pattern I gave, it was not Socrates but Laches and Nicias who proposed definitions of bravery. And step 4’s definition is a combination of Laches and Nicias. So this definition would come from them, not from Socrates, who only claims to be a midwife to their knowledge. So where did this definition come from? Plato would argue that these answers come from the souls of those open to philosophy, and that their wise discussion triggered the remembering of the innate idea.

The essential truths Plato is interested in knowing are what we translate as ‘Forms’ or ‘Ideas’ (eidon in Greek). Put simply, the Forms are objective eternally-existing templates of all that can be known about. But we live in a world of particulars, and what we experience everyday is an imperfect mixture of the Forms, so obscuring them from us, so that we must seek them. Plato would expound on this idea most clearly in the Symposium, with his ‘Ladder of Love’ analogy, where he describes the search for true beauty as a continual process, experiencing a multitude of associations and discarding the naive aspects until reaching a core of truth. Seeing beauty in bodies moves up to seeing beauty in minds; which moves to art; and communities; finally arriving at knowledge of the Form of Beauty ‘in itself and by itself’, whereby “gold and clothing and good-looking boys and youths will pale into insignificance beside it” (Symposium 211 b-d). The lasting impression I obtain from this, is that we can aspire to transcend the here and now in knowledge, since even flawed dreams draw us closer to the truth.

The truths remembered may not be perfectly-remembered truths. However, a theory of recollection demonstrates that all individuals, regardless of gender or social position, have the power to vanquish falsehood with reason, and so all are capable of becoming virtuous. However, Plato’s ethics cannot flourish in a world of commercial needs and political realism. For education to transcend the particular and aspire to grasp the essential truths of existence, a reconstruction of society of utopian proportions will be required.

Three Women of the Noble Lie
Three Women of the Noble Lie: Gold, Silver, & Copper by Cecilia Mou
Image © Cecilia Mou 2021. To see more art, please Instagram her at @mouceciliaart

Wisdom & Lies in the Republic

It is important to remember when reading Plato’s Republic that the utopia he describes there has a purpose – to create a culture which not only implements the moral education I’ve just outlined, but provides a harmonious environment where neither the events leading up to the Thirty Tyrants, nor democracy’s popularist poisoning, could take place. Plato is concerned with building a society around ‘justice’ in its essential form. And although a majority of the ideas he presents are clearly highly questionable, where Republic excels as a piece of political philosophy is highlighting how much of society’s framework is built through legitimising cultural narratives and upon what we would now call ‘symbolic capital’. In Plato’s republic, poetry will be censored, since entertainment has the power to subvert thinking; education is made universal to men and women in order to prevent biases; blood relationships are hidden, and children raised communally to stop nepotism; and material acquisition – often a motivator for power – is severed from the political sphere.

In his ideal society Plato divides society in three: the ‘producing class’, who conform to a market system of private ownership and distribution; ‘auxiliaries’ – the military wing, who resemble the Spartan military, living and fighting in a communal spirit; and the ruling ‘guardians’ of this civilisation – the philosopher kings, similarly living in commune and uncorrupted by material ownership, but sharpened in reason rather than in sword-craft.

Looking down at his city, Plato has presented a scenario where to choose the ‘guardian’ as most appropriate is to consent to a world where those educated in moral virtue will, by acting in their best own interest, produce good in and of itself.

This society exchanges individual liberty for political duty. That is, the producers are free to live out their worldly aspirations in a conventional way, but have no say in the political system, whereas the higher classes create and enforce law without anything in mind except social strength and cohesion. The guardians’ education deprives them of normal human biases. They’re encouraged to seek the essential Forms of virtue rather than desiring worldly particulars. Thus, they are the most balanced and happiest of all. To soothe any status anxiety, a ‘Noble Lie’ will be propagated, stating that the gods have endowed each man with either a gold (guardian), silver (auxiliary), or copper (producer) rank – thus fabricating a myth of destiny as justification for someone’s social rank. However, a major criticism will always arise with this theory when a citizen’s desire for authenticity must be pursued within the context of a systematic state lie.

Plato also only seems to be interested in the ruling class in his utopia. No time is spent considering whether the auxiliaries find harmony in their battles or the producers in their craft – there is simply the assumption of a virtuous trickle-down effect stimulated by maintaining the perfect technocracy. If the best men are taught to rule the best way, they will yield the best results; or as Plato himself puts it, “subjection to the principle of divine intelligence is to everyone’s advantage” (590d). This trickle-down is envisioned to eventually spread throughout all Greece and unite a pan-Hellenic league of nations, subscribing to the just order seen in a city-state’s composite parts functioning harmoniously.

Admittedly, this is a rather flat conclusion for such an evocative piece of literature, and it can also be argued that Republic is an allegory of the human soul in its three parts: the appetite (the producers), the spirit (the auxiliaries), and reason (the guardians). Plato may also be asking, which of these three aspects would a good figure choose to rule their psychology: the materialist, the fighter, or the rational actor?

It is not surprising that the latter half of Republic contains Plato’s most famous tales, the Allegory of the Cave and the Theory of Forms. The shadowy representations dancing on the wall in front of the prisoners in the Allegory of the Cave are, for example, like Callicles’ ignorant (mis)understanding of goodness. However, Plato’s point with the allegory is that although the shadows may be part of one’s worldview, the shadows are still an illusion. In his retelling of Socrates’ death in Phaedo, Plato would tell his pupils that ‘true philosophers are half dead’ (Phaedo, 64b). That idea is reflected in the allegory, for to become aware of the illusory nature of the shadows results in ostracism. Just so, to Plato, a philosopher’s yearning to promote truth creates a form of social isolation, including inciting slander from their peers (see for example the presentation of Socrates in Aristophanes’ The Clouds), and fear of persecution. This tension manifests in The Cave’s protagonist, who in the story must return to try to dispel the illusions of the remaining prisoners. Engagement is the chief requirement of change, since “the capacity for knowledge is present in everyone’s mind” (Republic 518c).

Plato’s rather overcrowded Cave


In Republic’s direct sequel Timaeus, Plato would follow the idea of social cohesion as the goal of politics. Here, nature itself provides an allegory for his utopia. In this book – not unlike in the work of Lucretius, or at the start of the book of Genesis – Plato outlines the creation of the universe from chaos to elemental harmony. This lays the foundation for the Neoplatonic writings of Plotinus, Porphyry, and one of the last known classical philosophers, Proclus Lycaeus. Neoplatonism applies Plato’s metaphysics to advocate escaping the material realm in order to unite with the heavenly pure Forms, especially the Form of the Good. From here, Neoplatonic mysticism would be assimilated into various faith positions, for example, for the early Christian apologist Justin Martyr; or fought for as divine by Pseudo-Dionysius the Areopagite; and cherished by St Augustine. For the Romans equally, we would not have the dialogues of Cicero or Seneca without Plato’s dramatisations of Athenian debate. In fact, it is only in the thirteenth century that we begin to see Aristotle’s ascendancy over Plato as the ancient philosopher. Plato’s own renaissance would come in Marsilio Ficino’s fifteenth century complete Latin translation of his works. From there his influence flourishes into, for instance, grand works of political restructuring, such as Thomas Moore’s Utopia or Thomas Hobbes’ Leviathan, which both owe greatly to Republic, as well as John Stuart Mill’s Utilitarianism, which is inspired by Plato’s Protagoras. Plato’s theory of innate knowledge would be highly influential on thinkers such as Leibniz, who found great delight in the ‘beautiful demonstration of the slave boy’, since it affirmed his belief that mathematics presents pre-natal truths. In turn, there was no greater admirer of Gottfried Leibniz than the aforementioned Bertrand Russell, whose theory of logic would not be possible without the distinctions outlined in Socrates’ quest for definitions of knowledge.

Plato died around the age of eighty; either, as legend has it, in bed to a young Thracian girl’s serenading flute, or simply drifting away after attending a student’s wedding feast. I prefer the latter fate narratively, as, mirroring his mentor, Socrates, we see proof in Plato’s death that, whether in persecution or celebration, the pursuit of philosophy will in the end always repay the scholar with friendship. To cherish education is to cherish the giving of knowledge, and for that nobody has gathered more friends in the field of philosophy than this illusive dramatist.

© William Dante Deacon 2021

William Dante Deacon is a London-based writer, graduating with degree of Political Theory and International Relations from the University of Adelaide, South Australia.

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