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Plato on a Plate

by Rick Lewis

The bare facts are these. Plato was a wrestler. The name by which we know him was his ring name, meaning ‘Broad Shoulders’. At some point he fell in with a scruffy and talkative old fellow called Socrates. Socrates and his friends used to gather in the Agora – the marketplace in Athens – to discuss philosophy. Socrates himself claimed to know nothing, but made a habit of questioning prominent citizens about their opinions, dialogues which often ended with his victims hopelessly contradicting themselves or otherwise looking like idiots. This made him about as popular as you would expect. Socrates called himself the ‘gadfly’, stinging the Athenians so they wouldn’t fall asleep. He became a well-known figure, the subject of a satirical play by Aristophanes (The Clouds). Then Athens lost a war to Sparta and a short, grim period of oligarchical rule (the Thirty Tyrants) followed before democracy was restored. However, in an atmosphere of recrimination the Athenians searched for the causes of their downfall, and some blamed Socrates for having undermined the moral basis of society. Socrates had a pretty good civic record – not only was he a decorated war hero, but in the time of the Thirty Tyrants he had shown his integrity by refusing to participate in the arrest of a fellow citizen – but an aristocratic pupil of his had had close connections to the oligarchical regime, and afterwards Socrates’ enemies used this to taint him by association. In a public trial Socrates was found guilty of ‘inventing new gods and corrupting the youth’ and sentenced to death. His friends urged him to flee, but he refused, and was executed in 399BC.

Socrates’ enraged followers reacted with one of the most successful literary protests in history: several of them wrote dialogues in which Socrates was the main protagonist. It was as if they wanted to show that Socrates’ detractors had failed to silence his voice or his persistent, irritating questioning. Only the dialogues by Plato and by Xenophon have survived. Plato’s first Socratic dialogue was an account of Socrates’ trial. As the trial was a matter of public record and fresh in the memories of many Athenians, this dialogue (the Apology) is presumably a fairly faithful representation of Socrates’ own views. However, as time passed and Plato wrote more and more dialogues, he probably used them increasingly as a vehicle for his own philosophical arguments, though still expressed through the mouth of the character Socrates.

Plato himself became a famous philosopher and public figure who was invited to write constitutions for several Greek city states. He established a philosophy school in a grove dedicated to a legendary hero, Hecademos. The school took its name from the grove, becoming known as the Academy, and is widely regarded as the first university in the Western world. One of Plato’s students there was Aristotle.

Plato led a lively and adventurous life, which included being appointed advisor to the tyrant of Sicily, being captured by pirates and being sold as a slave. (Fortunately a benefactor spotted him in the slave auction, bought him and set him free.) In his dialogues Plato discusses many of the central questions of philosophy – What can we know? How should we live? How should society be organised? What is love? What is courage? Is God good? Plato’s dialogues are studded with brilliant thought experiments and arresting insights, and are certainly among the greatest classics of world literature. His theories became so powerfully influential that the 20th century philosopher Alfred North Whitehead once described the whole of subsequent philosophy as “footnotes to Plato”.

Despite this, it has somehow taken us twenty years to get around to having an issue of Philosophy Now dedicated to Plato. There is certainly plenty to discuss. We won’t get into the whole subject of which of the views discussed originated with Socrates and which with Plato. Plato’s most famous theories and thought experiments are contained in his dialogue, the Republic. As a blueprint for an ideal society it strikes most modern eyes as pretty totalitarian (see Chris Wright’s article), but its arguments about justice, the nature of knowledge, and the metaphysical basis of reality are powerful and philosophically acute. It contains one of Plato’s key ideas, the Theory of Forms, which David Macintosh explains. It also contains Plato’s most famous thought experiment, the Allegory of the Cave. Edward Fraser argues that Plato’s theory in the Meno about how we acquire (or rather, recollect) knowledge is circular. The two following articles concern ways in which Plato’s dialogues are still relevant to debates going on today: Alan Brody discusses Socrates’ ideas on addiction and its treatment; and Elizabeth Laidlaw explores parallels between Plato’s theory of the psyche and modern neuroscience, and then uses this as a basis for a brain-based approach to ethics.

Also in this issue, Stuart Greenstreet discusses C.S. Lewis’s astonishingly ambitious book Miracles. At the end he points out striking similarities between Lewis’s picture of human reason and the fundamental constants of modern physics. Both seem distinct from nature; both are a prerequisite for science; both are necessary, universal and unchanging. It struck me as I read that paragraph that he could just as well have been describing Plato’s Forms. They are everywhere and nowhere, they are eternal and they fundamentally determine the nature of our cosmos. Assuming that they exist, of course.

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