Plato is a philosopher from ancient Athens who is an essential figure in Ancient Greek and Western philosophy and a foundational source of ideas which shaped the evolution of western spirituality and religion. Plato founded the Academy, the first school of higher learning in the western world which served as the predecessor to modern-day universities. It was Plato’s belief there must be harmony between the three parts of the soul; reason, spirit, and appetite; asserting that satisfying these parts is necessary for living a satisfying human life.
Birth and Parents
Plato was born into an affluent family along with two brothers and one sister. Although his exact date and of birth are unknown, most historians believe he was born in Athens, after the Peloponnesian War. His father Ariston died while he was young, and his mother, Perictione, then married her uncle Pyrilampes, who fathered her fourth child. According to legend, when Plato was a baby, bees settled around his mouth as a testament to the sweetness of his future words.
Ariston, Plato’s father, worked to ensure he received a high-quality education from distinguished teachers, including Cratylus, an Athenian philosopher and disciple of Heraclitus. Plato’s curriculum included all significant subjects of study, including, poetry, gymnastics, music, and philosophy. He was later described by his nephew Speusippus as a quick-minded boy who was modest and infused with hard work and love of study. It was also during his youth that he became a follower of the great Greek philosopher Socrates, who became a profound influence on Plato and his works.
Plato drew inspiration from many sources, a few of which deeply affected his work. Pythagoras was an ancient Greek philosopher and the founder of Pythagoreanism. He postulated that the source of everything is numerical principles. Pythagoras believes form is distinct from matter, and the world is a projection of an eternal mathematical world.It was Heraclitus’ statement that everything is continually changing. These sentiments were passed to Plato through his teacher Cratylus who was a disciple to Heraclitus helped to shape some of Plato’s dialogues on principles of motion.Socrates, an infamous Greek philosopher and founder of the Socratic method, a dialectic system for questioning for stimulating critical thinking and bringing light to contradictions. Plato was an ardent follower of Socrates, and his writings are one of the most thorough sources of Socrates’ dialogues.
Plato’s theory of forms states that there are two tenants of reality, the world of sense objects that we are immediately aware of, and the world of forms through which the immediate world comes into being. For example, a beautiful rose is only beautiful because it participates in the form of beauty. The form of beauty is unchanging, unlike the flower itself which can wither and die. The theory postulates a whole world of forms, like justice, beauty, and strength. These forms exist in a world entirely separate from the conventional world. The world of forms exists outside of time and space and consist of absolute universals. Reality is always changing and constantly coming into being inside of these eternal forms.Plato never fully defines forms or explains how they work, in his dialogues, leaving it up to the reader to interpret what he means.
The Tripartite Soul
Plato believes the soul is a composite of three parts: reason, spirit, and appetite. Each part corresponds to a different aspect of humanity.The highest part of the soul, that which deals with rational thought, is what people use to pursue truth and philosophy, which is Plato’s highest pursuit. The head represents this part.The spirit is the part of the soul which corresponds with the heart. The spirit is what causes humankind to get angry over injustice. This inspires us to overcome challenges to achieve victory.The appetite represents the desire for various bodily and carnal pleasures. These desires are often in conflict with each other. Plato described them as being like “the ugly black horse on the left.”
The Cave Allegory
Plato’s cave allegory from his work, The Republic, describes humanity in restraints in a cave watching shadows on the wall. There is a fire behind them which creates shadow projections. The imprisoned people misinterpret the shadows as reality and knowing no other life, don’t try to escape. Philosophers are like people who have escaped from captivity and learned that the shadows are not reality. They’re nothing more than a projection. They have glimpsed true reality. If one day all the prisoners were freed and experienced true reality, it would be foreign, and incomprehensible. The allegory describes how humans are unable to see behind the human condition. We are unable to understand what is behind our impressions and understanding of the world. The images we project over the real world are what we mistakenly perceive as reality.
Plato’s approach to ethics is similar to other philosophers in his era. First and foremost happiness and well-being are the highest goals of principled thought and behavior. In contrast, the virtues are the skills necessary to achieve these. He describes justice using a model of a city where the whole benefits the parts and the parts benefit the whole. In this example, each individual successfully carrying out their role and refraining from interfering with other functioning is justice.Plato considered virtue to be an excellence of each part of the soul. When the two are in combination they create a harmonious balance in the whole person. Like in the example of the city, each part of the soul does its job without interfering with the other parts.
Plato founded the Academy, a school of higher learning much like universities in the modern world, sometime around 385 BCE. The Academy’s curriculum included many areas of study including biology, astrology, politics, mathematics, and philosophy. Plato wanted the school to prep students to become future leaders who were more capable and well-rounded than their predecessors. The school was open until Emperor of Rome Justinian I closed it for being a threat to Christianity.
Plato has received criticism for some of his ideas in both modern and ancient times. Nietzsche famously denounced Plato’s “idea of the good itself,” along with the basics of Christian morality, calling it “Platonism for the masses,” in his book Beyond Good and Evil. Karl Popper, a philosopher with a specialization in scientific theory, argues that Plato’s proposal of a political utopia in the Republic is totalitarian. Plato’s student, Aristotle, criticized his theory of forms stating that the essence or ” form” of individual things is inherent in the object and does not exist separately.
In his later years, Plato involved in politics in Syracuse, a city on the island of Sicily. The ruler of Sicily at the time was Dionysius, who found Plato’s ideas dangers. He nearly had Plato executed, but instead, Plato became a slave. After Dionysius died, Plato returned to Syracuse to teach Dionysius II.Plato died at age 81 on his birthday. He left behind some 30 dialogues which are still studied today. His work is widely influential, and he is one of the greatest thinkers in history and a foundational contributor to the study of philosophy.