Who is Plato? An Introduction to Plato’s Philosophy

Learn all about the silent philosopher, his concept of platonic forms, political philosophy and ideas of happiness.

An introduction to Plato

If someone were to ask you to name an ancient Greek philosopher, Plato likely is one of the first to come to mind. His contributions to the study of philosophy are unparalleled, and many of his writings and dialogues extend in their entirety to us today.

Plato was a student of Socrates and the teacher of Aristotle. To some, Plato is considered the first true philosopher, as he is credited with crafting and articulating a rigorous system of thought encompassing metaphysical, ethical, political, and epistemological issues with a distinct methodology. His legacy and impact on religion and Western civilization as a whole cannot be overstated.

Who is Plato?

Born into a wealthy, aristocratic family, Plato is thought to have been named Aristocles at birth. The name Plato came to this philosopher later in life as a result of his remarkably wide chest and shoulders or forehead by some accounts.

After the trial and death of his teacher and friend, Socrates, he was encouraged by peers to leave Athens, as he was suspected by authorities of a plot to free Socrates. Plato did leave and traveled the world before later returning to Athens and establishing **The Academy**, which is considered to be the first university.

It was at The Academy that Plato engaged in rigorous debate with students and peers and would go on to write his famous dialogues. His enduring writings are in the form of a series of dialogues between characters in which his philosophical ideas are expressed through propositions and counterpropositions.

Plato’s politics

The death of Socrates, Plato’s friend and teacher, did not leave Plato unscathed. It instilled within him a passionate contempt for democracy and a search for a new system of government that allowed those most deserving to rule to rise to positions of leadership.

His thoughts on politics are seen in his work, *The Republic*, in which he explores the question of justice and its relationship to a happy, fulfilled life. He believed that the best political system was one that allowed for specialization, where each individual makes a living in the role that is best suited for them (i.e., farmer, teacher, judge, etc.).

Encouragement of this specialization would, in turn, discourage the pressure from society that leads individuals to seek wealth, reputation, or fame. If the political government is run by unjust men who are slaves to their own desires or appetites, they will go on to poison the entire democracy – as seen with Socrates’ death.

Our doomed governments

According to Plato, the perfect city-state is one in which the most virtuous men rule and the citizens are free to live their lives in roles to which they are most suited. Nevertheless, he also believed that this state has not existed and will not exist.

However bleak this thought may seem, Plato believed that, ultimately, there would always be enough men out of touch with virtue and driven by their own dark desires of greed, wealth, and status for this ideal city-state never to exist. All forms of government, therefore, were doomed to be unjust and wreak injustice upon their citizens because these human drives and appetites ran too unbridled among men.

Additionally, because these men are likely to use any means necessary to achieve their desire for status or reputation, they are likely to be elected leaders because they may lie or cheat to appear most appealing to the voters.

Plato’s definition of happiness

Plato built upon Socrates’ idea that the reason people live unhappy or unfulfilled lives is that they lack the necessary knowledge of what it takes to be happy. Plato introduced the notion that it was not purely the lack of knowledge that leaves people unfulfilled, it is that they do not engage with a series of metaphysical entities he called **forms.**

The forms he saw as being specific to a good life were justice, beauty, and equality, and these forms were the way to true happiness or **eudaimonia**. It’s important to note that ‘happiness’ to the philosophers does not mean happiness as we view it today. Now, it is seen as an emotion, something fleeting or in response to the environment.

However, to the ancient philosophers, happiness, or eudaimonia, was a state of flourishing. When they asked the question, *How can I be happy?* that’s closer today to, *How can I live a good life?*

Finding happiness in balance

As a student of Socrates, Plato agreed with his teacher that virtue, or *arête*, was at the heart of happiness and that it alone could aid in its attainment. However, Plato expanded on what exactly arête was.

He described arête as a fundamental excellence that transcends knowledge or material aspects. For example, the excellence of a pen is its ability to print clearly. The excellence of a car is its ability to go, just as the excellence of a painter is their ability to capture beauty and evoke emotion. In this way, virtue, or excellence, is whatever enables one to lead a happy life.

Socrates believed it was the knowledge of virtue that led to the attainment of virtue and, therefore, happiness. But Plato saw it differently: He believed there were three parts to the human soul–reason, spirit, and appetite–that must be balanced before happiness or ‘eudaimonia’ could be attained.

Balancing the soul

According to Plato, each person possesses an incorporeal and internal soul composed of the three elements of reason, spirit, and appetite. Plato believed this inner soul was separate from the material body and that it was responsible for the higher elements of the human mind, such as reason and wisdom. This soul, according to Plato, would live on even after death in an immortal state of being.

Plato also believed that three elements comprised our immortal soul. Each of these elements of the soul has its own desires and whims that must be brought into balance with one another.

While we may now understand the concept of a soul under the guise of Christianity, it’s important to note that no Christian concept of soul was articulated in ancient Greece to which Plato referred, although many of his theories would be used by early Christians to explain their theology.

The soul and the city-state

The three elements of the human soul, according to Plato, each have their own desires. Reason desires truth and justice and strives for the good, just as guardians or judges would in a city. The spirit of the soul seeks honor, courage, and competition; these elements correspond to the military force of a city who defends the whole of the individual and lives by higher ideals.

The final part, and the lowest part, of the soul is the appetite, which seeks food, drink, sex, and wealth. In a city, the appetite represents the bankers or artists who are consumed only with pleasure and greed.

According to Plato, happiness is attained by balancing these three elements. Each aspect of the soul has the potential for goodness, but it also has the potential to overshadow the others. An imbalanced soul affects the psyche of the individual and leads one to chase desires and values that do not lead to happiness.

Taming your horses

Plato compares the dynamic state of an individual’s soul and its ability to overwhelm or mislead to a pair of horses. One horse is purebred and correlates to the higher, spiritual aspects of the soul that respond to reason, virtue, and truth. This horse requires no whipping into shape.

The other horse, of ignoble breeding, is unruly and requires whips and training. This is the lower aspect of the soul, the appetite. If this horse is not trained and allowed to run free, it will overtake the noble horse and become unmanageable, leading to disorder and destruction.

Not only can the lower soul become unruly, but the higher spirit responding to virtue and truth will not be balanced if it is not nourished. That is to say, if one does not seek self-understanding and virtue, the spirit of the soul will not flourish or come into balance.

Plato’s forms

Plato’s metaphysics continue to baffle even today. Like philosophers before him, he saw the world as ever-changing, with evidence found in the seasons, the crumbling of buildings, and the death of people, animals, and nature.

However, Plato believed that underlying this ever-changing reality was a deeper, more stable, and permanent reality. He called this deeper reality the world of forms or *eidos*, which is **permanent, unchanging, and perfect**.

For example, a perfect circle is a form that exists in that deeper layer of reality. If a man comes to know the form of a perfect circle and attempts to draw it, he will inevitably fall short, just as all material or observable reality falls short of the ideal forms. Plato believed that true knowledge came from the identification and comprehension of these forms. Unless one understands that these forms exist, there’s no way to emulate them or attempt to grasp them.

The cave

An excellent example of the disparity Plato saw between the natural world and the true reality of forms, or a higher, transcendental layer of reality, is his allegory of The Cave. In this story, he describes men chained to a wall in a cave watching shadows flicker on the wall in front of them. Eventually, one breaks away to discover the city and the fire beyond that was casting the shadows on the wall.

To Plato, most men exist in the cave merely staring at shadows on the wall and attempting to discern them as reality. Enlightenment and true knowledge come from stepping out of the cave and identifying the truer forms or *eidos* that make up those shadows.

Coming out of the cave

At the heart of Plato’s philosophy is the notion that the reality we see is not the only reality there is. Reality as we know it is only a shadow of what’s there. While this may seem far-fetched, we can understand this on a practical level.

Take, for example, justice or equality. Both of these values can be seen in real-world actions, language, and behaviors; however, the manifestations of these values are only a fraction of their true reality. The depth of these values and the idea of them are not something that exists with a physical state to be measured and quantified.

These values, and others, exist on a transcendental layer of reality. Knowledge of this deeper reality brings us closer to it. If we want to see more virtue in the world and strive to lead happy, fulfilling lives, then we must decide to *step out of the cave and see the truer world beyond the shadows on the wall.*

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