Plato (427? BC–348? BC)
Not much is known for certain about Plato’s early life. But he came from an aristocratic family, and through his mother he was related to two of the “Thirty Tyrants” who ruled Athens briefly when Plato himself was a young man. Plato was noted for his intellectual gifts in his boyhood. It seems that he travelled quite extensively before returning to his native Athens and establishing his famous Academy when he was about forty years old. As well as philosophy, Plato’s school taught such subjects as science, mathematics, and astronomy. Plato himself gave lectures, but these have not survived, unlike the teachings of his most famous pupil, Aristotle.
In 367 Dionysius, a relative of Plato’s friend, Dion, became ruler of Syracuse. Plato accepted an invitation to coach Dionysius in kingship, and travelled to Sicily for the purpose. The experiment was a total failure; Plato became embroiled in political intrigues, and Dionysius himself showed no sign of having profited from his advice. This was a grave disappointment to Plato, who believed that no country could be governed well unless its rulers were specially-trained philosophers (see page 100, Chapter 4). He returned to Athens where he stayed for the rest of his life.
The most important relationship in Plato’s life was with the philosopher Socrates. In 399 BC the latter was put to death on the charge of undermining religion and corrupting the youth of Athens; Plato, it seems, was one of those whom he was accused of “corrupting.” This experience certainly did not endear democracy to Plato (Athens was governed by a democratic regime at the time of Socrates’s death).
On a literal interpretation of Plato’s dialogues, he was a reporter of Socrates’s doctrines rather than an original thinker. However, there is good reason to suspect that the views expressed in the dialogues by the character “Socrates” were really Plato’s. The real Socrates seems to have been pre-occupied with the critical examination of “common sense” ideas; it was this characteristic, above all, that brought about his downfall. Plato deploys the same subversive method, but while Socrates was primarily interested in asking questions, Plato was keen to supply answers.
This approach is most marked in Plato’s most famous dialogue, The Republic (see page 12 of the Introduction). This purports to be the record of a discussion between Socrates and various citizens of Athens, some of whom provide definitions of key principles such as justice. Socrates’s merciless method of inquiry quickly shows the deficiency of these views. While conversations of that sort probably happened a lot while Socrates was around, the conclusion seems to have been supplied by Plato. In place of humdrum definitions of justice, “Socrates” is reported to have outlined an ideal state in which people occupy roles which reflect their personal attributes. The rulers should be wise, and soldiers (“auxiliaries”) should be brave (without being reckless). Ordinary people were likely to be governed by their appetites; but these would be held in check by a government that seeks to maintain a harmonious society.
Education is the key to Plato’s ideal state. People would be coached for their future roles (which meant that rulers would undergo rigorous training while ordinary people barely needed to be taught at all). To ensure that future rulers are not tempted to exploit their obvious advantages, they are taught to regard personal property with contempt. The system would be underpinned by myths which reinforce the notion that individuals are destined for the place that society has allotted to them.
The subsequent influence of Plato’s writings can scarcely be exaggerated. Among other things, his theory of knowledge (which was based on a perfect world that we all experience before birth) had an obvious impact on the Christian idea of heaven. However, in the twentieth century Plato was frequently criticized as a forerunner of modern totalitarian thinking. His distaste for personal property made him look like a kind of communist; the importance of myths to underpin his ideal state was more characteristic of fascism. But the real cause of hostility towards Plato is his insistence that a harmonious state can only be assured if the overwhelming majority of people stick to the roles that are assigned to them at birth—an idea which is guaranteed to offend against the liberal belief in social mobility. However, such criticisms overlook the very different context in which Plato was writing. In the end, perhaps, he should be seen as a faithful follower of Socrates, in that his main legacy in politics was to raise important questions that still lack satisfactory answers.
Roy Jackson, Plato: A Beginner’s Guide, Hodder & Stoughton, 2002.