To be a good teacher, you must inspire others. It’s not enough to just show and explain, you must also encourage students to follow their own interests and pursue knowledge on their own.
Well, when it comes to Plato, his teacher, Socrates, pretty much nailed it. As a student, Plato was beyond top-of-the-class. Not only did he expand on his teacher’s ideas, he also introduced the world to a whole new way of thinking, as well as ideas that still captivate us.
But as if this weren’t enough, Plato would follow in his teacher’s footsteps by inspiring another, a man named Aristotle. This student would also go on to have a dramatic influence on Western philosophy and the way people think. Together, these three philosophers changed the world.
So, then, what did Plato do?
Unlike Socrates, who wrote nothing down, Plato wrote lots and lots of books. However, Plato’s books, which include famous titles such as Republic, The Apology of Socrates, and Laws, aren’t like most books. Instead, they’re conversations, or dialogues.
The majority of these “dialogues” take place between Socrates and some other philosopher, sometimes Plato or sometimes someone else. It is through these conversations that we know so much about Socrates, as well as the ideas of Plato.
But perhaps more importantly, the use of these dialogues helped give rise to the Socratic Method — the use of questions to arrive at the truth. Sure, it has Socrates’ name, but if Plato hadn’t used this method so often in his books, the world may have never seen its value.
In these dialogues, Plato commented on a wide range of topics, including easy ones such as the nature of reality and the best form of government.
The Theory of Forms
One of Plato’s most famous contributions to the field of philosophy was his Theory of Forms. This was the notion that ideas, i.e. the stuff in our head, is what really makes up reality, and that the physical reality we perceive through our senses only has meaning because of how we think about it.
To illustrate this idea, he came up with what is known as “The Allegory of the Cave.” In this example, Plato asks people to consider a person living in a cave. To them, that cave is the whole world. But if one person were to leave that cave and learn about another world, when they returned to the cave, they would be aware of an entire reality that their friends and family had no idea existed.
Therefore, he concluded, we cannot depend just on our senses to determine reality, for there might be something beyond them we just have not yet discovered.
Inherent in this idea, however, is the existence of an ideal, also known as a form. And that is what is real. So, while we may be looking at a tree, what we are really looking at is a copy of the ideal of a tree. And because it is being perceived by our senses, our understanding of that ideal is limited.
A lot of what Plato examined came back to this idea, and it’s also had a profound impact on the development of human spirituality and religion.
Plato: The Political Philosopher
One area where Plato liked to apply this Theory of Forms was politics. He argued that human governments were inherently flawed, and that there must be a perfect form of government towards which people should strive.
Some of these ideas come through in Plato’s accounts of Socrates’ trial and death, The Apology of Socrates. But other works, such as Republic, Statesman, and Laws all deal with this subject in different ways.
Throughout these texts, Plato examines the best forms of government, the concepts of justice, and what type of people should be in charge. He concludes that it is in fact not democracy. Instead, the best type of government is one run by philosopher kings.
That he himself was a philosopher had no influence on this opinion…right?
But it makes sense when you think about it. If a king is well-educated and understands philosophy, then he should be able to make decisions that are truly in the best interest of his people. Then, since he is a king, he can enact policies without having to deal with the public, which can be fickle and much less educated.
Although this has never become a reality, it’s an interesting thought. And The Republic remains one of the more famous books about political philosophy that has had a tremendous influence on modern government.
To give an example, the men who wrote the US Constitution drew on Plato’s ideas, specifically those about a “mixed government.” Plato believed that the best form of government was one that incorporated elements of a democracy, monarchy, oligarchy, etc.
This gave rise to the idea of creating separate branches of government, an executive, legislative, and judicial, which was introduced to the world for the first time during American independence and then incorporated into many other governments around the world. Part of the reason Plato was so concerned with politics was because he lived during a time of tremendous political upheaval. The Greeks had been at war with both foreign enemies and themselves for more than a century, and such devastation led him to wonder if the governments in place at the time were the most effective ways of managing society.
You know you’re a big deal in ancient history when they make up a word to describe the stuff you thought about.
For Plato, that word is “platonic,” and it has lots of meanings in today’s world. For example, relationships between two people that are not romantic are often called platonic.
The reason for this goes back to the Theory of Forms. Essentially, Plato believed that there was a type of love that existed beyond the physical realm, in the world of “forms.” This love, he argued, would not depend on physical attraction but instead would be grounded in the truth.
Such a definition seems to go beyond “just friends.” But Plato never actually used the term “platonic love.” Instead, we’ve applied it to a modern concept. Yet Plato’s influence remains.
Plato’s influence has seeped into other areas of human life, such as geometry. Specifically, Plato gave us his solids, which are three-dimensional shapes that have entirely equal sides, equal angles, and the same number of faces meeting at each vertex.
In total, there are just five of these shapes — tetrahedron (pyramid), cube, hexahedron (six sides), octahedron (eight sides), dodecahedron (12 sides), and icosahedron (twenty sides).
Sticking to his Theory of Forms, Plato believed that these six shapes helped make up the building blocks of the Universe, and this type of thinking has helped inspire the field of physics, particularly particle physics.
These solids have also formed the base of modern geometry, a field that has helped humans build things and also go to space.
And it all started thousands of years ago when an ancient Greek philosopher started thinking about shapes.
The Student Becomes the Master
While Plato was technically the student of Socrates, if the two were to meet today, they would be equals. Plato has gone on to inspire his own school of thought, and his academy, which he founded in Athens, educated a whole new generation of ancient Greek philosophers.
So, while there is no doubt that Socrates had a profound influence on his pupil, Plato was his own man. His life and ideas were uniquely influential to both ancient and modern philosophers.
Written by Matthew Jones
Illustrated by Jean Galvao