Life of Plato Philosophy and Works

Founder of the Platonist school of thought and the Academy, the first institution of higher learning in the Western world. Plato has also often been cited as one of the founders of Western religion and spirituality He is widely considered a pivotal figure in the history of Ancient Greek and Western philosophy, along with his teacher, Socrates, and his most famous student Aristotle.

Life of Plato:

Plato, who dedicated his life to recalling Athenians from the intellectual anarchism and political decay into which they were sinking, was born in Athens in 427 B.c. On his mother’s side he was related to Solon; his father’s family was equally distinguished.

Brought up in an aristocratic environment, he was probably conditioned from the beginning to support the Oligarchs against the Democrats in the many contests for power then occurring. One of Plato’s letters recounts that he had in fact an ambition to enter politics as a member of the reactionary party.

In his early twenties he decided to participate in the Revolt of the Thirty, which coincided with the end of the Peloponnesian War in 404 B.c.; but the immediate excesses which accompanied this reactionary upheaval so sickened him that he began to recoil from political life.

When in 399 B.c. the other faction, the Democrats, condemned his friend and teacher Socrates to death, his revulsion from Athenian politics was complete. He never again took an active part in the political life of Athens.

After the death of Socrates, Plato suffered an extended period of disillusionment during which he traveled abroad. He supposedly visited Persia, Egypt, Africa, Italy, and Sicily. But we know with certainty only of his visit to the latter two countries.

In Italy he came into contact with the Pythagorean colony at Tarentum. His contact with this group shaped his views on the importance of mathematics. Plato was especially impressed by the certainty of the proofs of geometry, which was then being systematized. If truth could be demonstrated in geometry, why not in politics?

It was on this same trip that he had his famous encounter with Dionysius I, the tyrant of Syracuse. This ruler held a special fascination for Plato. He was so all-powerful that his every wish was law. Yet he had done much to encourage letters in Syracuse, and he was himself some thing of a playwright.

Such a person might be the philosopher-king Plato sought. Plato consequently undertook to inform him cf his obligations and duties as a just ruler. But he had only begun when Dionysius tired of Plato and had him sold into slavery. Fortunately he was soon ransomed and returned to Athens to found the Academy,where most of his later life was spent.

This was not the end of Plato’s Sicilian adventure, however. He had also become acquainted while in Syracuse with Dion, brother-in-law to Dionysius I. On the death of the latter, Dion became regent for Dionysius II. Young Dionysius had much impressed Plato, and he had hoped great things might come out of his rule. Consequently, when requested by Dion, Plato again set out for Syracuse in 367 B.c. to aid in the education of the young king.

On his arrival, however, he found his expectations had run away with him. Dionysius II would neither take advice nor apply himself to serious study. Politics at court also proved too much for Plato, and he was forced to admit failure. He returned to Athens once again saddened but not without a lingering hope.

In spite of his previous failures, Plato was led by this hope to correspond over many years with his friend Dion and to return five years later for one last try. But in the end Plato could only say of this adventure that he had done his best to meet his obligations. A philosopher, he had not proved unwilling to face the challenge of uniting in one person political power and a love of truth. He had proved to be more than a man of words.

Plato died in 347 at the age of eighty. During the later years of his life he had enjoyed widespread personal recognition, and his Academy had become the foremost school of Athens. As he had succeeded Socrates, so he was to be succeeded in this great tradition by Aristotle, to whom we will turn presently. But first we may consider with profit the dialogues of Plato and the political philosophy they contain.

Plato’s Dialogues

Political theory crops out in most of Plato’s dialogues, but three of them are more concerned with this subject than are the others. These are the Republic, the Statesman, and the Laws.

Of the three, the Republic is the best known and most highly regarded. It was written when Plato was at the height of his mental powers and represents his conception of the ideally best form of government. It is the dialogue with which we will be primarily concerned. The Statesman is a short, not widely read treatise coming between the Republic and the Laws.

It represents a transition in thought from the Republic in that Plato here argues the merits of rule by law, contrasted with the personal rule of the guardians in the Republic. Plato concludes that conditions being as they are, rule of law must be accepted as the most workable form of government. In the Laws this transition is completed.

This work, written at the end of Plato’s career and after his experiences in Syracuse, accepts the limitations practically imposed by an imperfect society and undertakes to prescribe for the best practical form of government. The ideal of the Republic is never repudiated. But it is laid aside in favor of s society not more perfect than the men who live in it.

First Principles of the Republic

The first principles or fundamental ideas contained in the Republic never appear in simple form. In fact, on first reading they tend to become lost in the intricacies of the argument and in the various analogies. But the Republic, like most good things, improves on better acquaintance. After a little reflection it will be seen that the major tenets of the Republic arrange themselves very neatly around a few basic assumptions. If these are understood, it becomes a relatively easy process to trace out the other deduced from them.

The foremost assumption of the Republic is that virtue is knowledge. This means that absolute truth exists and can be known. Or put differently, it means that good has an objective existence and can be known by those of the keenest intelligence. Consequently, virtue (good) is knowledge (can be known).

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On this assertion everything else hangs. But this itself is an outgrowth of a larger problem. This is the problem of nature versus circumstance which had been troubling Greek philosophers for a hundred years prior to the appearance of the Republic. The question, simply put, is this Does value or worth depend on circumstances, or are there things which have a universal value not dependent on surrounding conditions which may vary.

Is true knowledge possible in solving man’s problems, or must we rely only on the subjective judgments of individuals? Here Plato differs with the Sophists and all those whom he thought were undermining Greek civilization. There are, he asserted, absolute truths which can be known, if only by the selected few who are capable of greater insight than their contemporaries.

This brings us to the second major proposition of Plato’s political philosophy, which is that men are essentially unequal. They vary in their capacities for temperance, courage, wisdom, and justice the four cardinal virtues listed by Plato. As some are better suited by their courage to protect the city from invasion, so others by their capacity for wisdom are better suited to rule. Democracy, consequently, is both a sham and a delusion. It assumes an equality which does not exist and results in mistaking mere opinion for true knowledge.

Nothing upset Plato more than the Athenian belief in happy versatility, expressed by Pericles in the Funeral Oration. Statecraft, Plato stated, is not only a science, but the most difficult of all sciences. No one proposes to make every man a physician, yet democracy assumes something even more impossible. It assumes that every man can equally well govern other men. It assumes that insight into the intricacies of the state is shared by all.

More than this, democracy is the cause of faction and revolt. So often had Athens been thrown into turmoil by struggle for control of its government that Plato came to dread revolution and violence as he dreaded nothing else. This perhaps explains his emphasis on harmony and a controlled life. He wanted to find a stability which he believed to be vitally lacking in Athens.

He pictures the democratic man as drunk one hour, an abstainer the next; veering from violent athletics to no athletics at all, and from both to the study of philosophy; today a politician, who jumps to his feet and talks unpremeditated nonsense, and tomorrow a warrior.

Such a person can never remain constant to anything and can consequently never find real happiness. Happiness depends upon a higher order of life in which every man plays the one role he can play best.

An Aristocracy of Intelligence:-

The type of government prescribed by this higher order, Plato tells us, can be deduced from the first principles already mentioned. If virtue is knowledge, if truth can be known, but if only the few are possessed of such wisdom, then government ought to be placed in the hands of an aristocracy of intelligence. Or put more directly, philosophers ought to be kings.

Plato proposed that members of a ruling class of guardians, as they are called, be allowed to govern with complete power and according to an all-wise discretion, unencumbered by laws. He suggested that they consider each case on its merits, as a doctor might prescribe differently for each patient.

Laws, he argued, are by their very nature general and so geared only for the average or usual case. But the problems of people are not average or usual at all. Every problem is different, if only in detail, and demands a specific remedy.

Laws by their very definition are general rules, their generality is at once their essence and their main defect, because generality implies an average, and such rules can never meet the exceptions that are always arising, as can the unfettered discretion cf an all-wise ruler.

At best these rigid rules are a rough rank-shift far inferior to the flexibility of that wisdom which alone meets the test of true justice, by rendering unerringly to every man his due, not the due of some average man who never existed nor can exist. For Plato, therefore, discretion if it is wise discretion is higher than the straight-jacket of the law.

While the guardians are to have the broadest range of powers, Plato does not intend that they live extravagantly or have other privileges. The guardians exist for just one purpose, to promote the well-being of the state, and Plato expects them to specialize in this to the exclusion of all else.

Specialization of Classes.

This keynote of the ruling class, specialization, provides Plato with the basis for constructing the other classes in this ideal society. As the guardians are specialists, so must the whole state adhere to this principle if justice is to be achieved. Societies, Plato observes, arise out of the mutual needs of their members.

Men have a variety of wants which they satisfy by exchanging those things they can best produce for other things they need. As this process of specialization becomes increasingly complicated, a high degree of interdependence is built up.

It is (or more properly ought to be) an interdependence of classes one with the others. These classes, of which there are naturally three, come into being because there are three sorts or categories of men. First, there is a group motivated wholly by appetite or desire, These can be called artisans.

They will be happiest when specializing in material pursuits. Secondly, there is a group motivated by spirit or courage which can be called warriors or auxiliaries. Their special function is to serve as the protectors of society. And thirdly, there is the class, already mentioned, composed of men outstanding for their wisdom.

This is the guardian class whose duty it is to govern. When each of these classes is performing its appropriate function, states Plato, and when each is complementing the others to produce a perfect whole, then justice will be achieved.

Justice

Plato viewed justice, the climax of his political philosophy, as not merely the harmonious relationship of these groups, but as an arrangement so inherently right that all would accept it, were they only possessed of sufficient reason. Plato believed, in fact, that even the artisans or workers would have willed their own stations in life, had they under. stood the universal justice of his proposals.

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For Plato, justice meant more than giving to each man his due. He anticipated Jesus in proposing a larger conception of justice in which good was returnable for evil. Moreover, each person, in doing the thing he could do best, was expected to find a happiness which would guarantee the fullest growth of his own soul. This concept of the moral perfection of the soul is at the heart of the Republic, and it has led many commentators to conclude that Plato was not writing about politics at all.

He was, the believe, merely using the state to write in large letters about the human soul. But such a distinction makes little sense. Plato was never concerned, as we are, with this dualism or split between things private and public, Assertions which held true for one held true for both.

When, consequently, he compared justice to a state of health and injustice to a disease, he was talking about both the individual and the state. Health was achieved in the individual when appetite and spirit were controlled by reason, as it was in the state when these factors were similarly ordered.

This view of justice is opposed in the Republic by two competing theories. In the middle of Book I, Thrasymachus, a Sophist, enters the conversation to assert that justice can be nothing more nor less than the interest of the stronger. Might alone makes right. Government, in short, exists for the good of the governors, not the governed. And if Socrates wishes to call this unjust, then, declares Thrasymachus, injustice is better than justice.

To this Plato answers that as the function of a doctor is to heal his patients and of the shepherd to protect his sheep, so the true governor must unselfishly concern himself with the welfare of his people. As to injustice being better than justice, Plato replies that the just person will be a happier and better man in the long run that the unjust man because of the inherent contradictions in the course of the latter.

The third view of justice encountered is supported by Glaucon. He is inclined to be conciliatory, but still believes justice to be a convention, rather that a law of nature. Glaucon argues that every person would like to practice injustice, if he were the only one allowed to do so. But to his consternation others are practicing it, too, and at his expense.

The only solution is for each to contract with all to guarantee that none will practice injustice nor suffer it to be done by others. This contract thus becomes the basis of government, but it still remains only a convention drawn up by the people, not a condition of nature as Plato believed.

To answer Glaucon is more difficult. Plato must prove that justice is a universal principle and is everywhere the necessary condition for a good life. This leads Plato to consider the nature of justice through considering in detail the nature of the ideal state, a task which largely occupies the remainder of the Republic. If justice in the state can be discovered and turns out to be universally good, then Glaucon will have been in error.

The two problems are thus to discover justice and then to demonstrate its absolute value. The method of discovery used by Plato is technically called the method of residues, which means to isolate or identify a factor by eliminating all others. This Plato does by first enumerating all of the virtues of the state. These are temperance, courage, wisdom, and justice, as previously mentioned. He then assigns each of the first three its proper place, leaving justice to fulfill the remaining role.

Its role differs from the others because where each of the first three are specific forms of virtue, justice has a different character. It is the ultimate cause and condition of the others, being common to all. It is specifically the will to concentrate on one’s own sphere of duty and not to meddle with the sphere of another.

That justice, now discovered, is also universally good, follows from the foregoing. Meddlesomeness, the opposite of justice, can lead only to strife and ruin. And other virtues, Plato concludes, can flourish only where they are preserved by justice.

This completes the reconstruction of Plato’s basic philosophy as it applies to the state. It now remains to consider some of the more interesting ramifications of these doctrines.

Life of the Guardians

The life to be led by the guardians is of particular interest. Their education, family relationships, and property rights, or more properly the lack of property rights, are fully discussed in the Republic.

The education of the guardians is so carefully considered that the Republic is often regarded as a treatise on this subject. Rousseau, himself one of the noted contributors to the theory of education, believed the Republic to be the greatest of all treatises in this field. Certainly, Plato places the fullest possible emphasis on education. He believed that it was the one weapon which held hope for remodeling an imperfect society. Where all else failed, education, given enough time, might succeed.

As to the sort of education required, Plato prescribed compulsory public education for everyone, for the children of the artisans as well as those of the guardian class. The training was to be divided into two parts. The first concerned the mind and came under the heading of music.

It included the reading of poetry and other forms of literature and the singing and playing of music. In order that nothing detrimental might be included, the selections used were to be heavily censored. The second concerned the body and came under the heading of gymnastics.

It included the teaching of self-discipline and other manly virtues. This dual form of education was to continue until early manhood, when those who had shown the greatest aptitude would be selected to continue their training, the others turning to lives as members of the working or artisan class.

The next period of training was to cover the years from twenty to thirty. Women as well as men were to be eligible, and there was to be a noticeable upgrading of the curriculum. The staples of this higher education were to be logic, astronomy, and mathematics. From thirty to thirty-five (after further thinning of the ranks) attention was to be turned to philosophy and training in dialectical thinking.

Then for a period of fifteen years those who had proved their superiority were to be tested by actual experience in government and war. Finally, at the age of fifty, those who had met every test were to assume of last the mantle of guardians.

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The time has now arrived at which they must raise the eye of the soul to the universal light and assume the full burden of bringing justice and order to the state.As guardians they were to be allowed time for refection and pure mediation.

But when their turns came, they were also to toil at politics, ruling for the public good not as though they were performing some heroic action, but simply as a matter of duty; and when they have brought up in each generation others like themselves and left them in their place to be governors of the State, then they will depart to the Islands of the Blest and dwell there; and the city will give them public memorials and sacrifices and honor them.

Concerning family relationships, Plato was willing that the artisans continue to have private families and monogamous marriages, but such practices were not acceptable for the guardians, Plato reasoned that members of the guardian class must be entirely unselfish if they were to successfully discharge their duties. They could not even be allowed the privilege of being partial to their own children.

Such partiality might take precedence over their duties to the state. The remedy lay in communing family relationships. Wives, husbands, and children must be held in common and shared by all. This would lead to other advantages.

Women would be freed from the routines of family life, allowing them to take their proper place in the guardian class. And parenthood could be more easily planned to develop the best possible offspring. This latter notion appealed to Plato very much. He believed that proper breeding might revolutionize this already select group, resulting in men vastly superior in intelligence and manliness.

Plato really was objecting to more than the institution of marriage. He was objecting to the principle of private property. Monogamous marriage and families were, after all, only forms of private property, and they would result, as did all private property, in stirring up greed and envy. The guardians had only one reason for existing to promote the well-being of the state.

If private property interfered with this purpose, it should be abolished. Plato proposed therefore that the guardians be prohibited from owning property of any sort. They were to live in barracks and eat common meals. Any requirements that they might have were to be supplied by artisans. Plato precedes Rousseau in admiring the virtues of the unrefined, less artificial life.

Forms of Government

Plato was also the first to arrange an imaginary cycle through which governments pass in degeneration from the best to the worst form. At the top he placed a perfect aristocracy, in which the wise rule, animated by the idea of justice. This was followed by aristocracy, in which the ruling class is influenced by love of glory or honor, rather than justice.

Next came oligarchy, when the rise of private property placed political power in the hands of those possessing wealth. The gradual rise of the masses led to democracy, which abused liberty and resulted in anarchy. At the bottom of the scale, farthest removed both justice, was tyranny, which arose when dissension among strong ruler. Like all Greeks, Plato considered tyranny the worst form of government.

The Statesman and the Laws

In the Statesman Plato is concerned not only with the ideal state, but with the best possible state as well. He aims to distinguish the ideal ruler and the abstract science of the state from the politician and the methods of actual administration. He develops in a more definite and logical way his ideas, set forth in the Republic, that the true statesman is the all-wise philosopher and that the aim of politics is education in virtue and justice.

If an ideal ruler could be found, there would be no need for laws, since such a man should be free from all restraint; but since omniscient individuals are not available, written laws and customs are important. They are the expressions of. practical wisdom and of experience; hence conformity to law is essential in the imperfect systems of government that are in existence.

On the basis of these conceptions, Plato makes a new classification of governments from the point of view of the number of persons exercising authority and the degree to which these persons are subject to legal restraint. If the government is subject to law, monarchy is best, democracy worst, and aristocracy holds an intermediate position. If it is unrestrained by law, democracy is best, tyranny worst, with oligarchy between.

The rule of one may thus be the best or the worst form of government. Aristocracy and oligarchy occupy a middle position with regard to their possibilities for good or evil. Democracy is the worst form of government subject to law, but because of its essential weakness and inefficiency is least oppressive if the restraints of law are absent.

In the Laws Plato traverses still further the field of practical politics. Since the ideal form of government is not possible among imperfect human beings, and since laws are therefore indispensable, he proposes a legal system which will accomplish the best results under existing conditions. He modifies somewhat his earlier doctrines, and permits private property and domestic life, although under strict governmental supervision.

Education, though less rigidly controlled by the magistrates, is still given primary consideration, and a strict censorship is established over the intellectual and artistic interests of the citizens. Governing authority is based not on intellect alone, but on a division of the population into classes on the basis of wealth in land, the state placing a limit on the amount any individual may possess.

Plato proposes a governmental system which aims to avoid the extremes of monarchy and of democracy. Checks must be placed upon tyrannic authority, and at the game time the freedom of a democracy must not be allowed to degenerate into anarchy. While every citizen may have some share in government, the proportion of his share will depend upon his ability.

The details of an elaborate system of administration are then set forth, combining aristocratic and democratic elements and providing for extensive checks and balances. This insistence on a balanced, well-ordered state provided the starting point for Aristotle’s Politics, to which we now turn.

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