Thursday, May 24, 2018


Admired as much for his incomparable literary style as for his challenging doctrines, Plato ranks as one of the best-known and carefully studied philosophers. He wrote in the middle of the fourth century BCE in ancient Athens. Though influenced primarily by Socrates, so that Socrates figures as the main character in many of Plato's earlier writings, he also attended to the lessons of Heraclitus, Parmenides, and the Pythagoreans. In his turn he was the teacher of Aristotle, whose doctrines however are very different.

Plato’s central doctrine is the Theory of Forms.  This concept posits a fundamental distinction between everyday reality vs. the ultimate reality which is normally imperceptible but accessible to the enlightened. In dialogues such as the Phaedo, Symposium, and Republic, the Forms figure as transcendent, perfect archetypes, of which objects in the perceived world are but imperfect copies. According to this view, there is a resplendent world of eternal and changeless forms, the realm of Being, over against which lies a grubby ensemble of Becoming - what Heidegger would later label the Dasein..  This inferior realm in which we are confined, nonetheless partakes, after a fashion, of the qualities of the Forms, and is their instantiation in the sensible world.

Why did Plato adopt this peculiar notion of two worlds? In fact he drew upon a substantial  background in the history of ideas, for Heraclitus and Parmenides, leading pre-Socratic Greek philosophers, broke with the reigning mythological tradition. In this way they initiated the metaphysical approach that strongly influenced Plato and has in some respects lasted until now.

Heraclitus’ thinking stressed the fact that all things are continuously changing, or becoming. Well-known is his signature image of the river, with its ever-changing waters. Plato received the ideas of this philosopher through Cratylus, who stressed even more than his predecessor the idea of change, holding that this vision of pervasive change leads to skepticism, since we can not define a thing that lacks a permanent nature. For his part, Parmenides embraced a contrary vision, advancing the idea of changeless Being, and holding that change is an illusion of the senses.

It seems then that these speculations about change and permanence, or becoming and Being, led Plato to formulate his theory of Forms.

In recent years Plato's ideas about love have attracted considerable interest.  He is mainly concerned with pederasty, or the love of an older man for a youth.  With some reservations he accepted, and even extolled this practice.  Yet in his late work The Laws he stigmatized it as unnatural.

Plato has also been influential as a political theorist, as seen in his accounts of the ideal society in The Republic and the Laws. Yet his ideas have not met with universal approval.

His views were trenchantly attacked in the magnum opus of Karl Popper, The Open Society and Its Enemies (1945). The subtitle of his first volume, "The Spell of Plato,” encapsulates Popper's view—namely, that most Plato interpreters through the ages have been seduced by Plato's intellectual brilliance and coruscating style. In so responding, Popper argues, they have treated Plato's political philosophy as a benign idyll, overlooking its dangerous tendencies toward totalitarianism,

Popper extols Plato's analysis of social change and discontent, naming him as a great sociologist, while rejecting his solutions. This rejection reflects Popper's reading of the emerging humanitarian ideals of Athenian democracy as the birth pangs of his coveted "open society."  Plato's distaste for democracy led him, Popper holds, "to defend lying, political miracles, tabooistic superstition, the suppression of truth, and ultimately, brutal violence."

Popper argues that Plato's political ideas are driven by a fear of the process of change that liberal democracies bring about. Moreover, as an aristocrat and a relative of one-time Athenian dictator Critias, Plato sympathized with the oligarchs of his own day, being contemptuous of the common man. Popper also infers that Plato was the victim of his own vanity, wishing to become the supreme Philosopher King of his vision.

Despite lively competition from the Aristotelians, Stoics, and adherents of other schools, Plato continued to be read throughout antiquity. In the third century CE, Plotinus recast Plato's system, establishing Neoplatonism, in which Middle Platonism was fused with mysticism. At the summit of existence stands the One or the Good, as the source of all things. It generates from itself, as if from the reflection of its own being, reason, the nous, or mind, harboring the infinite store of ideas.The world-soul, the copy of the nous, is generated by and contained in it, as the nous is in the One, and, by informing matter in itself nonexistent, constitutes bodies whose existence is contained in the world-soul.[ Nature therefore is a whole, endowed with life and soul. Soul, being chained to matter, longs to escape from the bondage of the body and return to its original source.

In virtue and philosophical thought it has the power to elevate itself above the reason into a state of ecstasy, where it can behold, or ascend to, that one primary Being whom reason cannot know. To attain this union with the Good, or God, is the true function of human beings.  Plotinus' disciple, Porphyry, followed by Iamblichus, developed the system in conscious opposition to Christianity.

The Platonic Academy revived during this period.  Its most renowned head was Proclus (died 485), a celebrated commentator on Plato's writings. The Academy persisted until Byzantine emperor Justinian closed it in 529.

In nineteenth-century Britain the translations of Benjamin Jowett sought to exploit Plato in the service of Victorian ideals. More recent interest in Plato among professional philosophers has been selective, emphasizing his contributions to logic and mathematics.

A recent, quirky response Is Rebecca Goldstein’s book, Plato at the Googleplex.  In addition to a straightforward account of the philosopher’s thought, the writer offers sections where Plato visits the Google office, helps an advice columnist counsel people on problems with their love life, debates a cable-news character, shares the stage with a tiger-mother character and a psychoanalyst to discuss child upbringing, and debates free will with a neuroscientist.


Post a Comment

<< Home