Plato (-429 to -374) founded the Academy, one of the five schools of Greek philosophy. Through Augustine it became the one that most influenced the West from 400 till 1250. From 1250 to 1650 Aristotle, through the work of Aquinas, became more important.
Plato and Aristotle together laid the foundation of philosophy in the West.
Unlike Aristotle, Plato trusted mind and reason over the senses.
Plato was taught by Socrates, who turned Greek philosophy from questions of nature to questions about man. That is why so much of Plato is about virtue, justice and law.
Plato wanted to create the perfect society. He wrote about it in his book the “Republic”.
In the “Republic” a philosopher-king rules through a military made up of both men and women who have their property and children in common and their lovers chosen, it seems, by lot. The good of society is put above the good of the individual. Homer and other great works are rewritten to serve the needs of the state since, as they stand, they will ruin the young with the wrong ideas. Rulers tell “noble lies” to their subjects for the good of society.
In the course of telling us about his perfect society – which Plato does to find out the true nature of justice – he tells us along the way about the nature of man and of reality.
For Plato man is an immortal soul put in a mortal, material, corruptible body. Man is born neither good nor evil — he is whatever his education has made him. So the key to creating the perfect society is education. He who controls education controls the future. That is why Homer has to be rewritten.
After death the soul goes through the river Lethe where it forgets everything. It then enters a new body.
Plato’s picture of reality is given in his story of the cave. We are like men living in a cave who only see shadows on the wall. We think that is real life. We cannot see what is causing the shadows much less the light.
And so what we see about us is only a shadow of a higher reality, which Plato called the Forms or Ideas – the things causing the shadows.
For example, when we see horses, they are mere shadows or imperfect instances of the true Horse, which is idea or form of horseness in all its purity.
This is called idealism. It speaks to our sense that there is something beautiful and pure at the root of this very imperfect world.
Plato wrote his books in the form of dialogues or discussions. This is because Socrates taught by close questioning to test ideas and seek definitions.
Plato’s dialogues discuss the deepest questions of life:
- The Republic: What is justice? What is real?
- Parmenides: What is being and nothingness?
- Theatetus: What is language?
- Timaeus: How is the world put together?
- Phaedo: Is the sould immortal?
- Symposium: What is love?
And so on.