Plato is without a doubt the most well-known philosopher in the West, if not the entire world. He is also among the most prolific. His collection of dialogues covers virtually every area of philosophy, from the theoretical realm of epistemology and metaphysics to the practical domain of ethics and politics. Add to this his myriad investigations into art, beauty, linguistics, rhetoric, love, friendship, piety, and virtue (to name but a few) and Plato becomes a thinker of nearly unparalleled breadth.
Plato was born “Aristocles” in Athens in the late 5th century BCE to a politically prominent family. His father, Ariston, set Plato up for success, having him educated by Athens’ best teachers. Plato’s intellectual gifts were apparent from an early age, where he displayed a quick-witted, yet modest and hardworking disposition. He excelled physically as well, earning a reputation as a skillful wrestler.
In addition to these talents, Plato exhibited promise as a poet and a playwright. However, after hearing Socrates speak, he abandoned these endeavors in favor of philosophy and burned a tragedy he had intended to submit to a drama competition as a declaration of his intent. Plato’s diverse abilities are likely the source of his nickname, derived from the Greek platon, meaning “broad,” although others claim the sobriquet is a reference to his wide shoulders and forehead.
After traveling the Mediterranean as a young adult, Plato returned to Athens to establish the Academy, a school for higher learning. Apart from a series of Syracusean political embroilments, he spent the remainder of his life at the school. In approximately 347 BCE, Plato passed away and was purportedly buried at his beloved Academy.
The inspiration for Plato’s philosophy belongs chiefly to his teacher: the peripatetic Socrates. Although Socrates never wrote down his own thought, his influence is evident both in Plato’s philosophical style and content. Most obviously, the dialogic format of Plato’s writings is an inheritance from Socrates’ dialectic: a question-and-answer style discourse in which the questioner asks provocative questions to challenge the answerer’s assumptions. Socrates, as depicted in The Apology, considers himself wise (the wisest man in Athens, according to the Oracle of Delphi) only because he recognizes his own ignorance. Socrates’ mission was to scrutinize the beliefs of all supposed truth-holders to confirm their knowledge or, more often than not, debunk their false notions — even if it killed him. (Ultimately, Socrates’ persistent inquiries did kill him: he was tried for impiety and “corrupting the youth” and sentenced to death by hemlock.)
Plato depicts Socrates in dialectical action in his early dialogues. In Euthyphro, Socrates and Euthyphro discuss piety after Euthyphro reveals that he is prosecuting his father for murder. Euthyphro is confident that such an act is the pious thing to do. The incredulous Socrates asks for a definition of piety, to which Euthyphro responds, “piety is that which is dear to the Gods.” Socrates then asks, “were the gods admitted to have enmities and hatreds and differences?” After Euthyphro assents, Socrates points out that under Euthyphro’s definition, things would be simultaneously pious and impious, as some gods love what other gods hate. After being forced to discard the disproven definition, the two try without success to replace it until Euthyphro becomes annoyed and departs to Socrates’ dismay.
This sort of impasse, or aporia, is often how Plato’s early dialogues end: a character’s purported knowledge is challenged and negated by Socrates, and a void is left where the invalidated understanding once stood.
Plato’s later dialogues seek to overcome this aporia and assert positive knowledge. Scholars suggest that at this point, Plato stopped being Socrates’ student, faithfully depicting his teacher’s skeptical views, and began to emerge as a philosopher in his own right. An example of this is in the dialogue Meno, in which Plato attempts to demonstrate that all knowledge is recollection. In a key scene, an illiterate slave boy with no mathematical training solves a geometry problem after being prompted by Socrates. Plato uses this feat to assert that geometrical knowledge, yea all knowledge, is in fact innate, existing as latent material merely waiting to be uncovered. Furthermore, because humans have this recollective ability, Plato infers that there must be an eternal soul in every human being that recollects what it already knows from previous lives.
While this theory is contentious, it is outdone by Plato’s infamous Theory of Forms. In Phaedo, Plato uses the character of Socrates, who is awaiting his death sentence, as a mouthpiece for a theory that the historical Socrates would have almost certainly rejected as being metaphysical fantasy. Plato’s Socrates begins by asserting that the sensory world is flawed and untrustworthy and cannot teach us about the true nature of reality. For that, we must turn to the unseen world, comprehensible by reason alone, which contains the perfect templates of concepts that are imperfectly “copied” in the seen world, for example the form of hardness versus a rock or the form of justice versus a piece of legislation. Socrates notes that the body, with its appetites, distractions, and illusions, prevents us from accessing the world of forms. In light of this, Socrates assures his followers that he is not only unafraid of his impending execution, but eager, as he will finally liberate his soul from his cumbersome earthly vessel and gain access to the perfect world of forms.
Plato’s prioritizing of reason, symbolized in Phaedrus as the rational charioteer taming the horses of pride and desire, features prominently in his political thought. In the famous allegory of The Cave, Plato suggests that most people mistake shadows for reality, and are destined to remain in darkness. But a select few step out of the Cave and into the light of reason. These individuals, apprehending the eternal soul and the world of forms, understand that perpetrating injustice does harm to one’s soul and thus will avoid acting unjustly at all costs. Furthermore, they recognize that moral action is what brings about benefits for society as a whole. Through rigorous instruction and training to destroy ignorance and build up resolve, the rational elite are cultivated into philosopher kings fit to rule under Plato’s ideal form of government: an aristocracy, or a state “ruled by the best.”
Plato’s controversial positions on knowledge, the soul, and justice — among his myriad other provocative ideas — continue to be energetically discussed and debated to this day. Rarely has an ancient thinker remained so enjoyable and relevant to the modern world. The fact that Plato is still taught and celebrated in the 21st century is a testament to both the substance of his ideas and the engaging, dramatic style in which they’re packaged.