When you look at the history of philosophy you’ll see that everybody agrees that it starts with Thales. But if we are talking about meaningful philosophy it starts with Plato. His predecessors concerned with ontology. It was important because they thought it would mean knowing the first principles. Knowing the first principles would give them the ability to affect the outcomes. But why I say meaningful philosophy starts with him? Because our dude Plato, and his mentor Socrates, dabbled not only in ontology. They discussed ethics,values and created a freaking utopia.
So let’s begin by who was he?
Who was Plato?
For all we know Plato is a member of Athenian aristocracy and lived in turbulent times. His name was Aristocres, Plato was his nickname meaning “Wide shouldered”. It is a nick that stood the test of time, a thing that amuses me to no end.
He wrote a lot of books. From his most famous book – The State – to his lesser known works he discussed a lot of things. But what should we think when we hear his name? What is the tldr version of Plato. I aim to give you this information on this article.
For me Plato means three things: His State, His Theory of Ideas and in connection with it, the Cave Simile. A common criticism of his book is he doesn’t finish his enquiries. That’s true. Socrates begins by asking what is good or what is justice but never finishes those trains of thought. That doesn’t devalue them. Those questions are valid as the day they originate. As long as we exist in a society they will remain valid I suppose.
Theory of Ideas
Let’s begin with the theory of ideas. For him the realest things are the ideas. They form the essence of the things we see in this world. They are perfect and because of this perfection are not subject to change.
Let’s give the desk as an example. There are many desks in this world, they can be big or small; ornate or plain; round or circle. We can create many desks as well as destroy them. In short there are many desks, they are prone to change but they also share a common deskness. That shared deskness is the desk idea.
This idealism forms the basis of Plato’s thinking. Unless you know the idea of a thing, you don’t know it. In connection with this idea Plato suggests that we don’t learn anything new. Because soul is a product of the world of ideas; it comes to this world knowing everything. Yet it forgets all these information and learning is remembering the ideas we saw.
That’s why Socratic method involves questions. Because it aims to remind you the answer. You already know it, the questioner is acting only as a midwife to the recalling of knowledge. But some writers criticized him saying he’s dodging the real issue here. Making a slave answer yes and no to a bunch of questions doesn’t make him learn the underlying concept.
Plato’s utopia involves a militaristic state. On hindsight it reminds me of Sparta. The reliance on slaves and the endless military preparation reminds me of it. Let us discuss Sparta first.
Sparta was a city state located near Athens. Their military force had the reputation of being the best of the Ancient Greece. This military force is important for a very important reason. Sparta used slave labor – and there is an ever present danger of revolts. So this military force’s main mission involved quashing these rebellions. Besides that they were a kingdom. For Athens, ruled by democracy, this is tyranny and for this reason is antagonistic to Sparta.
Plato’s ideal government is a perfect copy of the Sparta. But instead of a king whose abilities are subject to chance; his utopia’s ruler is a philosopher king. In this sense he finds the answer to the ultimate question, who will rule the state? When you are sick you go to a doctor, not a blacksmith. When you need good governance you turn to a philosopher, not a popular tyrant.
His state has a strict caste system. He promulgates it with a lie, told by the state. This lie says each citizen of the state has a soul quality. According to their souls, their responsibilities change. If a person has a copper soul his duty is to obey the orders. If he is silver, he should be a warrior – assisting and realizing the plans of the higher caste. And this higher caste forms from people with golden souls. They are the philosopher kings of this state. But he doesn’t discuss how they are going to select a king from this bunch.
He uses the metals for a reason. By this he will defend that people from different castes can’t marry. This weakens the quality of the soul in his opinion. Besides that Plato abolishes the family. He suggests that each children will regard people older than him as father and mother. So their allegiance will be towards their polis – not to their parents.
The Simile of Cave and Duty of a Philosopher
As a final point let me discuss the simile of cave. Even though it is the easiest to tell, its implications are deep. This simile goes like this: We imagine a group of people, in a cave, huddled before a fire. They have shackles and can’t leave the cave. They see shadows on the wall they are seeing and regard them as reality. We don’t know who shackled them nor who is making the shadows. Anyway, one day a prisoner is free from his chains. He goes outside and sees the real world. He feels elated, surprised and also pain. His eyes saw only shadows to this day. There is sun out there, flowers, animals and so on. He returns to his cave and tells those to his people. They don’t believe him. They ridicule him even. But in these terms he is the first philosopher. He saw the real world, the idea world and returns back to enlighten his people. But his return and his partaking of his duties in the cave also enforces his loyalty to the state.
In sum Plato gives us the duty of a philosopher here. His duty is to enlighten people no matter how painful it is. Once he sees the real world it is his burden to draw people closer to the cave’s entrance – regardless of they want it or not. This also carries a criticism about Socrates’ execution. He didn’t shirk from any of his duties. He was a good philosopher and a good citizen. Yet the people in the cave executed him.
Thanks for reading!