Wednesday, September 21, 2016

Essential Thinkers #5 Plato the Founder of the Academy and 'The Republic'

Wise men talk because they have something to say;
fools, because they have to say something
Philosophy begins in wonder

Plato is the student of Socrates and founder of the Academy, the first reported institution of higher education – no philosopher has had a greater or wider-ranging influence in the history of philosophy than Plato. Alfred North Whitehead once said, with much justification, that “the safest characterisation of Western philosophy is that of a series of footnotes to Plato.” This is no topic of philosophical concern for which one cannot find some view in the corpus of his work.

Accordingly it can be difficult to characterise such a vast and comprehensive canon of thought. However, much of Plato’s work revolves around his conception of a realm of ideal forms. The world of experience is illusory, Plato tells us, since only that which is unchanging and eternal is real, an idea he borrowed from Parmenides. There must, then, be a realm of eternal unchanging forms that are the blueprints of the ephemeral phenomena we encounter through sense experience. According to Plato, though there are many individual horses, cats and dogs, they are all made in the image of the one universal form of “the horse”, “the cat”, “the dog” and so on. Likewise, just as there many men, all men are made in the image of the universal “form of man.” The influence of this idea on Christian thought, in which man is made in the image of God, is only one of many ways in which Plato had a direct influence on Christian theology.

Plato’s Theory of Forms, however, was not restricted to material objects. He also thought there were ideal forms of universal or abstract concepts, such as beauty, justice, truth and mathematical concepts such as number and class. Indeed, it is in mathematics that Plato’s influence is still felt strongly today.

The Theory of Forms also underlies Plato’s most contentious and best known work, The Republic. In a quest to understand the nature and value of justice, Plato offers a vision of a utopian society led by an elite class of guardians who are trained from birth for the task of ruling. The rest of society is divided into soldiers and the common people. In The Republic, the ideal citizen is one who understands how best they can use their talents to the benefit of the whole of society, and bends unerringly to that task. There is little thought of personal freedom or individual rights in Plato’s Republic, for everything is tightly controlled by the guardians for the good of the state as a whole. This has led some, notably Bertrand Russell, to accuse Plato of endorsing an elitist and totalitarian regime under the guise of communist or socialist principles. Whether Russell and others who level this criticism are right or not is itself a subject of great debate.

But it is important to understand Plato’s reasons for organizing society in this way. The Republic is an attempt, in line with his Theory of Forms, to discover the ideal form of society, of which all actual societies are mere imperfect copies, since they do not promote the good of all. Such a society, Plato believes, would be stronger than its neighbours and unconquerable by its enemies, a thought very much in Greek minds given the frequent warring between Athens, Sparta and the other Hellenistic city-states. But more importantly, such a society would be just to all its citizens, giving to and taking from each their due, with each working for the benefit of the whole. Whether Plato’s Republic is an ideal, or even viable society, has had scholars divided ever since.
[Summarized from Philosophy 100 Essential Thinkers by Philip Stokes, 2012. Also watch The School of Life: Plato]

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