History of Western Political Thought/Plato

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Plato was a philosopher in Classical Greece. He is considered the most pivotal figure in the development of Western philosophy. Plato's entire work is believed to have survived intact for over 2,400 years. Others believe that the oldest extant manuscript dates to around AD 895, 1100 years after Plato's death. This makes it difficult to know exactly what Plato wrote.

Along with his teacher, Socrates, and his most famous student, Aristotle, Plato laid the very foundations of Western philosophy and science. In addition to being a foundational figure for Western science, philosophy, and mathematics, Plato has also often been cited as one of the founders of Western religion and spirituality.

Plato was the innovator of the written dialogue and dialectic forms in philosophy. Plato appears to have been the founder of Western political philosophy, with his Republic, and Laws among other dialogues, providing some of the earliest extant treatments of political questions from a philosophical perspective. Plato's own most decisive philosophical influences are usually thought to have been Socrates, Parmenides, Heraclitus and Pythagoras, although few of his predecessors' works remain extant and much of what we know about these figures today derives from Plato himself.

Plato's life[edit | edit source]

Due to a lack of surviving accounts, little is known about Plato's early life and education. The philosopher came from one of the wealthiest and most politically active families in Athens.

Based on ancient sources, most modern scholars believe that he was born in Athens or Aegina between 429 and 423 BC. The traditional date of Plato's birth (428/427) is based on a dubious interpretation of Diogenes Laertius, who says, "When [Socrates] was gone, [Plato] joined Cratylus the Heracleitean and Hermogenes, who philosophized in the manner of Parmenides. Then, at twenty-eight, Hermodorus says, [Plato] went to Euclides in Megara."

The precise relationship between Plato and Socrates remains an area of contention among scholars. Plato makes it clear in his Apology of Socrates that he was a devoted young follower of Socrates. In that dialogue, Socrates is presented as mentioning Plato by name as one of those youths close enough to him to have been corrupted, if he were in fact guilty of corrupting the youth, and questioning why their fathers and brothers did not step forward to testify against him if he was indeed guilty of such a crime (33d-34a).

Dion requested Plato return to Syracuse to tutor Dionysius II and guide him to become a philosopher king. Dionysius II seemed to accept Plato's teachings, but he became suspicious of Dion, his uncle. Dionysius expelled Dion and kept Plato against his will. Eventually Plato left Syracuse. Dion would return to overthrow Dionysius and ruled Syracuse for a short time before being usurped by Calippus, a fellow disciple of Plato.

Gorgias[edit | edit source]

Gorgias is a Socratic dialogue written by Plato (Steph. 447a - 527) around 380 BC. Socrates debates with the sophist seeking the true definition of rhetoric, attempting to unveil the flaws of the sophistic oratory. Some, like Gorgias, were foreigners attracted to Athens due to its reputation for intellectual and cultural sophistication. In the Gorgias, Socrates argues that philosophy is an art, but rhetoric is a skill based on mere experience. To use rhetoric for good, rhetoric cannot exist alone. It must depend on philosophy to guide its morality, he argues. Socrates therefore believes that morality is not inherent in rhetoric and that without philosophy, rhetoric is simply used to persuade for personal gain. Socrates suggests that he is one of the few Athenians to practice true politics (521d). Socrates discusses the morality of rhetoric with Gorgias, asking him if rhetoric was just. Socrates catches the incongruity in Gorgias statements: "well, at the time you said that, I took it that oratory would never be an unjust thing, since it always makes its speeches about justice. But when a little later you were saying that the orator could also use oratory unjustly, I was surprised and thought that your statements weren't consistent" (461a). To this argument, Gorgias "…is left wishing he could respond, knowing he cannot, and feeling frustrated and competitive. The effect of the 'proof' is not to persuade, but to disorient him".[4]

Socrates believes that rhetoric alone is not a moral endeavour. Gorgias is criticised because, "he would teach anyone who came to him wanting to learn oratory but without expertise in what's just…" (482d). Socrates believes that people need philosophy to teach them what is right, and that oratory cannot be righteous without philosophy.

Socrates continually claims that his methods of questioning are aimed at discovering the truth. He sarcastically compliments Callicles on his frankness because it helps expose the truth about oratory: "I well know that if you concur with what my soul believes, then that is the very truth. I realize that the person who intends to put a soul to an adequate test to see whether it lives rightly or not must have three qualities, all of which you have: knowledge, goodwill, and frankness." (487a). Truth can be found through deliberation with others, relaying to one another the knowledge in one's soul to come to a conclusion about each other's beliefs.

At the same time, truth is not based upon commonly accepted beliefs. Socrates outlines a problem about truth when it is misaligned from public opinion: "you don't compel me; instead you produce many false witnesses against me and try to banish me from my property, the truth. For my part, if I don't produce you as a single witness to agree with what I'm saying, then I suppose I've achieved nothing worth mentioning concerning the things we’ve been discussing" (472c).

Republic[edit | edit source]

The Republic is a Socratic dialogue, authored by Plato around 375 BC, concerning justice, the order and character of the just city-state, and the just man. It is Plato's best-known work, and has proven to be one of the world's most influential works of philosophy and political theory, both intellectually and historically.

In the dialogue, Socrates talks with various Athenians and foreigners about the meaning of justice and whether the just man is happier than the unjust man. They consider the natures of existing regimes and then propose a series of different, hypothetical cities in comparison, culminating in Kallipolis, a utopian city-state ruled by a philosopher king. They also discuss the theory of forms, the immortality of the soul, and the role of the philosopher and of poetry in society. The dialogue's setting seems to be during the Peloponnesian War.

Statesman[edit | edit source]

The dialogue begins immediately after the Sophist ends, with Socrates (the elder) and Theodorus briefly reflecting on the discussion before the Eleatic Stranger proposes to begin a dialectical investigation with Socrates the Younger into the nature of the statesman. The Eleatic Stranger and Socrates the Younger resume using the method of division employed in the Sophist, pausing to reflect on dialectical methods and a myth similar to the myth of ages. The interlocutors ultimately offer a complicated account of the statesman through a version of division that entails accounting for the object of inquiry 'by carving at the joints' like a 'sacrificial animal' (Statesman 287b-c).

According to John M. Cooper, the dialogue was intended to clarify that to rule or have political power called for a specialized knowledge. The statesman was one who possesses this special knowledge of how to rule justly and well and to have the best interests of the citizens at heart. It is presented that politics should be run by this knowledge, or gnosis. This claim runs counter to those who, the Stranger points out, actually did rule. Those that rule merely give the appearance of such knowledge, but in the end are really sophists or imitators. For, as the Stranger maintains, a sophist is one who does not know the right thing to do, but only appears to others as someone who does. The Stranger's ideal of how one arrives at this knowledge of power is through social divisions. The Stranger takes great pains to be very specific about where and why the divisions are needed in order to rule the citizenry properly.

Laws[edit | edit source]

The Laws is in opposition to and yet the similar to Republic. The city of the Laws is described as "second best", because it is the city of gods and their children. While the Republic is a dialogue between Socrates and several young men, the Laws is a discussion among old men, where children are not allowed and there is always a pretense of piety and ritualism.

Reference and Further Reading[edit | edit source]