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]

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 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).

Alan Ryan (2012):

The underlying target of Socrates’s attack is the commonplace Greek view that the unbridled pursuit of self-interest constitutes success. Gorgias says that he has the same power as a tyrant, or perhaps even more, because he can persuade people to do what the tyrant must force them to do; Socrates insists that this, too, is an illusion. What appears to be the successful pursuit of self-interest is nothing of the sort. The only thing worth having is a just soul. To bring about the death of your enemies and the confiscation of their property by unjust means is not success, but inner death. A man who had behaved like that and knew his real interests would wish to be punished for his crimes, not to get away with them. Unsurprisingly, this meets with entire disbelief from Gorgias’s student Polus, who laughs at Socrates and points out that he will not find anyone to agree with him. Socrates points out that neither mockery nor majority opinion are good guides to the truth, and he asks Polus to show him the error of his ways by argument.


Socrates discusses justice and whether or not 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. This culminates in the discussion of a hypothetical city-state ruled by a philosopher king.


It is presented that politics should be run by 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 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 visitor takes great pains to be very specific about where and why the divisions are needed in order to properly rule the citizenry.


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]