Plato is considered one of the greatest philosophical thinkers of western society and was born around 429-427 BC to Ariston and Perictione of aristocratic ancestry. As a result he obtained the best education a noble family would offer. As a student Plato was greatly influenced by the works of his teacher Socrates and especially the Socratic dialogues. The unjust death of his teacher further influenced his thinking towards developing philosophical dialogues on justice. After the death of Socrates much of his work was continued and developed by Plato who helped put down on paper most of Socrates’ works.
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However, later in his life he developed his own philosophy by formulating questions and ideas that would rely on Socrates’ teaching. He therefore founded his own school in Athens known as the Academy where most of his philosophical works would be taught (Hare 14). The Academy became the earliest higher education learning center in the western society and as a result, people were able to acquire various philosophical thinking from this institution. Plato’s philosophical thinking, the mentorship of Socrates towards developing these thoughts, and the contribution of Aristotle led to the laid the foundation of Western philosophy, science and natural philosophy. Plato’s writings were mainly in form of dialogues where one question would be asked than answers would be provided (Hare 16). This paper will discuss the biography of Plato, where he got his inspiration from and some of his theories. From the discussion, it would be easier to ascertain the contribution of Plato towards building the Western and natural philosophy.
Plato’s early life
As mentioned earlier, Plato was born in Athens in the period 429-427 BC. This is an estimation of the period he was born since the exact date of his birth is unclear. He was son of Ariston and Perictione both of aristocratic background and was regarded as member of the noble class. During his childhood, his father died and his mother married Pyrilampes who was also from a noble class and therefore Plato’s life can be considered as that of nobility. Initially, he was named Aristocles a name that belonged to his grandfather. As he grew up he was renamed ‘Platon’ by his wrestling coach who derived this name from the huge figure of Plato (Diogenes).
According to the writings of Diogenes, Plato loved studies, was hard-working, and was a bright student who learned music, grammar and gymnastic. As a youngster he had political ambitions given his aristocratic background. His ambition was brushed off when he became disappointed with the political leadership of Athens and decided to become a disciple of Socrates hence venturing into philosophy. Consequently, he developed his basic philosophy through the pursuit of knowledge and truth by formulating questions and answers to those questions. The derivation of his philosophy would often involve a two-way debate of questions between two individuals and the answers would come out of this debate. Later he established the Academy which according to historians became the first world university where philosophy was taught. The Academy produced excellent philosophers in the western society Aristotle being one of them (Huard 10).
Plato derived his inspirations from Socrates. Socrates was a man who roamed the streets of Athens engaging people in debates on various topics and Plato was impressed by the ability of Socrates to puzzle the aristocrats in the process of debating and decided to become one of his students. While a student of Socrates, Plato was able to learn a lot of philosophy from Socrates thereby making Socrates his greatest philosophical influence. Plato was able to learn that intellectual humility of understanding people’s minds as taught by Socrates. Plato learned that human wisdom amounts to nothing when subjected to careful analysis and Plato was able to develop some ideas on how to handle the day-to-day issues based on the teachings of Socrates which required one to focus on the heart of the problem or matter at hand. During Socrates’s debates, he always aimed at penetrating the minds of the participants by demanding that they give a precise yet accurate answer to his question regarding the topic at hand. Plato derived his philosophical ideas from this method of acquiring information where he would pretend to be the ignorant party and asked for help from people who bragged to be knowledgeable.
Plato’s philosophy was based on the following theories namely; the theory of knowledge, the concept of the state, psychology theory, ethical theory, and his perspective on art. In his theory of Knowledge, Plato argued that for anything to be considered knowledge it must be perfect and certain and above all it must be real and he disputed the idea of empiricism that claimed that knowledge is derived from sense of experience. In his view, the sense of experience is a function of probability and thus not certain and according to him this is not knowledge since it is subjected to change (Santas 54). He further distinguished between knowledge and opinion to help clarify the meaning of knowledge. Plato argued that opinions are mere claims about the physical or visible world without the relevant prove and are subject to change depending on new opinions hence opinions are mere senses of experience. Knowledge goes beyond this and is regarded as a higher level of awareness that is permanent. The second theory of Plato was the nature of forms which argued that things existed only in form of ideas and could not be ascertained physically but can be explained by giving reasons for their existence. It is from this theory that he derived his argument on justice. Though one cannot see justice physically, it can be applied universally to all situations common in nature that pertains to justice (Lodge 48).
The Allegory of the Cave is among Plato’s most renowned works which was an allegory where humans are represented as prisoners of their bodies and what they can see by sight only. In this allegory Plato toys with the idea of what would happen if suddenly people came to “true” reality by encountering the sun as the divine light. The meaning of this was the consideration of what would happen if people embraced and accepted philosophy thereby getting enlightened by it.
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In that connection, he used the allegory of the cave to explain the theory of form. This was presented in form of a dialogue between Socrates and Glaucon, Plato’s brother. In this dialogue, a prisoner’s situation is exposed in a cave whereby the prisoners looks at shadow passing by the cave’s wall and ascribes some form to them. According to the dialogue, these shadows indicated a close proximity of the prisoners to seeing reality. Plato then relates this situation to the philosopher’s point of view where he compares the philosophers to prisoners who are close to seeing reality by looking at the shadows. Plato therefore asserts that philosophers are like prisoners who have been redeemed from prison where had been exposed to shadows of reality and have now come to light by discovering the reality. In this dialogue, Plato concludes by asserting that only knowledge of form constitutes real knowledge and basically, the allegory of the cave was intended to help man see reality beyond fantasy and to state the position of philosophers in the society.
The third theory is the political theory which is concerned with the questions “what is a just state” and “who is a just individual”. According to Plato’s theory, a just state is one that is divided into three namely the merchant class, military class and political class. As a matter of fact, the political class according to Plato should be composed of wise men that are able to govern the state with great wisdom and on the other hand, a just person is defined as a person who is able to control his appetites by using his will. The fourth theory was on ethics which argued that virtues can be taught since it is knowledge. He argued that individuals had to learn the basic form of Good and once learned it would guide individuals towards correct moral decision making. This theory helped in understanding why people are happy and it was seen that people are happy because they have moral minds. Plato’s last theory was on art and he greatly criticized artists on the view that their art was not a form of knowledge but an opinion of how things are supposed to be as expressed in the arts (Santas 54).
In conclusion it can be asserted that due to Plato’s influence towards developing the natural and western philosophies, Plato became one of the most renowned philosophers in history. His philosophies especially those expressed in his various dialogues writings were been very inspirational toward developing more philosophers. One of the products of Plato’s philosophy is Aristotle who also moved philosophy a notch higher basing on the teachings of Plato. As a result of his philosophical works, he was able to write approximately 35 dialogues and 13 letters though some of these dialogues have been disputed by certain philosophers and scholars. All said and done, he laid down the foundation for modern philosophy.
Hare, Richard M. Plato. London: Oxford University Press, 1982.
Huard, Roger L. Plato’s political philosophy: the cave. Algora Publishing, 2006.
Laertius, Diogenes. The lives and opinions of eminent philosophers: LIFE OF PLATO. Web.
Lodge, Rupert C. The Philosophy of Plato. Routledge, 2000.
Santas, Gerasimos X. Socrates, philosophy in Plato’s early dialogues Routledge & K. Paul, 1979.