Biography (427-347 B.C.E)

  • Initially, was involved heavily in the political process of Athens. He was involved with several of the groups that governed the city, including the oligarchy of the Thirty Tyrants.
  • Death of Socrates seemed to have a profound impact on Plato—who withdrew from political concerns and the active governance of Athens.
  • Founded the Academos, a school of learning. Plato wanted to train young men to become statesmen, as he was bitterly disappointed in the conduct of those who governed the city.
  • Plato was influential but not an ivory tower thinker.  He is best described by G.C. Field, who wrote that Plato’s life “makes it clear that the popular conception of Plato as an aloof unworldly scholar, spinning theories in his study remote from practical life, is singularly wide of the mark. On the contrary, he was a man of the world, an experienced soldier, widely traveled, with close contacts with many of the leading men of affairs, both in his own city and elsewhere.”
  • Plato’s main contributions are in philosophy, mathematics and science
  • Plato wrote no systematic treatise giving his views. Instead, he wrote his philosophy in a series of dialogues.
  • Random Trivia Note. Plato’s name was probably really Aristocles. Plato was most likely a nickname.

The World of Forms

  • Plato argues for the existence of Forms, or Ideas, the unchanging archetypes of all things.
  1. Only these Forms are truly real, the physical world possesses only a relative reality
  2. Forms assure order in a world that is in constant state of change
  3. They provide the pattern from which the world of sense achieves meaning
  • The supreme idea is the Idea of the Good
  1. Humans, in an uninstructed state, are chained in a world of shadows and false perceptions
  2. Harmony of the Universe comes from realization and acceptance of the Idea of the Good, which is the center of truth.

Allegory of the Cave

  • Humans can think, speak, and move about the world without awareness of the World of Forms
  • We can only see the shadows of things, projections…not their true Forms.
  • What keeps us chained in the Cave is opinion, lack of knowledge. We are constrained, imprisoned, limited by our perceptions of the world, which keep us from seeing the World of Forms. “Education” can solve this.
  • An image of the Allegory of the Cave.
  • Writer Chris Hedges describes the allegory: “In The Republic, Plato imagines human beings chained for the duration of their lives in an underground cave, knowing nothing but darkness. Their gaze is confined to the cave wall, upon which shadows of the world above are thrown. They believe these flickering shadows are reality. If, Plato writes, one of these prisoners is freed and brought into the sunlight, he will suffer great pain. Blinded by the glare, he is unable to see anything and longs for the familiar darkness. But eventually his eyes adjust to the light. The illusion of the tiny shadows is obliterated. He confronts the immensity, chaos, and confusion of reality. The world is no longer drawn in simple silhouettes. But he is despised when he returns to the cave. He is unable to see in the dark as he used to. Those who never left the cave ridicule him and swear never to go into the light lest they be blinded as well.”
  • This means that, for Plato, one of the most important things that separates a philosopher from the average person is discernment.
  • And more: “Plato feared the power of entertainment, the power of the senses to overthrow the mind, the power of emotion to obliterate reason. No admirer of popular democracy, Plato said that the enlightened or elite had a duty to educate those bewitched by the shadows on the cave wall, a position that led Socrates to quip: “As for the man who tried to free them and lead them upward, if they could somehow lay their hands on him and kill him, they would do so.” We are chained to the flickering shadows of celebrity culture, the spectacle of the arena and the airwaves, the lies of advertising, the endless personal dramas, many of them completely fictional, that have become the staple of news, celebrity gossip, New Age mysticism, and pop psychology. In The Image: A Guide to Pseudo-Events in America, Daniel Boorstin writes that in contemporary culture the fabricated, the inauthentic, and the theatrical have displaced the natural, the genuine, and the spontaneous, until reality itself has been converted into stagecraft. Americans, he writes, increasingly live in a “world where fantasy is more real than reality.” He warns: We risk being the first people in history to have been able to make their illusions so vivid, so persuasive, so “realistic” that they can live in them. We are the most illusioned people on earth. Yet we dare not become disillusioned, because our illusions are the very house in which we live; they are our news, our heroes, our adventure, our forms of art, our very experience.5 Boorstin goes on to caution that an image is something we have a claim on. It must serve our purposes. Images are means. If a corporation’s image of itself or a man’s image of himself is not useful, it is discarded. Another may fit better. The image is made to order, tailored to us. An ideal, on the other hand, has a claim on us. It does not serve us; we serve it. If we have trouble striving towards it, we assume the matter is with us, and not with the ideal.”

Doctrine of Innatism

We all possess immortal souls which have had previous existence. All learning is just recollection, or anamnesis. We recall the world of forms, but only a few can get past the world of sense and imagination to see it.

The Republic

The title “Republic” is derived from the Latin title given to the work by Cicero. Plato’s Greek language title, Politeia, described the government of a Polis or city-state. The character Socrates and his friends discuss the nature of an ideal city.

Plato’s Criticism of How Others Saw Justice

  • Cephalus suggests that justice means “paying one’s debts.”
    • Socrates responds, asking what about giving an insane man a weapon?
  • Polemarchus says justice is “doing good to friends and harm to enemies.”
    • Socrates responds, asking “do we not make something worse if we harm it?”
    • Socrates says that the version of justice advanced by Polemarchus would lead to making people more unjust.

Glaucon and the Ring of Gyges

  • Glaucon argued that by nature humans are selfish and unjust and that justice is not good in itself; instead, justice is a consequential good (it is only valued for the beneficial consequences.
  • Glaucon told the story of The Ring of Gyges in an attempt to illustrate his point that justice has a “relative value due to our inability to do wrong.”
    • Gyges was a shepherd in the service of the king of Lydia. He found a ring, which turned him invisible when he twisted it onto his finger. Gyges used this power of invisibility to commit unjust acts; he seduced the queen and then worked with her to create a plan to kill the king and take over the kingdom. Because the ring made him invisible, Gyges was protected from the consequences of his actions.
    • Glaucon then went on to propose a thought experiment; he said if two of these rings existed and we gave one ring to a just man and the other ring to an unjust man, then they would both proceed to do unjust things. If the just man also did become unjust when given the ring, then it would prove Glaucon’s point that people are not just out of choice; justice does not serve us personally and we would always do the wrong thing if we had the chance.
    • Now if a just man came into possession of such a ring, claims Glaucon, he would use it do exactly what the unjust man does — kill his enemies, have sex with anyone he fancied, get his friends out of danger, and all with impunity.

Plato’s Conception of Justice

  • Justice is a ‘human virtue’ that makes a person self-consistent and good; socially, justice is a social consciousness that makes a society internally harmonious and good.
  • Plato was concerned that excessive individualism and self-satisfaction (of the Sophists in particular) was leading to a breakdown of society.
  • Questions the assumption that “might equals right”. Plato does not believe that power equates to justice.
  • Plato: “Justice implies superior character and intelligence while injustice means a deficiency in both respects. Therefore, just men are superior in character and intelligence and are more effective in action. As injustice implies ignorance, stupidity and badness, It cannot be superior in character and intelligence. A just man is wiser because he acknowledges the principle of limit.”
  • Justice is not an external thing; it is internal, a part of humans. Justice is not derived from fear or negotiation but of the human soul’s desire to do its duty.
  • Justice is a form of specialization. By staying within our prescribed roles, not meddling in the affairs of another station, every citizen will be content.

Three-Part Human and Governance

  • The human organism contains three elements: Reason, Spirit, and Appetite. An individual is just when each part of his or her soul performs its functions without interfering with those of other elements. Reason is preeminent; when all three agree among themselves that reason should rule, there is justice within the individual.
  • These three human elements will be seen in the ideal state *Philosopher Kings who should rule the state *Auxiliaries, a class of warriors the country is the representative of spirit *Lowest Rung, artisans and farmers and the like who represent the appetite


  • Authoritarianism. Plato’s Republic assigns prescribed roles to people by nature of assumed characteristics. Plato talked about training young men to become the Philosopher Kings, but in practice, prescribed roles in history have tended to be hereditary, or based on wealth, race, or some other characteristic.
  • Anti-Democratic. Plato despised the idea of democracy, comparing it to mob rule.
  • From David Runciman: “For Plato, democracy suffered from the basic defect of putting decision-making in the hands of people who were not competent to decide. Politics was a skill – and most people were simply clueless. Worse, that made them prey for hucksters and demagogues who would promise the earth and get away with it. Democracy was fertile ground for fantasists with a taste for power. If you tell the people that up is down, and the people believe you, then who is going to let them know that they are wrong?”
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