Notebook, 1993-


Ancient Greek Philosophy

When Plato was born, Pericles had long been dead. He was a member of an old aristocratic family of Athens, the son of Ariston who traced his ancestry back to king [p. 167] Cordrus of Attica, and of Perictione whose origins could be traced to Solon. His education was that to be expected of a wealthy aristocratic youth. In his youth he lived through the dramatic and disturbing political upheavals of his native city: the rise and fall of Alcibiades, the inglorious end to the disastrous Sicilian expedition, the destruction of the long walls, the victory of Sparta, the rule of the Thirty, and the restoration of democracy. Because of his family origin he had planned to enter politics. In his Seventh Epistle, the only document in which he writes openly of himself, we learn of his love for government and politics and also the reasons which finally dissuaded him from entering the political arena.

Plato's meeting with Socrates had been a turning point in his life. He spent some eight years [407-399 B.C.] listening to the great master from the moment of his first meeting until the death of Socrates. These years were decisive for his personality and evolution of thought. Following the death of the great teacher he began a long period of travels to lower Italy and Sicily, Cyrene, and to Egypt. In Sicily he met the tyrant of Syracuse Dionysius I and his brother-in-law Dion. With the latter he struck up a close friendship. He had seen in [p. 168] Dion the model future ruler of Syracuse and the person who would apply his theories of government. At the age of about 40 he founded the Academy using as an example the philosophical brotherhood of the Pythagoreans. The main purpose of the Academy was to teach philosophy and science, the quest for pure knowledge. Yet at the same time a second subject was political action in the higher sense. Plato attempted to educate several promising youth who would eventually influence the political development of their native countries, whether Athens or other cities. In this way he clashed with the Sophists who also strove to train the young but in an entirely different spirit and sentiment. The Sophists, believing in the relativity of values, attempted to educate the youth in such a way that they could convince and impress upon others their views, whereas Plato, who believed in the stability of values, strove to create ethical individuals who could impose their views in any unforced and easy manner. The members of the Academy, both young and mature, lived a communal life. The reputation of the school was very widespread both in Athens and abroad. Although Plato had preoccupied himself with the Academy, he never abandoned the hope of political activity. But he was later disillusioned by various events and became convinced that there was no room for actual political activity and so he devoted himself entirely and exclusively to his theoretical works and writing at the Academy. At all events, the manifestations in his life indicate how strong was his attraction to politics, which is stamped by the fact that two of his greatest works the 'Republic' and the 'Laws' dealt with political science.

The attraction which Plato's personality had and the remarkable influence of his thought on subsequent philosophers and thinkers becomes very obvious by the fact that all his works have survived in toto and in excellent condition. They are for the most part in the form of dialogues with Socrates as the central figure. Young men as a rule and even the mature citizens, both Athenians and foreigners, discuss with him the great questions of philosophy. Plato himself does not appear in the works, nor does he speak in the first person. In flowing uninterrupted prose are only the 'Seventh Epistle' which he wrote to the relations of his dear friend Dion when the latter was assassinated, and the 'Apology of Socrates'. To justify his absence from the list of students and friends who are mentioned in the 'Apology', he states that on the day of the trial of Socrates, 'Plato was ill'.

Of the some thirty-five dialogues, mention should be made of at least the following: 'Protagoras', 'Gorgias', 'Cratylus', 'The Symposium', 'Phaedo', and the 'Republic' in ten books in which are discussed the great themes of Platonic philosophy. But lastly, the following dialogues were the works of a mature and elderly man: 'Parmenides', 'Thaetaetus', 'Phaedrus', 'The Sophist', 'Politicus' [Statesman], 'Timaeus', and 'The Laws'. The 'Apology of Socrates' and the 'Seventh Epistle' should also be mentioned.

The trunk of the Platonic tree of philosophy is his theory of Ideas. It was developed in the dialogues of his mature years and preoccupied Plato until the very end of his life. This was one of his principal contributions to philosophical thought. The idea or form of a thing in this theory is something of the nature of our abstract conception of that thing, but having a real existence outside the world of sense; it is the unchanging reality behind the changing appearance. The knowledge of these ideas is to be attained only by pure reason, unaffected by sensation, and proceeding by the method of dialectic. The supreme idea is that of the [p. 169] Good, on which all the others are ultimately founded. With Plato, as with Socrates, virtue is knowledge, knowledge of this supreme idea. The ideas to Plato were something in the order of what in logic is known as concepts with the semantic difference that they are not formed by logical abstraction, nor do they come from the observation of many like objects, such as concepts. The ideas are not simple concepts, intuitions, but metaphysical, transcendent, self-existent. These are precisely the transcendent props of the concepts. To these transcendent, self-existent and eternal substances correspond the concepts of the mind. We have concepts because, before birth, we had seen the eternal original models, the ideas. To show that the ideas did not come from experience, Plato introduced the theory of remembrance or recollection, in which knowledge and learning are a matter of remembering or recollection. Before the human soul had acquired a body or had been incarnated, before its life on earth, it had perceived and had known the ideas in all their purity, and once it entered the body it recalled or remembered them. But to be able to remember, some cause must exist, as for example, a just act may cause the soul or the intellect to recall the idea of justice, because it is able to pass judgment on whether the act was just, since it has within itself the idea of justice. With the idea of justice, of similarity or the size as measure, it judges whether some of the things in this world, the sensitive, is just or like or small or large. Beyond all things just or true or beautiful, there exists the justice innate or good innate or beautiful innate. The sensitive things are accessible only to the senses, whereas the intelligible, the ideas, are accessible only to intuition. The perception or sensation has always as object the changeable, the corruptible, the material things. This world of changeable material objects cannot constitute an object of true knowledge, for whatever changes has no permanent and true being. The object of true knowledge or intelligence should be immutable and eternal.

The difference between sense and thinking or intuition corresponds to the difference between the sensible and the intelligible world. 'Nous' or the intellect grasps the intelligible, perception or sensation grasps the sensible. But are the two worlds wholly apart and unrelated? Certainly not. The sensible things, a just act, or a beautiful object 'partake' of the Platonic idea of justice or the beautiful, and it is precisely this partaking which makes them beautiful or just. Participation is the concept of reconciliation of the two worlds, the sensible and the intelligible. With their participation in the ideas, then things maintain their substance, their real being, that is, beauty, good, equal, large, and so on. This relationship of things with the ideas is called by Plato mimicry or imitation, when the ideas are, and are called models or patterns, whereas the things are impressions. When for example an artisan builds a table, he has in his mind the pure shape, the form [eidos] or the idea of the table which he attempts to recreate. When he has finally constructed the table, the form then becomes material or matter. However, this material form is not the same with the pure form which the artisan had in mind. It is a model or pattern of the original prototype.

At the pinnacle of his system of ideas Plato places the 'idea of the good', or simply the 'good'. It is the cause of both knowledge and truth. It is the ultimate principle of his system and coincides with the concept of god. So the concept of god is placed by Plato 'beyond the substance', that is, beyond the world of ideas, and therefore beyond knowledge. To the question as to what is the relationship between god and the ideas, the only reply one can give without straying from the spirit of Plato is that the ideas are not 'within god' and are not [p. 170] creations of god. Moreover, without a modicum of doubt, the ideas are not at the extreme end or pinnacle of the system. The pinnacle is the good, the divine principle, the only active cause, but at the same time the ultimate aim of the world, the cause of order, of the beautiful, and of truth. Thus there are three spheres wherein the philosophical concepts of Plato move: 1] the world of sensation or perception 2] the world of ideas, and ]3 the transcendental world of the idea of the good or of god.

As has already been pointed out, Plato presupposes that the soul of man had dwelt in another world before becoming incarnate in this world, and moreover it had 'seen the ideas' which it recalls during its life on earth. This concept of the individual soul which pre-existed and is immortal, is derived from the Orphic and Pythagorean school. But this religious aspect of the soul is converted to the philosophical of Plato, is established and is elucidated by logic criteria. For Plato, the soul becomes the core of knowledge and of self-awareness. The concept of the soul is identified with the concept of the personality, it has metaphysical roots, which signifies that as a personal unit it is eternal. The soul, moreover, is divided by Plato into three parts: the rational faculty, the deliberative or spiritual, and the desirable. Of these three forces of the soul, only the rational faculty or the intelligence is divine and immortal, the remaining two being mortal and existing only in life on earth. This trisection of the soul is presented by Plato in the way of a myth: the soul is compared with a chariot drawn by two horses [deliberative and desirable] and which is driven by the charioteer [rational faculty or intelligence].

No other philosopher dwelt so extensively with the art of government and no one knew as well as Plato that theory was not enough. The principles of government were not an escape for Plato but a necessary presupposition of the act. The Platonic constitution is a plan for a state which is willing to show its is a state of the just. Especially does he seek general criteria, general principles which would define the obligations of the individual to the political community. Just as in the case of the individual soul comprising three parts, the rational faculty, the deliberative, and the desire, so too the state consists of [p. 171] three classes of people: 1] farmers and artisans 2] guardians or soldiers and 3] rulers. This trisection of the state is founded on the principle of distribution of duties. A presupposition is the community and the ability of the state to determine to which class of society each individual be relegated. Thus, if the children of farmers and artisans show promise, they could be enrolled in the ranks of the guardians or the army and thence to the leadership class. On the other hand, offspring of troops or of the ruling class could be relegated to the ranks of the farmers if they did not possess the necessary intellectual prerequisites.

An aristocracy of the mind and of character [ethos] was the basic principle of the Platonic republic. The three kinds of people who comprise it correspond to the three parts of the soul: leaders--rational faculty, deliberative--guardians, and desirable--farmers and artisans. The rulers are always the cream of the crop, those who possess thorough education [paedeia], the philosophers in other words. And only those should rule, for only these possess the wisdom of the ages and immutable ideas, and only these can bring to realization the ideals of the good, the beautiful, and the just. This belief is summed up in the famous passage of the 'Republic': 'If the philosophers do not reign, or the kings do not become true philosophers, the ills of nations can never hope to be resolved'. The rulers and soldiers do not possess any private wealth or property in the Platonic state. Only the farmers and artisans own property, but this must neither be too much nor too little, The ruling class and military however, do not have families; only the farmers and artisans can have such. The rulers and guardians must be exclusively devoted to the state, without family or property distractions, sharing in common the goods, women and children. Children would not know their parents, they would be raised by the state in the arts of music and gymnastics, that is, have physical and mental training. There was no room for slaves in the Platonic state. [pp. 167-172]

[Kyriazis, Constantine D. Eternal Greece. Translated by Harry T. Hionides. A Chat Publication.]



The contents of this site, including all images and text, are for personal, educational, non-commercial use only. The contents of this site may not be reproduced in any form without proper reference to Text, Author, Publisher, and Date of Publication [and page #s when suitable].