The importance of understanding concepts and analyzing the true meaning of words capture the human mind to develop philosophical thinking, so men can determine what they know about the world. A particularly exciting aspect of the human mind has always been intrigued in understanding reality, and Plato was fascinated with the abstract and theoretical principles of what constitutes reality. To Plato, ideas or conceptual forms were essential realities; when we refer to justice or beauty, it is essential to analyze the real meaning of the words to understand the form. Plato developed a whole philosophy in trying to examine how the human mind arrives to knowledge.
Plato was a remarkable thinker and writer, and his system of thought and metaphysics have strongly impacted many societies. A great mind like Plato’s is the result of a sequence of experiences and historical events, the impact of certain figures in society and the combination of a great intellect. The aspects that shaped Plato’s ideas were: first the society of Sparta and the deceitfulness of the Athenian democracy, and second the influence of philosophers like Socrates, Phytagoras, Parmenides and others; the synthesis of these aspects is revealed thought out his beliefs and works.
. One of the most crucial aspects in Plato’s philosophy is his Utopia. There are central elements that shaped Plato’s perception of what a perfect state should constitute of; therefore, it is vital to analyze the historical context of Plato’s life. Plato was born in 428-7 B.C., in the early years of the Peloponnesian War. After Athens’s defeat in the war, antidemocratic sympathizers brought the rule of the Thirty Tyrants, and Plato was related to various people who were concerned about the new rule. At a young age, it is possible that Plato could have blame Athens’ defeat to democracy1 (Russell,105). Plato came from one of the “wealthiest and most politically active families in Athens” (Annas, 18). He was a student of Socrates, for whom he felt a tremendous affection; Socrates was found guilty in corrupting the youth and believing in other gods and was put to death by the Athenian democracy. Plato showed in many of his early Dialogues the figure of Socrates as the philosopher who gave enlightenment to the citizens of Athens because his knowledge relied on logic and reason; for example, in the dialectic development of the idea of piety in the Euthyphro, Socrates emphasized the exercise of reason in analyzing the fallacies of his opponent’s arguments.
The irony of this dialogue is that Socrates is charged of impiety, and he proved to know more about piety than his opponent. It is not surprising that Plato will favor Sparta in his Utopia because the Athenian democracy is responsible for Socrates’ death. In Plato’s works, Socrates is in the highest level of intellect and ethics, and in the dialogue Crito Socrates is the perfect example of what an ethical position should be: “The view that the citizen who has agreed to live in a state must always obey the laws of the state, or else persuade the state to change its laws, or leave the state” (Crito 51bc-52a-d); then Socrates affirmed: “one must not even do wrong when one is wronged, which most people regard as the natural course.” Socrates represents the great martyr and philosopher who is willing to act in name of justice besides of the circumstances. He would prefer to die rather than to act unjustly. Plato established most of his highest ethical values through Socrates’ voice in the Dialogues. It is possible to assume that Plato could have felt a great loss after Socrates’ death, and his resentment towards Athens influenced him to see Sparta as a better society.
Plato will also favor Sparta’s educational and social reforms in his works. In Plato’s Utopia, the Republic, the first dialogues near to the end of Book V, consists of the elements necessary to construct an ideal state. Plato introduces us to three classes: the common people, the soldiers, and the guardians. Since the guardians have political power, Plato is concerned in how the guardians will develop their roles in the most appropriate way, so education is essential in the role of the guardians. There are many similarities in what Plato suggests about the guardians’ education to the one provided in Sparta. For example; Plato explains that education is divided in two areas: music and gymnastics. In Platos’s Utopia, it is important to encourage a type of education that stimulates the mental and physical training of the guardians to encourage them to die in battle if it is necessary. This is similar to Sparta’s main interest of education to convert young men into warrior machines.
Courage and good behavior are the characteristics to be promoted in the Republic. It seems to be that there is a “rigid censorship” over the literature that young men have access in the Republic; for example, mother and nurses are to tell their children only “authorized stories.” Homer and Hesiod are not part of the education because they provide examples of gods behaving badly, and it cannot be taught that evil things come from gods2 (Rusell 109). It is possible to assume that there are elements in Homer and Hesiod that will make the readers develop a fear of dead, and in his Utopia it is unacceptable to stimulate the fear of death in young soldiers because the main purpose is to encourage men to die in battle. In the Republic, education seems to aim only at the functional level of the military, and it tries to discourage men to question about the gods’ evil and erroneous actions because these factors will distract them form protecting the state. In Sparta, the Lycurgan reforms’ main objective of education was to build strong soldiers, and the stimulation of cultural and scientific education was not on the picture.
For example, at the age of seven, children were sent to schools where they were subject to a very strict training; they were taught to steal and if they were caught they were punished but not because of the action but because of their stupidity. Plato also proposes a system of communism for the guardians and possible to the soldiers, these men are supposed to have a simple way of living like simple houses, food, and none private property beyond of what is required. Gold and silver are forbidden. If we look at the Spartan society much of this is the same. For example, none Spartan citizen should be “destitute, and none should be rich,” and Spartans were expected to live on the procedure of theirs lot, and they could not own gold or silver. Sparta impacted many Greeks through the creation of the “myth” of a perfect state, and this is reflected in Plato’s political theory. The admiration of Sparta seemed bizarre especially during Lycurgus’s reforms. Lycurgus is thought to be a “mystical person,” whose origin was Arcadian and his name meant “wolf-repeller.”
During this time, the Spartan constitution attributed to Lycargus seemed to have shaped the society in order to pursuit war and encourage its citizens to sacrifice everything in the battles. It is hard to understand that Sparta could have played an important part in what Greece have contributed to the civilization, but certainly many greeks were inspired and attracted to the simplicity of this state as Bury explains: A stranger from Athens or Miletus in the fifth century visiting the straggling villages which formed her unwalled unpretentious city must have had a feeling of being transported into an age of long past, when men were braver, better, and simpler, unspoiled by wealth, undisturbed by ideas. To a philosopher, like Plato, speculating in political science, the Spartan state seemed the nearest approach to the ideal…” (Bury, 141).
In understanding Plato’s Utopia we can see that there is so much resemble to Sparta because Sparta represented the opposite of Athens, and it appealed to Plato in many ways like the social organization and the education. Plato was very attracted by the stability of that state; for example, the Spartan constitution remained unchanged for centuries. In the first books I-V of the Republic, justice become very important for Plato; for example, the guardians exert a great amount of power because they represented the wisest group in the community, so decisions are taken by the wiser because they will know was good and best for the people and “injustice would only occur,” according to Plato’s theory, “if there were men in other classes who were wiser than some of the guardians” (Russell, 114). And this is the reason why Plato proposes the stratification and deprivation of citizens, but the question is very complicated in defining the science of power, government, and politics. It seems very just to give the power to the wisest man to make decisions, but how do we determine who is the wisest and most important if that person would use his wisdom in the interest of the state. In understanding how to rule a community the ethical ideal is very important.
As Plato explains, justice consists of men doing their jobs, as the doctor will pursuit to cure the sick, but the problem is how men decide what their jobs should be or what is their function in an active society in terms of utility. Men have to decide what they want to work on and fulfill the skill that is required on that job, but the problem is whether men should decide their jobs based on their tastes or based on the state’s judgment of the aptitudes of every individual, and the question is who has the strongest ethical ideal to decide that: the individual or the government? For Plato, the purpose of the government is essential in determining what a man job should be, but this involves many difficulties in making the adequate choice because there is none assurance that the government will make the right decision. The problem is that even though the rulers are philosophers, there is not room for innovation, as Russell says “a philosopher is to be, for all the time, a man who understands and agrees with Plato.”
The dilemma is that philosophers are not encouraged to think beyond Plato’s ideals. This example of the government been in charge of determining men’s aptitudes and their jobs takes us back to the organization in Sparta. The Utopia perceived by Plato was strongly influenced by Sparta, but a Sparta that is more mythical than real and that exists only in Plato’s ideals. Certainly the situation in Athens, the democracy that he disapproved so much, and the unethical action in convicting Socrates forced Plato into many struggles with his subconscious mind. This influenced Plato to see in Sparta the possibility to create a Utopia in his mind but certainly one with many defective aspects. Plato’s profoundest and original ideas resulted from the attempt to solve problems by his predecessors. Aristotle speaks of Plato’s ideas as “resembling the Pythagorean, but with certain features of its own” in the first book of Metaphysics.
The philosophical influences of that time shaped many of Plato’s ideas. The Heracletian view, that proposes that the world is in constant flux and cannot be the object of knowledge, appealed so much to Plato that he decided to approach Socrates on this matter. Socrates at that time was concern with ethics and was seeking the universals and their definitions. The idea of Heracletian and the image of Socrates as the philosopher is shown in many of Plato’s dialogues. The Dialogues dealt with the search of definitions and abstract ideas. Plato’s main inspiration was Socrates; for example, in the majority of the Dialogues, Socrates always take the leading position, even in the Theaetetus and Philebus which were written in Plato’s maturity4(http://plato.stanford.edu). Socrates influenced Plato with the concern of ethical problems in the society, and this explained why “ The Good” dominated on Plato’s thought; “no evil can happen to a good man, either in life or after death”( Dialogues, Apology).
Plato derived many ideas from Pythagoras especially the “Orphic elements” of his philosophy such as; the religious ideas like the belief of immortality, his passion for mathematics, and eternal truth. Plato found very appealing Socrates’ idea of universal definitions; but since universals could have no application in a world subject to the “Heraclitean flux,” he needed to test whether Socrates was right or not. If Socrates was right, there would have to be realities outside the world of the “ordinary sensible experience.” This leads Plato to consider the following question: was there any evidence for the existence of ‘such changeless truths’? If they exist, how could we have any knowledge of their nature? For Plato, it was possible the existence of a world of eternal forms, but he needed mathematical truth to prove this. Through Pythagoras’s discovery of application of music as regarded by Pythagoreans as the prime cause of order and harmonia in the universe; Plato found an example of the existence of truth outside the empirical world. Another example is that in the case of the statement that the triangle consists of three straight lines is true, but is not true for a triangle draw by hand because by definition “ a line has length but no breadth and is therefore invisible” (ellopos.net).
It follows that the triangle of experiences only approximate to the form of truth, and Plato embraced this idea. Plato perceived that ideas like justice or love or beauty have an invisible form; for example, in the perception of beauty one could see a beautiful sculpture but this only approximates to the eternal form of beauty. Clearly “the modern explanation of mathematical truth as analytical or tautologous was not possible” (ellopos.net) in the minds of Plato and Phytagoras because then the universals of a form could not have exist in the idea of immortality. Another greatest influence on Plato was Parmenides, and from him Plato derived the idea that reality is eternal and timeless and that on “logical grounds, all changes must be illusory” (Russell, 105). All the ideas of these Greek philosophers combined all together lead to Plato’s belief that “knowledge could not be derived from the senses, but only achieved by the intellect” (Cantor, 12).
In Plato’s theory of knowledge, he concluded that reality is pure idea and that we know it by defining our concepts trough reason and critical thinking. The middle of the Republic Book V to Book VII concentrated on the philosophy and the ideals of forms: Until philosophers are kings, or the kings or the princes of this world have the spirit and power of philosophy,and political greatness and wisdom meet in one, and those commoner nature who pursue either to the exclusion of the other are compelled to stand aside, cities will never have rest from these evils-no, nor the human race, as I believe- and then only will this our State have a possibility of life and behold the light of day. (Plato, Republic, Book V). Trough this passage we can see the combination of Parmenides and Pythagoras thoughts produced a doctrine which was felt to satisfy the intellect and the religious emotions3 ( Russell, 120). In understanding what Plato meant by knowledge and opinion, we have to look at Paremenides.
Paremenides stated that an individual who has knowledge has knowledge of something that exists, and for what does not exist is nothing. It is possible to assume that knowledge cannot be mistaken because it exists as a pure form, and opinion can be mistaken because opinion cannot be of what is not because if it was then it would be knowledge. Plato also suggested that things have opposite characters; for example, what is just can be in some respects unjust. It is self contradictory to assume that a thing can be just and unjust at the same time, and so particular things have to be accepted as not real; as Heraclitus mentioned: “we step and do not step into the same rivers; we are and are not.” Particular things are not the forms because they are concerned with opinion, and knowledge is the only concerned with the actual form. According to Plato, opinion is part of the world of senses and knowledge is part of the eternal world; therefore, perfect. Another important aspect of the theory is the fact that is “partly logic and partly metaphysical”; for example, if we look at a table, we would ask ourselves what is a table?
A table is just the structure of a certain material like wood, plastic, or metal in a particular form but without a form, it would only be a shapeless material. For the table to come into existence there has to be the idea of a table which gives its shape. We can say that the physical world has no form unless it is shaped by an idea. In Plato’s metaphysics the presence of Heraclitus shaped his thoughts. Plato agreed with Heraclitus in the point that when the world is experienced trough the senses the reality is constantly changing; however, he took this to a step further and believed that there has to exist a reality that can be known through reason and this reality is not in change. In the last book of the Republic Plato dealt with the allegory of the cave and the influenced on Pythagoras is there. In the allegory, men live in a cave and in a world of shadows in which they are inevitable force to regard them as real, until a man is able to escape.
He becomes aware of the reality, and this man that has discovered the real world outside the cave will represent the kind of philosopher who will fit best to become the guardian, and his duty is to inform and convince the others in the cave about the real things he saw outside, so they can save their souls. Plato and Pythagoras held that knowledge is necessary for the salvation of the soul, and this idea explains why is important that the man who has discovered the world outside the cave help the others to save their souls from their ignorance. The men in the cave would mock him at the beginning because they still live in a world of ignorance. Plato also reinforces the importance of becoming a philosopher and how knowledge will lead to the ‘intellectual world in the perception of the absolute good (White 91).”
The mysticism of Plato’s theory leads to some conflicts in which reality is perfectly good and in other to perceive reality is to perceive good, but what exactly he meant by good? The idea of science and truth in good still seems to be more influenced by the mysticism of some philosophers rather than objectivism. In Plato’s theory of forms the presence of many philosophers is almost in every aspect of what he believes to be knowledge; his theory is the combination of different mechanisms extracted from different philosophers that allowed Plato to arrive at what is called the theory of forms. It is impossible to deny that Plato’s theory of forms represented the beginning of a philosophical system that had and continue to impact the world. Platonism is a very important philosophical system that has intrigued many thinkers, and in order to understand this philosophy is important to understand the philosophers who influenced Plato.
Plato’s ideas and beliefs gave the foundation of what we called philosophy, and Plato’s love for wisdom and the necessity to know where the human mind gets its ideas was his most profound inspiration; however, it is difficult to ignore the various elements that define his ideas. The historical circumstances in which Plato lived influenced some of his thoughts especially his perception of a Utopia. In the Republic, there are many ideas that show significant similarities to the organization of the Spartan society.
Plato was influenced by many philosophers, and the one that he regarded as a true inspiration was Socrates, and this leads us to follow his indignation to democracy in Athens. There were other figures that impacted Plato’s life and thoughts like Pythagoras, Parmenides, and Heraclitus, and they allowed Plato to come down with many of his ideas. Plato has been regarded as the eminent philosopher and has been admired by many societies, but in order to praise him is necessary to understand what could have influenced him. Plato will always remain a very interested and enigmatic figure that will continue to intrigue society because there has not been any other philosophical thought that has influenced so much our society.
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