The Greek philosopher Plato was born in the 5th century bc. He studied with Socrates—many of his works were about the life and ideas of his teacher—but went on to form many original theories of his own.
Plato was born into a wealthy, aristocratic Athenian family in 428 bc. His family had many important connections, and Plato considered going into politics. However, he changed his mind about this when he saw corruption and injustice in Athenian politics. The trial of his teacher Socrates, who was condemned to death by the Athenians in 399 bc, only strengthened Plato’s distrust for democracy.
In 387 bc Plato founded a school of philosophy in Athens, which was called the Academy. Here he taught subjects such as astronomy, biology, mathematics, politics and most importantly, philosophy. Among his students was a young man named Aristotle.
Plato’s surviving works are all written as dialogues, or conversations. Many of these describe debates that Socrates held with his students—although Plato may have slipped his own opinions in here and there! They were usually about concepts such as friendship (Lysis), religion (Euthyphro) or love (Symposium). Others (Crito and Phaedo) recorded the trial and last words of Socrates.
THEORY OF FORMS
Plato believed that everything existed on two levels: the real and the conceptual. Take an apple, for instance. It exists in the real world—you can experience it through your senses. But there would also be a form of an apple—a kind of ideal, perfect apple that does not exist in the physical world. This form is the model for the apples that we can see and taste. Plato thought that in order to find out the truth about something, we should try to think about its form, instead of relying upon our senses.
ESCAPING THE CAVE
Imagine that humans had always been trapped in a cave. Naturally you would grow up thinking that the cave was your entire world. But what if you were freed from the cave and dragged into the sunlight? This new reality would be overwhelming! Plato used this metaphor to suggest that people could only become better and happier by “coming out of the cave”—opening their minds and exploring the truths of their world.
In The Republic, Plato used philosophy to ask questions about politics, such as “who should rule?” or “how should a society be run?” He suggested that a society should be split into three classes: workers, soldiers and highly educated rulers known as “philosopher-kings”.
In 367, Plato journeyed to Syracuse (in Sicily) to tutor the new ruler, Dionysius the Younger, as a philosopher-king. Unfortunately, the experiment failed—Dionysius was not willing to learn, and political upheavals made Plato unpopular in Syracuse. He returned to Athens and continued to teach until his death in 347 bc.