Plato (c.427-347 BC), A Perspective

by Dr. Parviz Dehghani​

Plato (c.427-347 BC), A Perspective

Who was he? Once Alfred North Whitehead (1861-1947), the British philosopher and mathematician said of, ‘The safest characterization of Western philosophy is that of a series of footnotes to Plato’. This sums up who Plato was and what he did as the student of Socrates. He was the founder of the Academy which was the first university in the Western world. According to some story Academes was a friend of Plato’s father who owned an olive grove. He gave this piece of land to Plato’s father. Plato’s father in turn let his son build his school which became the first institution of higher education in the West. There has never been a philosopher who has had such a great influence in the intellectual history of the world than Plato.  His name has been mentioned practically in any topic in philosophy without any exaggeration.

It is very difficult to characterize such an encyclopedia of knowledge in a man like Plato. Some scholars read his dialogues at different times of their lives and come up with unbelievable discoveries which they had not even thought of at younger age.

However, much of his philosophical canon is about a realm of ideal Forms, a vertical space of perfection in which ‘ideae’, the original name for Form, reside. The world we experience is nothing but illusion, because that which is not changing and is eternal is only real. Perhaps this is what he had learned from Parmenides. Nonetheless, I believe, if he was a firm believer in reincarnation, then he must have had access to the ancient philosophy of Hinduism in which both time and change were illusions called MAYA. However, we try to avoid this kind of historical zigzagging as it was called by a professor once. It doesn’t matter how Plato reached this conclusion. What is important is the fact that he had such a deep understanding of the nature of reality. To explain motion and change, he knew very well to establish the existence of a world of eternal unchanging Forms. This world we live in and we experience is transitory and passing. These phenomena we have sense perception of are ephemeral reflecting the Forms of perfection. They’re waves in the ocean reflecting the moon and the sun. Although there’re many individual horses, cats and dogs, for Plato they all participate in their universal Forms of ‘the horse’, ‘the cat’, ‘the dog’ and so on. I watch many horses roaming in the meadow. However, there’s one Form of horse, which never ages and never dies in which all other horses take part and reflect it. This Form is transcendent and is not in the realm of change and becoming. Other horses grow up and eventually get old and some day they pass away. But the Form horse eternally exists. Dinosaurs which were prehistoric reptiles became extinct and died millions of years ago for whatever reasons. However, their Forms never perished. In the movie ‘Jurassic park’ we saw blood was taken from an insect which was inside a piece of amber, that in turn it had done the same thing to a dinosaur. Through the science of DNA they were able to bring back those dinosaurs that had been extinct millions of years ago. As you could imagine it is scientifically absurd to do such a thing. It made an interesting movie and money but it was just a fiction and was not based on science. Given Plato’s philosophy, the Forms of those dinosaurs never became extinct and are still in existence. These dinosaurs were made in the image of the one universal Form. They were made in the representation of this one universal Form. When it comes to us humans we can say there’re many human beings and all are made in the image or likeness of the universal ‘Form of human’. We also believe God has created us in His image or likeness. However, we have no right to create God in our image, which is called anthropomorphism.

Plato had a tremendous amount of influence on Christianity. Even when St. Augustine turned away from women and converted to Christianity, we could see the influence of Plato there. When we say God created humans in His image or likeness we should realize the influence of Plato on Christianity theology.

 Both Pythagoras and Plato believed in reincarnation. Where did this idea come from if not from the ancient Hindu culture through Egypt? Is it possible that what we believe as Jesus’ resurrection was indeed nothing but another version of reincarnation? This is an issue which could easily raise eyebrows in a course on philosophy of Religion. How about the distinction between soul and body? It never existed among ancient Hebrews. Then why did it change in Christianity though Christ was Jew? Apparently this was perhaps another Plato’s influence on Christianity.

We always look for perfection in a world that is imperfect. It is like looking for water in a desert while there’s no such a thing there.

The most perfect woman was only the creation of computerized reality in the movie called ‘Simone’ staring Al Pacino.

Plato’s theory of Forms was not limited to material objects or animals. He also thought there were ideal Forms of universal or abstract realities like beauty, justice, truth and mathematical concepts like numbers and class. In fact, it is, because of mathematics that Plato’s influence is still intact to this day. Both Frege and Gödel supported the thoughts of Plato with great respect.

Plato’s theory of Forms also shaped the foundation of his most disputed and best known writing, ‘The Republic’. To clarify what is the essence and value of justice, Plato suggests a vision of a utopian society led by a powerful group and class of guardians who’re trained from birth to rule. Let us not forget that the term ‘Utopia’ means ‘not a place’ or ‘no space’. It is to be an “idealized place of perfection or any visionary scheme for a perfect society” (Webster’s) the rest of society consists of soldiers and the ordinary people. The ideal citizens are those who understand how best they can make use of their talents to benefit the entire society bending without error to that task at hand. In Plato’s republic there is no personal freedom and individual rights, because everything is fixed so securely by the guardians for the benefit of the state as a whole. This made Bertrand Russell accuse Plato of supporting an elitist and totalitarian regime under the pretence of communist or socialist principles. Whether or not Russell and other critics of Plato were right is itself a subject of debate. The native and indigenous people of our land believed they didn’t own the land but they’re to respect it. John Locke following Aristotle was strong believer in ownership. In fact the natives didn’t even have a word for ownership, which reminds us of Plato’s philosophy. Of course, the Greeks had a term for ownership but Plato preferred not to use it. However, it is very important to understand Plato’s rationality for putting together society in this manner.

‘The Republic’ is an effort based on his theory of Forms in order to show us a map of the ideal form of society.

 But why did Plato organize society in the way he did? ‘The Republic’ is an attempt given his theory of Forms, to explore the ideal form of society. What is the most perfect society? Plato thought there must have been one ideal way to organize society, of which all real societies are sheer imperfect copies, because they do not advance the good of all. In other words, these societies are nothing but reflections of the ideal Form of the society called ‘The Republic’. A society like this would be more powerful than its neighbors and wouldn’t be subject to invasion and occupation by its enemies. This must have been a thought in the mind of the Greeks of his time given the fact that they were facing wars after wars among Athens, Persia, Sparta and the other Hellenistic city-states. Was this in the minds of our forefathers in the beginning of our republic? Foe 246 years we have tried to keep it from those who would want to destroy it.

However, more significantly, in such a society there would be justice for all its citizens. Its entire people work for the good of the whole. Whether Plato’s republic is an ideal, or even workable society, has been a subject matter discussed by many scholars throughout centuries.

(Philosophy, 100 essential thinkers, by Philip Stokes)