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Who is Plato? - Philosophies, Ideas & Contributions

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  • 0:00 Plato's Life & Accomplishments
  • 1:11 Summary of Plato's Works
  • 2:30 Plato's Central Ideas
  • 6:56 Lesson Summary
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Lesson Transcript
Instructor: Jeremy Hall

Jeremy teaches high school World History and U.S. History. He has a Bachelor's in History and a Master's in Education.

This lesson reviews Plato's life, his works, and his central ideas. It's the essential ideas that you need to understand when studying the most influential philosopher in Western civilization.

Plato's Life and Accomplishments

Plato was a philosopher who was born in Greece somewhere around 428 BCE to a family of the political and social elite. Since Plato was somewhat associated with this group, he had the opportunity to study many different subjects from many different teachers until he famously became a disciple of Socrates. Socrates was executed a few years later in 399 BCE for corrupting the youth and failing to observe the gods. After his death, Plato faithfully continued and adapted his philosophical tradition but never forgot that his teacher died as a result of democratic vote.

In 387 BCE, Plato founded the Academy where people would study a wide variety of subjects from a variety of instructors. Plato believed that this system would lead to social progress and a more stable government. Eventually, one particularly promising student at the Academy by the name of Aristotle became Plato's protégé.

He spent the ensuing years writing and teaching at the Academy until his death in 347 BCE. His ideas eventually became the basis for the Western philosophical tradition.

Summary of Plato's Works

Plato wrote predominantly in the style of dialogues. The characters in his writings debate a particular subject and examine it from multiple perspectives. Scholars typically organize Plato's works into three different eras: early, middle, and late.

Plato's earlier works tend to focus on lessons directly inherited from his teacher. In fact, Socrates is usually the main character and the subjects usually center on Socrates' lessons. The most famous of the Socratic Dialogues is the Apology in which the character of Socrates defends his beliefs against the charges of the Athenian court.

The next era is referred to as Plato's Middle Period. During this era, the character of Socrates still remains as a fictional vehicle through which to argue philosophical concepts but he starts to recede into the background. Plato's most famous works were written during this time, including the Republic, the Symposium, and Phaedo. He uses these dialogues to explore philosophical concepts such as government, love, and the soul.

In Plato's later years, Socrates receded once again into the background and became a very minor character in these writings. In creative works such as Parmenides and Theaetetus, Plato questions the paradoxes of religion and knowledge.

Plato's Central Ideas

Since the majority of Plato's work is in the form of dialogues, the reader is often left without a definite conclusion. Instead, the student of Plato's philosophy is encouraged to approach a topic in many different ways and repeatedly question the result. He would often revisit his own central ideas and provide more ways to examine and rethink the given topic. Let's look at some of the major ideas put forth by his dialogues.

In order to understand Plato's central philosophy, you have to understand the Forms. Plato believed that reality is divided into two parts: the ideal and the phenomena. The ideal is the perfect reality of existence. The phenomena are the physical world that we experience; it is a flawed echo of the perfect, ideal model that exists outside of space and time.

Plato calls the perfect ideal the Forms. Let's use a simple model: consider the chair you are sitting in. That chair is an imperfect version of the perfect idea of a chair. All chairs are different versions of this idea striving towards that perfection, though none of them will ever reach it. There is a Form for everything in existence.

In Republic, Plato demonstrates this concept of the Forms in an illustration called The Allegory of the Cave. In Plato's allegory, there is a dark cave in which people have been chained to a wall since birth. Behind the heads of these prisoners, there is a fire burning. Objects are passed in front of this fire and it projects silhouetted images onto the wall in front of the prisoners. The prisoners perceive these shadow objects as reality because they have never known anything else.

Sometimes, a prisoner is freed. They look around the cave and are frightened and confused by their surroundings. They then climb out of the cave in an arduous and painful quest. When they reach the mouth of the cave, they are forced to consider the sun, the world above, and the cave from which they came. This freed prisoner would then be compelled to return to the cave and attempt to free his fellow man.

The prisoners are the common man, dependent on the false reality of phenomenon. The freed prisoner is a philosopher who has stumbled onto the true reality of ideas (the sun, the world above, etc.). The philosopher then attempts to convince his fellow prisoners of the true reality that they cannot see. This model was used to explain the nature of reality (the Forms), the need for education (the climb out of the cave), and the role of the philosopher (the freed prisoner).

Just as Plato believed in a dualist reality (phenomena and ideal), he believed in the dualism of humanity: body and mind. The body is an extension of the false and imperfect reality of phenomena, and it desires earthly pleasures. The mind is the sense of self and it desires an understanding of the Forms.

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