Introduction to Plato and His Works
Max: Welcome to Afterlife Tonight. I'm your host, Max Pfingsten. Tonight, our guest is someone truly special: The father of Western philosophy, Socrates' student, Aristotle's teacher, give it up for Plato!
So, Plato, after the people of Athens killed off your master, you got really upset didn't you?
Plato: That's right Max.
Max: How did you deal with that?
Plato: Well, I started a school of philosophy in his honor.
Max: The Academy, wasn't it?
Plato: That's right. I also wrote a lot of books, mostly dialogues, all featuring Socrates. I thought it was important to keep his memory alive.
Max: So was that the point of all these dialogues, to preserve your master's memory for posterity?
Plato: Well, yes and no. Like the pre-Socratic philosophers before me, I was trying to discover the Universals, the Constants, the Laws of Nature. Unlike the pre-Socratics, I was also attempting to live up to Socrates' lofty standard for truth.
Max: We all know how picky Socrates could be about knowledge. I'm pretty sure the only thing Socrates knew was that he knew nothing.
Plato: Exactly right! He insisted that all true knowledge must be logically consistent.
Max: So all of these dialogues were your attempt to explain the world in a simple, logically consistent manner?
Plato: Quite right!
Max: Well, I must admit some of your ideas are profound, others seem rather silly. Yet the sheer volume and completeness of your work have made you the father of Western philosophy.
Plato: That's very kind of you to say.
Max: To cover all of your ideas would take months.
Plato: We've got nothing but time, Max.
Max: True, but our viewers don't. I'd like us to limit ourselves to exploring four of your most famous ideas:
- The Allegory of the Cave
- The Realm of Forms
- The Nature of the Soul
- and The Ideal State, which you called The Republic
Plato: Sounds good to me.
The Allegory of the Cave
Max: Let us start with what I believe to be your most profound idea: The Allegory of the Cave. Take it away, Plato!
Plato: Imagine a group of people who have lived their whole lives in a cave. From their childhood, they have been sitting, chained, unable to move even their heads, facing the rear wall of the cave. Behind them blazes a bright fire. Behind the fire and the prisoners runs a barricade. From behind that barricade their captors have been making shadow puppets on the wall of the cave.
As a result, the prisoners' knowledge would be limited to the shadow puppet show they had seen on the wall. They would believe these puppet shows to be reality.
Then, one day, a clever fellow escapes from the cave. And as he steps out into the sunlight, he realizes that everything he's ever known was but an illusion.
He tries to free the other captives. But they don't believe in the world he describes, since they don't know anything but shadow puppets. They actually get quite upset when he tells them that their entire world is not real. In the end, the enlightened hero is killed by the very people he's trying to save.
Max: That sounds a lot like Socrates. He tried to free people from their mistaken opinions and got killed for his trouble.
Max: So, Plato, what are we to make of this allegory, besides being an homage to the great Socrates?
Plato: Well, I wrote this metaphor with two points in mind. First, to help people imagine what it would be like to be deceived by their own senses. Second, to demonstrate Socrates' most important idea: the difference between opinion and knowledge.
You see, opinion is only true in certain circumstances, whereas knowledge is universally true. Opinion changes constantly, whereas knowledge is constant and always true.
Max: So the things the prisoners believe are opinions. They are only true in their shadowy prison, for they are based on their observation of an illusion. But the things the enlightened man knows are knowledge. They are universally true, for they are based on observations of the real world. Overall, our opinions constrain us while our perceptions deceive us. By trusting only in our senses and insisting that our opinions are true, we blind ourselves to true knowledge. Is that about right, Plato?
Plato: That is essentially the Allegory of the Cave.
The Realm of Forms
Max: So, Plato, what is this true knowledge, since you're so enlightened?
Plato: True knowledge is not something readily perceived by our senses. When we look at the world around us, we see inconsistencies and changes taking place constantly. Things are always moving and changing. Tides come and go, stars come out, only to flee again, rivers devour mountains, and even the hardest steel will collapse to rust. All living things age and die.
But knowledge does not change. Knowledge is always true. Thus, we cannot acquire true knowledge based on observations of the natural world. No, no. Instead, knowledge is accessible only through pure reason and thought.
Max: Hold on there, Plato. So you're saying that we can't find knowledge by observing the world around us?
Plato: Absolutely not. Knowledge does not change, the world does. Therefore, the world is no place to look for knowledge.
Max: So where should we look for knowledge?
Plato: The Realm of Forms
Max: And what's that?
Plato: So, here's the earth. What a sweet earth, you might say. Wrong! Just look at it, it's constantly falling apart and reassembling itself. Trees are growing, rivers are flowing, giraffes are dying.
Max: So what's the alternative?
Plato: In the Realm of Forms, nothing changes. Everything is always perfect, always as it should be. In the realm of forms, trees don't grow, rivers don't flow, and giraffes never die. Things just are. The earth, and everything in it, is just a shoddy copy of the realm of form. The tree, the river, the giraffe, they're just matter being shoved temporarily into an eternal form.
Max: Like Jell-O in a mold.
Plato: If you say so.
Max: Just trying to be helpful.
Plato: Please don't. As I was saying, everything in the world is a poor copy of an eternal form. There's the perfect form of tree, a perfect form of cat, a perfect form of human. All the varieties we see in trees, cats, and humans result from the imperfect mechanisms of nature trying ineffectively to copy these perfect forms.
Max: So let me see if I've got this straight. When, say, John the Craftsman builds a wheel, he imagines the perfect form of a circle, which he uses as a blueprint. He then tries to copy this form in the natural world.
However, John's skills and tools are imperfect. Try as he might, he can never create a perfect circle. Moreover, even the best craftsman is limited by what he has to work with, and the materials of the natural world are imperfect. Whatever John makes the wheel out of, it will never be perfectly round, even if it seems so to the naked eye. Moreover, it will eventually wear down and fall apart with time. The resulting wheel is, at best, a rough approximation of the eternal form of circle.
So the perfect circle does not exist in this world. The only time John really sees the perfect form of a circle is in his imagination.
Max: And there are forms for every object on earth: people, dogs, trees, and even circles.
Plato: But not just forms of objects, there are forms of ideals. There is a perfect form of justice, a perfect form of love, a perfect form of government. Yet these are just as unattainable in the material world as perfect circles or perfect humans. As poor copies of the perfect human form, it is not surprising that we imperfect humans struggle to achieve the perfect form of justice.
Plato on the Soul
Max: This all seems like quite a stretch to me. An eternal, unchanging world that we cannot perceive seems like a lot to ask a rational person to swallow.
Plato: Let me ask you this. Have you ever seen a perfect circle, a truly perfect circle?
Max: Well, no.
Plato: But you can see it in your head.
Max: I suppose I can.
Plato: Well, how do you know what it looks like? Where do we get the idea of the perfect? Surely the perfect must exist somewhere, or we would not be able to imagine it.
Max: So where did we see it?
Plato: In the Realm of Forms.
Max: I thought we couldn't see the Realm of Forms.
Plato: Not in this life. But we come from the Realm of Forms at birth, and we return to it when we die. When we enter the material world and take on a material form, our senses deceive us by showing us a world of change and decay. Our imperfect minds forget the perfect world of forms, just like the prisoners in the cave. The only place we can perceive the Realm of Forms anymore is in our minds. When we imagine something perfect, we're actually remembering the perfect form that we'd forgotten.
Max: So, how are we, imperfect, forgetful mortals, to ever find these perfect eternal forms?
Plato: Well, we certainly can't look for them here, in the ever changing material world. Our observations serve only to deceive us. They lead us further from the perfect, rather than closer to it. To find perfection, one must abandon observation, and lead a life of pure contemplation.
Plato on Politics
Max: But if we all did nothing but contemplate, nothing would get done.
Plato: Oh certainly, certainly. The contemplative life is not for everyone. Your average person is captivated by his senses, and only concerned with his own opinion. After all, the masses were so unenlightened that they condemned Socrates to death.
Max: You don't think very highly of your fellow Athenians. Not a big fan of democracy are you, Plato?
Plato: Certainly not. The perfect form of government is a republic, ruled by a class of Philosopher Kings. The unenlightened classes would do all the work, leaving the philosopher kings free from the mundane concerns of life. This is the only way to allow them to contemplate perfection.
Max: You really think no one would mind being ruled by a bunch of self-righteous know-it-alls?
Plato: People don't know what's good for them. They need someone wise to guide them.
Max: Too bad all the wise men are dead.
Plato: Indeed, Max, indeed. Well, it's been a pleasure talking to you. I really must get back to the Realm of Forms.
Max: Good seeing you, Plato.
All joking aside, Plato's impact on Western civilization cannot be overstated. Plato's pure idealism and his distrust of the material world make his philosophy seem more like a religion than a science. And, indeed, Christianity would be heavily influenced by Platonic ideals.
Yet though Plato was perhaps the least scientific of the Greek philosophers, modern science still owes Plato a great deal.
Plato took Socrates' high standard for knowledge, and enshrined it as an ideal: knowledge must be logically consistent and universally true. Plato also emphasized that the true nature of the universe would not be obvious. Plato noted that understanding requires detachment from details and a broader view towards universal truths.
Today we call these universal truths laws or constants. Just like Plato said, they are logically consistent and universally true, but not necessarily apparent to our senses.
With his realm of forms, Plato strove to explain the world in terms that satisfied Socrates' ideal standard of truth. The fact that Plato's ideals bore little resemblance to reality is inconsequential, though it did upset Aristotle quite a bit. The important thing was that Plato thought that the human mind was capable of breaking free of opinions, sifting through misleading sensory perceptions, and discovering true knowledge.
To this end Plato founded his Academy, a place where young men could devote themselves to the pursuit of wisdom. This was a completely new invention, and a clear predecessor to our universities. The Academy provided a safe forum, where one could ask questions and engage in philosophical debate without incurring the wrath of the state. Had Socrates been able to teach at the Academy, instead of harassing prominent men in the middle of the marketplace, he might well have avoided his death sentence.
Now, let us read our top ten things to remember from this lecture:
10. Plato was an Athenian Philosopher.
9. Plato was Socrates' student and Aristotle's teacher.
8. Plato wrote a lot of dialogues.
7. One of these dialogues was called The Republic. It was a book about the perfect state, ruled by Philosopher Kings.
6. Part of The Republic is the Allegory of the Cave, which shows how false perceptions lead to false opinions.
5. Plato believed true knowledge could only come from the Realm of Forms.
4. The Realm of Forms is a perfect place, eternal and unchanging.
3. Plato thought we begin and end our lives in the Realm of Forms
2. Plato founded the first Academy, a precursor to modern universities.
1. Plato hated democracy because he thought the common people were stupid and enslaved by their own false opinions and thus incapable of making rational decisions.
Well, that's all we have for tonight folks. I hope you enjoyed the show. Join us next time on Afterlife Tonight..