To fully understand the significance of Plato, we need look no further than the quote by philosopher Alfred North Whitehead, who, in the 1900’s said that “all of western philosophy is just a series of footnotes to Plato.”
So, where do we begin in our journey to understand Plato? Well, we’ve got to start with his mentor and my dog’s namesake, Socrates. Socrates was an Athenian philosopher who was famously executed on charges of disrespecting the gods and corrupting the youth. He was, unlike my dog, ugly and wicked annoying. Plato even admitted it. In one of his dialogues, Plato describes him as a gnat fly to Athens. He would go around confronting citizens of Athens, often elites, and ask them questions like “what is justice?” or “what is courage?” And would often make that so-called expert or sophist (we’ll cover them shortly) look like a fool in front of their friends, family, and kids. As you can imagine, the elites of Athens weren’t thrilled with this. So they killed him.
Before we move on from Socrates, let’s note the three things he’s most famous for, other than being killed.
1.) The Socratic method. Socrates believed in dialectical philosophy, which is a term that was hijacked by the German enlightenment and made way more complicated. For our purposes, the dialectic just means a conversation. He believed that the ladder of truth was climbed by two people of good faith having a discussion together.
What was his role in the discussions? Well, as you probably know, it was asking a lottttt of questions. These questions were employed in two ways: to teach somebody something or to make someone look like an idiot. He was great at both. Socrates firmly believed this was the only way to come across truth. So, he didn’t write anything down, as he viewed it as an inadequate way to do philosophy. This making someone look like an idiot employment was often used against what were called sophists. In democratic Athens, you see, rhetoric was a huge skill for anyone looking to make it in politics. So, sophists charged a ton of money to teach you how to argue any point. Socrates did not like this. Sophists were slimy and had no concern for the truth whatsoever. They basically got paid to teach people how to manipulate others to get their way.
2.) What is called Socratic irony. Now the Greek term for irony meant a little something different than what it does now. It meant to intentionally conceal your superiority over someone. As Aristotle points out, this was Socrates’ thing. He would go up to people, pleading his ignorance, asking them to help him out by explaining what virtue is and then cut apart their definitions with surgical precision.
3.) This leads us to the final thing he’s known for. The famous phrase that “I am wise because I know that I know nothing.” Socrates comes to this conclusion at the end of his mission he set out upon after meeting with the Oracle at Delphi. He asked the oracle “who is the wisest man in all of Athens?” To which the oracle replied that it was him. Socrates thought that this was ridiculous because he felt that he knew so little. So, he went about his mission to find truly the wisest man in Athens by bothering poets, politicians, sophists- basically anyone deemed wise by Athenian society- only to come to the conclusion that they didn’t know anything either, even though they were sure they did. So, he came to the conclusion that the reason he is the wisest man is because he knows that he knows nothing.
This brings us now to Plato, Socrates’ mentee. Plato is the main account we have of Socrates historically, along with Xenaphon and Sophocles. Plato was born in 427 B.C. to an aristocratic family that could supposedly trace their roots all the way back to the great Athenian politician, Solon. Plato, also, wasn’t his real name. It was a nickname, which means broad in Ancient Greek, given to him for one of two reasons: either the breadth of his intellect, or the broadness of his shoulders, as he was a very accomplished wrestler in his youth. His real name-is Aristocles, which I personally found cool enough sounding to name my company after.
Plato was 27 when Socrates died. And this left an immense impact on him, as we’ll see in his writings, especially in terms of his views on democracy, the system that killed the wisest man to ever life, Socrates. After Socrates’ death, Plato went to southern Italy to study. He then entered into the political arena where he advised King Dionysisus of Syracuse. That didn’t go great. Dionysisius ended up selling Plato into slavery. Obviously, though, he was freed. So what did Plato do next? Well, he went back to Syracuse when Dionysisus died and his son Dionysisus II, his former student, was King. He went hoping to make him a Philosopher King like in his masterpiece The Republic. There he befriended the King’s relative, Dion, which was good, because Plato’s plan didn’t work and they both got banished from Syracuse at the same time. Plato then went back to Syracuse again and tried to make things work for Dion. This also didn’t work. And such was the end of Plato’s political career. Tough to hate on Plato’s hustle, as he embodied the shooters shoot mentality.
After he returned from Syracuse for the final time, he opened up a school called “The Academy.” There the greatest minds of Greece, including Aristotle, came to study philosophy. This was a learning institution that was unprecedented. Much in the same way that the philosophy of Socrates and Plato was. You see, before Socrates, in what is called the pre-Socratic era of philosophy, philosophy was mostly natural philosophy. It was concerned with how matter works, with astronomy, with math. But, Socrates and Plato changed the game. They made philosophy about how one ought to live their life. They started asking questions about virtue and ethics, about language and love, about government and politics.
Just as notable about the uniqueness of what Plato wrote about in his time, is the way he wrote, which, to be frank, is still unique in this time. Famously, the works of Plato are called the Platonic dialogues. Now, if you want to get nitpicky, you could point out that there are many scenes that are not just dialogue but have narrative aspects to them in which characters are described as moving a certain way or doing a certain thing. Plato is a fantastic writer- especially for a philosopher. His writings have suspense, humor, foreshadowing, character development, basically everything that makes a story good. Like any great writer, he uses his writing style, the dialectic, to further his point. So, he should be read in both a literary way as well as philosophical.
In these works, Socrates is often the main character talking to real historical figures, including some of Plato’s own relatives, called interlocutors, with whom Socrates tries to find the truthful answer to some question. It’s interesting to note that Socrates does not “win” all of these conversations or debates. In fact, many of his dialogues result in what in Greek is called aporia, which is when the conversation ends and nobody has a resolution, as Socrates has proven the interlocutor wrong about their original belief, but the group is left with nothing.
Our next episode is gonna begin at the beginning of the end of Socrates’ life, his trial. It is one of the most widely read philosophical texts in the western world: The Apology. And even though you know how it ends, it’s still sure to surprise you if you haven’t read it. So, be sure to subscribe, and join Socrates and me next week as we talk about the trial that changed the course of history.