In the realm of Western thought no other philosopher measures up to the contributions of Plato. Contained in his volumes are the building blocks of modernity. Plato’s dialogues meticulously construct a vision of power, the state, justice, social organization and democracy so complete that every other significant political theorist has been required to confront it in order to etch out their own identity. Not everything Plato wrote can be viewed as advisable on a humanitarian level, some of his proposals, such as his Utopia, appear proto-totalitarian in nature. If nothing else, Plato displayed a variety of fearless honesty that set the standard for cultural examination through the ages. Despite his missteps, Plato’s ideas cover much intellectual terrain and still bare relevance today.
It is unclear where Plato was born although it is generally assumed it was near Athens (Diogenes Laertius 3.4). Young Plato received the most rigorous education available to any Greek child. He was taught music, grammar, philosophy and gymnastics as a part of his early schooling. A student of the famous Greek philosopher, Socrates, Plato recorded the words of his teacher in his dialogues, preserving them as Socrates never penned anything himself. The Apology of Socrates noted that Plato was one of Socrates’ most loyal students. As a matter of record, Plato’s name was used against Socrates during his trial as one of the youths he had corrupted. Plato’s admiration for Socrates is evident through the way Plato presents Socrates as an eloquent sage in all of his works. The treatment of Socrates during his trial as well as Socrates’ ideas themselves would shape Plato’s own thought.
In Plato’s most respected work, The Republic, he sets out to assemble the ideal state. The initial question in Plato’s mind is that of justice. Using Socrates as his mouthpiece, Plato enters into a debate to define the nature of justice. A man named Polemarchus suggests justice is merely “giving everyone the good or evil they deserve.” This is to say return right with right and wrong with wrong. Socrates responds by stating that doing harm to others is never warranted. According to Socrates each person exhibits their own category of goodness called “arete”. To do harm to others is unjust as it diminishes this quality. Thrasymachus offers the next stage of Plato’s argument by denying both Polemarchus’ moral reciprocity and Socrates’ arete with a pre-Machiavellian idea of power as a justification for itself. Thrasymachus states “Listen—I say that justice is nothing other than the advantage of the stronger.” (The Republic, 1.388c). This idea props up the state and its leaders as suspended above the constraints of morality. Socrates refutes Thrasymachus by saying:
“Being a ruler is a craft like being a doctor or a navigator or a wage-labourer. If a man does it, we must pay him, but it is a craft in itself. Men don't want to be called mercenary or over-ambitious, which is why they think it dishonourable to accept command without some pressure and some reluctance; the penalty for refusal being to risk being governed by someone worse than themselves. That is what frightens honest men into accepting power. In a city of good men, there might be as much competition to avoid power as to get it.” (The Republic, 347)
Socrates describes for Thrasymachus the notion of the ruler as physician. It is in a state’s best interest to produce the highest quality citizens, and if each person has his or her own essence which is reduced when harmed then it is not justified for those in power to dilute the arete of those with less authority. In fact, each ruler should have an exceptional knowledge of society and its ailments along with a host of remedies much like a doctor diagnosing a patient. At this point Socrates turns to Glaucon who represents Plato’s third part of his definition of justice. Glaucon agrees with Socrates above Thrasymachus, however, Glaucon poses a dilemma about human nature. Glaucon lays out an thought experiment in which a man finds a ring which can turn him invisible.
“Imagine a just man had such a ring. Would he have such iron will that he could resist taking whatever he wanted? I think not, no man is just of his own will, but only from fear of the law. So much for that, consider how the world views men. The unjust man, if he is skilled, will always appear to be in the right, he'll dishonestly cover up the most monstrous crimes and he'll always have a ready excuse if he's found out. The just man, on the other hand, will act for justice, not just the appearance of justice. And what will happen to him? He'll end up being blamed for others crimes, and like as not scourged and crucified.” (The Republic, 361)
In the eyes of Glaucon human nature displays a fatal flaw -- self-interest. If given unlimited power men would not perform acts of altruism but instead devise ways to feed their avarice. To this Socrates says that Glaucon is only half correct. Each human being has the capacity for limitless greed yet each man and woman is capable of extraordinary compassion. For Socrates the difference between how a population will behave lies in education. People, according to Socrates, need the right type of instruction in order to foster their arete and make just decisions. This reliance on education will be the crux of Plato’s ideal state. Only through proper restraint can the pernicious impulses of people be subverted.
It may be obvious from this view of humanity that Plato did not hold a positive opinion of democracy. He witnessed firsthand, with the execution of Socrates in accord with popular will, what happens when control is handed over to the people. Plato once stated: “Dictatorship naturally arises out of democracy, and the most aggravated form of tyranny and slavery out of the most extreme liberty.” He found democracy promoted “pleasure-seeking” and favored inept rulers. Therefore, his Republic is said to be a reaction against the “anarchy” found inside a democratic state.
The total reconstruction of society needed to occur in three “waves”. The first wave was to give both men and women equal access to power. In ancient Greece women were considered lesser citizens. Plato felt the contributions of women could be valuable and saw the traditional Greek attitude toward women as counterproductive. Plato wanted to build a hierarchy of the best skilled, called a Timocracy, and within this hierarchy women would logically be included. The second wave would abolish private property and the orthodox family of the ruling class. Plato thought leaders in this new society should not be burdened by the distractions of family life therefore he regarded a communal structure to be the most effective arrangement for child-rearing and cementing solid bonds between the members of the elite or “Guardians“. The third and final wave that would transform Plato’s new state is the concept of the philosopher king. In this society only those who can tame their base instincts and nurture their intelligence and arete could rise to the level of a Guardian. The leadership would be required to undergo extensive training and education, demonstrating their superior wisdom (Dennis Dalton, Power Over People: Classical and Modern Political Theory, Lecture 5).
Plato stresses the importance of the role of the philosopher king through the allegory of the cave. Speaking through Socrates, Plato begins:
“I want to go on to picture the enlightenment or ignorance of the human condition as follows: Imagine an underground chamber in which are prisoners who have been chained since childhood with their legs and necks fastened so that they can only look straight ahead. Behind them is a road along which all sorts of men pass behind that a fire so that the prisoners see in front of them the shadows cast by the passers-by and the things they carry.” (The Republic, 515)
To the prisoners in the cave the flickering shadows on the wall is their only reality. It’s not until one of the prisoners breaks his or her chains, finds the surface and returns to inform the others of his or her discovery can the remaining prisoners receive proper guidance. In the allegory, those chained inside the cave represent the majority. They do not question their perception and often become frightened when their assumptions are challenged. The prisoner who journeys to the surface represents the philosopher king. Only someone with exceptional curiosity, aptitude and benevolence is capable of leading those who are unable or unwilling to free themselves. This is the only individual who meets the criteria to helm Plato’s new Republic, a state which will educate, protect and develop every one of its citizens.
To a mind as restless and expansive as Plato’s it is no surprise that he did not limit himself to ideas of social organization. In The Symposium the Greek philosopher focuses on the nature of love. Implementing the same technique found in The Republic, Plato begins the discourse with a dialogue between Socrates and Pausanias. According to Pausanias, love is nothing greater than physical attraction. Aristophanes enters the conversation with his refutation of Pausanias’ proposal.
Aristophanes illustrates his position with a story. There was once a time when both males and females were conjoined into one “third sex”, who didn’t suffer any of the tensions that arise from the friction between the two sexes. Zeus looked down and saw humanity’s bliss and became jealous sending a thunderbolt to tear the human race in two. The feeling of love originates from a yearning to reconnect with the other half of one’s self, not merely physical attraction as Pausanias contended.
Socrates accepted Aristophanes’ definition yet developed it further. In addition, love also pointed to an eternal quality of reality. Through Socrates Plato states: “Love, in reality is of every good, not of the missing half of oneself; desire that it should be ever present with it. It acts as the desire of generation in the beautiful, in relation both to body and soul, a something immortal in mortality as it were; not of the beautiful; but of immortality, necessarily, without which nothing can be ever present.” Plato found that our desire to love implies universal goodness, and that there is a piece of the eternal inside every human being. Evil, Plato said, was an “illusion”. Love symbolizes immutable goodness everyone craves. Thus there is a hierarchy to love, the lowest being physical attraction, the middle wrung occupied by the pursuit of completeness within another person and finally the uppermost level being the love of ultimate reality.
Plato took the influences of his life and produced arguably the most influential body of philosophical works in the Western world. Concerning himself with human welfare and universal truths like justice and love, he recorded and improved upon the teachings of his martyred teacher, Socrates, and laid the groundwork for those who would succeed him, namely Aristotle. The Republic alone has challenged and delighted many hungry minds. Everyone lives in the broad shadow cast by the ideas of this great philosopher because anyone who wishes to appreciate modern society must first labor under his tutelage.