Category Archives: Plato

A Summary of Plato’s Political Theory and American Politics 2016

(This article was reprinted in the online magazine of the Institute for Ethics & Emerging Technologies, November 13, 2016.)

Plato argued that we can’t have a good life without good government, and he also believed that we can’t have good governments without intellectually and morally excellent leaders.

To understand why we need intelligent and knowledgeable individuals occupying the most important positions in society, Plato invites us to consider the following: if we want good health care we consult physicians and nurses; if we desire legal advice we consult attorneys; if we want to construct buildings or bridges we consult engineers and architects; etc. Yet, Plato said, in a democracy when we choose our political leaders we consult all the people—even the most ignorant among us.

Now if you were trying to determine whether you needed heart surgery you would consult a cardiologist, not take a vote or ask the cashier in the checkout lane. If you want to know about the merits of a lawsuit you would consult an attorney, not a pharmacist or plumber. And if you want to understand the science of climate change, you would consult a climate scientist, not a scientifically illiterate politician. Since running the society is of the utmost importance, Plato believed it imperative that those holding political positions be at least minimally knowledgeable of politics, history, economics, science and more.

In his dialogue The Republic, Plato lays out an educational plan to help ensure, as far as possible, that politicians—like physicians, attorneys, nurses, physicists, and philosophy professors—are educated in areas relevant to making important decisions for the society. In addition, Plato thought that the ruling class should be morally excellent, and in The Republic, he lays out a plan to ensure, as far as humanly possible, that virtuous individuals compose the ruling class.

Now none of this guarantees that will we get good politicians, nor that society will flourish as a result because even after long periods of training there are incompetent and immoral politicians, physicians and philosophy professors. But surely the fact that physicians, nurses, attorneys, physicists, and philosophers endure long periods of training and must pass multiple examinations makes them more likely to be qualified to do their jobs than if they were chosen randomly or by a vote of the ignorant.

By contrast, suppose your physician told you that she knows nothing of medicine, but the free market lets anyone practice so she thought she would give it a go. Suppose your philosophy professor says he had never had a philosophy class, but that he got the job because he knows the dean. In either case, you would not feel good about the situation. Plato thinks the same way about politics. You want those who practice to be qualified. And like Plato, I believe that persons applying to hold a political office should have to pass some kind of exams to demonstrate knowledge of the relevant issues, in the same way, one must pass medical boards (physicians), or the bar (attorneys), or comprehensive examinations (PhD) in order to practice in those realms. [We might also consider some minimal qualifications for voting too, as so many are low information voters.]

Now all of this is relevant to the American political system where those who run for political office often have no relevant knowledge of the issues; often they are ignorant of economics, science, political theory, history, religion, nuclear weapons, and more. Sometimes they are even chosen because they are actors, athletes, or ignorant celebrities. Surely all of this is insane! I want a physician to treat me, not someone who plays one on TV. In other important positions, I want someone who understands health care, the economy, the environment, and technology, not someone who only pretends to understand them. As for the argument that leaders don’t have to know anything, just choose good experts to advise them, I say balderdash. How can an ignorant person even identify knowledgeable ones? They cannot.

Now I do realize that intellectual excellence is merely a necessary and not a sufficient condition for good governing, but necessary it is. As for the moral component, this is a more difficult thing to recognize. To identify moral individuals we might use Plato’s model of observing people for many years to assess their moral virtue, or we may prefer the one used for centuries in ancient China—the Imperial Exams. But, as readers of this blog know, the best solution I know of to change our world is to use technology to change the human genome and the brain itself. This is a radical solution, but the best one I know of.

The Allegory of the Cave, The Divided Line, The Myth of the Sun

As I said in yesterday’s post, Plato used three images to explain his theory of the Forms. The first was the myth of the cave.

The chained prisoner’s tied see only the wall in front of them while in the roadway behind them various objects are carried back and forth resulting in the shadows on the wall. One day a prisoner breaks free and see the objects behind him. He knows there is something more real and he has more knowledge of his reality. Eventually, he makes his way out of the cave and sees objects in the sunlight, and then he sees the sun itself.

The allegory this refers to his leaving behind the impermanent, material world for the permanent intelligible world. It is a story about the human journey from darkness to light, from sleeping to waking, from ignorance to knowledge. For Christians like St. Augustine it represented the soul’s journey from this world to the heavenly one. Contemporary commentators often argue that has something to say to us. We look at our televisions, smartphones, and computer screens rather than contemplating eternal things.

Plato’s next device to explain forms was the divided line.

As move from top to bottom, you find more reality and more knowledge. For example suppose you only know the shadow of a horse, in that, are at the bottom (A). The shadow has very little reality—it depends on the horse casting the shadow—and it provides little knowledge. If you now see an actual horse you have moved up one level (B). You know more about horses and the actual horse has more reality than its shadow. If you move further upward to (C) you are in the realm of understanding, the realm of mathematical ideas. Finally, as you proceed upward you arrive at the world of forms (D), the highest of which is the form of the good.

Finally, Plato says that just as the sun illuminates the entire physical world so too, by analogy, does the idea of the good illuminate all of reality. Thus the entire material, temporal world that we usually see is less real than the immaterial, non-temporal.

I don’t know if I hope Plato is right or not. But if he is, then dinner is not that important.

Summary of Plato’s Theory of Human Nature

Plato: The Rule of Reason

(This is a summary of a chapter in a book I often used in university classes: Twelve Theories of Human Nature. Phrases in brackets are my commentaries.) 

Plato (427-347 BCE) “was one of the first to argue that the systematic use of our reason can show us the best way to live.” [Platonic thinking is part of this rise of reason in ancient Greece—often called the Greek miracle. It replaced superstitious, religious, mythological, supernatural thinking with rational, scientific, philosophical, naturalistic thinking. The lives we live today, especially the benefits of science and technology, owe much to this Greek miracle.] Plato argues that if we truly understand human nature we can find “individual happiness and social stability.” [We can answer ethical and political questions.]

Plato’s Life and Works – Plato “was born into an influential family … of Athens.” Athens was at the center of the Greek miracle, the use of reason to understand the world. He was especially influenced by Socrates, but after Athens lost the twenty-seven year Peloponnesian War with Sparta, Socrates came under suspicion and was eventually condemned to death. [Here is my summary of the trial of Socrates.]

Socrates was interested in political and ethical matters, especially about whether the Sophists were correct in defending moral (cultural) relativism. [This is the idea that morality is relative to, conditioned by, or dependent upon cultural conventions.] Socrates believed that the use of reason could resolve philosophical questions, especially if one employed the method of rational argument and counter-argument; the Socratic method uses a series of questions and answers designed to uncover the truth.

Socrates claimed that he did not know the answers to questions beforehand, but that he was wiser than others in knowing that he didn’t know. [This is the essence of Socratic wisdom—he is wiser than others in knowing he doesn’t know, whereas the ignorant often claim to know with great certainty. Using the Socratic Method, he showed people that they didn’t know what they claimed to know. Needless to say, questioning people about their beliefs and implicitly asking them to defend them often arouses resentment and hostility. As Spinoza said “I cannot teach philosophy without being a disturber of the peace”]

Plato was shocked by Socrates execution but maintained faith in rational inquiry. Plato wrote extensively, and in a series of dialogues, expounded the first (relatively) systematic philosophy of the Western world. [The early dialogues recount the trial and death of Socrates. Most of the rest of the Platonic dialogues portray Socrates questioning to those who think they know the meaning of justice (in the Republic), moderation (in the Charmides), courage (in the Laches), knowledge, (in the Theaetetus), virtue (in the Meno), piety (in the Euthyphro), or love (in the Symposium).] The Republic is the most famous dialogue. It touches on many of the great philosophical issues including the best form of government, the best life to live, the nature of knowledge, as well as family, education, psychology and more. It also expounds Plato’s theory of human nature. [The philosopher Alfred North Whitehead famously said that all of philosophy is just footnotes to Plato.]

Metaphysical Background: The Forms – Plato is not a theist or polytheist, and he is certainly not a biblical theist. When he talks about the divine he is referring to reason (logos), a principle that organizes the world from preexisting matter. What is most distinctive about Plato’s philosophy is his theory of forms, although his description of forms isn’t precise. But Plato thought that knowledge is an active process through which we organize and classify our perceptions. Forms are ideas or concepts which have at least 4 aspects:

A) Logical – how does “table” or “tree” apply to various tables/trees? How does a universal concept like “bed” or “dog” or “red” or “hot” apply to many individual things? [Any word, except proper names and pronouns, refers to a form.] Nominalists argue that words simply name things, there are no universal concepts existing over and above individuals. [Words are convenient names that demarcate some things from others.] Platonic realists argue that universal forms really exist independently, and individual things are x’s because they participate in the form of xness. [Dogs are mammals because they participate in doginess—which transcends individual dogs.] At times Plato suggests that there is a form for all general words—other times he doesn’t.

B) Metaphysical – are forms ultimately real; do they exist independently? Plato says yes. Universal, eternal, immaterial, unchanging forms are more real than individuals. Individual material things are known by the senses, whereas forms are known by the intellect. And the forms have a real, independent existence—there is a world of forms.

C) Epistemological – knowledge is of forms, perceptions in this world lead only to belief or opinion. We find the clearest example of knowledge based on forms in mathematics. [Hence the motto of Plato’s academy. “Let no one ignorant of geometry enter here.”] The objects of mathematical reasoning are often not found in this world—and we can never see most of them—but they provide us with knowledge about the world. [Plato is challenging us to account for mathematical knowledge without positing mathematical forms. Even today most mathematicians are mathematical Platonists.]

D) Moral – ideals of human conduct, moral concepts like justice and equality are forms. [So there are physical, mathematical, and moral forms.] Individuals and societies can participate in justice, liberty, or equality, but in this world, we never encounter the perfect forms. The most prominent of all the forms is the form of the “good.”

The parables of the sun and cave are primarily about understanding forms and the form of the good. [Plato compares the sun’s illumination of the world with the form of the good’s illumination of reality.] Plato thought that by using reason we could come to know the good, and then we would do the good. Thus knowledge of the good is sufficient for virtue, doing the good. [This seems mistaken as Aristotle will point out because our will can be weak.] Thus Plato’s philosophy responds to intellectual and moral relativism—there are objective truths about the nature of reality and about human conduct. [The allegory of the cave, the myth of the sun, and the divided line are the devices Plato uses to explain the forms. I will explain these in tomorrow’s post.]

Theory of Human Nature – The Tripartite Structure of the Soul – [Having encountered the social self of Confucianism, the divine self of Hinduism, and the no-self of Buddhism, we come to dualism.]

Plato is a dualist; there is both immaterial mind (soul) and material body, and it is the soul that knows the forms. Plato believed the soul exists before birth and after death. [We don’t see perfect circles or perfect justice in this world, but we remember seeing them in Platonic heaven before we were born.] Thus he believed that the soul or mind attains knowledge of the forms, as opposed to the senses. Needless to say, we should care about our soul rather than our body.

The soul (mind) itself is divided into 3 parts: reason; appetite (physical urges); and will (emotion, passion, spirit.) The will is the source of love, anger, indignation, ambition, aggression, etc. When these aspects are not in harmony, we experience mental conflict. The will can be on the side of either reason or the appetites. We might be pulled by lustful appetite, or the rational desire to find a good partner. To explain the interaction of these 3 parts of the self, Plato uses the image is of the charioteer (reason) who tries to control horses representing will and appetites. [Elsewhere he says that reason uses the will to control the appetites.

Plato also emphasized the social aspect of human nature. We are not self-sufficient, we need others, and we benefit from our social interactions, from other person’s talents, aptitudes, and friendship.

Diagnosis – Persons differ as to which part of their nature is predominant. Individual dominated by reason seeks are philosophical and seek knowledge; individuals dominated by spirit/will/emotion are victory loving and seek reputation; individuals dominated by appetites are profit loving and seek material gain. Although each has a role to play, reason ought to rule the will and appetites. And in the same way, those with the most developed reason ought to rule the society. A well-ordered, harmonious, or just society is one in which each kind of person plays their proper role.  Thus there is a parallel between proper functioning individuals and proper functioning societies. Good societies help produce good people who in turn help produce good societies, while bad societies tend to produce bad individuals who in turn help produce bad societies.

Plato differentiates between 5 classifications of societies. 1) The best is a meritocracy, where the talented rule. This may degenerate into increasingly bad forms, each one worse than the other as we go down the list. 2) The timarchic society, which values honor and fame while reason is neglected. In such a society spirit dominates the society and the ruling class. 3) Oligarchy, where money-making is valued and political power lies with the wealthy. In such a society appetites dominate the society and the ruling class. 4) Democracy, where the poor seize power. They are also dominated by appetites. He describes the common people as “lacking in discipline [and] pursuing mere pleasure of the moment …” 5) Anarchy is the sequel to the permissiveness and self-indulgence of democracy.  It is the total lack of government. Plato thought this would usher in a tyrant to restore order.

Prescription – Justice is the same in both individuals and society—the harmonious workings of the parts to create a flourishing whole. But how is this attained? Plato believes that education—academic, musical, and physical—as the key. Education takes place in the context of a social and political system. Not surprisingly this includes kings (rulers) being philosophers, those in whom reason dominates. If there really is a truth about how people should live, then only those with such knowledge should rule. [Think of the parallels with Confucianism, where those who rule have mastered the Confucian political texts.]

To achieve this end Plato, the guardians or rulers must engage in a long educational process in which they learn about the Forms. [After a nearly 50-year-long process, those of the highest moral and intellectual excellence will rule.] The guardians cannot own personal property and cannot have families. [The idea is that only the desire to serve the common good motivates them, rather than money or power.] He hopes that the guardians will so love wisdom that they will not misuse their power. As for those dominated by will/emotion/spirit they are best suited to being auxiliaries—soldiers, police, and civil servants. The final class is composed of the majority, those in whom the appetites dominate. They will be farmers, craftsman, traders, and other producers of the materials necessary for living.

Critics have called Plato’s republic authoritarian or totalitarian, and Plato advocated both censorship and propaganda as means of maintaining social control.  He certainly believed that the masses [who he says like to “shop and spend”] were unable to govern the society and that an elite, composed of the morally and intellectually excellent should make the important decisions about how best to govern a society.

“The School of Athens” fresco by the Italian Renaissance artist Raphael.


The Trial of Socrates

Summary of Plato’s Apology

The Apology is Plato’s recollection and interpretation of the Trial of Socrates (399 BCE). In the dialogue Socrates explains who he is and what kind of life he led. The Greek word “apologia” means explanation—it is not to be confused with apologizing for one’s actions. The following is an outline of the argument that Socrates makes in his defense.

I. Prologue (17a-19a)

The first sentence sets the tone and direction for the entire dialogue. Socrates, in addressing the men of Athens, states that he almost forgot who he was, and that the speeches of his accusers reminded him. The dialogue will thus be a kind of “recollecting” by Socrates of who he is. That is to say, the Apology will become Socrates’ answer to the question: “Who is Socrates?

II. The First False Charges (19a – 24a)

A. The Charges and Their Assignment (19a-20c)

The first “charge” against Socrates arose from general accusations that had been directed toward him through the years. These accusations were that Socrates was: (1) a physicalist and (2) a sophist. The charge of “investigating things beneath the earth and in the skies” were also leveled at physicalists like Thales and Anaxagoras. The charge of “making the weaker argument appear the stronger” was directed to sophists like Gorgias, Hippias, and Evanus. But Socrates is neither a physicalist or a Sophist. He is not a physicalist because he believes in a non-physical soul, and he is not a Sophist because, among other reasons, he doesn’t charge for his teaching and he is interested in truth not influence.

B. Socrates’ Art and the Delphic Oracle (20c-23c)

The false image of Socrates arose because people misunderstood his true activity. Socrates explains this activity by relating a story about the Delphic Oracle. A friend of Socrates’ went to the Oracle and asked the priestess: “Who is the wisest of mortals?” and the priestess replied: “Socrates is the most wise.” When Socrates heard this he was surprised, since he thought of himself as ignorant. In response, he tried to invalidate the claim by finding someone wiser than he. He began to question various people including politicians, poets, and craftsmen. In each encounter, the various individuals claim to be in possession of some kind of wisdom or knowledge. But upon further questioning, Socrates became convinced that none of these persons possessed knowledge or wisdom.

Socrates concluded that the truth of the statement “Socrates is most wise” is that Socrates was most wise because he was aware of his own ignorance, while those around him who claimed to know were ignorant of their ignorance.

C. How the Charges Arose (23c-24a)

In the course of Socrates’ verification of the Delphic Oracle’s claims that he was most wise, he challenged many people about their cherished beliefs. The response of many individuals was confusion and anger. Over the years, this anger took the form of a general resentment toward Socrates.

III. The Specific Charges (24b – 28a)

The charges made were that Socrates was guilty of: a) corruption of the youth; and b) impiety or not believing in the gods. And the penalty they demanded was death.

Regarding the Charge of Corruption of the Youth Socrates Responds:

  1. Meletus says that Socrates is the person in Athens who is responsible for the corruption of the youth. Yet it is absurd to say that only Socrates corrupts the youth. This implies that everyone else helps the youth. But just as there are few horse trainers, so there are few who really “train” the youth. Socrates is of these “trainers.”
  2. Who would voluntarily corrupt the youth? (25c-26a) If Socrates voluntarily harmed the youth, then (since evil begets evil) they would harm him. And no rational person voluntarily harms himself. But if he harmed the youth involuntarily, then he should be educated not punished. So either he is intentionally harming the youth which is self-destructive, or he is unintentionally harming them in which case he should be taught how not to do so, not punished.

Regarding the Charge of Impiety

Could a person believe in things like clothes and yet not in human beings who wear them? So too with divine things: Since Socrates believes in a Diamon (a divine thing), it follows that he believes in divinities. He also says that believes in spiritual activities so he obviously believes in spirits.

IV. Socrates’ Interpretation of his Art (28b – 32e)

Socrates is unpopular, but not ashamed of his occupation even if it brings death. One should not fear death, for that is to claim one knows what one does not know—that death is bad.) Socrates encourages people to care not for their possessions or bodies, but for their souls.

Socrates, far from being an impious corrupter of the youth, is actually a blessing sent by the gods. To show this, Socrates likens himself to a gadfly (a horsefly). Just as a gadfly constantly agitates a horse, preventing it from becoming sluggish and going to sleep, Socrates converses in the marketplace to prevent the city from becoming sluggish, careless and intolerant. Ultimately, Socrates’ whole life has been a service to the city begun out of a pious response to the saying of the gods. He is their gadfly.

V. Socrates Answers the Charges (33a-34b) 

Finally he asks if any present in the court felt that he had corrupted them. Plato and others indicate that, to the contrary, they have been helped by Socrates not corrupted by them.

VI. Epilogue (34c-35d)

Socrates tells the men of Athens that he wants to be judged according to his account of himself and not by any other standard—such as appealing to his old age or the fact that he has children. Thus Socrates wishes to be judged and not exonerated for any other reason than the demands of justice. A vote is taken and Socrates is found guilty.

VII. The Conviction and Alternate Penalties (36a – 38c)

The penalty proposed is death by hemlock. At this point, Socrates has the opportunity to propose an alternate penalty. Socrates argues that since the penalty should be something he deserves, and since he has spent his life in service to the city without pay, he deserves free meals for the rest of his life. (He does appear to offer that his friends will pay a small fine for him.)

VIII. Final Speeches (38c-42a)

There are two final speeches. The first are to those who voted for his death; the second are for those who voted for his acquittal.

To those who voted for his death (38c-39d)

At his age of 70 death would have soon arrived naturally. But now these people will bear the responsibility for it—and they will have allowed Athens to be condemned for my execution. Socrates notes that he could have won his case if he had appealed to their emotions if he had practiced Sophistry, but he chose instead to speak the truth. He prophecizes that there will be others to take his place when he is gone. After all, it is not the particular person of Socrates which is at issue here, but the activity of philosophy itself.

To those who voted for his acquittal (39e-42a)

Socrates notes that his Daemon never attempted to dissuade him from anything that he said. So this outcome must be for the good. After all, death is either one of two things: a deep sleep or a change of place. A deep sleep is more peaceful than most of our waking time. If he were to enter Hades—if death were a change of place—he would have the opportunity to meet all of the great Greek thinkers and heroes. And here he could ask them the same questions that he asked the men of Athens. So he has in no way been harmed, for he will either sleep soundly or continue talking. [He omits the ideas of some eternal punishment. Obviously, such an outcome was unthinkable.]

[In the next dialogue, the Crito, Socrates rebukes his friends who want to help him escape. Socrates has been found guilty and believes he should abide by the laws of the state that has nurtured and educated him. Finally the dialogue The Phaedo will describe the scene of Socrates’ death. After he has gone Plato writes movingly:

“Such was the end of our comrade … a man who, we would say, was of all those we have known the best, and also the wisest and the most just.”