Plato: The Really Real

4.1 Plato’s Life and Times

Born into an aristocratic and influential Athenian family, and raised during the Peloponnesian War, Plato’s family expected him to go into politics, but he fell in love with philosophy. After his mentor, Socrates, was executed in 399 BCE, a disgusted Plato left Athens. He returned in 387 to found the Academy, often considered the first university.

His Academy developed thinkers such as Aristotle. Plato spent time writing dialogues, typically divided into stages: early, middle, and late. These reflect developments in his thinking; he extended and effectively completed Socrates’s interest in ethics to a systematic philosophy encompassing ideas in metaphysics and epistemology.

4.2 Knowledge and Reality

Plato believed that there are truths to be discovered; that knowledge is possible. Moreover, he held that truth is not, as the Sophists thought, relative. Instead, it is objective; it is that which our reason, used rightly, apprehends. Through his systematic philosophy, he developed a formidable rejection of skepticism, the view that we lack knowledge in some fundamental way.

Believing and Knowing

For Plato, there is a distinction between believing and knowing. Since there are objective truths to be known, we may believe X, but belief alone does not guarantee we are correct. There are three necessary and sufficient conditions, according to Plato, for one to have knowledge: (1) the proposition must be believed; (2) the proposition must be true; and (3) the proposition must be supported by good reasons, which is to say, you must be justified in believing it. Thus, for Plato, knowledge is justified, true belief.

Reason and the Forms

Since truth is objective, our knowledge of true propositions must be about real things. According to Plato, these real things are Forms. Their nature is such that the only mode by which we can know them is rationality. Forms are the eternal and immutable blueprints or models for everything that is. Consequently, they are more real than their particulars.

Because the Forms make particulars possible, they explain what is—we can understand what is by understanding the Forms. We can also extrapolate from particulars to get closer to contemplating the Forms. This extrapolation process is made possible by the way that reason works.

Unlike the senses, which can only tell us about this or that sensation, reason can think both about particulars and general concepts. Since the Forms are the most general things there are, the only way we can consider them is by way of our rationality. Moreover, Plato holds that our souls learned about the Forms before we were born, so we already know them—we have innate knowledge that needs to be elicited through the Socratic method.

Plato’s Rationalism

Following Parmenides, Plato privileges rationalism over empiricism, or reason over the senses, as the way we know. Unaided by the senses, reason will come to contemplate the Forms.

4.3 Allegory of the Cave

Plato’s Allegory of the Cave explains, among other things, how we come to the proper use of our reason to know the Forms.

4.4 Immortality, Morality, and the Soul

The Immortal Soul

The soul is immortal, according to Plato. In various dialogues, specifically the Phaedo, Plato articulates the relation between philosophy and the soul, where the activity of philosophy prepares the soul for a good death and afterlife. In this dialogue, Plato offers several arguments in support of the claim that the soul is immortal, one of which hearkens back to the theory of recollection demonstrated in the Meno. (See Ch. 3.) Another argument involves the idea that there are two types of being, one of which is associated with perishable things, like human bodies, and another that is associated with imperishable things, like the soul.

The Three-Part Soul

The soul consists of three parts: appetitive (appetites or urges), spirited (emotional), and rational. When one of the first two is not in control, the soul is in a state of disarray. In such a condition, individuals make poor choices and live unhappy lives.

The Moral Soul

The moral soul is the harmonious and just soul guided by reason. This is the soul in which each of the two lower parts, appetite and spirit, are kept in alignment by reason.

4.5 The Individual and the State

The individual is a microcosm of the state. The harmonious state is one in which each person performs his or her role according to his or her most prominent part of the soul or our nature: appetitive, spirited, or rational. The person driven most by his or her appetitive side is a producer, while the auxiliary is the spirited person, and the guardian is most rational. The producers are the laborers, carpenters, artists, and farmers of society; the auxiliaries are the soldiers, warriors, and police; and the guardians are the leaders, rulers, or philosopher-kings.

This arrangement lends itself to an aristocracy, a society ruled by a privileged class, rather than a democracy. This privilege is, however, practically speaking a burden. Doing what’s best for society means thinking always and only about the right way to govern, the right way to achieve a unified state. The society Plato envisions is one he thinks can alone ensure people get their due. This, he thinks, is a meritocracy, or system of rule whereby people are distinguished by their abilities and achievements.

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