Plato (428-348 BC) was a Classical Greek philosopher and founder of the Academy of Athens, the first university of the western world. Along with his teacher Socrates and his student Aristotle, Plato is considered to have set the grounds for Western philosophy and to have influences the thinking of many modern philosophers.
Life and education
The son of two wealthy and prominent members of the Athenian society, Ariston and Perictione, Plato was born around 428 BC and died around 348 BC. He belonged to the prominent, oligarchic class and it is said that his mother originated from Solon, the famous Athenian lawmaker and lyric poet. Moreover, two of Plato's uncles were members of the Thirty Tyrants, the brief oligarchic regime established in Athens after the end of the Peloponnesian War (404-403 BC).
As a child, Plato received good education. A Hellenistic legend says that his original name was Aristocles after his grandfather, but he got the nickname Plato from his wrestling coach, due to his broad ("platys" in Greek) and strong figure. From an early age, he showed a special interest in philosophy and became a follower of Socrates, the famous Athenian thinker who would stroll around the town and ask people questions, trying to find the right answer out of them.
A fact that marked the life of Plato was the trial and sentence to death of Socrates, his beloved mentor, in 399 BC. That time, he lost his belief in the Athenian society and disappointed as he was, Plato left his homeland to travel all around the world. He traveled in Italy, Sicily, Egypt and Libya. There, he met new people and civilizations, while he had the chance to discuss with famous personalities of his time.
When Plato returned to Athens, at the age of forty, he established a school on a plot of land that belonged to some man named Academus, which is why the school was called Academy. The Academy of Plato is one of the earliest upscale institutions in the western world and young Athenians would learn philosophy, mathematics, music, art astronomy and other subjects there.
One of the first students of the Academy was Aristotle, the third most famous of the Athenian philosophers. The Academy of Plato worked for almost 900 years, until it was closed by Byzantine emperor Justinian I in 529 BC for spreading pagan, anti-Christian ideas.
The Dialogues of Plato
The works of Plato have the form of dialogues/discourses. Scholars divide his works in three categories: the early, middle and late works. His most famous dialogues are the Apology of Socrates, where Plato describes the trial of his mentor and the last days in prison; Republic, where he suggests a new form of government and political system; Timaeus and Critias, where he discusses the origins of language and knowledge; and Protagoras, referring to the ideas of this famous Sophist philosopher.
The central character in all the Dialogues of Plato is his teacher Socrates, who discusses with other people a certain issue. Scientists, however, haven't concluded whether the ideas expressed in these dialogues were indeed the teachings of Socrates, or whether they were ideas of Plato that he put in the mouth of Socrates to give them more credibility.
The Ideal State
In his Republic, Plato describes the ideal state, according to him. Disappointed by all the political systems that Athens had used till that time, including democracy and oligarchy, Plato suggested his own system. He divided the society in three categories: the Philosopher Rulers or Kings, the Warriors or Guardians and the Workers.
He divided the society in these categories in comparison to the categories of the soul. The philosopher-rulers correspond to the reasonable part of the soul and they are the elite of every society. Intelligent, rational, self-controlled and wise, the philosophers have conquered the Knowledge and therefore, they must rule the state.
The Guardians represent the spiritual part of the soul. Adventurous and brave in nature, these people should guard the well-being of the state. The lower social category was the Workers, in whose soul the "appetite" element dominates. These people occupy manual professions, so they can be laborers, merchants, farmers, carpenters or do any other manual work.
According to Plato, a state must not base on rhetoric and persuasion, as happens in democracy, but on reason and wisdom. As philosophers are the few enlightened people of every society, they must govern all the others because they have conquered the "real truth". Therefore, Plato rejects all kinds of existing political systems and introduces his own.
The Ideal Education
A very important issue for the Ideal Society of Plato is the education of the youth. He suggests that all children must seperate from parents since their birth and that public institutions must take care of their education. Children do not need to know their parents, brothers or relatives, but consider the broader society as their family. The public institutions must be governed by the philosophers who will provide children all the opportunities to "remember" the real knowledge.
Knowledge, for Plato, is not a matter of learning or observation, but a matter of recollection. He believes that there are two parallel worlds: the real world and the world we live in, which is a reflection of the real world. People on earth do not see the real sight of the objects, but their shadow. To explain this theory, Plato used the allegory of the cave.
The Allegory of the Cave
Imagine, says Plato, that the real world is like some people inside a cave. These people are chained and made to look at a wall since their childhood. Behind these people, there is the entrance of the cave and outside the entrance, there is the real world. Between these chained people and the real world, there is a big fire. Therefore, the chained people can't see the real world, but only their shadows/ representations as reflected by the big fire on the wall. Wouldn't they believe that these shadows are the real world, for they have seen only that?
Imagine now, he continues, that someone manages to unchain himself and turn the head towards the outside world. He sees the truth, he gets to know the real side of things, but when he tells the other people, they don't believe him. This unchained man, for Plato, is the philosopher. That is why, Plato thinks that knowledge is all about recollection: we all have seen the truth in another parallel world, but only a few get to remember it.
Such interesting metaphysical beliefs were innovative for the ancient world and they influenced a lot modern philosophical thinking. Although a lot of these ideas were questioned even by his student Aristotle, a defender of reason instead of passion, Plato is considered as a greatly-inspiring philosopher, even in our days.