Plato was an immensely influential Greek philosopher who is as avidly discussed and debated today as he was in 347 B.C., the year he died. Plato is most famous for his dialogues, wherein he presents his famous teacher, Socrates, leading groups of worshipful friends and jealous foes in conversations about topics such as love, learning, politics, mathematics, the nature of the soul, and so on—seemingly rarely asserting his views on these important matters himself, but rather asking his audience ingenious questions designed to either bring out what they know (and didn’t know they knew) or don’t know (but thought they knew).
This style of teaching, or of exploring a subject, is known as the dialectic—a subject is brought up, a speaker or speakers give a definition or an explanation of the subject as they understand it, and then a long process of exploration begins, wherein contradictions are laid bare and every nuance of nook and cranny—be they ever so hidden, ever so shadow-swathed—is brought to light, until no one can say that he didn’t for once try to think a thing through from beginning to end. Plato’s dialogues are clever, inventive, witty, funny, profound, and at times deeply moving. Some of the dialogues, especially those having to do with mathematics, are difficult for the beginner to navigate, but then again there are many others that can be (with a little patience) almost immediately comprehended and enjoyed, whether the reader has read a little philosophy or a lot of philosophy or no philosophy at all.
One of Plato’s most famous doctrines is that of the forms. Plato posits (for example) that every physical tree has its perfect spiritual archetype; that men and women, dogs and cats, apples and oranges but copies of something magnificent; that what we see with our eyes, hear with our hears, smell with our noses, touch with our hands, and so on, is an imperfect replica of a perfect original. He expounds this doctrine in a beautiful and moving dialogues that depicts human beings as living deep inside a cave, where images flickering on the walls are taken for reality, when in fact they’re only reflections of the gorgeous blaze of the teeming world outside. It is the philosopher’s duty to help people leave the cave and discover for themselves the true nature of those flickering movements of light on the wall.
In 387 B.C. Plato founded a famous school in Athens, called the Academy. He counted Aristotle among his students, and in essence laid the groundwork for the university as we know it today. Plato, however, would have frowned upon high tuition fees and paying three hundred dollars for a biology textbook with more pictures than text. His teacher and mentor, Socrates, had been put to death partly for teaching that no teacher should charge money for his services. An important and influential group at the time, known as the Sophists, were getting rich and living luxuriously thanks to the skills (such as rhetoric, or the art of public speaking and persuasion) they had mastered and offered to others at a high price. Socrates (and Plato—who, remember, is really the one speaking in the dialogues) believed that such practices cheapened education and would ultimately be the ruin of any society foolish enough to adopt them.
The Sophists weren’t so much interested in teaching (or exploring), say, the nature of love; rather, they would train you how to speak like a Don Juan, how to say the right things, how, in short, to look like someone who understands love. The appearance was the thing; whether or not the student actually comprehended the subject was of secondary importance. Socrates’ objections so enraged the Sophists and their powerful friends that Socrates was eventually put on trial for his life and sentenced to die by poisoning. His last words, after he drinks the hemlock and feels its direful effects creeping up his legs, are among the most memorable in history; I dare you to read them with dry eyes. You’ll find them in a Platonic dialogue known as the Apology. Happy reading!