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Plato

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Delphi_Platon_statue_1.jpg
Statue of a philosopher, presumely Plato, in Delphi.

Plato (Greek: Πλάτων Plá´Ĥamp;#333;n) (c. May 21? 427 BC – c. 347 BC) was an immensely influential classical Greek philosopher, student of Socrates, teacher of Aristotle, writer, and founder of the Academy in Athens. In countries speaking Arabic, Turkish or Persian, he is called Eflatun, which means a spring of water, and, metaphorically, of knowledge.

Plato lectured extensively at the Academy but he also wrote on many philosophical issues. The most important writings of Plato are his dialogues; although a handful of epigrams also survive, and some letters have come down to us under his name. All the known dialogues of Plato survive; some of the dialogues which the Greeks ascribed to him are considered by the consensus of scholars to be either suspect (e.g., First Alcibiades, Clitophon) or probably spurious (such as Demodocus, or the Second Alcibiades).

Socrates is often a character in the dialogues of Plato. It is usually disputed how much of the content and argument of any given dialogue is Socrates' point of view, and how much of it Plato's.

"The safest general characterization of the European philosophical tradition is that it consists of a series of footnotes to Plato." -- , Process and Reality, 1929
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"The safest general characterization of the European philosophical tradition is that it consists of a series of footnotes to Plato." -- Alfred North Whitehead, Process and Reality, 1929
Contents

Biography

Plato was born in Athens, into a moderately well-to-do aristocratic family. His father was named Ariston and his mother Perictione. His family claimed descent from the ancient Athenian kings; and he was related (there is disagreement exactly how) to the prominent politician Critias. Plato's own real name was "Aristocles"; however, his nickname, Plato, originated from wrestling. Since "Plato" means broad, it probably refers either to his physical appearance or to his wrestling stance or style.

Plato became a pupil of Socrates in his youth, and — at least according to his personal account — he attended his master's trial, though not his execution. Unlike Socrates, Plato wrote down his philosophical views and left a considerable number of manuscripts (see below). He was deeply affected by the city's treatment of Socrates and much of his early work records his memories of his teacher. It is suggested that much of his ethical writing is in pursuit of a society where similar injustices could not occur.

Plato was also deeply influenced by the Pythagoreans, whose notions of numerical harmony have clear echoes in Plato's notion of the Forms (sometimes thus capitalized; see below); by Anaxagoras, who taught Socrates and who held that the mind or reason pervades everything; and by Parmenides, who argued the unity of all things and was perhaps influential in Plato's conception of the Soul.

Plato founded one of the earliest known organized schools in Western civilization when he was 40 years old on a plot of land in the Grove of Academe. The Academy was "a large enclosure of ground which was once the property of a citizen at Athens named Academus... some however say that it received its name from an ancient hero." (Robinson, Arch. Graec. I i 16) and it operated until it was closed by Justinian I of Byzantium in AD 529. Many intellectuals were schooled here, the most prominent being Aristotle.

"Every man should expend his chief thought and attention on the consideration of his first principles: are they or are they not rightly laid down? and when he has sifted them, all the rest will follow." -Plato, Cratylus

Work

Themes

In Plato's writings one finds debates concerning the best possible form of government, featuring adherents of aristocracy, democracy, monarchy, and others. A central theme is the one between nature and convention, concerning the role of heredity and environment in human intelligence and personality long before the modern "nature versus nurture" debate began in the time of Hobbes and Locke, with its modern continuation in such controversial works as The Mismeasure of Man and The Bell Curve. Another key distinction and theme in the Platonic corpus is that between knowledge and opinion, which foreshadow modern debates between Hume and Kant, and has been taken up by postmodernists and their opponents, more commonly as the distinction between the 'objective' and the 'subjective'. Even the story of the lost city or continent of Atlantis came to us as an illustrative story told by Plato in his Timaeus and Critias.

Form

Plato wrote mainly in the form of dialogues. In the early ones several characters discuss a topic by asking questions of one another. Socrates figures prominently and a lively, more disorganized form of elenchos/dialectic is perceived; these are called the Socratic Dialogues.

But the qualities of the dialogues changed a great deal over the course of Plato's life. It is generally agreed that Plato's earlier works are more closely based on Socrates' thoughts, whereas his later writing increasingly breaks away from the views of his former teacher. In the middle dialogues, Socrates becomes a mouthpiece for Plato's own philosophy, and the question-and-answer style is more pro forma: the main figure represents Plato and the minor characters have little to say except "yes"; "of course" and "very true". The later dialogues read more like treatises, and Socrates is often absent or quiet. It is assumed that the later dialogues were written entirely by Plato, while some of the early dialogues could be transcripts of Socrates' own dialogues. The question which, if any, of the dialogues are truly socratic is called the Socratic problem.

The ostensible mise-en-scene of a dialogue distances both Plato and a given reader from the philosophy being discussed; one can choose between at least two options of perception: either to participate in the dialogues, in the ideas being discussed, or choose to see the content as expressive of the personalities contained within the work.

The dialogue format also allows Plato to put unpopular opinions in the mouth of unsympathetic characters, e.g. Thrasymachus in The Republic.

Plato's Metaphysics: Platonism, or realism

One of Plato's legacies, and perhaps his greatest, was his dualistic metaphysics, often called (in metaphysics) Platonism or (Exaggerated) Realism. Plato's metaphysics divides the world into two distinct aspects: the intelligible world of "forms" and the perceptual world we see around us. He saw the perceptual world, and the things in it, as imperfect copies of the intelligible forms or ideas. These forms are unchangeable and perfect, and are only comprehensible by the use of the intellect or understanding (i.e., a capacity of the mind that does not include sense-perception or imagination).This division can be found before Plato in Zoroastrian philosophy (6th century BC), which is called Minu (intelligence) and Giti (perceptual) worlds, as well as the concept of an ideal state which Zoroaster called Shahrivar (an ideal city).

In the Republic Books VI and VII, Plato uses a number of metaphors to explain his metaphysical views: the metaphor of the sun, the well-known allegory of the cave, and most explicitly, the divided line. Taken together, these metaphors convey a complex and, in places, difficult theory: there is something called The Form of the Good (often interpreted as Plato's God), which is the ultimate object of knowledge and which as it were sheds light on all the other forms (i.e., universals: abstract kinds and attributes) and from which all other forms "emanate." The Form of the Good does this in somewhat the same way as the sun sheds light on or makes visible and "generates" things in the perceptual world. (See Plato's metaphor of the sun.) In the perceptual world the particular objects we see around us bear only a dim resemblance to the more ultimately real forms of Plato's intelligible world: it is as if we are seeing shadows of cut-out shapes on the walls of a cave, which are mere representations of the reality outside the cave, illuminated by the sun. (See Plato's allegory of the cave.) We can imagine everything in the universe represented on a line of increasing reality; it is divided once in the middle, and then once again in each of the resulting parts. The first division represents that between the intelligible and the perceptual worlds. Then there is a corresponding division in each of these worlds: the segment representing the perceptual world is divided into segments representing "real things" on the one hand, and shadows, reflections, and representations on the other. Similarly, the segment representing the intelligible world is divided into segments representing first principles and most general forms, on the one hand, and more derivative, "reflected" forms, on the other. (See the divided line of Plato.) The form of government derived from this philosophy turns out to be one of a rigidly fixed hierarchy of hereditary classes, in which the arts are mostly suppressed for the good of the state, the size of the city and its social classes is determined by mathematical formula, and eugenic measures are applied secretly by rigging the lotteries in which the right to reproduce is allocated. The tightness of connection of such government to the lofty and original philosophy in the book has been debated.

Plato's metaphysics, and particularly the dualism between the intelligible and the perceptual, would inspire later Neoplatonic thinkers (see Plotinus and Gnosticism) and other metaphysical realists. For more on Platonic realism in general, see Platonic realism and the Forms.

Plato also had some influential opinions on the nature of knowledge and learning which he propounded in the Meno, which began with the question of whether virtue can be taught, and proceeded to expound the concepts of recollection, learning as the discovery of pre-existing knowledge, and right opinion, opinions which are correct but have no clear justification (see Platonic epistemology).

A short history of Platonic scholarship

Plato's thought is often compared with that of his most famous student, Aristotle, whose reputation during the western Middle Ages so completely eclipsed that of Plato that the Scholastic philosophers referred to Aristotle as "the Philosopher." However, in the Byzantine Empire the study of Plato continued.

The scholastic philosophers of the Middle Ages did not have access to the works of Plato - nor the Greek to read them. Plato's original writings were essentially lost to western civilization until they were brought from Constantinople in the century before its fall. What the mediaevals knew of Plato was translations into Latin from the translations into Arabic by Persian and Arab scholars. These scholars not only translated the texts of the ancients, but expanded them by writing extensive commentaries and interpretations on Plato's and Aristotle's works (see Al-Farabi, Avicenna, Averroes).

Only in the Renaissance, with the general resurgence of interest in classical civilization, did knowledge of Plato's philosophy become more widespread again in the West. Many of the greatest early modern scientists and artists who broke with Scholasticism and fostered the flowering of the Renaissance, with the support of the Plato-inspired Lorenzo de Medici, saw Plato's philosophy as the basis for progress in the arts and sciences. By the 19th century Plato's reputation was restored and at least on par with Aristotle's.

Notable Western philosophers have continued to examine Plato's work since that time, diverging from traditional academic approaches with their own philosophy as a basis. Nietzsche attacked Plato's moral and political theories, Heidegger expounded on Plato's obfuscation of Being, and Karl Popper in The Open Society and Its Enemies (1945), argued that Plato's proposal for a government system in the dialogue The Republic was prototypically totalitarian. While many critics reject such readings on a variety of grounds, they remain widely discussed.

Bibliography

Note: Stephanus pagination is traditionally used to uniquely identify specific references to the text.

Below is a list of works by Plato, marked (1) if scholars don't generally agree that Plato is the author, and (2) if scholars generally agree that Plato is not the author of the work.

Those works ascribed to Plato that have a separate wikipedia article, can be found in Category:Dialogues of Plato

Note: the naming conventions regarding Wikipedia articles on Plato's texts are currently under revision See: Category Talk:Dialogues of Plato

Tetralogies

The works are traditionally arranged according to tetralogies ascribed to an ancient scholar and court astrologer to Tiberius named Thrasyllus by Diogenes Laertius:

Other

The remaining works were transmitted under Plato's name, but were considered spurious in antiquity:

References

  • Jackson, Roy (2001). Plato: A Beginner's Guide. London:Hoder & Stroughton. ISBN 0-340-80385-1.
  • The Collected Dialogues of Plato (Bollingen Series LXXI), edited by Edith Hamilton and Huntington Cairns, (1961) ISBN 0691097186
  • Plato: Complete Works, edited by John M. Cooper and D. S. Hutchinson, (1997) ISBN 0872203492
  • Oxford University Press publishes scholarly editions of Plato's Greek texts in the Oxford Classical Texts series, and some translations in the Clarendon Plato Series.
  • Harvard University Press publishes the hardbound series Loeb Classical Library, containing Plato's works in Greek, with English translations on facing pages.

See also

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