while socrates likely wrote nothing despite teaching the world (leading to his own death) a lot about its hypocrisy and stupidity, plato made up for it. born in the 420s bc, he is probably the most fundamental figure in early western philosophy and he’s seen as the beginning of the idea of education and school in the west, too — he started the first formal educational organization we know of west of india and called it an academy (ok, he spoke greek so it was ἀκαδημία but that’s pretty close), a word we still use today. his school trained various impressive thinkers including aristotle, who we’ll take a look at very soon, before being destroyed by sulla a few hundred years after his death. before we go on, though, it’s probably not a stretch to drive home the point one more time that realistically all western philosophy after this point (and there wasn’t much before it) is based on (or a reaction to) the teachings of plato, even today. if you’re doing philosophy in the west and you’re not talking about plato in at least an evolutionarily-linked way, you’re probably not actually doing philosophy. his influence on western thought can’t be overstated. it’s more than you think. no matter how much you think he changed the future of western ideas, he probably did more — and often in ways that are not quite as obvious, including shaping much of the teachings of the christian church, at least in giving them something to oppose.
of course, he learned a lot from interactions with (and the death of) his teacher and mentor, socrates. but plato had realistically two main thought tracks — universality or reason and love. what’s striking about plato’s work is not just its content, though. it’s its survival. no other western thinker or writer from this long ago has had so much work preserved and this speaks volumes about its significance. it’s generally believed, though i suspect there may be some inaccuracy in this blind faith, that his entire writing career has been preserved in its original form until today. i’d guess there were edits made along the way, especially at first, and that there are at least a few things missing. but i may be mistaken.
plato’s theory of ideas is perhaps one of the most significant thoughts in all western philosophy. whether you agree with it or not, it’s foundational to how language works, if not reality. this is also called the “theory of forms”. he proposed a world of two realities, the idea world and the concrete world. the world of ideas or forms is a place where only logic or reason can exist, abstract conceptual structures but no substance or practical matter. the concrete world is imperfect copies of the forms in the idea world. this can be thought of as an explicit way of explaining the concept of word and meaning — the word “dog” has no relationship to the physical animal and the physical animal is an imperfect copy of the one we have in our heads. it’s also an application of the main difference between humans (symbolic thinkers) and animals (reactive or driven by behavioral programming). the ideas plato spoke of can also be thought of as archetypes or composites of all parameters describing objects. an idea like “blue” or “light” doesn’t have to exist but it is a theoretical property of a physical object. the idea “cloud” exists even in a clear sky and no actual cloud is an exact copy but it operates within the framework of our archetypal idea of “cloud”.
one of the controversial notions in plato’s writing is that these forms are unchanging, which we know is untrue from experience. his idea was that the forms are innate (he didn’t understand the difference between early-childhood mental programming and biological determinism but it was more than two thousand years ago so he’s excused and, once present, continued forever, shared by all humans in a theoretical and perceptual sense. as we know, many ideas shift over time but he classified this not as a shift in the ideas but a perceptual change, discovering an earlier error — it didn’t really look like how we perceived it before and the new version is just a clarification of the existing idea.
he also spoke of the immortality of the soul, positing the idea that there is an inherent aspect of humans (and potentially other lives) that continues after death. he equated this “soul” with reason (head), spirit (chest) and appetite (stomach area) and thought of it as something that continued into a theoretical afterlife — potentially in a world where ideas and reality were unified. this fictitious perception can either be seen as literal reality (in which case he didn’t understand reality very well) or, as i tend to see it, another aspect of his archetype model where the human mind is divided between these components and even after death our minds are continued in those we have known — whether they remember us or not, the way we lived impacted them and their thoughts are based on the society we were instrumental in communicating to them. humans are, after all, socially evolutionary. either way, this was the dualistic world plato described in his writings.
plato was the first western thinker to draw a significant division between knowledge and opinion — we often use the term epistemology to describe this today. he talks about knowledge as something separate from human experience, something extrasensory that we can only discover through logic and reason and thought, not through experimentation and experience. his writings include discussions of being blind if you see only with your eyes but seeing with your mind is clear and accurate. this can be seen as a criticism of experience as a teaching tool or simply a reasonable result of witnessing that people rarely experience the same event the same way, seen through their own lenses, and their memories never agree, even on known details, while logic is predictable and objective.
plato also spent vast pages discussing ethics. he talks about good and lack of good — he doesn’t really think in terms of good and evil, more an existence or absence of good. his theory was that good is the result of knowledge, that people either know what’s good and do it or don’t do it because they don’t know. he didn’t have a place in his theory for evil or knowing-maliciousness. this is perhaps the weakest part of plato’s understanding of human thought and behavior. his concept rests on the idea that those who do good have good results in life and those who don’t are condemned to failure.
he also spoke at length about justice and politics but most of this is simply a justification for the system he lived in according to logical processes — whether he thought this was relevant or was simply catering to a society that had already demonstrated its willingness to kill outliers for their beliefs is unclear but it is mostly irrelevant to the rest of his philosophy. he wrote at length about what is generally called the “philosopher king”, an educated benign leader being good for people in general. this isn’t so much a defense of single-person hierarchical rule as an expression that it’s better to have an intelligent leader who cares about the people they rule — all too often in the world of his time, as in ours, greed and lack of knowledge, wisdom and intelligence make a ruler more dangerous to their people than any external enemy. he wrote extensively about the problems with democracy — when it goes wrong, it’s worse than the whims and caprices of a bad individual ruler because it has far more intense reach in controlling and hurting daily life. his argument is emphasized by the idea that people are generally not educated enough to know what is good so they don’t do good but an individual at least is more likely to be able to understand and therefore act in the best interests of everyone. his understanding of democracy as inherently bad was thousands of years ahead of its time and, while not his most significant legacy by any stretch of the imagination, was a revolutionary thought whose time didn’t come until perhaps the twenty-first century with the rise of nationalism and populism.
another frequent topic for plato, though not part of his main theories, was art. he wrote of the power of art not just to entertain but act as inspiration and education for people — and remember he believed education was the only path to good life, that morality comes from knowledge.
beyond the content, the form of plato’s writing is significant — they were mostly discussions based on questions and answers. this was inspired by his teacher socrates, of course. you will remember this is fundamental to the socratic method. but it is the first time this appears in western thought in writing (usually with the questioner being the fictionalized version of socrates). plato wrote as dialogs or informal debates to show multiple sides of arguments and how these can be evaluated logically but simply through basic questions.