Plato is considered by many to be the greatest of all Western philosophers. The eminent modern philosopher Alfred North Whitehead concluded that: “The safest general characterization of the Western philosophical tradition is that it consists of a series of footnotes to Plato.” Moreover, Ralph Waldo Emerson agreed saying: “Out of Plato come all things still written and debated by men of thought—Plato is philosophy and philosophy Plato.”(Bosworth, 2016). This paper will discuss the philosophical contributions to political philosophy of the ancient Greek thinker, Plato, who was a disciple of Socrates and the teacher of another celebrated philosopher, Aristotle.
Born in Athens in a noble family in about 427 BC. Cratylus, who was a disciple of Heraclitus and Euclides of Megara, educated Plato. With the latter, he studied the philosophy of Parmenides, whose conception of permanent, unchangeable and imperishable substance. He then became the disciple of Socrates, who remained until the end, as a source of great intellectual inspiration in his life. He belonged to a period in Greek philosophy, which had witnessed the emergence of many novel ideas such as art, writing and technology, to which he too had actively contributed.(Nellickappilly, 2014.
When he was forty, Plato founded his Academy, one of the most important events in history of Western civilization. It was the first ongoing institution dedicated to study of science through original research, and the pursuit of truth for its own sake. It was the direct precursor of modern university that lasted almost 1000 years. The aim of Academy was twofold: conversion of the soul to Truth, and use of knowledge in service of humanity. In addition, it had a primary underlying premise– ‘man is a soul using a body as an instrument’– a theme that resounds through all of Plato’s works. The Academy attracted the best and the brightest from all over Greece and its early graduates included many important lawmakers and mathematicians.(Russo, 2001).
Plato’s greatest and most enduring work was his lengthy dialogue, The Republic. This dialogue has often been regarded as Plato’s blueprint for a future society of perfection. Though represented as such, to a large extend the Republic can be viewed as a “dialogue which discusses the education necessary to produce such a society. It is an education of a strange sort – he called it paideia. Nearly impossible to translate into modern idiom, paideia refers to the process whereby the physical, mental and spiritual development of the individual is of paramount importance. It is the education of the total individual.(Kreis, 2009).
The Republic discusses a number of topics including the nature of justice, statesmanship, ethics and the nature of politics. It is in The Republic that Plato suggests that democracy was little more than a “charming form of government.” In addition, to this he is writing less than one hundred years after the brilliant age of Periclean democracy. So much for democracy. After all, Athenian democracy convicted Socrates. For Plato, the citizens are the least desirable participants in government. Instead, a philosopher-king or guardian should hold the reign of power. An aristocracy if you will – an aristocracy of the very best – the best of the aristoi.(Kreis, 2009).
The account of justice presented in Plato’s Republic is not only a theory of virtue but also a theory of politics. Indeed, the character Socrates there develops a theory of political justice as a means of advancing the ethical discussion, drawing an analogy between the three parts of the soul—Reason, Spirit, and Appetite—and the three classes of an ideal state (i.e., city-state)—Rulers, Soldiers, and Producers (e.g., artisans and farmers). In the just state as in the just individual, the three parts perform the functions proper to them and in harmony with the other parts. In particular, the Rulers understand not only the good of the state but, necessarily, the Good itself, the result of years of rigorous training to prepare them for their leadership role. Plato envisioned that the Rulers would live simply and communally, having no private property and even sharing sexual partners (notably, the rulers would include women). All children born from the Rulers and the other classes would be tested, those showing the most ability and virtue being admitted to training for ruler ship. The political theory of Plato’s Republic is notorious for its assertion that only philosophers should rule and for its hostility toward democracy, or rule by the many.(Duignan, n.d.)
In political theory, Aristotle is famous for observing, “Man is a political animal,” meaning that human beings naturally form political communities. Indeed, it is impossible for human beings to thrive outside a community, and the basic purpose of communities is to promote human flourishing (Duignan, n.d.) Aristotle is known for having devised a classification of forms of government and for introducing an unusual definition of democracy that was never widely accepted. According to Aristotle, states may be classified according to the number of their rulers and the interests in which they govern. Rule by one person in the interest of all is monarchy; rule by one person in his own interest is tyranny. Rule by a minority in the interest of all is aristocracy; rule by a minority in the interest of itself is oligarchy. Rule by a majority in the interest of all is “polity”; rule by a majority in its own interest—i.e., mob rule—is “democracy.” In theory, the best form of government is monarchy, and the next best is aristocracy. However, because monarchy and aristocracy frequently devolve into tyranny and oligarchy, respectively, in practice the best form is polity.(Duignan, n.d.)
Another problem for Aristotle is allowing the poor people to “share the great offices of state”. The problem arises from their poorness and ill education, these two factors will cause them to err and become criminals. They will become criminals because they are so poor and responsible for such great and grandiose things that they will desire them for themselves. The fact that they will error is self-evident from the fact that they have no education in the higher matters of the state. The poor however should not be totally excluded from according to Aristotle “for a state in which many poor men are excluded from office will necessarily be full of enemies” the enemies being the poor against the rich.(Jowett, n.d.)
Secondly, Plato had advocated an uncompromising idealism, which asserted that the experiential world (empirical reality) is fundamentally unreal and is a mere appearance, and ultimate reality is constitutive of abstract universal essences of things. This can be elaborated with a simple example. The individual cats in this universe are unreal, but the essence of cat or cattiness is real and imperishable. Everything that exists in the empirical world is therefore unreal, as they are all particular concrete objects. The universals alone are real and they are abstract essences of things. The objects of this world are mere copies of these abstract universal essences.(Nellickappilly, 2014).
Idealism is a philosophical approach that has as its central tenet that ideas are the only true reality, the only thing worth knowing. In a search for truth, beauty, and justice, that is enduring and everlasting, the focus is on conscious reasoning in the mind. Plato believed that there are two worlds. The first is the spiritual or mental world, which is eternal, permanent, orderly, regular, and universal. There is also the world of appearance, the world experienced through sight, touch, smell, taste, and sound that is changing imperfect, and disorderly. This division is often referred to as the duality of mind and body. Reacting against what he perceived as too much of a focus on the immediacy of the physical and sensory world, Plato described a utopian society in which “education to body and soul all the beauty and perfection of which they are capable” as an ideal. In his allegory of the cave, the shadows of the sensory world must be overcome with the light of reason or universal truth. To understand truth, one must pursue knowledge and identify with the Absolute Mind. Plato also believed that the soul is fully formed prior to birth and is perfect and at one with the Universal Being. The birth process checks this perfection, so education requires bringing latent ideas (fully formed concepts) to consciousness.(LeoNora & Gelbrich, 1999).
Realists on the other hand believe that reality exists independent of the human mind. The ultimate reality is the world of physical objects. The focus is on the body/objects. Truth is objective-what can be observed. In Aristotle’s metaphysical view, the aim is to understand objective reality through “the diligent and unsparing scrutiny of all observable data.” Aristotle believed that to understand an object, its ultimate form had to be understood, which does not change. For example, a rose exists whether or not a person is aware of it. A rose can exist in the mind without being physically present, but ultimately, the rose shares properties with all other roses and flowers (its form), although one rose may be red and another peach colored. The exercise of rational thought is viewed as the ultimate purpose for humankind. The Realist curriculum emphasizes the subject matter of the physical world, particularly science and mathematics.(LeoNora & Gelbrich, 1999).
To conclude it can thus be noted that Plato, brought forward a revolution of thinker that would question how things works and why it is done in a certain to way. Although his many contribution to philosophy namely, not all of it was the theory and views that helped shape and clarify the understanding of certain phenomena. There can never have census in comparing our modern democracy to the Greek democracy because back then only free adult male had the right to vote, women and slave were not allowed to participate in voicing out their opinion.
List of References.
Bosworth, R: “The Lives of Plato ; Socrates”, viewed 30 July 2018, https://www.philosophyworks.org/wp-content/uploads/2015/11/lives-plato-and-socrates.htm.
Duignan, B, n.d., “Plato and Aristotle: How Do They Differ?”, viewed 30 July 2018, https://www.britannica.com/story/plato-and-aristotle-how-do-they-differ.
Jowett, Benjamin, n.d., “Politics.”, viewed 1 Aug. 2018.
Kreis, S, 2009, “Greek Thought: Socrates, Plato and Aristotle”, viewed 30 July 2018, https://www.saylor.org/…/Lecture-8_-Greek-Thought_-Socrates-Plato-and-Aristotle.
LeoNora, M. & Gelbrich, 1999, “Four General or World Philosophies”, viewed 30 July 2018, https://oregonstate.edu/instruct/ed416/PP2.html.
Nellickappilly, S, 2014, “Aspects of Western Philosophy”, National Programme on Technology Enhanced Learning (NPTEL), India.
Russo, M, 2001, “Plato in a Nutshell: A Beginner’s Guide to the Philosophy of Plato”.