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Why Are We Still Talking About Plato 2,100 Years Later?

plato statue
Plato's statute stands outside the Hellenic Academy in Greece. Jon Hicks/Getty Images

All of Western philosophy, wrote the British mathematician and philosopher Alfred North Whitehead, is "a series of footnotes to Plato." The ingenious Greek philosopher, who started as a young devotee of Socrates, laid the groundwork for more than two millennia of philosophical thought. Plato's "dialogues," including "Republic," are required reading for every serious student of philosophy, and his Academy in Athens set the model for the modern university.

So, who was this man?

Plato of Collytus was born around 428 B.C.E. in the waning days of the Golden Age of Athens. He met Socrates as a youth and was a close follower of the provocative street philosopher, who confounded politicians and prostitutes alike with his unrelenting questions, now known as the Socratic method.

Plato was around 20 when Athens lost the disastrous Peloponnesian War to rival Sparta (he served briefly in it). After considering a career in politics, Plato grew disenchanted by corrupt leaders and the tragic execution of Socrates, his hero and mentor. Plato came to believe that only "right philosophy" could end human suffering and ensure justice.

Plato turned his energies to education, studying under Pythagorean mathematicians and traveling through Sicily, Italy and Egypt. In his early 30s, he returned to Athens and founded his academy in an open-air grove. Open to men and women, it drew the best and brightest from the Greek-speaking world — including a young Aristotle — to learn mathematics and natural philosophy.

"The School of Athens" painting
Raphael's painting "The School of Athens," shows several Greek philosophers, including Plato (center in red robe) and Aristotle (in blue next to Plato). The figure sitting on the steps apart in blue is thought to be Socrates.
Leemage/Corbis via Getty Images

Plato never married or had any children. He died in his early 80s but lives on in his captivating prose and thought-provoking questions, recorded in 30 lively and challenging dialogues.

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What's Inside the Dialogues?

Reading one of Plato's dialogues is like eavesdropping on a fascinating and rambling conversation. The dialogues are constructed like intellectual dramas with Socrates often playing the main character. In them, Socrates teasingly interrogates and plies answers out of his fellow Athenians, revealing the elusiveness of simple truths.

Plato's early dialogues are heavily indebted to Socrates, who left no writing of his own, but Plato's own ideas emerge in middle and later works. Like Socrates, though, Plato doesn't beat the reader over the head with his philosophy, but prefers an indirect approach that tasks the reader with drawing his or her own conclusions.

"In his dialogues, Plato doesn't say, 'Here are the answers and here are the reasons — accept them on my authority,'" says Eric Brown, a philosophy professor at Washington University in St. Louis. "Plato wants to inspire people to do philosophy and think it through for themselves. The dialogues do that. They leave a lot of open questions. They don't settle everything. I think that's one of the reasons why Plato has found so many readers over the centuries. He leaves a lot of work for the reader to do, which maybe we find inspiring."

If Plato could be said to have a central doctrine, it's the concept of "forms," the idea that the world we perceive with our physical senses is flawed, but there also exists a separate world of perfect, eternal forms beyond our perception. Those perfect forms are abstract ideals like beauty, equality, goodness, being and knowledge.

This core philosophy is called Platonism, and philosophers who have ascribed to it over the millennia are known as Platonists.

"Platonism is the idea that there are truths, causes or principles that are abstract, not available to sense perception, but only to thought," says Brown. "And that when we access these, we're in a better position to understand the way the world is, and in a better position to live a good life."

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"Symposium" and "Republic"

There are so many excellent dialogues, including "Symposium" and "Phaedo." "Symposium" discusses love, including "Platonic love" (a term Plato never used by the way), which, is far more nuanced than simply a nonsexual relationship. Plato distinguishes between Divine Eros and Vulgar Eros. Divine Eros is a love that goes beyond physical attraction (Vulgar Eros) to Supreme Beauty or makes one think of spiritual things. Meanwhile, "Phaedo" explored the nature of the soul. However, the most-read of Plato's works is undoubtedly "Republic."

"It covers so much ground," says Brown. "You get a little of Plato's thinking about politics, a little bit about the soul, about what it is to live a good life, what it is to understand the world. How it is to teach and what teaching really is."

In "Republic," Plato puts forward a number of bold proposals, including the claim that the ideal city would be ruled by a class of virtuous male and female philosopher-kings. Brown thinks that Plato is clearly trying to push his readers' philosophical buttons.

"'Republic'was plainly written to be provocative," says Brown. The idea that no city is well-governed unless it's ruled by a philosopher — it's nutty."

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The Allegory of the Cave

One of the most vivid and enduring passages in "Republic" is Socrates' extended allegory of the cave. In the allegory, a group of captives are chained up inside a dark cave lit only by faint firelight. Their only knowledge of the outside world are the shadows that play on the cave walls and garbled bits of echoed conversation.

One of the captives manages to escape and discovers there's an entire reality outside of the cave. The brightness of the sun burns his eyes, but the pain is worth knowing the truth. When he returns to the cave and offers to free his fellow captives, they mock his interpretations of their beloved shadows and decide to kill him.

Here again, Plato is returning to his notion of truth existing outside of our limited perception. Brown believes that the cave allegory is specifically talking about the true nature and function of education.

"Real education is not being filled with information. It's a transformation of your soul, a reorientation of your values," says Brown. "For Plato, when you stop taking the world as it seems to you, and when you stop believing other people's opinions on what's valuable, and you start searching for what's beyond those mere appearances, that's when you're being educated."

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Plato's Legacy

Brown teaches Plato every semester at Washington University and says that students continue to have their minds opened by Plato's dialogues, which challenge readers to wrestle with some of the biggest questions — how to know and how to live.

"He asks questions that are still worth asking," says Brown. "And he asks them in an engaging and provocative way that's still one of the best literary representations of how to do philosophy or get into doing philosophy. For those two reasons, he will always matter."

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