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Plato's Teachings


Angered at the corruption in Athens and the people running the state, Plato worked on finding an ultimate solution to the falling state. The main problem, as he saw it, was the many politicians within the Athenian government. These people were mostly sophist that used persuasive arguments that would better themselves rather than the citizens. Plato said, "a corrupt state produces corrupt citizens". These politicians made decisions based on mere opinion rather than knowledge. A state, to be run justly and fair, has to be run on the basis of genuine knowledge and truth. If Plato could identify the difference between mere opinion and genuine knowledge he could find the best way to run a state for the benefit of all who live in it.

To solve the problem of finding true knowledge, Plato referred to the earlier writings of Heraclitus and Parmenides. Heraclitus said "one" was a cycle or process of changing. Everything in this world has a process and changes over time. Parmenides said that "one" is eternal and never changing. These two arguments were contradictory and therefore one had to be false. How could "one" be changing and eternal at the same time? Plato stated that in fact both were true in the sense of duality. Both a changing "one" and an eternal "one" had to exist in two different realities. What we can see and touch now is part of the first reality. Everything in this visible cosmos is changing and evolving over time. Trees grow and die, the same four seasons occur in a cycle. Therefore Heraclitus' argument of "one" being a process of change is true. Knowledge is unchanging however, what is true now will be true forever. So how could finding truth in a changing world be possible? Plato suggests that knowledge exists in a reality not of our own. This theory supports the theory of Parmenides. Plato divided the world into two realities, the realm of becoming; what we can see and touch now, and the realm of being; what is unchanging and will remain unchanged forever.

This theory would give a valid reason for the state of Athens. The rulers of Athens lived in a world of change and cycle and could never find true knowledge. What changes is only appearance and can be called opinion. What is eternal is real and can be called knowledge. Knowledge will always supercede opinion.

This theory of a dual reality can be classified under metaphysics

Theory of Forms

Forms are what make up the realm of being. These are timeless essences or entities. They are what make up absolute knowledge. They are independent of all other things. We cannot feel, touch or hear forms, they exist beyond our senses. Forms exist but they are not physical objects. Forms remain pure and unchanged; nothing is able to affect what it is, it will always be. Some examples of the forms Plato speaks of are mathematical relations; such as geometry and triangularity, and virtues; such as goodness and wisdom. These forms are infinite and existed before humans and therefore are independent of the mind. Forms exist whether we know those truths or not.

Plato used forms to further his argument of duality. With this he could say that since the world was ruled by opinion one country's way of government was no better than another country's way of ruling. A democratic government is no better than a communist government because it was all based on opinion.

This in fact was the problem. How could we know for sure what is really true knowledge? An example of this is a simple math problem. 2x3, what does it equal? Many would say it equals six, but how do we know for sure? One person may say it equals four. We know that that 2x3 doesn't equal four but the answer four is just as valid as the answer six. We ask "how do you know that 2x3=6?" the answer will be that it was taught to the person from a teacher. Even by saying that, there is no true knowledge in it. One person does not know that 2x3=6 more than that other person knows that 2x3=4. We know that 2x3 does equal 6 but only by belief, we believe that it equals 6. Without knowledge, beliefs are opinions and the opinion of the answer 6 is no different than the opinion that the answer is 4.

Without knowledge we can only make decisions based on our habits and traditions. The sophists confused opinion with true knowledge and could not make an ideal state. Plato saw it as trying to prove the existence of colors to a blind man.

The Divided Line

Take a box and divide it in half. One side will represent the realm of being, the other the realm of becoming. Now take these two halves individually and split them into 2 unequal portions. These four sections represent the four levels of reality or degrees of truth. Level D is the lowest, it is the level at which illusions are made. We have mental pictures of people we have not ever met. I can say that I know Mother Teresa though I have never seen her in person, but I have seen pictures and watched news programs of her. We slip into and out of level D during our routines of the day, even if we are not aware of it. When we make opinions based only on appearance, unanalyzed impressions and unevaluated emotions.

Level C is the second level of truth or called by Plato as the level of informed awareness. Many of us live in this level. I know this desk is solid because it looks solid. In fact it is made up of many small moving molecules. This opinion that the desk is made of small molecules comes from my observations and perceptions in science class but I do not know for sure. In a sense it is like saying I know this desk is made of molecules because it was told by a scientist. A scientist however acquires this knowledge through his deductive reasoning which is the next level of reality.

Level D moves us from the realm of becoming into the realm of being and the first stage of knowledge. At this level things are unchanging. Things exist as they are and will exist that way forever. These are the things that are infinite; the rules of mathematics for example.

Level A is the highest level of reality where the soul has no need for perception, it just understands the knowledge.

Simile of the Sun

Plato compared the absolute form of good to the sun. Just as the sun it is necessary for vision and life. The Good exists at the highest level of being where it is a necessity for all other forms and beings to exist. This cannot be clearly explained because it exists in a level much higher than where we as people are right now. Because of this we cannot begin to have any perception of what is above us.

The example of the sun goes further. When we look at an object illuminated by the sun we can say that it sees clearly because it shows its colors. When in the dark, all objects appear black; we can say that the objects vision is distorted or unclear. Plato applies this analogy to the mind. When the mind is illuminated by reality and truth, it understands fully and can function intelligently. When the mind is subjected to change and decay, it can only form opinions and we can say that its vision is unclear and distorted, we begin to think unintelligently.

You may even take the analogy further by saying that the sun gives life to the visible things. Therefore, the form of Good gives life to the other three levels. The Good is the source of the intelligibility, reality and existence of knowledge.

The Allegory of the Cave

Is there a difference between average and so-called wise or enlightened people? If there are differences, are these indications of what Plato refers to as intelligent or wisdom, or are these people who think they’re more clever then the rest of the population? What reasons exist for believing Plato’s claim about levels of being, and the Good? What reasons are there for giving our attention to a supposedly wise man?

Plato responds to this important enigma by telling a story with a lesson-an allegory- in Book VII of The Republic. You may be wondering what is an allegory is. Well, it’s just simply another word for story. The allegory is the summary of the description of Plato’s theory of forms that include the Divided line and the Simile of the Sun. The divided line expresses Plato’s graded views of reality and wisdom. The Smile of the Sun characterizes the act of capturing highest truth in the of Good

The Allegory of the Cave illustrates Plato’s vision of the rise of the mind from (Level D) illusion to (Level C) opinion to (Level B) reasoned knowledge to (Level A) enlightenment and suggests to the responsibility of the enlightened wise individual to return to the world of becoming in order to help others recognize the forms.

The Rule of the Wise

If you believe in the fundamental equality of all people, you may be question in Plato’s belief in the superiority of those who have supposedly escaped the Cave and seem the Good. If one is skeptical about the possibility of any human being discovering the ‘truth’ than it may be difficult to cope with idea that only exceptional individuals are fit to govern the rest of the population. In Plato’s aristocracy of wisdom however, is not discriminotory on gender or origin. In theory at least. It is established on Plato’s belief that enlignment is real and that it is more than mere intellectual ability. With rare excetions, Platonic enlighnment is the outcome of careful training, directed desire, hard work- and the the good luck ot live in an environment that does not prevents us from escaping the Cave. At the end of the Allegoy of the Cave, Plato’s teachings seem similar to that of Buddhism. Buddhism insists that enlightenment is always accompanied by the desire to help others escape the bonds of illusion and ignorance. Plato’s philosophy on the other hand stresses progression through ascending stages of rationality and posits a linear hierarchy of reality.

The Republic

The republic was written by Plato to demonstrate that the levels of reality correspond to three types of people. In the Republic Plato answer the question of who should rule the state based on his theory of reality.

Socrates believed in the pursuit for wisdom through the dialectic method of question-and- answer. This meant that people hand to listen attentively and answer intelligently. But then how about people can’t listen or won’t listen, since they’re satisfied with life inside the Cave. What good is reasoning in the face of ignorance? This is why Plato believed that there were different types of human beings, with the different strength and weakness to correspond each type.

The Search for Justice

Plato argued that a reciprocal relationship must exist between an individual and the kind of society that they dwell in. I.e. a person that lives in a ghetto in the states might not have a problem with stealing as apposed to a person that is educated and well off, who has morals and ethics. A certain kind of society will shape the individual, and in turn the individual will make up the society. The Republic refers to society as “the individual writ large”. The Republic consequently studies Plato’s ideal society and by extension is the study of the different kinds of individuals. In The Republic justice is the broad term covering right conduct or morality in general. The term justice meant a whole lot more then fairness under the law for Plato. It went beyond a legalistic limit. Various limits and specific definitions for the term justice are given during the course of the Republic. The first is that justice is paying ones debts to society and raveling the truth. During the course of the discussion a variety of modifications and alternatives are discussed and rejected.

Functions and Happiness

The Republic distinguishes two views or morality. One asserts that right and wrong must be determined by the consequences our acts produce, and the other holds that they can be understood only in terms of their effects on our overall functioning as human beings

Instrumental theory of morality - moral positions that are right and wrong must be determined by the consequences of acts; right and wrong viewed as means (instruments) for getting something else.

Functionalist Theory of Morality – Moral position that right and wrong can be understood only in terms of their effect on anything’s natural function; each kind of thing has a natural purpose (function).

The Greeks viewed happiness as being something more then a matter of ones own personal satisfaction. Happiness was the result of living a fully functioning life. It involves balance and awareness. It involves being satisfied by what is good and dissatisfied by what is bad.

The Ideal State

The republic demonstrates Plato’s view that a good life can be lived only in a good society because no can live a truly good life in an irrational, chaotic society. Nor can is one capable of living a truly good life without having some social activities obligations and worries. Plato states that society derives because no individual is self sufficient. The just or ideal state meets three basic categories of needs: 1. nourishing needs (food, shelter, clothing) 2. protection needs (military, police) 3. ordering needs (leader ship and government) These three needs are best met by members of three corresponding classes of people: 1. workers 2. warriors 3. guardians.

A state is “just” when it functions fully. An unjust state is dysfunctional; it fails to meet essential need. Only when all classes of people are virtuous according to their natures is the state whole, healthy balanced, and just. The good life is nothing more than each individual functioning well according to his or her own nature, in a state that is well-ordered and wisely ruled.

For Plato, injustice is a form of inequality. Injustice occurs whenever a state does not function accordingly. Some inequality occurs whenever the state tries to satisfy another part of the state. Justice, happiness, and the good life are interconnected functional results of order.

The Parts of the Soul

The human soul resembles the state in that it too is divided into three parts. The three parts of the soul are as follow: 1. reason 2. spirit 3. appetite

Plato believed in weakness of will and did not agree with Socrates’ belief that to know the good is to the good. Plato believed that we must encounter each part that makes the soul when we are faced with a tough decision. In The Republic, Plato says:

So the reason ought to rule, having the ability and foresight to act for the whole, and the spirit ought to obey and support it. And this concord between them is effected as we said, by a combination of intellectual and physical training, which tunes up the reason by intellectual training and tones down the crudeness of natural high spirits by harmony and rhythm.

The Cardinal Virtues

Cardinal virtues are a necessity for a good society and for a happy individual, as Plato has identified. These Cardinal Virtues are essential, basic virtues that provide maximum for the human soul.

Temperance is important for the worker class, but nonetheless is a necessity for all three classes of people. This is also important for the state as well.

Courage is the essential virtue of the warrior class. Courage is necessary to enforce the laws of the guardians (philosophers) and to protect the community. In an individual, courage provides stamina and energy.

Wisdom is associated with philosophers. Wisdom is present in an individual when the rational part of the soul is healthy and in control. Wisdom can only be located in a community ruled by those fit by nature and training to guide it: the philosopher kings who have seen the Good.

Justice is the result of the other three virtues (see above)

Justice (platonic) – excellence of function for the whole; in a just society each individual performs his or her natural function according to class; in a just individual, reason rules the spirit and the appetites.

The Origin of Democracy

In book VII of The Republic Plato discusses how democracy grew from a form of government called oligarchy. The main philosophy of the oligarchs was to get rich and acquire a lot of property. But acquiring material things isn’t enough. Plato asks, “Doesn’t oligarchy change into democracy because of lack of restraint in the pursuit of it’s objectives of getting as rich as possible?” According to Plato, the seeds of democracy are the love of property and riches, and a corresponding desire for a free economy: in order to preserve their wealth, oligarchs must encourage trading in real estate, heavy borrowing and lack of self-control.

The Tyranny of Excess

Tyranny is a form of government in which all power rest in an individual. Plato states that tyranny is the most imbalanced type of personality. A tyrant is always a slave to their own desires.