Is Plato as important as we make him out to be?
Whenever someone thinks of philosophy, there is no doubt that Plato springs to mind. He is often referred to as the founder of Western philosophy, political thinking and classics. Alfred North Whitehead once said that ‘the safest general characterisation of the European philosophical tradition is that it consists of a series of footnotes to Plato’. He has contributed indirectly to religion, presented a solution to universals and has discussed lengthily on education. Nonetheless, it could be said that Plato’s work is full of flaws undermined by issues associated with his political philosophy including his extreme views on subjects such as democracy and his model of the ideal state. In this article, I will consider what has made Plato so famous and whether he deserves to retain the title of the ‘Father of Philosophy’. Whether we like the theory or not, it is evident that Plato’s theory of forms is central to thinking today. He argued through his allegory of the cave that the physical world is not actually the ‘real world’ which is unchanging and eternal. The real world is the world of abstract and immaterial ideas known as forms that we can only discover through our reason. Knowledge of the Forms is what constitutes real knowledge or what Socrates describes as ‘the good’. Until we achieve this realisation, our perception of the world is a shadow of the truth like the shadows in the cave. What we perceive around us is a shadow of the truth – demonstrated by the shadows seen in the cave in Book VII of the Republic. Plato’s Forms is a fascinating theory but full of holes. The form of knowledge, for example, would not work as it is universally accepted that knowledge comes from experience. This is one of many issues raised about the Forms but demonstrates that they are not flawless. While Plato’s forms are full of criticism, any scholar would know that they were of critical importance in the development of both metaphysics and epistemology. Plato made numerous other contributions to philosophical thought and his thoughts on the soul have provided a groundwork for any subsequent work on this topic. In the ‘Republic’ Plato considered morality, justice and the good life. In the ‘Symposium’ he considered love or eros. He has contributed to and often founded many domains in philosophy. Plato has not only been influential to metaphysics, but arguably he was one of the first known people to have delved into political philosophy and have paved the way for many to come. His description of the ideal state considered themes such as hierarchy, authority and equality. He suggested that society should be split up into three categories of citizens: artisans, auxiliaries and philosopher kings. He disregards ideas such as private property and money and instead argues for the community over the influential. Many have praised Plato for arguing that in this state, women who are guardians should receive the same education as their male counterparts, an idea that may seem normal to us now, but led to shock at the time. His ‘ideal state’, however, is far from ideal. His society edged on one without any concept of individual rights or autonomy. Plato rejected any form of democracy and tried to replace this concept with philosopher kings. While we may now hold the Madisonian view that democracy is meant to protect minorities, this is certainly not what Plato thought. He believed that democracy was the rule of the uneducated public which would lead to populism. He may not have been wrong about a rise in populism that occurs as a result of democracy, as seen in our modern world today with figures such as Trump or Putin, but he did not regard the advantages or offer a sound alternative. He was criticised for his replacement of democracy by his student Aristotle who argued that a king would have a disadvantage if they were a philosopher. Furthermore, Plato’s state has been criticised for acting as a model for totalitarianism. Voltaire described it as a ‘benevolent dictatorship’ and Karl Popper went even further to say that Plato’s state applies to modern-day fascism. He was an influence to radical thinkers such as Hegel and maybe even Karl Marx who has been attributed to a rise in extremism in Europe in the past 200 years. Popper and another modern thinker H.S Crossman argued that Plato created a dystopia, not an ideal state and that he would have approved of the means of modern-day totalitarian leaders for the achievement of their ends. Thus, given all his contributions and controversies what is Plato’s legacy? Plato was far from perfect; his views were often radical and in our modern society would often be frowned upon. His views on individual rights and autonomy are full of criticism. It cannot be doubted, however, that Plato is one of the most influential philosophers of our time, for better or for worse. Nearly every great philosopher from Kant to Nietzche to Locke has taken something from Plato’s work. His thoughts on the state have encouraged further work in this field which was taken up by Hobbes who developed the social contract theory. Plato has not only contributed to philosophy but science and mathematics. The Austrian mathematician Kurt used Plato’s forms to argue that the existence of independent mathematical forms is linked to mathematical concepts. Plato may not have been the moral man we make him out to be, but I don’t doubt that his ideas have and will impact the past, present and future. By Ahaana