Plato was born to an aristorcratic Athens family sometime around 428 B.C. As such, he was educated in pursuits considered fitting for Athenian youths of high expectations: grammar, music, gymnastics, and philosophy. It is the last pursuit that most associate with Plato.
During this time in Athens, families paid huge amounts of money to have their children educated by the best possible teachers. In contrast to other philosophers who promised to teach their students wisdom and guide them to success, Socrates claimed to only "know enough to know that he knew nothing," and as such, did not accept payment for teaching (he also didn't like to call himself a teacher, but that's another story).
Since he claimed not to know anything, Socrates taught his students by questioning them, forcing them to question the world around them, and to arrive at truth in that matter. Eventually, Socrates was condemned to death for corrupting youth. Foremost amongst these "corrupted" youth was Plato, who referred to himself as Socrates' most devoted follower.
After Socrates's death, Plato devoted himself to recording the dialogues of Socrates in play format (believed to be a nod to Plato's first career choice--playwright). He founded the Academy, the earliest known school in western civilization, which educated Aristotle, and continued Socrates's teachings. The Academy helped establish the roots of western philosophy and science to the point that the word "platonic" emerged to describe multiple areas of study, all originating from the Academy.
Historians have uncovered 36 dialogues of Plato and 13 letters, and have arranged them in a conventionally-accepted timeline. Many of the dialogues contain Socrates as a speaker, and an assortment of other characters. It is thought that the earliest writings are closest to actual Socratic dialogues, but as Plato's philosophy evolved, the leanings of the character of Socrates changed also.
There are many recurring areas in these dialogues that sum up Platonic thought, most succinctly in The Republic, generally accepted to be Plato's greatest work. These two examples present (in brief form) Plato's major philosophical assumptions:
In The Republic, Plato promotes a stratified society based on a person's birth. He believed that the ideal state consists of three classes: rulers, soldiers, and the people. Plato maintained that future guardians will typically be the offspring of those who presently hold similar positions of honor.
If citizens were unhappy with their class, Plato suggested that they be told a "useful falsehood:" basically, that human beings have different skill sets that help them perform a particular function within society as a whole.
Source: Plato's Ideal Society graphic created by Meghan Dusek
Found in The Republic, the Allegory of the Caves represents Plato's views on philosophy. Basically, we are all in the cave. Philosophy is what brings us out of the cave.
Plato's influence on western philosophy can't be underestimated, whether it be in regards to his documentation of Socrates or the philosophy that bares his name (platonism). Though this lesson focuses on the themes featured prominently in The Republic, Plato's other highly-regarded works include the Meno, Phaedo and Symposium.
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