The Origins of Western Thought: Socrates and Plato

These articles will guide you through the early major philosophical thinkers of the ancient world, and how their thoughts and beliefs helped to shape our society. Compare your beliefs and morals with the ethical and moral theories of these early theorists. How has ethical theory evolved over time?

Philosophical Thinking

Philosophy as a discipline isn't easy to define precisely. Issuing from a sense of wonderment about life and the world, it often involves a keen interest in major questions about ourselves, our experience, and our place in the universe as a whole. But philosophy is also reflectively concernedwith the methods its practitioners employ in the effort to resolve such questions. Emerging as a central feature of Western culture, philosophy is a tradition of thinking and writing about particular issues in special ways.

Thus, philosophy must be regarded both as content and as activity: It considers alternative views of what is real and the development of reasons for accepting them. It requires both a careful, sympathetic reading of classical texts and a critical, logical examination of the arguments they express. It offers all of us the chance to create and adopt significant beliefs about life and the world, but it also requires each of us to acquire the habits of criticical thinking. Philosophy is both sublime and nitpicking.

Since our personal growth in these matters naturally retraces the process of cultural development, study of the history of philosophy in our culture provides an excellent introduction to the discipline as a whole. Here our aim is to examine the appearance of Western philosophy as an interesting and valuable component of our cultural heritage.


Greek Philosophy

Abstract thought about the ultimate nature of the world and of human life began to appear in cultures all over the world during the sixth century B.C.E., as an urge to move beyond superstition toward explanation. We focus here on its embodiment among the ancient Greeks, whose active and tumultuous social life provided ample opportunities for the expression of philosophical thinking of three sorts:

  • Speculative thinking expresses human curiosity about the world, striving to understand in natural (rather than supernatural) terms how things really are, what they are made of, and how they function.
  • Practical thinking emphasizes the desire to guide conduct by comprehending the nature of life and the place of human beings and human behavior in the greater scheme of reality.
  • Critical thinking (the hallmark of philosophy itself) involves a careful examination of the foundations upon which thinking of any sort must rely, trying to achieve an effective method for assessing the reliability of positions adopted on the significant issues.

Beginning with clear examples of thinking of the first two sorts, we will see the gradual emergence of inclinations toward the third.


Milesian Speculation

During the sixth century, in the Greek colony at Miletus, a group of thinkers began to engage in an extended exploration of the speculative issues. Although these Milesians wrote little themselves, other ancient authorities recorded some of their central tenets. Their central urge was to show that the complex world has a simple, permanent underpinning in the reality of a single kind of stuff from which all else emerges.

The philosopher Thales, for example, is remembered as having asserted that all comes from water. Although we have no record of the reasoning that led Thales to this conclusion, it isn't hard to imagine what it might have been. If we suppose that the ultimate stuff of the world must be chosen from among things familiar to us, water isn't a bad choice: most of the earth is covered with it, it appears in solid, liquid, and gaseous forms, and it is clearly essential to the existence of life. Everything is moist.

Thales's student Anaximander, however, found this answer far too simple. Proper attention to the changing face of the universe, he supposed, requires us to consider the cyclical interaction of things of at least four sorts: the hot, the cold, the dry, and the wet. Anaximander held that all of these elements originally arise from a primal, turbulent mass, the Boundless or Infinite {Gk. απειρων [apeirôn]}. It is only by a gradual process of distillation that everything else emerges – earth, air, fire, water, of course – and even living things evolve.

The next Milesian, Anaximenes, returned to the conviction that there must be a single kind of stuff at the heart of everything, and he proposed vapor or mist {Gk. αερ [aer]} as the most likely candidate.  Not only does this warm, wet air combine two of the four elements together, but it also provides a familiar pair of processes for changes in its state: condensation and evaporation. Thus, in its most rarified form of breath or spirit, Anaximenes's air constitutes the highest representation of life.

As interesting as Milesian speculations are, they embody only the most primitive variety of philosophical speculation. Although they disagreed with each other on many points, each of the thinkers appears to have been satisfied with the activity of proposing his own views in relative isolation from those of his teacher or contemporaries. Later generations initiated the move toward critical thinking by arguing with each other.


Pythagorean Life

The Greek colony in Italy at the same time devoted much more concern to practical matters. Followers of the legendary Pythagoras developed a comprehensive view of a human life in harmony with all of the natural world. Since the Pythagoreans persisted for many generations as a quasi-religious sect, protecting themselves behind a veil of secrecy, it is difficult to recover a detailed account of the original doctrines of their leader, but the basic outlines are clear.

Pythagoras was interested in mathematics: he discovered a proof of the geometrical theorem that still bears his name, described the relationship between the length of strings and the musical pitches they produce when plucked, and engaged in extensive observation of the apparent motion of celestial objects. In each of these aspects of the world, Pythagoras saw order, a regularity of occurrences that could be described in terms of mathematical ratios.

The aim of human life, then, must be to live in harmony with this natural regularity. Our lives are merely small portions of a greater whole. Since the spirit (or breath) of human beings is divine air, Pythagoras supposed, it is naturally immortal; its existence naturally outlives the relatively temporary functions of the human body. Pythagoreans therefore believed that the soul "transmigrates" into other living bodies at death, with animals and plants participating along with human beings in a grand cycle of reincarnation.

Even those who did not fully accept the religious implications of Pythagorean thought were often influenced by its thematic structure. As we'll see later, many Western philosophers have been interested in the immortality of the human soul and in the relationship between human beings and the natural world.

During the fifth century B.C.E., Greek philosophers began to engage in extended controversies that represent a movement toward the development of genuinely critical thinking. Although they often lacked enough common ground upon which to adjudicate their disputes and rarely engaged in the self-criticism that is characteristic of genuine philosophy, these thinkers did try to defend their own positions and attack those of their rivals by providing attempts at rational argumentation.


Heraclitus and the Eleatics

Dissatisfied with earlier efforts to comprehend the world, Heraclitus of Ephesus earned his reputation as "the Riddler" by delivering his pronouncements in deliberately contradictory (or at least paradoxical) form. The structure of puzzling statements, he believed, mirrors the chaotic structure of thought, which in turn is parallel to the complex, dynamic character of the world itself.

Rejecting the Pythagorean ideal of harmony as peaceful coexistence, Heraclitus saw the natural world as an environment of perpetual struggle and strife. "All is flux", he supposed; everything is changing all the time. As Heraclitus is often reported to have said, "Upon those who step into the same river, different waters flow". The tension and conflict which govern everything in our experience are moderated only by the operation of a universal principle of proportionality in all things.

Against this position, the Eleatics defended the unity and stability of the universe. Their leader, Parmenides, supposed that language embodies a logic of perfect immutability: "What is, is". Since everything is what it is and not something else, he argued in Περι Φυσις (On Nature), it can never correct to say that one and the same thing both has and does not have some feature, so the supposed change from having the feature to not having it is utterly impossible. Of course, change does seem to occur, so we must distinguish sharply between the many mere appearances that are part of our experience and the one true reality that is discernible only by intellect.

Other Eleatics delighted in attacking Heraclitus with arguments designed to show the absurdity of his notion that the world is perpetual changing. Zeno of Elea in particular fashioned four paradoxes about motion, covering every possible combination of continuous or discrete intervals and the direct motion of single bodies or the relative motion of several:

  1. The Dichotomy: It is impossible to move around a racetrack since we must first go halfway, and before that go half of halfway, and before that half of half of halfway, and . . . . If space is infinitely divisible, we have infinitely many partial distances to cover, and cannot get underway in any finite time.
  2. Achilles and the Tortoise: Similarly, given a ten-meter head-start, a tortoise can never be overtaken by Achilles in a race, since Achilles must catch up to where the tortoise began. But by then the tortoise has moved ahead, and Achilles must catch up to that new point, and so on. Again, the supposition that things really move leads to an infinite regress.
  3. The Arrow: If, on the other hand, motion occurs in discrete intervals, then at any given moment during its flight through the air, an arrow is not moving. But since its entire flight comprises only such moments, the arrow never moves.
  4. The Stadium: Similarly, if three chariots of equal length, one stationary and the others travelling in opposite directions, were to pass by each other at the same time, then each of the supposedly moving ones would take only half as long to pass the other as to pass the third, making 1=2!
The patent absurdity that results in each of these cases, Zeno concluded, shows that motion (and, hence, change of any sort) is impossible. 

What all of this raises is the question of "the one and the many". How can there be any genuine unity in a world that appears to be multiple? To the extent that a satisfactory answer involves a distinction between appearance and reality and the use of dialectical reasoning in the effort to understand what is real, this pursuit of the Eleatics set important standards for the future development of Western thought.


Empedocles and Anaxagoras

In the next generation, Empedocles introduced the plurality from the very beginning. Everything in the world, he supposed, is ultimately made up of some mixture of the four elements, considered as irreducible components. The unique character of each item depends solely upon the special balance of the four that is present only in it. Change takes place because there are two competing forces at work in the world. Love {Gk. φιλια [philia]} is always putting things together, while Strife {Gk. νεικος [neikos]} is always tearing them apart. The interplay of the two constitutes the activity we see in nature.

His rival, Anaxagoras of Clazomenae, returned in some measure to the Milesian effort to identify a common stuff out of which everything is composed. Matter is, indeed, a chaotic primordial mass, infinitely divisible in principle, yet in which nothing is differentiated. But Anaxagoras held that order is brought to this mass by the power of Mind {Gk. νους [nous]}, the source of all explanation by reference to cosmic intelligence. Although later philosophers praised Anaxagoras for this explicit introduction of mind into the description of the world, it is not clear whether he meant by his use of this word what they would suppose.


Greek Atomism

The inclination to regard the world as pluralistic took its most extreme form in the work of the ancient atomists. Although the basic outlines of the view were apparently developed by Leucippus, the more complete exposition by Democritus, including a discussion of its ethical implications, was more influential. Our best source of information about the atomists is the poem De Rerum Natura (On the Nature of Things) by the later Roman philosopher Lucretius.

For the atomists, all substance is material and the true elements of the natural world are the tiny, indivisible, unobservable solid bodies called "atoms". Since these particles exist, packed more or less densely together, in an infinite empty space, their motion is not only possible but inevitable. Everything that happens in the world, the atomists supposed, is a result of microscopic collisions among atoms. Thus, as Epicurus would later make clear, the actions and passions of human life are also inevitable consequences of material motions. Although atomism has a decidedly modern ring, notice that, since it could not be based on observation of microscopic particles in the way that modern science is, ancient atomism was merely another fashionable form of cosmological speculation.


The Sophists

Fifth-century Athens was a politically troubled city-state: it underwent a sequence of external attacks and internal rebellions that no social entity could envy. During several decades, however, the Athenians maintained a nominally democratic government in which (at least some) citizens had the opportunity to participate directly in important social decisions. This contributed to a renewed interest in practical philosophy. Itinerate teachers known as the sophists offered to provide their students with training in the effective exercise of citizenship.

Since the central goal of political manipulation was to outwit and publicly defeat an opponent, the rhetorical techniques of persuasion naturally played an important role. But the best of the Sophists also made use of Eleatic methods of logical argumentation in pursuit of similar aims. Driven by the urge to defend expedient solutions to particular problems, their efforts often encouraged relativism or even an extreme skepticism about the likelihood of discovering the truth.

A Sophist named Gorgias, for example, argued (perhaps ironically) that: (a) Nothing exists; (b) If it did, we could not know it; and (c) If we knew anything, we could not talk about it. Protagoras, on the other hand, suppose that since human beings are "the measure of all things", it follows that truth is subjectively unique to each individual. In a more political vein, Thrasymachus argued that it is better to perform unjust actions than to be the victim of the injustice committed by others. The ideas and methods of these thinkers provided the lively intellectual environment in which the greatest Athenian philosophers thrived.


Socrates: Philosophical Life


The most interesting and influential thinker in the fifth century was Socrates, whose dedication to careful reasoning transformed the entire enterprise. Since he sought genuine knowledge rather than mere victory over an opponent, Socrates employed the same logical tricks developed by the Sophists to a new purpose, the pursuit of truth. Thus, his willingness to call everything into question and his determination to accept nothing less than an adequate account of the nature of things make him the first clear exponent of critical philosophy.

Although he was well known during his own time for his conversational skills and public teaching, Socrates wrote nothing, so we are dependent upon his students (especially Xenophon and Plato) for any detailed knowledge of his methods and results. The trouble is that Plato was himself a philosopher who often injected his own theories into the dialogues he presented to the world as discussions between Socrates and other famous figures of the day. Nevertheless, it is usually assumed that at least the early dialogues of Plato provide a (fairly) accurate representation of Socrates himself.


Euthyphro: What is Piety?

In the Ευθυφρων (Euthyphro), for example, Socrates engaged in a sharply critical conversation with an over-confident young man. Finding Euthyphro perfectly certain of his own ethical rectitude even in the morally ambiguous situation of prosecuting his own father in court, Socrates asks him to define what "piety" (moral duty) really is. The demand here is for something more than merely a list of which actions are, in fact, pious; instead, Euthyphro is supposed to provide a general definition that captures the very essence of what piety is. But every answer he offers is subjected to the full force of Socrates's critical thinking, until nothing certain remains.

Specifically, Socrates systematically refutes Euthyphro's suggestion that what makes right actions right is that the gods love (or approve of) them. First, there is the obvious problem that, since questions of right and wrong often generate interminable disputes, the gods are likely to disagree among themselves about moral matters no less often than we do, making some actions both right and wrong. Socrates lets Euthyphro off the hook on this one by agreeing – only for purposes of continuing the discussion – that the gods may be supposed to agree perfectly with each other. (Notice that this problem arises only in a polytheistic culture.)

More significantly, Socrates generates a formal dilemma from a (deceptively) simple question: "Is the pious loved by the gods because it is pious, or is it pious because it is loved by the gods?" (Euthyphro 10 a) Neither alternative can do the work for which Euthyphro intends his definition of piety. If right actions are pious only because the gods love them, then moral rightness is entirely arbitrary, depending only on the whims of the gods. If, on the other hand, the gods love right actions only because they are already right, then there must be some non-divine source of values, which we might come to know independently of their love.

In fact, this dilemma proposes a significant difficulty at the heart of any effort to define morality by reference to an external authority. (Consider, for example, parallel questions with a similar structure: "Do my parents approve of this action because it is right, or is it right because my parents approve of it?" or "Does the College forbid this activity because it is wrong, or is it wrong because the College forbids it?") On the second alternative in each case, actions become right (or wrong) solely because of the authority's approval (or disapproval); its choice, then, has no rational foundation, and it is impossible to attribute laudable moral wisdom to the authority itself. So this horn is clearly unacceptable. But on the first alternative, the authority approves (or disapproves) of certain actions because they are already right (or wrong) independently of it, and whatever rational standard it employs as a criterion for making this decision must be accessible to us as well as to it. Hence, we are in principle capable of distinguishing right from wrong on our own.

Thus, an application of careful techniques of reasoning results in genuine (if negative) progress in the resolution of a philosophical issue. Socrates's method of insistent questioning at least helps us to eliminate one bad answer to a serious question. At most, it points us toward a significant degree of intellectual independence. The character of Euthyphro, however, seems unaffected by the entire process, leaving the scene at the end of the dialogue no less self-confident than he had been at its outset. The use of Socratic methods, even when they clearly result in a rational victory, may not produce genuine conviction in those to whom they are applied.

Apology: The Examined Life

Because of his political associations with an earlier regime, the Athenian democracy put Socrates on trial, charging him with undermining state religion and corrupting young people. The speech he offered in his own defense, as reported in Plato's Απολογημα (Apology), provides us with many reminders of the central features of Socrates's approach to philosophy and its relation to practical life.

Ironic Modesty:
Explaining his mission as a philosopher, Socrates reports an oracular message telling him that "No one is wiser than you". (Apology 21a) He then proceeds through a series of ironic descriptions of his efforts to disprove the oracle by conversing with notable Athenians who must surely be wiser. In each case, however, Socrates concludes that he has a kind of wisdom that each of them lacks: namely, an open awareness of his own ignorance.
Questioning Habit:
The goal of Socratic interrogation, then, is to help individuals to achieve genuine self-knowledge, even if it often turns out to be negative in character. As his cross-examination of Meletus shows, Socrates means to turn the methods of the Sophists inside-out, using logical nit-picking to expose (rather than to create) illusions about reality. If the method rarely succeeds with interlocutors, it can nevertheless be effectively internalized as a dialectical mode of reasoning in an effort to understand everything.
Devotion to Truth:
Even after he has been convicted by the jury, Socrates declines to abandon his pursuit of the truth in all matters. Refusing to accept exile from Athens or a commitment to silence as his penalty, he maintains that public discussion of the great issues of life and virtue is a necessary part of any valuable human life. "The unexamined life is not worth living". (Apology 38a) Socrates would rather die than give up philosophy, and the jury seems happy to grant him that wish.
Dispassionate Reason:
Even when the jury has sentenced him to death, Socrates calmly delivers his final public words, a speculation about what the future holds. Disclaiming any certainty about the fate of a human being after death, he nevertheless expresses a continued confidence in the power of reason, which he has exhibited (while the jury has not). Who really wins will remain unclear.

Plato's dramatic picture of a man willing to face death rather than abandoning his commitment to philosophical inquiry offers up Socrates as a model for all future philosophers. Perhaps few of us are presented with the same stark choice between philosophy and death, but all of us are daily faced with opportunities to decide between convenient conventionality and our devotion to truth and reason. How we choose determines whether we, like Socrates, deserve to call our lives philosophical.


Crito: The Individual and the State

Plato's description of Socrates's final days continued in the Κριτων (Crito). Now in prison awaiting execution, Socrates displays the same spirit of calm reflection about serious matters that had characterized his life in freedom. Even the patent injustice of his fate at the hands of the Athenian jury produces in Socrates no bitterness or anger. Friends arrive at the jail with a foolproof plan for his escape from Athens to a life of voluntary exile, but Socrates calmly engages them in a rational debate about the moral value of such an action.

Of course, Crito and the others know their teacher well, and they come prepared to argue the merits of their plan. Escaping now would permit Socrates to fulfill his personal obligations in life. Moreover, if he does not follow the plan, many people will suppose that his friends did not care enough for him to arrange his escape. Therefore, in order to honor his commitments and preserve the reputation of his friends, Socrates ought to escape from jail.

But Socrates dismisses these considerations as irrelevant to a decision about what action is truly right. What other people will say clearly doesn't matter. As he had argued in the Apology, the only opinion that counts is not that of the majority of people generally, but rather that of the one individual who truly knows. The truth alone deserves to be the basis for decisions about human action, so the only proper approach is to engage in the sort of careful moral reasoning by means of which one may hope to reveal it.

Socrates's argument proceeds from the statement of a perfectly general moral principle to its application in his particular case:

  • One ought never to do wrong (even in response to the evil committed by another).
  • But it is always wrong to disobey the state.
  • Hence, one ought never to disobey the state.
And since avoiding the sentence of death handed down by the Athenian jury would be an action in disobedience the state, it follows Socrates ought not to escape.

The argument is a valid one, so we are committed to accepting its conclusion if we believe that its premises are true. The general commitment to act rightly is fundamental to a moral life, and it does seem clear that Socrates' escape would be a case of disobedience. But what about the second premise, the claim that it is always wrong for an individual to disobey the state? Surely that deserves further examination. In fact, Socrates pictures the laws of Athens proposing two independent lines of argument in favor of this claim:

First, the state is to us as a parent is to a child, and since it is always wrong for a child to disobey a parent, it follows that it is always wrong to disobey the state. (Crito 50e) Here we might raise serious doubts about the legitimacy of the analogy between our parents and the state. Obedience to our parents, after all, is a temporary obligation that we eventually outgrow by learning to make decisions for ourselves, while Socrates means to argue that obeying the state is a requirement right up until we die. Here it might be useful to apply the same healthy disrespect for moral authority that Socrates himself expressed in the Euthyphro.

The second argument is that it is always wrong to break an agreement, and since continuing to live voluntarily in a state constitutes an agreement to obey it, it is wrong to disobey that state. (Crito 52e) This may be a better argument; only the second premise seems open to question. Explicit agreements to obey some authority are common enough – in a matriculation pledge or a contract of employment, for example – but most of us have not entered into any such agreement with our government. Even if we suppose, as the laws suggest, that the agreement is an implicit one to which we are committed by our decision to remain within their borders, it is not always obvious that our choice of where to live is entirely subject to our individual voluntary control.

Nevertheless, these considerations are serious ones. Socrates himself was entirely convinced that the arguments hold, so he concluded that it would be wrong for him to escape from prison. As always, of course, his actions conformed to the outcome of his reasoning. Socrates chose to honor his commitment to truth and morality even though it cost him his life.


Plato: Immortality and the Forms

A Faithful Student

The most illustrious student Socrates had in philosophy was Plato, whose beautifully written dialogues not only offered an admiring account of the teachings of his master but also provided him with an opportunity to develop and express his own insightful philosophical views. In the remainder of our readings from Platonic dialogues, we will assume that the "Socrates" who speaks is merely a fictional character created by the author, attributing the philosophical doctrines to Plato himself. In the middle and late dialogues, Plato employed the conversational structure as a way of presenting dialectic, a pattern of argumentation that examines each issue from several sides, exploring the interplay of alternative ideas while subjecting all of them to evaluation by reason.

Plato was a more nearly systematic thinker than Socrates had been. He established his own school of philosophy, the Academy, during the fourth century, and he did not hesitate to offer a generation of young Athenians the positive results of his brilliant reasoning. Although he shared Socrates's interest in ethical and social philosophy, Plato was much more concerned to establish his views on matters of metaphysics and epistemology, trying to discover the ultimate constituents of reality and the grounds for our knowledge of them.


Plato's Μενων (Meno) is a transitional dialogue: although it is Socratic in tone, it introduces some of the epistemological and metaphysical themes that we will see developed more fully in the middle dialogues, which are clearly Plato's own. In a setting uncluttered by concern for Socrates' fate, it centers on the general problem of the origins of our moral knowledge.

The Greek notion of αρετη [aretê], or virtue, is that of an ability or skill in some particular respect. The virtue of a baker is what enables the baker to produce good bread; the virtue of the gardener is what enables the gardener to grow nice flowers; etc. In this sense, virtues clearly differ from person to person and from goal to goal. But Socrates is interested in true virtue, which (like genuine health) should be the same for everyone. This broad concept of virtue may include such specific virtues as courage, wisdom, or moderation, but it should nevertheless be possible to offer a perfectly general description of virtue as a whole, the skill or ability to be fully human. But what is that?

When Meno suggests that virtue is simply the desire for good things, Socrates argues that this cannot be the case. Since different human beings are unequal in virtue, virtue must be something that varies among them, he argues, but desire for one believes to be good is perfectly universal Since no human being ever knowingly desires what is bad, differences in their conduct must be a consequence of differences in what they know. (Meno 77e) This is a remarkable claim. Socrates holds that knowing what is right automatically results in the desire to do it, even though this feature of our moral experience could be doubted. (Aristotle, for example, would later explicitly disagree with this view, carefully outlining the conditions under which weakness of will interferes with moral conduct.) In this context, however, the Socratic position effectively shifts the focus of the dialogue from morality to epistemology: the question really at stake is how we know what virtue is.


The Basis for Virtue

For questions of this sort, Socrates raises a serious dilemma: how can we ever learn what we do not know? Either we already know what we are looking for, in which case we don't need to look, or we don't know what we're looking for, in which case we wouldn't recognize it if we found it. (Meno 80e) The paradox of knowledge is that, in the most fundamental questions about our own nature and function, it seems impossible for us to learn anything. The only escape, Socrates proposed, is to acknowledge that we already know what we need to know. This is the doctrine of recollection, Plato's conviction that our most basic knowledge comes when we bring back to mind our acquaintance with eternal realities during a previous existence of the soul.

The example offered in this dialogue is discovery of an irrational number, the square root of 2. Socrates leads an uneducated boy through the sophisticated geometrical demonstration with careful questions, showing that the boy somehow already knows the correct answers on his own. All of us have had the experience (usually in mathematical contexts, Plato believed) of suddenly realizing the truth of something of which we had been unaware, and it does often feel as if we are not really discovering something entirely new but rather merely remembering something we already knew. Such experiences lend some plausibility to Plato's claim that recollection may be the source of our true opinions about the most fundamental features of reality. (Meno 85d) What is more, this doctrine provides an explanation of the effectiveness of the Socratic method: the goal is not to convey new information but rather to elicit awareness of something that an individual already knows implicitly.

The further question of the dialogue is whether or not virtue can be taught. On the one hand, it seems that virtue must be a kind of wisdom, which we usually assume to be one of the acquirable benefits of education. On the other hand, if virtue could be taught, we should be able to identify both those who teach it and those who learn from them, which we cannot easily do in fact. (Meno 96c) (Here Socrates offers a scathing attack on the sophists, who had often claimed that they were effective teachers of virtue.) So it seems that virtue cannot be taught. Plato later came to disagree with his teacher on this point, arguing that genuine knowledge of virtue is attainable through application of appropriate educational methods.

Perhaps our best alternative, Socrates held, is to suppose that virtue is a (divinely bestowed?) true opinion that merely happens to lack the sort of rational justification that would earn it the status of certain knowledge. Whether or not we agree with this rather gloomy conclusion about the unteachability of virtue, the distinction between genuine knowledge and mere true opinion is of the greatest importance. For philosophical knowledge, it is not enough to accept beliefs that happen to be true; we must also have reasons that adequately support them.



The Φαιδων (Phaedo) concludes Plato's description of the life of Socrates. Its final pages provide what appears to be an accurate account of the death of one of the most colorful personalities in the history of philosophy. (Phaedo 115b) But most of the dialogue is filled with Plato's own effort to establish with perfect certainty what Socrates had only been willing to speculate about in the Apology, that the human soul is truly immortal.

As Plato saw it, hope of survival comes naturally to the philosopher, whose whole life is one of preparation for death. What happens when we die, after all, is that the human soul separates from the human body, and it is concern for the soul rather than the body that characterizes a philosophical life. In fact, Plato argued that since knowledge of the most important matters in life is clearest to the soul alone, its customary attachment to a mortal body often serves only as a distraction from what counts. Here I am, thinking seriously about eternal truth, and then . . . I get hungry or sleepy, and the needs of the body interfere with my study. So, Plato concluded, the philosopher may properly look forward to death as a release from bodily limitations. (Phaedo 67d)

But is there really any reason to believe that the soul can continue to exist and function after the body dies? Plato supposed that there is, and his arguments on this point occupy the bulk of the Phaedo.


The Cycle of Opposites

The first argument is based on the cyclical interchange by means of which every quality comes into being from its own opposite. Hot comes from cold and cold from hot: that is, hot things are just cold things that have warmed up, and cold things are just hot things that have cooled off. Similarly, people who are awake are just people who were asleep but then woke up, while people who are asleep are just people who were awake but then dozed off.

But then, Plato argues by analogy, death must come from life and life from death. (Phaedo 71c-d) That is, people who are dead are just people who were alive but then experienced the transition we call dying, and people who are alive are just people who were among the dead but then experienced the transition we call being born. This suggests a perpetual recycling of human souls from the realm of the living to the realm of the dead and back.

If this is an accurate image of reality, it would certainly follow that my soul will continue to exist after the death of my body. But it also supposes that my soul existed before the birth of my body as well. This may seem like an extravagant speculation, but Plato held that there is ample evidence of its truth in the course of ordinary human life and learning.


The Forms

As Socrates had proposed in the Meno, the most important varieties of human knowledge are really cases of recollection. Consider, for example, our knowledge of equality. We have no difficulty in deciding whether or not two people are perfectly equal in height. In fact, they are never exactly the same height, since we recognize that it would always be possible to discover some difference – however minute – with a more careful, precise measurement. By this standard, all of the examples we perceive in ordinary life only approach, but never fully attain, perfect equality. But notice that since we realize the truth of this important qualification on our experience, we must somehow know for sure what true equality is, even though we have never seen it. (Phaedo 75b)

Plato believed that the same point could be made with regard to many other abstract concepts: even though we perceive only their imperfect instances, we have genuine knowledge of truth, goodness, and beauty no less than of equality. Things of this sort are the Platonic Forms, abstract entities that exist independently of the sensible world. Ordinary objects are imperfect and changeable, but they faintly copy the perfect and immutable Forms. Thus, all of the information we acquire about sensible objects (like knowing what the high and low temperatures were yesterday) is temporary, insignificant, and unreliable, while genuine knowledge of the Forms themselves (like knowing that 93 - 67 = 26) perfectly certain forever.

Since we really do have knowledge of these supra-sensible realities, knowledge that we cannot possibly have obtained through any bodily experience, Plato argued, it follows that this knowledge must be a form of recollection and that our souls must have been acquainted with the Forms prior to our births. But in that case, the existence of our mortal bodies cannot be essential to the existence of our souls – before birth or after death – and we are therefore immortal.


Immortality of the Soul

Use of the dialogue as a literary device made it easy for Plato not only to present his own position (in the voice of Socrates) but also to consider (in the voices of other characters) significant objections that might be raised against it. This doesn't mean that philosophy is merely an idle game of argument and counter-argument, he pointed out, because it remains our goal to discover the one line of argument that leads to the truth. The philosopher cautiously investigates every possibility and examines every side of an issue, precisely because that increases the chances of arriving eventually at a correct account of reality.

Thus, Simmias suggests that the relationship between the soul and the body may be like that between musical harmony and the strings of a lyre that produces it. In this case, even though the soul is significantly different from the body, it could not reasonably be expected to survive the utter destruction of that physical thing. (This is an early statement of a view of human nature that would later come to be called epiphenomenalism.) But Socrates replies that this analogy will not hold, since the soul exercises direct control over the motions of the body, as the harmony does not over those of the lyre. Plato's suggestion here seems to be that it would become impossible to provide an adequate account of human morality, of the proper standards for acting rightly, if Simmias were right.

Cebes offers a more difficult objection: what if the body is like a garment worn by the soul? Even though I continue to exist longer than any single article of my clothing does, there will come a time when I die, and some of my clothes will probably continue to exist. In the same way, even if the argument from opposites has shown that the soul can in principle outlast the life of any particular human body, there might come a time when the soul itself ceases to exist. Even if there is life after death, Cebes suggests, the soul may not be truly immortal.

In response to this criticism, Plato significantly revised the argument from opposities by incorporating an additional conception of the role of the Forms. Each Form, he now maintains, is the cause of all of every particular instance that bears its name: the form of Beauty causes the beauty of any beautiful thing; the form of Equality causes the equality of any pair of equal things; etc. But then, since the soul is living, it must participate in the Form of Life, and thus it cannot ever die. (Phaedo 105d) The soul is perfectly and certainly imperishable, not only for this life, but forever.

Despite the apparent force of these logical arguments, Plato chose to conclude the Phaedo by supplementing them with a mythical image of life after death. This concrete picture of the existence of a world beyond our own is imagined, not reasoned, so it cannot promise to deliver the same perfect representation of the truth. But if we are not fully convinced by the certainty of rational arguments, we may yet take some comfort from the suggestions of a pleasant story.


Plato: The State and the Soul

The Republic

The most comprehensive statement of Plato's mature philosophical views appears in Πολιτεια (The Republic), an extended treatment of the most fundamental principles for the conduct of human life. Using the character "Socrates" as a fictional spokesman, Plato considers the nature and value of justice and the other virtues as they appear both in the structure of society as a whole and in the personality of an individual human being. This naturally leads to discussions of human nature, the achievement of knowledge, the distinction between appearance and reality, the components of an effective education, and the foundations of morality.

Because it covers so many issues, The Republic can be read in several different ways: as a treatise on political theory and practice, as a pedagogical handbook, or as a defense of ethical conduct, for example. Although we'll take notice of each of these features along the way, our primary focus in what follows will be on the basic metaphysical and epistemological issues, foundational questions about who we are, what is real, and about how we know it. Read in this fashion, the dialogue as a whole invites us to share in Plato's vision of our place within the ultimate structure of reality.

Source: Garth Kemerling,
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Last modified: Monday, January 11, 2021, 5:36 PM