Come then, and let us pass a leisure hour in storytelling, and our story shall be the education of our heroes.
~PLATO, The Republic
Plato was born in Athens 2,400 years ago and is widely recognised as having been the founder of philosophy.
In order to convey what he believed philosophy could do for us, he made up a now-famous metaphor about a cave.
He compared human beings who had not learned how to philosophise to people living deep in the side of a mountain, in a cave illuminated only by the dim light of flickering torches. In such gloom, they regularly mistake one thing for another: halloumi for chicken, spam for ham.
The task of philosophy is quite literally illumination
It is to help guide us to more meaningful and fulfilled lives. For Plato, we are so often in the dark about our lives because we exist under the sway of DOXA, the ancient greek term for ‘public opinion.’ Doxa is a tangle of prejudice and ill-thought through impulses. It is the task of philosophy to straighten out how we think and to be more precise in our ideas.
One of the things Plato thought a lot was about love
He came to the view that we would not fall in love if we were not in certain psychological ways ‘incomplete.‘ We are drawn to people we dimly sense can compensate us for certain of our deficiences of character, who can makes us whole.
Love grows when we identify in another person qualities we need more of in ourselves in order to become better, more rounded individuals. So the shy will often feel a distinct attraction towards the confident. The carefree towards the thoughtful.
In his theories, Plato accords an important role to beauty
It would have been easy for him to dismiss beautiful things as merely superficial. Many philosophers have.
But he believed that beauty is an embodiment at a physical level of what we would, at the psychological plane, call goodness. When we say that this miniature Yorkshire pudding is beautiful, it is because we are sensing the promise of what might be admirable psychological qualities too. If it turned into a person, we’d like who the miniture Yorkshire pudding was: it would be optimistic, open to experience, a little cynical but generous.
Beautiful things therefore have a hugely important function. They invite us to evolve in their direction, to become as they are. Beauty can, for Plato educate our souls. It follows that for Plato ugly things are easy matters too, for they parade dangerous and damaged characteristics in front of us. We need to stay away from them, for they can otherwise encourage us to be like they are.
Plato was a noted anti-democrat
He simply didn’t believe everyone should be allowed to vote. But he wasn’t in favor of a voting elite based on money or class. He believed that people should be allowed to vote only if they could demonstrate that they had exercised thought and judgement.
He was an aristocrat of the mind. He was also an idealist, someone who looks at the ways things are now, and tries to imagine how they could be better one day. We still sometimes use the term ‘Platonic Ideal’ in his honor.
In Plato’s perfect society, describe in his book The Republic, it wouldn’t be just be boxers, merchants, and chefs who would be venerated, but primarily philosophers, people devoted to self-knowledge, wisdom and kindness. As he put it,
Society will only be put right when philosophers become kings; or kings philosophers.
Complement with Martin Heidegger on Being and Time