Plato was born in Athens in 429 BC and died in 347 BC. He made a fundamental contribution to nearly all areas of philosophy, so much so that it is often said that the whole of Western philosophy is merely a series of footnotes to Plato.
He was born into an aristocratic family. His father, who died while Plato was a few years old, came from an old and distinguished Athenian family, while his mother was related to the architect of the Athenian constitution (Solon).
Plato was an ardent follower of Socrates, and he became disillusioned with Athenian politics after the unjust execution of his friend and teacher.
So rather than taking up a career in politics, Plato chose philosophy and founded the Academy of Athens. It was at the Academy that he taught Aristotle, and as a school of higher learning the Academy was to continue for many centuries.
Plato’s writings or dialogues are amongst the world’s finest literature. The earliest of his dialogues give us good glimpses of the real or historical Socrates. In the “Apology”, for example, Plato presents the speech Socrates gave at his trial.
In his later works, such as the “Republic” (often regarded as his best work), Plato begins to move away from Socrates and to develop his own ideas and teachings.
His most famous teaching is the theory of Forms. He thought that the physical world is full of change and imperfection, and that there is a more perfect and eternal world made up of what he called “the Forms” – invisible, changeless, eternal entities that are separate from the world of our senses.
So, for example, the various good things that we experience on a daily basis are, according to Plato, merely pale and imperfect reflections of true goodness, which is the Form of the Good. But if the Forms are entirely separate from the world of the senses, how do we know they even exist? Plato’s answer is “recollection”: we have immortal souls which in previous lives were in direct contact with the Forms, but this knowledge was forgotten when our souls became imprisoned in our bodies at birth and we now need to “recollect” this knowledge.
Like Socrates, Plato thought that philosophy as “the love of wisdom” is the key to virtue and happiness, and he went so far as to say that there will never be a perfect society until either philosophers gain political power or politicians become true philosophers (Republic 498b).
Dr Nick Trakakis teaches Philosophy and Religious Studies at Monash and Deakin Universities. His most recent book is The End of Philosophy of Religion, published by Continuum in London.