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Influential Figures in My Life: Plato

April 22, 2013

PlatoThe philosopher Plato lived in Ancient Greece around 2500 years ago. But to read his dialogues is to feel you are conversing with a contemporary figure. I often joked when I was younger that I had more in common with Plato than I did with all the other people at my university. I was quite simply fascinated by the existence of individuals in a time so long ago, asking questions and having discussions that could still be interesting to me now.

Plato discussed our knowledge of the world. He considered, and rejected, authority, faith and gods as the source of our knowledge. He raised the issue of the soul and immortality. He realised many of the obstacles to a just society and picked them apart in his book, the republic, to conceive a society ruled by reason, by philosopher kings. Reason may not have ever acquired the dominion he desired for it, but he did provide the foundation of a whole domain, called philosophy, that remains with us to this day. A domain where the ultimate authority is the faculty of reason.

It is this use of reason that fascinated me, and was very influential on me. But what is reason? It is talked about so much. To act reasonably, rationally. To give a rationale, to give reasons. It is present in many areas of modern life. In its fundamentals though, what does it entail doing? Getting back to our philosophical roots in Plato and Aristotle, and Socrates as interpreted by Plato, we discover what the fuss was all about. Reason, on the most basic level, was about an ability to apply general principles to specific circumstances. To not get over awed by circumstances, to not get carried away by impulses, instincts, passions and desires, but to keep sight of general principles throughout all of this. We all do this, but take it for granted so often. When we make decisions to enter certain contracts. When we go into a relationship with one person. When we decide on a course of action for our lives, a career path. In all cases we are applying a general principle to our life, as a way of avoiding giving in, or getting distracted by, every passing whim and desire that comes upon us during our life. If I make a choice to be a runner, I am going to have to pass by many desires along the way distracting me from this goal, such as laziness, desires to pursue other life courses, the criticism of others etc… And many set backs also, such as injuries.

So this is what reason amounts to in the most basic sense, and you can see now just how much it is imbued in our society as this reason has developed and spread throughout civilisation. There are other more technical uses of reason, that go into more specifics. Such as the use of reason as a critical faculty, famously practiced by Socrates. But this importance of it as the authority for our decisions, is basically universal now throughout large sections of the adult world. It is this getting back to the origins of it all that has always interested me so much. I love to see how it all began, what the original and creative thinking was at the foundation of it all. And we are lucky to this day to have access to the works of a figure such as Plato.

Plato’s theory of knowledge was the theory of the Forms. We have particular apples, particular triangles, but they all partake of the universal essence of appleness or triangleness that allows us to speak of them as specific instances of it. For the philosopher the task is to get beyond the world of appearances, of specific apples and triangles, to the world of forms, of the universal triangle and the universal apple. To discuss the general concept underlying the specific instances. These forms are the truly existent things, and the  authority of the philosopher comes from having special access and insight in to the form of things. It is a powerful image of the task of the philosopher. And although it may not have quite given us philosopher kings. It has given us a legacy of a whole domain of philosophy, and wider than this, a domain to which we apply reason in the kind of sense Plato suggested.

So Plato has influenced me greatly, and unbeknowingly he has probably influenced a lot of other people out there who read this piece, and many other people, who may have never even heard explicitly of Plato. Such can be the power of ideas, and of thinking things through for yourself, beyond the strictures of authority figures in your life.

  1. A.N. Whitehead is perennially quoted as having said, “The safest general characterization of the European philosophical tradition is that it consists of a series of footnotes to Plato.” While this should be regarded as a somewhat exaggerated notion, it is a pretty decent point of departure for all further voyages of reason beyond the coastline of experience.

    A lot of folks, when they’re asked to pick someone who has influenced their lives, pick Jesus, Buddha or Gandhi. Your choice to pick someone of Plato’s stature is so much more sensible. You are to be congratulated!

  2. Thanks, yes, I remember that quote of Whitehead’s. I admire the thought and effort that Plato puts into his discussions. I was lucky really to discover philosophy at university, initially studied as a minor subject. And it always bemused me that this stuff had been completely ignored in my education up until then. In favor of stuff which seems now in retrospect to owe so much to philosophy.

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