Plato (ca. 428–347 B.C.E.) was a classical Greek philosopher, writer, mathematician, student of Socrates, teacher of Aristotle, and founder of the Academy. Plato was a highly intelligent individual with a range of knowledge in ethics, politics, and metaphysical and epistemological issues. Although the exact dates of his birth and death are uncertain, it is known that he was born into a wealthy aristocratic family. He was named Aristocles (after his grandfather), but later nicknamed Platon (meaning broad) as a direct result of his broad figure or his wide (platýs) forehead. Originally a writer of tragedies, later turning to dialogues, Plato is credited with producing a multitude of thought provoking works (36 dialogues and 13 letters) that are routinely used to teach philosophy, logic, ethics, and mathematics.
Plato was a highly gifted and eloquent writer who specialized in writing in dialogue form with real characters in actual settings. Socrates, for example, is found in many, but not all, of Plato’s writings as either the primary or a secondary character. Plato’s clear insertion of Socrates in his writings is a deliberate attempt to pay homage to his beloved mentor. Plato writes about the death of Socrates in the Apology, the Crito, and the Phaedo. However, there are wide and varying debates as to whose ideas are being presented in Plato’s works. Scholars have debated whether these ideas are Plato’s, disguised in the character of Socrates, or Socrates’s own ideas being presented by Plato. Socrates was a philosopher in thought, but never preserved any of his ideas in written format; therefore, it is impossible to know for sure what Plato was actually presenting. This complex and unresolvable debate has come to be known as the Socratic problem.
The Philosopher King
In the Republic, his most famous and influential work in the study of ethics, Plato presents his idea for a utopian society or a perfect polis (city-state). It was in the Republic that he inscribed his ideas for the ruling philosopher king. According to Plato, philosophers were the only ones who had the intellectual capacity to rule the state in a just manner; therefore, they should be the only individuals allowed to be guardians of the state.
The philosopher king had been educated in thought, had a true love for knowledge, and had the ability to make the most rational and ethical decisions for the polis. The philosopher king would govern with honesty, and integrity, and would not have a personal agenda. He would seek absolute justice for those that he served, in all that he served. He would not be influenced by the less inhibited, by popular opinion, or by that which does not bring forth true knowledge.
To be governed by nonphilosophers was to be governed by something that was less than ideal. The nonphilosopher could be easily corrupted and would be influenced by opinions and self-interest. The noble nature of the philosopher king would ensure that justice would be served. As a result of his ethical purity, according to Plato, the philosopher king would be the best possible candidate to run a state; however, an unethical philosopher king would be the absolute worst. Plato believed that philosopher kings would rule the polis when either philosophers engaged in politics or politicians engaged in the study of philosophy.
The Tripartite Soul
In Plato’s Phaedrus, he argues that the soul is divided into three parts (tripartite): the appetitive, the rational, and the spirited. The three parts of the soul correspond to the three classes of Plato’s ideal utopian state. The rational soul correlates with the guardian class, which rules the other classes with Plato’s philosopher kings. The philosopher kings are the only individuals worthy to be rulers. The spirited soul corresponds to the auxiliary class, which helps control the masses with soldiers and brute force. They enforce the orders that are given by the philosopher kings and ensure that all of society is obeying them. The appetitive soul correlates with the working class that is kept in line through working and obeying.
In Plato’s tripartite soul, each of the three parts has its own function. The appetitive part of the soul is responsible for individuals’ desires, cravings, or lusts. It will crave after simple necessities such as food and water, but it will also be driven by unnecessary desires that may manifest as excessive sexual activities or overconsumption of food, drugs, and alcohol. The rational part of the soul is driven by a quest for the truth and knowledge. The thinking portion of the soul will make rational decisions and will separate what is true from what is false. The spirited part of the soul seeks honor. In the just soul it serves as an in-between enforcer for the rational part of the soul to keep the appetite under control.
Plato founded the Academy in approximately 387 B.C.E., an institution that is considered by many to be the first European university. A philosophical institution, the Academy offered thinkers a place to study astronomy, biology, mathematics, political theory, and philosophy. Founded on land that was named after a mythical hero, Academus, (hence the term academic), the Academy was originally designed as a place for philosophical discussions, not necessarily instruction, among its members. However, it is understood that Plato did actually offer lectures at the Academy. Plato was the head of the Academy until his death.
Plato’s most prominent student, Aristotle, studied at the Academy for 20 years. It is believed that Aristotle might have been expecting to govern the Academy, but upon Plato’s death it was passed on to Speusippus, a nephew of Plato. Shortly after the death of Plato, Aristotle left the Academy and opened his own school, the Lyceum. The Academy would continue to flourish off and on for more than 900 years, until it was permanently closed down in 529 C.E. by Emperor Justinian, who denounced it as an institution that was nurturing paganism.
- Dahl, Norman O. “Plato’s Defence of Justice.” Philosophy and Phenomenological Research, v.51 (1991).
- Hunter, Virginia. “Plato’s Prisons.” Greece & Rome, v.55/2 (2008).
- Mackenzie, Mary Margaret. Plato on Punishment. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1986.
- The Republic. R. E. Allen, trans. New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 2006.
- Saunders, Trevor. Plato’s Penal Code: Tradition, Controversy, and Reform in Greek Penology. New York: Oxford University Press, 1994.
- Souryal, Sam. Ethics in Criminal Justice: In Search of the Truth. 5th ed. Burlington, MA: Anderson, 2010.
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