Why People are Still Talking About Greek Philosophers (Plato Style)
Through my studies my goal is to make these writers more accessible to the modern world. I would like to believe that there is a lot to learn from these men. Some of their views are striking and admirable. I can think of the quote that I have read from Plato, after his travels around Italy and Sicily, on hedonistic tendencies in the Ancient world:
I found myself utterly at odds with the sort of life that is there termed a happy one, a life taken up with italian and Syracusan banquets, an existence that consists in filling oneself up twice a day, never sleeping alone at night, and indulging in all the practices attendant on that way of living. In such an environment no man under heaven, brought up in self-indulgence, could ever grow up to be wise” (Dream of Reason, 184).
Plato has mainly been an influence through two of his more well-known works: The Republic and Timaeus. His influence hence spans from philosophy to science. For example, when a mathematician today tries to describe numbers or mathematical truth, they tend to fall on the ideas and the name of Plato. Which is a lot to say, since it’s been a couple of thousands of years. Of course Plato had also been influenced by his contemporaries such as Parmenides, Pythagoras, and Socrates — that is unquestionable. He is, as Isaac Newton said, standing on the shoulders of giants. Many have written about this influence on separate occasions, such as Bertrand Russell (philosopher of the 20th century in Problems of Philosophy). So I will not elaborate further in this post.
Revolutionary Ideas and Why They Were Popular
Plato had created a theory of the Forms, it encompassed the understanding that the world is “accessible via the intellect” (177). The forms are basically differentiating between phantoms (namely beautiful objects) with the reality (which is Beauty itself). With the help of the contemporary philosopher Anthony Gottlieb’s words (Dream of Reason), Plato’s idea is that the true philosopher’s (who understands this truth) job “is to use rational inquiry to grasp these transcendent realities and focus on the particularly interesting ones” (177).
You may ask, why is this revolutionary? Well this changed the perception of morality and ethics. Aristotle (one of Plato’s more successful students) expanded on this in his book simply titled: Ethics. The Form of Beauty is an unchanging whole that is always, everywhere existing universally for everyone. Plato (with the help of Socrates — his tutor), expanded on this in his work, The Republic, which was trying to define the perfect government and state. I find this work to be of particular interest to me, everyone dreams of a utopia. I tend to fall into this utopian dream box as well. We can think of such similar characters throughout the ages that have been guilty of this as well, such as Adolf Hitler (think ‘Clean Race’), Karl Marx (‘Marxism’, ‘Socialism’), George Orwell (think ‘1984’), etc.
The Republic is basically a long discussion on justice. And it had been highly influential on society and democracies around the world. Of course, it was not all held to be the absolute ideal. Socrates himself did not think this was manageable. A particular concept that was extraordinary was its view on womanhood and the value of the female in Ancient Greece’s society. Another belief in this work was that democracy would ultimately fail. It should be noted however that Plato’s view on democracy changed with the death of Socrates. Socrates was executed for free speech. Not a pleasant way to go in a supposedly “civilized” world.
Plato’s Influence on Natural Sciences
If we continue with the influence of his other work Timaeus, we could observe his influence on science up to the medieval era where characters such as Kepler and Galileo triumphed. It is very questionable if this was a good influence, some (mainly George Sarton — historian of science), would write that “the influence of the [Timaeus] was enormous and essentially evil” and that it had “remained to this day (1952) a source of obscurity and superstition” (224).
For centuries it was, to borrow Gottlieb’s word, “virtually the bible of natural science” (182). Whatever people believed it was because of Plato, whether good or bad — he was the one that was always to blame.
Plato and the Academics
Plato also founded his own Academy, when he was forty. Subsequently his influence reached out to his students, unquestionably the most famous among them being Aristotle. He’ll be the second I deal with in this brief recap of major philosophers of Ancient Greece.
It is remarkable how a thinker can be influential for literally thousands of years, because of their understanding of the universe and how it works. It should be our aspiration to be of such influence. The question is whether there are new truths to discover. I would like to believe that there are many such truths. We are still in discussion on what sort of government is the best economically, ecologically to strive in. We are still discussing whether global warming is in fact the cause of humans. We are still discussing if gods are real. We are still discussing moral and ethical questions (which both Plato and Aristotle dealt with thoroughly). We are still discussing the most helpful ways to deal with death. On and on we can go. We don’t seem to have the answers. Maybe there aren’t any answers. We could try to be realistic. Or maybe we should be optimistic about our chances. It makes the endeavour much more enjoyable.
This is why philosophy remains to be of interest and why these two famous philosophers are still lectured and debated over in classes around the world — everywhere.
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Sources: Dream of Reason by Anthony Gottlieb, pages indicated with quotations.