Unlike the average Greek person of his time, Plato was very well off and therefore had time to become very well educated, like the others in his class. In fact, a person of wealth wouldn't want to actually work since he would then be looked down upon. He was sort of doomed to a whole life of learning and staying fit and honing various skills. Plato, a very intelligent man, arrived at a way of thinking about things that was to have a big impact on his own culture and even more on the western world yet to emerge. He couldn't affect his own culture as much as the one to come because the people of his time thought his ideas were a little far out. They were actually scared of him and his ideas. Socrates, his favorite teacher, was even killed by these people. Plato further developed ideas and discoveries already in place, thanks to those who went before him, such as Socrates (470-399 BC) and Pythagoras (581-497 BC). Hint: Remember, when you're talking B.C., the bigger the number the farther in the past it is. Look at Socrates' and Pythagoras' birth and death dates again!
This exhibit is divided into seven sections:
What things were like in Plato's family and community in 428 BC
Plato's ideas and conclusions
How he impacts us today
A visit with Plato expert, Professor Don Moor of Portland State University
More Plato Links
Plato grew up in the democracy of Athens. The Greeks were among the first people to rule by democratic government, and it was their government that the founding fathers of the United States looked back to for an example. Athens' democratic style of government started in about 510 BC (82 years before Plato was born). Before that the people of Athens had always been under the rule of either a tyrant or the wealthy minority (landowners).
Although Plato was an ancient Greek rich guy, there was really no such thing as a rich girl... at least not in the same way. A girl would never in her lifetime have full citizenship or a right to vote. She couldn't even really finish growing up in her parents' home since she was likely to marry as a young teen, to a man over 30 who was also marrying for the first time. Her ideas and opinions would not be considered an important factor in the decisions of her home or community, and were likely not even known. While a boy of the same age was still living with his parents and developing mental and physical skills, the adolescent girl was married and already had young children.
Rich people were called aristocrats. They owned land and didn't have to work because they could live off the rent from their land. These people of wealth were a small minority. Other classes of people were doing the work that has to happen day to day. One important occupation was to cultivate the land for food. Men did the plowing, and they would take their wives out to the fields and stand guard while the women did the weeding. At home a woman would spend most of her time making clothing, including many hours of spinning wool into thread. Fathers were very involved in raising their children. Once a boy was six years of age, he would be along side his dad for much of a regular work day.
Plato came from a long line of aristocrats (rich landowners), and possibly even a king on his father's side. His father died when he was a child and he was raised by his stepfather, Pyrilampes, who was an associate of the famous statesman, Pericles. He had two older brothers. Plato was born during a time of plague and at the outset of a 23 year war with the Spartans called the Peloponnesian War.
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Since Plato's family had always been involved in politics, he naturally expected he would be too. He changed his mind however after being disappointed in how the people of his day handled government. Eventually he met up with someone he could really respect, by the name of Socrates. He learned a lot from Socrates about how to learn more by debating and questioning things and talking back and forth about them. Starting at age 21, Plato was Socrates' pupil for eight years. It was a terrible blow to Plato when Socrates was executed by the Athenians right before his eyes in 399 BC. Probably in fear for his own safety, he left Athens and traveled to Italy, Sicily and Egypt.
Twelve years later, when he was about 41, he started, in Athens, what has come to be thought of as the first European university. The Academy in Athens taught such subjects as astronomy, biology, mathematics, political theory, and philosophy. This Academy continued to operate for over 900 years (until 529 AD), when the Byzantine Emperor Justinian closed it because of its pagan teachings.
Plato's goal was to educate individuals in wisdom and moral uprightness to the point of seeing them carry out governing without violence, incompetence or disunity. Although he had unique opportunities to train and influence Dionysius II and Dion, leaders of Syracuse, they did not have the self-discipline required and eventually resorted to force and violence, much to Plato's disappointment and despair. Dion was assassinated.
Plato spent his closing years lecturing and writing at the Academy and died at about 80 years of age.
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Plato thought long and hard about what would be the perfect system of government. He thought that everyone should be educated from birth to the highest level possible for their abilities and interest. This would result in three classes of people: 1) the minority ruling class who were able to reach the highest level of education and had the virtue of wisdom. This ruling class would be supported by 2) the military class who would have the virtue of courage. Both these classes would rely on the economic industry of 3) the merchant class whose unique virtue was temperance. The fourth virtue of "justice" was to characterize society as a whole. Plato saw people as controlled by mind, will and appetite. All is well as long as the mind has sway over will and appetite. It compares to his idea that the especially wise people should make the decisions over the soldiers and workers. Do you agree with Plato or disagree? In 1820 Thomas Jefferson took a different opinion when he wrote in a letter, "I know of no safe depository of the ultimate powers of the society but the people themselves, and if we think them not enlightened enough to exercise that control with a wholesome discretion, the remedy is not to take it from them, but to inform their discretion." Jefferson seems to think that a much larger number of people are capable of a high enough level of education to make the important decisions.
People still read what Plato wrote and think a lot about what he said. At the heart of much of what he had to say was his idea of philosopher kings. He made up a very special story to explain his idea. It is called the Allegory of the Cave . As you think about his story you will see that for Plato you have to believe in order to see. Later on in history, many people would feel the opposite, that you have to see in order to believe. Today we see more and more that it takes a lot of both.
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Shadow The Common Man The Fire Ascending Man Descending Man
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The ancient Greeks were in many instances the model that the western world yet to come would be looking back to for hundreds of years. Today we still use their styles of classic architecture on many government buildings. Pythagoras' mathematical calculations are basic to math that is used and understood today. But what about the way we think? How did Plato's thinking carry over all the way into our own centure? Do you think, for example that the way our modern colleges and universities are set up has anything to do with the way Plato set up the first university? Western culture has been heavily affected by Judeo-Christian beliefs and thought since the time of Christ. Greek and Hebrew thought are strikingly different in many ways, yet we have incorporated them both in a big way. Do you agree or disagree? How are Biblical thought and Greek thought alike? How are they different (like for instance the idea of one God versus many gods )? In modern America, there is a growing population of people with an Islamic religious heritage. They are part of the fabric and strength of our communites. What are the beliefs of Islam? How do these beliefs clash with or complement the rest of the mix?
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On Monday, November 27, 1995 Professor Don Moor came to talk to our Greek Civilization class about Plato. He talked about something Plato wrote called the Laws. It's not as easy to read as Plato's Republic but it tells Plato's real conclusions and heart- felt desires. Most people, even very educated people, misunderstand Plato because they haven't read the Laws. Once you have read it you will see that although Plato would think our Oregon state government by referendum (petitioned ballot measures) to be foolishness, he would, however, applaud our national system of government as laid down by the founding fathers of the United States. In fact, elected representative government with many checks and balances is exactly what he himself had in mind. (Most of us would still be uncomfortable with Plato's plan though, because unlike most of us, he wanted nearly everything in people's lives to be the government's business.) Professor Moor explained how Plato saw mathematics and philosophy as subjects that stand apart from all the others. Only these two subjects (or disciplines) arrive at a fact or truth by REASON rather than empirical (see, feel, touch, hear) investigation. Plato would say that's what makes mathematics and philosophy authentic and certain and inevitably needed by those of the other disciplines since they are sort of chained in this dark cave, not able to see what's really going on. Math and philosophy are about things you can be sure of... things you can count on... the things that don't change. People who gain an understanding of these things see a whole new world. It's like a person with extremely bad eye sight, suddenly putting on corrective lenses!
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Plato: Allegory of the Cave
Plato: Works in the Classics Archives at MIT
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Return to philosophy topics page.
Candace S. Weber
Portland State University
Copyright © 1995, Candace S. Weber, Revised November 27, 1995