Plato was born in Athens. Coming from a noble family, he aspired to a political career, but soon became upset with the "tyrannic democracy" of Athens, especially when it put his teacher, Socrates (469-399 BC) to death. Plato "turned to philosophy in search of an alternative to the stable and unjust public life of the time. He also sought unity behind the changing impressions of the visible universe."1 In Athens, Plato, eventually set up a school known as the Academy.
Plato believed that there was another world beyond this changeable and destructible one in which we live, one consisting of unchanging eternal Forms. He asserted that what we see and touch are only very distantly related to the ultimate realities that exist. He gives, in his work the Republic2, the famous comparison of the human condition with that of prisoners chained facing the inner wall of a cave, so that all they can see are mere shadows of objects in the cave, knowing nothing of the world outside. An example of one of the ultimate realities is Euclidean geometry with its theorems concerning ideal objects that do not and cannot exist in the three dimensional world in which we live, ideal objects such as straight lines without thickness and perfect circles, and other such timeless objects. And just as there are no perfect circles in this world we can not have morally perfect men, no absolutely perfect examples of courage or justice; we can only imagine perfectly moral standards.
Drawing a distinct line of demarcation between the Ideal and the actual world, defines the "dualist." Such a belief does not define a religionist, but such a philosophy lends itself to a religious interpretation that the soul, or mind, is a non-material entity which can exist apart from the body of man, and that the soul is immaterial and immortal; - divine worship soon ensues. Though Plato does not go into any definitive statements on the subject of religion,3 Plato was clearly a "dualist."
"The Platonic state is ideal, exemplary; it represents man in the abstract ..."4 There was, in this world, to be no perfect state and no perfect men in it, one can only strive for the ideal. The dark side of this Platonic view comes when we consider his view of the role that man must play to one another in society.
To Plato, there was no natural sense on how men ought to live, education was to be the key to the construction of a better society; from the "educated" would arise the elite to rule society. Plato thought it essential that a strict threefold class division be maintained. In addition to the rulers, the Philosopher-kings, there were to be "Auxiliaries" (soldiers, police and civil servants) and the "Workers" (the rest of us).
Plato's view of society was pinned by the belief that philosophers are capable of knowing the absolute truth about how to rule society and thus are justified in wielding absolute power. Such a view is in striking contrast to that of his principal teacher, Socrates (469-399 BC), who was always conscious of how much he did not know, and claimed superiority to unthinking men only in that he was aware of his own ignorance where they were not.
Putting it mildly, Plato's view was that we are ineradicably social, and that the individual person was not, and could not, be self-sufficient. In fact, Plato parcelled up humans like so many animals that could do nothing for themselves unless they had constant and detailed direction from those who were to be their leaders:
"... And even in the smallest manner ... [one] should stand under leadership. For example, he should get up, or move, or wash, or take his meals ... only if he has been told to do so. In a word, he should teach his soul, by long habit, never to dream of acting independently ... There will be no end to the troubles of states, or of humanity itself, till philosophers become kings in this world, or till those we now call kings and rulers really and truly become philosophers, and political power and philosophy thus come into the same hands." (The Republic.)Incidentally, Plato took a dim view of democracy. To Plato, it made no sense that we should proceed to put people in charge who have shaky, or, worse yet, no philosophical positions. A "democratic" system turns up people to govern on the basis of what the majority of the voters say, a majority which when compared to the number of citizens (non-voting included) is likely in fact to be a minority of people who have no plans, no answers other than that necessary to get themselves elected. Plato may have been right in his views on democracy; the difficulty is Plato's avowed and stated belief that men were unequal to one another. I say unequal, but that is putting it on a too charitable basis. To Plato society was to break down to those few who were to be the philosopher kings, and the rest of us, who were to be treated like labouring beasts of the field. The Platonic view of man is one that is in complete accord with the view of the socialist.
Now, I think most would agree, a stable and efficient society is important; but one should wonder about a society that will use force (legislation) to make the individual give in to the desires of those who have set themselves as knowing what is best for everyone. Those who subscribe to the theory that we should be ruled by those who really know best, subscribe, whether they know it or not, to Plato's theory of man. It is this theory upon which, in these times, our society rests. The theory, - so attractive in its statement - is that the community is to permit government to use persuasion and force with a view to unite all citizens and make them share together the benefits which each individually can confer on the community for the benefit of the community; it is a false theory (see Popper). When, in its legislation, in its use of force, government suppresses the welfare of the individual; when its efforts are aimed to foster the attitude that one should not proceed to please oneself, government commits a fatal error in the achievement of its laudable object, the betterment of the whole. The essential problem in proceeding in this manner is that individuals cannot contribute to the whole, indeed will be a drain on the whole, unless they are allowed to be free and productive, that is to say allowed to suit themselves.
Men did not evolve into robots; they did not come to possess the independent spirit, so characteristic of man, by serving others; man came to be the superior being, that he clearly is, because of the exercise of free choice, one of the essential ingredients in the evolutionary process.5
2 As one of my readers has pointed out, Plato's Republic, while his most celebrated work, it is not Plato's only work. As I understand it, Plato's writings have been categorized as dialogues, 35 of them. Though the "chronology of the dialogues is a vexed subject, they have been sorted out into three groupings: (1) The early or Socratic dialogues where Plato sets forth definitions learned from his teachers; (2) the middle dialogues in which Plato increasingly set forth "his own characteristic doctrines" (it is in this grouping where the Republic fits in); and (3) Plato's later dialogues where Plato goes into a rigorous examination of his philosophy. As Chambers points out, "all the dialogues are equally works of literature and philosophy."
3 As Plato wrote, "I do believe that there are gods, and that in a far higher sense than that in which any of my accusers believe in them."
4 Luigi Miraglia (1846-1903), professor of the Philosophy of Law in the University of Naples, Comparative Legal Philosophy (New York: Macmillan, 1921).
5 For a short work on Plato by an authoritative and readable author, see Emerson's work Representative Men, on the 'Net, .