The Life of Plato
Born Aristocles in 427 BC, son of Ariston – a wealthy Greek aristocrat and member of the ruling class of the day – Plato (his nickname, meaning ‘broad’) was born into a life of wealth, privilege and power. He was a masterful writer who offered us a way of life founded on mathematics, science, philosophy and religion as one, that still inspires us today.
Plato himself was inspired by his teacher, Socrates, and by the Pythagoreans. At age 20, Plato became a student of Socrates, whom he loved deeply and to whom he was devoted. In 399 BC, when Plato was aged 28, Socrates was put to death by drinking hemlock, after he was charged with corrupting Athenian youth by teaching false gods, a trumped-up charge resulting from having offended and unsettled people in positions of influence and power. After Socrates’ death, Plato – along with a group of other students – travelled from Athens to Italy, where he studied in the Pythagorean schools, then Sicily and later Egypt, where he studied the arts of healing. Eventually Plato returned to Athens.
Later in life Plato became embroiled in the politics of Syracuse, Sicily, in an attempt to develop the concept of the philosopher-ruler of which he wrote in The Republic. Several visits were made to Sicily, none of which ended well, and Plato had to be assisted by friends on more than one occasion to escape with his freedom and his life.
Plato lived in Athens towards the end of the classical period, at a time of great political upheaval. Aware of the passing of a world to which he was deeply attached, Plato’s writings reflect his diagnosis of the cause of the decline that he saw all around him and his prescription for what was needed to arrest that decline. Plato saw that the world had lost its bearings. People had become disconnected from the principle of universal order and the Divine realm of the Soul and pure Ideas, which had been the anchor of Greek scientific, philosophical and religious traditions for centuries, and Plato saw that men were consumed by the self-interested pursuit of recognition and were guided by values that Athenian society had inherited from the Homeric world, where what mattered above all was a man’s social standing and how he would be remembered in the eyes of posterity, no matter at what cost to one’s body or the society around one that such pursuits produced.
The work of Plato
In his most famous work, The Republic, Plato sets out what is essentially a blueprint for the restoration of order in a world to which he was deeply attached, but realised was increasingly lost in disorder. Order and balance for Plato was not simply a universal principle, or a theoretical construct; it was the essential nature of the cosmos. It was also the essential nature of society and, at a personal level, the make-up of our natures – the essence of us. For Plato, finding right balance and the proper relationship of the different parts within our make-up would, when established, reflect the order of the universe, and in turn be reflected in society, bringing about an end to the strife that he saw marring Athenian society in decline.
For Plato, as with much of the ancient Greek world, the inner life was not an end in itself, but with it came a responsibility to society, in which each person, according to their nature, had a very specific role to play that, when fulfilled, was in correspondence with the harmony of universal order.
Such a life, when lived truthfully, was practical and brought a responsibility to work towards restoring right relationships in government and between people; in other words, building true community, an expression of which was Plato’s ideal Republic.
This order for Plato, both inwardly and as an expression of social order, was achieved by the discipline of Right Living (arête in Greek), according to a curriculum that Plato set out in his writings and that was no doubt the basis of the curriculum in the Academy, the school that he founded in Athens. Aligning the mind with the ‘Good’ or Divine perfection by Right Living was for Plato the way to restoring order, through renouncing all that distracted the mind from the practice of alignment with the ‘Good’.
Plato’s idea of the world beyond the illusions of our temporal material world is essentially Hermetic and Pythagorean. He espoused the theory of the ‘Forms’ as being the true nature of all things, not confined to human values, but encompassing the whole of nature, and culminating in the form of the Good as the transcendent principle of all goodness. He wrote that in our essence each is an immortal Soul that incarnates through many bodies.
For Plato, the Soul consisted of three parts, one part likened to a charioteer, and the other two to horses – one unruly, the other not so – engaged in a battle, with the good horse forever ensuring that the unruly horse (the arrogant, prideful spirit) stays in balance, while the charioteer (representing ‘Reason’, or love of God and Beauty and alignment with the Divine Will) watches over both.
Plato shows us, through the Allegory of the Cave, that the world is not what it seems; that beyond what we see and our desires is the true reality. We take the maya of God – His magic, His creative outpouring – for reality; we are meant to celebrate this for what it is, but we have taken it as the ultimate reality, through our belief that this is the only life, and that our needs are for us and our kind alone. Our responsibility is first to ourselves, but then our responsibility is far greater than ourselves.
Plato established the Academy, where his prescriptions for the establishment and preservation of the Divine order in the world were explored in practice. Deeply inspired by Pythagoras and his school, the Academy was Plato’s attempt to establish a philosophical school that would honour and follow a lineage of similar if not deeper schools that dated back beyond Pythagoras to ancient Persia and older yet in ancient Egypt. But this was not to last, to his abiding disappointment and those in the school. Rent asunder by jealousy, particularly when Plato passed over Aristotle in favour of another student as his successor, the harmony and order of the school disintegrated soon after his death. As a model, it served as a forerunner of our modern universities, but as with them, it had lost its heart.
The Legacy of Plato
Plato left us a legacy of writings that have endured to this day. It has been said that Western philosophy consists of a series of footnotes to Plato, but what would Plato have thought of what we have done with this ancient wisdom? For Plato, philosophy was a way of life, which was lived in perfect harmony with religion, science, astronomy, mathematics and medicine as one. He saw the beauty, the wonder and the majesty of Nature and God in everything, and shared this in a way that made it accessible for us all.
In Plato, the two traditions of Socrates and the Pythagoreans come together. Plato’s works were lost to the Western world until medieval times, preserved in the Library of Alexandria and then by Muslim scholars in the Middle East.
Plato’s earlier works are generally regarded as the most reliable of the ancient sources on Socrates, and the Socrates that we know through these writings is considered to be one of the greatest of the ancient philosophers.
Plato’s middle to later works, including his most famous work, the Republic, offer Plato’s own philosophy, where the main character speaks for Plato himself. The Republic offers us a way of living that is orderly, harmonious and responsible, where we work together for the common good, and in which our rulers first attain mastery over themselves before trying to rule over others. He also shows us that there is a universal mind that anyone can access.
In his Allegory of the Cave, found in The Republic, Plato shows us that we live largely in a world of shadows, unaware of the power of the world of Soul, the light that lies beyond the world of senses. The true lesson of the cave was the reflection – “If I can see that, where is it coming from?” – and if we are willing to always ask this question, we will always be reflected the truth.
What we are reflected in every moment offers us a pathway back to the past, and forward to the future.