Plato 2 Essay, Research Paper
Plato was born in Athens, about 427 BC, and died there about 347 BC In early life Plato saw war service and had political ambitions. However, he was never really sympathetic to the Athenian democracy and he could not join in its government. He was a follower of Socrates, whose disciple he became in 409 BC, and the execution of that philosopher by the democrats in 399 BC was a crushing blow. He left Athens, believing that until “kings were philosophers or philosophers were kings” things would never go well with the world. For several years he visited the Greek cities of Africa and Italy, absorbing Pythagorean notions, and then in 387 BC he returned to Athens. There, the second half of his long life, he devoted himself to philosophy. In the western suburbs he founded a school that might be termed the first university. Because it was on the grounds that had once belonged to a legendary Greek called Academies, it came to be called the Academy, and this term has been for schools ever since. Plato remained at the Academy for the rest of his life, except for two brief periods in the 360s. At that time he visited Syracuse, the chief city of Greek Sicily, to serve as tutor for the new king, Dionysius II. Here was his chance to make a king a philosopher. It turned out very badly. The king insisted on behaving like a king and of course made the Athenian democrats look good by comparison. Plato managed only with difficulty to return safely to Athens. His end was peaceful and happy, for he is suppose to have died in his sleep at the age of eighty after having attended the wedding feast of one of his students. Plato’s works perhaps the most popular and influential philosophic writings ever published, consist of a series of dialogues in which the discussions between Socrates and others are presented with infinite charm. Like Socrates, Plato was chiefly interested in moral philosophy and despised natural philosophy as an inferior and unworthy sort of knowledge. There is a famous story probably apocryphal and told also of Euclid of a student asking Plato the application of the knowledge he was being taught. Plato at once ordered a slave to give the student a small coin that he might not think he had gained knowledge for nothing, then had him dismissed from school. To Plato, knowledge had no practical use, it existed for the abstract good of the soul.
Plato liked mathematics because of its idealized abstractions and its separation from the merely material. Nowdays, of course, the purest mathematics manages to be applied, sooner or later, to practical matters of science. And so above the doorway to the Academy was written, “Let no one ignorant of mathematics enter here.” Plato did, however, believe that mathematics in its ideal form could still be applied to the heavens. The heavenly bodies, he believed, exhibited perfect geometric form. This he expresses most clearly in a dialogue called Timaeus in which he presents his scheme of the universe. He describes the five possible regular solids — that is, those with equivalent faces and with all lines and angles, formed by those faces, equal. These are the four-sided tetrahedron, the six-sided hexahed ron , the eight-sided octahedron, the twelve-sided dodecahedron, and the twenty-sided icosahedron. Four of the five regular solids, according to Plato, represented the four elements, while the dodecahedron represented the universe as a whole. These solids were first discovered by the Pythagorean, but the fame of this dialogue has led to their being called the Platonic solids ever since. Plato decided also that since the heavens were perfect, the various heavenly bodies would have to move in exact circles along with the crystalline spheres that held them in place. The spheres were another Pythagorean notion, and the Pythagorean preoccupation with sound also shows itself in Philolaus belief that the spheres of the various planets made celestial music as they turned a belief that persisted even in the time of Kepler two thousand years later. Kepler’s time, even though compromises with reality had to be made constantly, beginning shortly after Plato’s death with Eudoxus and Callippus. In the dialogue Timaeus by the way, Plato invented a moralistic tale about a thoroughly fictitious land he called Atlantis. Plato’s influence extended long past his own life and, indeed, never died. The Academy remained a going institution until A.D. 529, when the Eastern Roman Emperor, Justinian, ordered it closed. It was the last stronghold of paganism in a Christian world. Plato’s philosophy, even after that date, maintained a strong influence on the thinking of the Christian Church throughout the early Middle Ages. It was not until the thirteenth century that the views of Aristotle gained dominance.