BCC Introduction to Philosophy
Lecture on Socrates and Plato
Socrates (470-400 BCE) is a very famous yet very controversial and obscure figure. Like many great thinkers, he did not write his own thoughts down but rather Plato (430-350 BCE) and another student named Xenophon wrote about his teachings after his death. Plato was a playwright who wrote dialogues between Socrates and his students after failing at writing plays on other subjects. Socrates, Plato and Aristotle (Plato’s student) are the three great Athenian thinkers, and before the rediscovery of the “presocratics” (like Heraclitus) they were considered to be the birth of philosophy in ancient Greece.
It is generally accepted by scholars today that Plato’s early dialogues are one of the best sources for understanding Socrates and his ideas, but in Plato’s later dialogues Socrates is a mouthpiece for Plato’s own ideas. We will consider Socrates and his thought first, then turn to two of Plato’s most important later dialogues, the Republic and the Timaeus, to study Plato’s thought. Socrates and Plato were both influenced by Heraclitus (our subject last week), and while Socrates seemed to have been quite similar to Heraclitus, Plato’s thought changed and he began putting quite different views into Socrates’ mouth.
The Dueling Views of Heraclitus and Parmenides
Consider that there are two polar opposite views one can have of reality and the world. In one view, everything changes constantly and permanence is an illusion. In the other opposite view, everything remains the same and change is the illusion. As we saw last week, Heraclitus was a famous champion of the first view. He argued that only Being, the One and All, the cosmic fire or energy, is eternal and all other beings are temporary in spite of what our judgments tell us. Another presocratic thinker named Parmenides (who lived sometime before 500 BCE) was a famous champion of the second and opposite view. He argued that there is one unchanging reality that is eternal and all change and temporary beings are the illusion in spite of what our judgments tell us.
Socrates and Plato were both influenced by Heraclitus, but in his later dialogues Plato has Socrates argue for views that sound much more like Parmenides. Originally, Socrates questioned everyone to show that we know very little and it is the job of the philosopher to show this to people. In Plato’s later dialogues, Socrates argues that there is one unchanging reality above the temporary perceivable world and it is the job of the philosopher to seek and understand this eternal reality.
Socrates and his Method of Questions
We know very little about Socrates’ early life other than the details supplied in Plato’s works. He mentions several influences, including two women: the witch/shaman Diotima who taught him about love (like Confucius, Socrates identified love with wisdom) and Aspasia, the mistress of the general Pericles, who taught him rhetoric. Socrates, Plato and Aristotle lived at a time when the glory days of Athens were in decline. Eventually, Alexander (Aristotle’s student) would conquer the city and the surrounding city-states. Socrates was a critic of Athenian society, called “the horsefly” because he believed in stinging Athens into action, and he was eventually condemned to commit suicide for corrupting the youth of the city.
Socrates’ career as a philosopher began when his friend Chaerephon went to the oracle of Delphi to ask if anyone was wiser than his friend Socrates. Socrates, with characteristic modesty, protests that this was a very crass question to ask of the great oracle. The oracle replied that no one was wiser than Socrates. This prompted Socrates to go out and seek someone wiser than himself to see if the words of the oracle were in fact true.
Socrates felt that he knew nothing, but as he questioned the experts of Athens he came upon a horrible discovery and paradox. The experts believed themselves to be wise and possess great knowledge, but when questioned it turned out they knew very little. Socrates knew that he himself knew nothing. Therefore, Socrates was wiser than the experts because he knew that he knew nothing, while the experts knew nothing but thought that they knew a great deal. Humble and modest Socrates was aware that mortal humans know nothing, but the politicians, artists and warriors were unaware of this great equality they shared with Socrates. The ignorance of Socrates was thus the greatest wisdom in all of Athens.
Notice the similarities between Socrates and Heraclitus, who argued that the experts believe themselves to know a great deal but do not understand that their knowledge and perspectives are mortal and we are all mere apes to the gods. Socrates argued, like Heraclitus, that the greatest wisdom is found in questioning oneself and others. Remember that great city-states and empires had risen along with increasingly specialized experts. Philosophy questions experts and the basis of our knowledge.
Socrates argued that the individual should accept their own ignorance and the guidance of the world through intuition. He believed that he had a spirit (a daemon in the Greek, a word which became “demon” as Christianity replaced the polytheism and spirits with monotheism and angels). This spirit was much like what we would call a conscience (a word which means “co-seeing”), an intuition that one should or should not do a particular thing. Socrates says that his daemon told him to stay out of politics. Not only did politics get Socrates killed in spite of this, but Plato has Socrates get increasingly political in his later dialogues, particularly in the Republic where Socrates debates the best form of the city. Socrates also praised the divinity of poetry, mysticism, love and getting drunk with friends (as he does at the Symposium, a dialogue about a drinking party that turns into a philosophical discussion about the nature of love).
Plato’s Thought, The Republic and The Timaeus
Plato was long assumed to be a student of Socrates simply because Plato writes as much in many of his dialogues. As Socrates is about to die, Plato has Socrates ask where the young Plato is, to which another student replies that Plato was sick and thus could not be there at the time. Scholars now are critical of this, and think that Plato had a habit of writing himself and his family into Socrates’ circle in his dialogues. Because they are our best sources on Socrates, it is difficult to tell whether or not Plato’s older cousin Critias or Plato himself were actual students of Socrates or whether they were simply influenced by this figure who became quite famous following his trial and death.
Plato’s actual name was Aristocles, but according to the story his wrestling instructor named him Platon or “Broad” because he had a wide figure. This may be merely a story, because Plato was known to have a wide “breadth” of knowledge covering all subjects of ancient thought. Plato’s father died when he was young, and his step-father became the Athenian ambassador to the Persian royal court (remember that Persia was a great source of ancient world cosmology at the time).
Long after his attempts to become an established playwright, after his dialogues about Socrates had gathered some fame, Plato founded his Academy in 385 BCE, an open area near a tree grove where he, his students and other lecturers would teach and debate matters of philosophy and cosmology. Academy in fact means “porch”, an open area in front of a building, a fact it took scholars long to understand for they believed that the Academy must have been a building itself. Scholars made a similar error looking for the famed Library of Alexandria (an Egyptian center of ancient world knowledge), when in fact the Library was a shelf that ran along a hall that connected two buildings.
To examine Plato’s thought (in its later and mature form) we will look at his two most influential dialogues which both come from his later period. By this point, Socrates was no longer sharing much of the conversation with other debaters, but dominates the texts with monologues that are now believed to be Plato’s own Parmenides-like views. Plato believed that Heraclitus was right about the world below, but Parmenides was right about the eternal world above, the unchanging model, form, order and cause of the ever-changing world below. Plato has Socrates argue that those who think they know the world below have mere opinions, but the one who knows the world above, the true eternal pattern of reality, has true knowledge.
In Plato’s Republic, Socrates debates with others on justice and the Good. Socrates debunks several common views, then constructs an ideal model of the city. The well ordered city is compared to the well ordered soul (3 layers in their places). Thus, the Good is proper order of the elements (perfectly in accord with ancient cosmology). The Timaeus, which is supposed to be the discussion the day after the Republic, has a student of Socrates named Timaeus lecture on the cosmos, showing Plato’s particular views on cosmology. Just as the individual is a microcosm to the city, the city is a microcosm to the cosmos, and again the elements must be separated and put in their places. The cosmos is ordered in its unfolding, producing the ideal order of the soul and the city.
One should order the self and order the city the way the cosmos are ordered.
Both are supposed to have been written about 360 BCE.
Socrates talks to several “interlocutors” and argues against their concepts of justice.
This is Socrates acting like the original Socrates.
Polemarchus argues that justice is paying debts, helping friends and harming enemies. Socrates argues that in some situations, helping friends and harming enemies are wrong.
Thrasymachus argues that justice is ‘the good of the stronger’.
Glaucon similarly argues that without threat of punishment, no one would do good. Socrates argues that the strong will corrupt themselves if they only act for their own interests and not for the good of the whole. (Remember the politics of the time- Many tyrants came and fell)
Starting with book 2, Socrates now turns into Plato, advocating an eternal form of the Good over the world of many temporary beings and desires. Socrates is challenged to give a positive account of justice, not just defeat opponents. Socrates argues that first they must construct the ideal or just city, and this will show how the ideal or just individual should be. Essentially, the just city is a caste system, with a three fold division. This division corresponds to the physical human being and the cosmic being.
Head is fire/reason/rulers,
Heart/chest is air/spirit/police,
Hands/Stomach is earth/desire/workers.
The individual, city and cosmos form a continuum, a set of Russian dolls.
Notice that authority and the good come from above, evil to be ordered from below.
Socrates argues (in reading) that each person is best suited to one thing, and should be assigned this one job. He argues that we will lie to the people and tell them a Phonecian story, which is that the classes are based on metals. The police and philosophers are made of silver and gold, so they are suited to be put above the others.(Why lie? Because the common will not understand philosophy, Plato’s system…this corresponds to the cave, where most will never leave, and need puppets to see anything).
All is sacrificed for the common good: no private property or partners or children, for any of the three classes. Socrates argues that the ruler who grabs for themselves will not be happy, filled with “horrid pains and pangs”, and will physically and mentally fall apart. This tyrant will never “taste true freedom or friendship”. Because this is not the order of the cosmos, it will not stick and will fall apart.
Socrates argues (and the interlocutors naively agree as simple yes men) that if they separate out the police and educate them as best as can be, and then take the philosophers out of the police and educate them as best as can be, no injustice will be possible.
There is the simple belief that the order itself will generate justice throughout the whole.
The police and philosophers will thus never be greedy or unjust to the people below.
(Plato elsewhere argues that this is how the Egyptians in Thebes did it: elevating priests as a class- he also says to imitate Sparta as well separating out the warriors)
Plato also suggests banning all art (music, poetry and theatre) that is counterproductive, which pretty much means everything that isn’t impressing the highest good and order.
The youth are to be taught that they must improve themselves for the good of the state, and that the gods never to injustice or desire. (Note move to solar monotheism, Heracl.)
The Allegory/Analogy/Story of the Cave:
This describes the masses and the assent of the philosopher beyond opinion of the earthly realm to knowledge of the heavenly and eternal realm, showing why the philosopher alone should have authority. Everyone is chained in a cave, watching shadows of puppets/models carried before a fire at the mouth of the cave. The people think that the shadows are reality, the real things. The one who escapes first sees that the shadows are shadows of puppets, and sees the fire that casts the shadows. Coming out of the cave and past the small fire, the seeker is at first blinded by the sunlight. The seeker first sees real things outside of the cave, and realizes that the puppet/models were just copies of the real things. Then the seeker can get adjusted and see that the sun is the cause of all these things, and that the world of the cave is a poor copy of the world outside the cave. This is the realization of the forms and then the all/light/reason/consciousness that produces the forms which are copied in the cave below. This is opinion to belief (cave) to knowledge to reason (outside). (Models and Puppet theatre and Theatre from Egypt into Greece)
(In America, this is almost forgotten: not published by itself, not in spell check- we seem to want to teach the Republic and Aristotle’s ‘science’ texts far more than the Timaeus or Aristotle’s On the Soul, central to Muslims and then Christians)
Socrates the day after says that he would like to talk more about the ideal state.
Then, Critas tells the story of Solon going to Egypt and that the Egyptians told him of the story of Atlantus (Plato made it up himself). The Egyptian Priest tells Solon that the Athenians repelled the Atlantians, who were threatening to take over the world (this today is seen as echo of Persia and Marathon). Notice (read quote) that the Egyptians have the Athenian forgotten history written down, that it is a priest who knows that Athens was the best ordered city.
Timaeus now speaks of the creation of the cosmos out of the all, showing the order already described of the elements and how the individual human was created as a microcosm of the macrocosm. This implies that you get in your proper order to be good, which is the order of the cosmos. The one sprouts the eternal order or model of things, which includes all eternal models or archetypes of things, and the demiurge, the sky father being that is the small fire at the mouth of the cave, then produces copies of the models in the ever changing world of earth below. The whole is a living creature, with the heavens as soul and the all as reason/intellect.
The demiurge fashions reason in soul, and soul in body in individuals. The demiurge then moves everything in a circle, bringing about the life and death in circles of earth beings from planetary orbits and starlight.
This is all done by sameness and difference. Sameness has the higher and encompassing role, difference being proportional downward. The 4 elements have certain shapes, which are then glued together by the fifth element, quintessence or ether. (Note Buddhist Stupa shows same shapes and order in India) This is the cosmology of Christianity and Europe well through the middle ages, up to Newton and Leibniz, who read Islamic scholar’s commentaries on the Timaeus. The Medieval Christians had to retranslate Plato, with central interest in the cosmology of the Timaeus, from Arabic into Latin.