Construction Literary Magazine

Fall 2020

1,000 Years of Plato

1,000 Years of Plato

Photograph via Wikipedia

[quote]Do we say that justice itself is something? Of course. And the fair and the good? Surely. Then have you ever seen any of these sorts of things with your eyes? In no way. But then have you grasped them with any other sense through the body. . . . Is it through the body then that what is most true of these things is contemplated? Or does it hold thus?

—Plato, Phaedo[/quote]

[quote]No one is able to attain the truth adequately, while, on the other hand, no one fails entirely, but everyone says something true about the nature of things, and while individually they contribute little or nothing to the truth, by the union of all a considerable amount is amassed.

—Aristotle, Metaphysics[/quote]

[quote]You will always be a child of two worlds. . . . The question you face is: which path will you choose?

—Sarek to his half human, half Vulcan son, Spock, Star Trek[/quote]

For the last 2,500 years, the Western world has been at the center of a philosophical tug of war. Repeatedly stretched and twice torn asunder, the West has developed under two almost diametrically opposed worldviews. It’s remarkable that it ever mends, but it does. The two teams in this ceaseless struggle are the philosophical descendants of Plato (c. 428 – c. 348 B.C.) and his rebellious student Aristotle (384 – 322 B.C.). These two ancient Greek titans of thought share my designation as the 30th most influential figure in Western history.{{1}}

Chances are you don’t know that you probably adhere, allowing some deviation, to one of their schools of thought. You’re either a Platonist, who believes in absolute morals, in the supremacy of the ultimate good, in objective truths unveiled by a series of deductions, and in the potential release of the soul from this material world into an idealized higher plane of existence. Or you’re an Aristotelian, who looks to the material world for answers in a never-ending, empirical quest to learn about the universe, studying and categorizing all findings, using not just deduction, but also inductive reasoning to slowly build knowledge. In personal relationships, mind you, they get along fine.{{2}} On larger scales, however, these competing schools of thought have been at each other’s throats throughout Western history.

Today, I’ll write about Plato. Check back next Monday for Aristotle.


The most ardent Aristotelian must have a great deal of respect for Plato. The English philosopher Alfred North Whitehead famously mused that “The safest general characterization of the European philosophical tradition is that it consists of a series of footnotes to Plato.” Last summer, Time called him the “main course in the three-course intellectual feast of Greece’s Classical period.” Before teaching Aristotle, Plato learned under the legendary Socrates and his eponymous method. Consequently, Plato’s formative years were filled with wondering, questioning, re-questioning, and challenging preconceived notions. Through this critical analysis, Plato would grow into a renowned philosopher in his own right, and it’s his own writings that make Socrates a legend at all.{{3}}

Plato’s inclusion in my Top 30 stems mainly from his contributions to government, metaphysics, and epistemology.{{4}} Centuries after his death in 348 B.C., his worldview on each was largely appropriated by Christianity—especially the Roman Catholic Church—and it is the adoption of Platonic ideals into the West’s dominant religion and denomination that ensured Plato’s spot in the Top 30.

Perhaps his most famous work, The Republic outlines an ideal form of government. Disillusioned with the democracy experiment ever since the democratic death of his mentor in 399 B.C., Plato instead argues for a meritocracy—a government in which the most capable citizens rule by a series of qualified, chosen successors. Neither democratic nor autocratic, such a state would avoid the volatile whims of an impulsive mob as well as the menacing moods of an arrogant despot. These enlightened leaders, or “philosopher-kings,” would be educated in the affairs of the state, own little land, make little money, have no familial distraction, and would place the health of the state above all personal concerns. While no actual state has fully adopted this mode of governance—autocracies and, much more recently, republics have ruled the world—many of these ideas have nevertheless been embraced in Western governments.{{5}}

Indeed, the Catholic Church came pretty close. Its officials—from popes and cardinals down to bishops and priests—are chosen from within the organization after years of ecclesiastical education. The Church instructs its clergy to live in poverty, with little land and no wife or children.{{6}}

[pullquote_right]No state has fully adopted Plato’s mode of governance, but many of his ideas have been embraced in Western governments.[/pullquote_right]

In addition, early Christians and the Catholic Church read more than The Republic; many of Plato’s other works get to the heart of the West’s millennia-old tug of war. Platonism’s roots come from not only The Republic, but also such works as Phaedo, Parmenides, and Theaetetus, all four of which are a part of the dozen dialogues from his transitional and middle periods.{{7}}

Another Platonic favorite of early Church “doctors” was the philosopher’s proposition that the material world perceived by our basic senses is filled with imperfect manifestations, while separate from this flawed existence is a higher plane of reality with idealized forms and ideals. The most famous explanation of this challenging concept is Plato’s “Allegory of the Cave,” found in Book VII of The Republic.{{8}}

In The Republic and other dialogues, Plato discusses these famous “Forms.” In this higher plane of existence are the idealized forms of the imperfect copies found in the material world. Examples can include shapes, like circles and squares. No perfect circle or square exists materially; zoom in enough and flaws emerge. Yet, we know of circles and squares and we agree on what they represent, even if we can’t reproduce them. Further, if one were instructed to imagine a circle, it’s reasonable that since our mind knows what a square or circle is supposed to look like, our thought can create its perfect qualities.

When we expand that analogy beyond shapes, we’ll understand how and why Christianity appropriated many facets of Platonism to strengthen their doctrine.{{9}} Instead of shapes like circles, think about concepts such as Beauty and Good. Like shapes, they are universal concepts, yet, in practice—in the material world—they are never perfect or agreed upon. Take “the Good,” for example. For millennia, ethics and philosophy classes have debated the idea of a “universal good.” Are there moral absolutes? Is anything universally right and good or wrong and bad?{{10}} For many, it’s a messy debate with no easy answers.

But for Platonists and, likewise, Christians, there are, in fact, moral absolutes. There is an absolute Good. Plato likened the Good to the sunlight outside his allegory’s cave—a warm bath of knowledge and grace withheld from those in the dark dungeon. Christians, similarly, propose God as the originator of morals, prescribed to the world through the Bible. In Plato, all goodness emanates from the sun; the more the prisoner uses its light, the closer to Good and Knowledge he gets. Christians, too, spend lifetimes studying their religion, trying to move closer to God and His perfect knowledge. In either case, just as we can’t create perfect shapes, we can’t reproduce perfect Beauty and Good; still, they exist conceptually, and we’re encouraged to work toward them. The kicker: Plato, in Phaedo, argues that at death, our immortal soul is released from the material world into that higher plane. There, the Christian connection is clear.

[pullquote_left]From the rise of Catholicism to its reformative schism, the West was decidedly Platonic.[/pullquote_left]

Clear, too, then, is Plato’s importance in Western history. When early Christians like Augustine of Hippo and Pseudo-Dionysius dragooned Neoplatonic philosophy into their religion, they solidified Plato’s ongoing influence on the West’s dominant religion. When the western Greco-Roman world crumbled in the fourth and fifth centuries, the Roman Catholic Church, during the subsequent Middle Ages, became the dominant political and social institution in the Western world. One of its primary missions for nearly a thousand years was the suppression of Greco-Roman pursuits of science and other pagan, un-Christian priorities.{{11}} Ironically—and often unknowingly—they rallied around the ideas of a pagan Greek. Plato, whom some call “the Athenian Moses,” delivered the truth to the Christian people.

Under the premise of a singular, ultimate Good, the Church used its central authority to legislate to all churches across Western Europe. After all, if there is only one truth and one perfect Good, anyone who disagrees with it must be less good—and maybe even bad. No longer was one allowed a personal, local relationship to God or the gods. The Church homogenized Christianity, with Roman Emperor Constantine assisting at the First Council of Nicaea in 325. Over the next ten centuries, the swords of armies commanded by Constantine, Clovis, Charlemagne, and others ingrained the Catholic interpretation into the region.{{12}} Only with Martin Luther and the Protestant Reformation of the sixteenth century did this monolithic faith lose its grasp on the West, and the right of the people to personally interpret the Word returned. So, too, did Aristotelianism. But from the rise of Catholicism to its reformative schism, the West was decidedly Platonic.

Bookending the Middle Ages are the ancient and modern worlds. The transition from ancient to medieval was marked by a tumultuous fifth century that included three raids on the city of Rome—after there hadn’t been any for six hundred years—and the dismemberment of the Western Roman Empire by Germanic tribes.{{13}} As shown, the power vacuum left by Rome’s fall was replaced by an increasingly dominant papacy, and Platonism, via Christianity, became the reigning Greek philosophy for the next thousand years. But as the Church’s power slipped away in the Late Middle Ages and Renaissance, Plato’s philosophy gradually lost control over the West. It was the philosophy of his star student that made a roaring comeback.

[[1]]Apologies in advance about this month’s inevitably lengthy column. It’ll be the only time I’m covering two figures, so don’t let the size of the piece turn you off from future installments![[1]]

[[2]]For example, I’m Aristotelian and my wife is Platonic. How will we raise the children, you ask? We’ll compromise, of course. (They’ll be Platonic.)[[2]]

[[3]]Socrates won’t make our list of 30, and here’s why. Socrates’s teachings, method, and philosophy were never recorded by him. Rather, it was his students, Plato especially, who circulated and preserved Socrates’s ideas, most notably in Plato’s famous “dialogues,” which star Socrates as the main inquisitor. Moreover, the idolization of their master—especially after his heroism in the face of a flawed trial and subsequent execution—surely corrupted the students’ accounts of their great teacher. The inability to precisely know what Socrates thought, said, and did has become known as the “Socratic Problem.” Thus, his dependency on Plato for posterity and his problematic reputation bump Socrates from our list for his pupil and pupil’s pupil.[[3]]

[[4]]His founding of the Academy in 387 should not be overlooked; but for the sake of column length, it will be here.[[4]]

[[5]]Many argue that the height of Roman hegemony was under the “Five Good Emperors” (A.D. 96 – 180), the last four of whom were adopted by their predecessor based on merit, similar to, if considerably more narrow than, Plato’s proposal. The termination of the adoption line—marked by the ascension of Emperor Commodus, the true son of the last of the Five Good Emperors, Marcus Aurelius, in A.D. 180—is hailed by many as the beginning of Rome’s lengthy downfall. (Yes, Gladiator fans, they were in that.) Point Plato.

More recently, the American founding fathers did their best to set up an elected meritocracy, creating a constitution that ensured their own election and placed numerous checks on the power of democracy, many of which have been steadily stripped away over the last two centuries. In fact, the founding fathers only pejoratively used the term “democracy.” I assure you they had read their Plato.[[5]]

[[6]]Of course, the historical exceptions to this lifestyle number too many to count. Catholic clergy have an abhorrent record in matters of greed, lust, and, for that matter, the other sins, too. For examples, feel free to do the research on the medieval and Renaissance papacy at your leisure.[[6]]

[[7]]The worldview proposed in these middle collections separate him from his student Aristotle, whose empiricism—knowledge is a posteriori, built after experience—opposes Plato’s rationalism, which states that knowledge is a priori, already within us before we peel off the layers hiding it. Thus, Platonists rely on deductive logic—a rational series of deductions can turn premises into conclusions—while Aristotelians promote inductive logic, that through observation we can accrue knowledge, consequently producing firmer conclusions.[[7]]

[[8]]Imagine an existence where you are one of many prisoners whose entire life consists of staring at shadows of unknown objects on a cave wall. Those colorless, two-dimensional shadows would seem to be the beginning and end of all visual perception. Meanwhile, outside of the cave-prison exists colors, dimension, and what we would call the real world. Now, if you were to escape and enter the real world, upon your return you could not possibly describe a third dimension or foreign colors to your old cellmates, who would have no frame of reference for these exotic descriptions. They might even call you nuts! “You should see the grass!” “What’s grass?” “It’s this green stuff that grows on the ground.” “What’s ‘green’?”

The point, of course, is that it is we who live in the cave. Our five senses and three dimensions offer a limited, material scope of a much deeper universe. Any of us living in the limited material world would find it difficult to understand the higher, deeper, idealized world without a lifetime of study.[[8]]

[[9]]Interestingly, after third-century Christians introduced “Neoplatonism” into the religion, many historians and some small Christian denominations argue that this melding changed Christianity’s original message, doctrine, and practice. But that’s for another time.[[9]]

[[10]]Most commonly, the idea of mass murder is brought up as an example of an absolute wrong. However, when it comes to wartime or defending one’s homeland, family, or self, all of a sudden killing seems appropriate. Modern terrorists are excoriated for killing innocents, but the Enola Gay bombers get passes for incinerating 70,000 Japanese civilians.[[10]]

[[11]]In First Corinthians, Paul, referring to the curious, scientific, Aristotelian minds of the Greco-Roman tradition, boasts of “destroying the wisdom of the wise” and “frustrating the intelligent” with this new brand of philosophy. Three hundred years later, St. Augustine’s “City of God” (De Civitate Dei) blames pagan amorality and unchristian philosophers—save Plato—as a reason for the devastating Visigothic sack of Rome in A.D. 410. Fourth-century Church father John Chrysostom argued that man should “restrain our own reasoning, and empty our mind of secular learning.” Contemporary Basil of Caesarea, a Greek bishop, agreed, writing, “Let Us Christians prefer the simplicity of our faith to the demonstrations of human reason.”

Even after the turn of the millennium, Christian leaders such as St. Bernard of Clairvaux criticized using one’s “intellect” for any pursuit other than a holy one. Plato is one of the only ancients that survived this Catholic onslaught, and that’s because Christians owed him for much of their worldview. (For a brilliant summarization on this process—that of suppressing the Aristotelian curiosity that permeated Classical Europe—I highly recommend Charles Freeman’s “The Closing of the Western Mind.”)[[11]]

[[12]]The word Catholic, in fact, means “universal.”[[12]]

[[13]]Visigoths, Ostrogoths, Franks, Angles, Saxons, and Vandals, to name a few.[[13]]