Plato's idealism

The significance of Plato

Along with Aristotle, Plato founded the western philosophical tradition, setting out the ideas on which later thinking would be based. He saw reality (the way things are) as an imperfect approximation of an ideal (the way they should be). Everything had an ideal form, whether it was a person, a table … or anything else that could be imagined. This ideal was universal: there was an idea of a perfect table, to which every actual table conformed, though the physical form was never as perfect as the idea.

In fact, for Plato, the word ‘reality' is misleading, for true reality lies at the level of the ideal. The table we see or touch is no more than the shadow of the universal idea of which it is just the inadequate representation.

More on ‘Plato': Plato's writings take the form of dialogues with his great teacher and mentor, Socrates, in which the two men argue out a series of philosophical questions. There is no way of knowing how much of the thinking is really that of Plato himself and how far he was simply recording his teacher's ideas. So in ‘Plato' we have the thought of two philosophers in one.

Significant opposition

This idea of what reality actually was had enormous implications for the way in which Plato looked at the world:

  • Plato argued that, to find the truth, people had to look beyond reality as they perceived it.
  • Aristotle, Plato's star student, disagreed strongly with this view. It was Aristotle's opinion that people could only understand the world by studying it through their senses.
  • The disagreement between the two was never to be resolved. Philosophers have been debating this same question ever since, finding different ways of approaching the same basic problem.

A teaching tradition

Socrates and PlatoPlato was born around 425 BCE, either in Athens or on the nearby island of Aegina. As a young man, he became a student – and a devoted follower – of Socrates. But his mentor fell foul of the Athenian authorities. By encouraging them to question what they were told and to argue with their elders, Socrates was ‘corrupting' the city's youth, it was alleged. Plato tried to help his teacher, but in 399 BCE, Socrates was condemned to death: he had to take his own life by drinking a brew of hemlock, a poisonous plant.

But Socrates' teachings survived in the work of Plato, and he in turn, as teacher to Aristotle, helped establish a tradition of philosophical discussion and debate which has continued to this day.

More on The Academy: Socrates had simply gathered his students about him in a stoa, a colonnaded walkway alongside the agora, the main public square in Athens. In 387 BCE, his pupil Plato established a more permanent school outside the city walls where there was more space. As it happened, the site was associated with the exploits of Akademos, a mythological hero, so Plato's school became known as the Akadameia. To this day, the word ‘academy' is used for many schools; we also talk of ‘academic' work.

Body and soul

Given the opposition he saw existing between the real and the ideal, it is no surprise to find that Plato saw a comparable opposition between body and soul. The former was mortal, no more than the physical house or vehicle for the immortal soul – which was where Plato believed an individual's real identity actually lay. (By contrast, Aristotle regarded body and soul as a unified organism.)

It followed from Plato's dualism that the feelings of the body were not to be compared with those of the soul. Bodily desires – whether the hunger for food or the tug of sexual yearning – were no more than animal wants. Once they were satisfied, they had gone. The affections of the soul operated at a level high above such cravings, Plato thought: they were pure and genuinely enduring.

More on ‘Platonic love': Plato did not think there was anything wrong with sexual feelings in their place. They were the natural consequence of having bodies. But since he saw the soul as being superior to the body, he did believe in a transcendent love that left the level of physical passion behind. These days, when people talk of ‘Platonic friendship', they usually just mean a non-sexual relationship between a man and woman, but Plato himself saw the highest love as a great deal more.

Related topics

Impact of classical literature: Aristotle

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