These write ups on the major philosophers, about sixty-six of them, are meant to help educate folks on what philosophy is all about. The long term goal is to help folks improve their thinking and reasoning on assorted subjects and not take their feelings and opinions as reasoned discourse.
Generally, most discussion of Western philosophy begins with Socrates. Actually, Socrates did not write anything down. What we know about Socrates comes to us from his star pupil's writing, Plato. Reading Plato, therefore, is the only way to know about Socrates. Thus, Western, or if you like, Greek Philosophy, began with Plato.
What we know about Socrates is that over 2600 years ago he went about teaching young Greeks the art of reasoning properly. He would see them talking and try to get them to talk in a rational and logical manner, to reason from major to minor premise before reaching conclusions. He would take them through lengthy discussions in order to improve the rigor of their thinking and reasoning faculty.
Basically, Socrates was doing what the Sophists before him were supposed to have done: trying to reason things out, but in the process obfuscating the truth (as he would ask: what is the truth?).
Socrates was arrested and tried by the leaders of Athens. He was accused of being a sophist, of confusing young Athenians with his convoluted thinking. For example, most people assume that there is such a thing as justice but Socrates would spend days arguing that what folks called justice is mere emotional understanding of the subject. The end result of this type of thinking was that folk no longer knew what was right or wrong. Thus, Socrates was accused of confusing folk with his highfalutin argumentations.
He was tried and found guilty and asked to drink the Hemlock and did and died. However, he had every opportunity to avoid drinking the poison and could have fled the city (as Plato did, as he said, to prevent Athens from killing another philosopher) but he preferred to obey the law even if the law was unjust. Why obey an unjust law? Why did he allow himself to be murdered by Athenians?
The usual interpretation is that Socrates wanted to teach folks about the primacy and saliency of law in organized society. Law is law and must be obeyed. Once found guilty one must obey the verdict of a duly constituted court of law for that is the only way that society can be maintained and law and order existed. (In 2000, Albert Gore won the Presidency of the USA but the conservative tilted United States Supreme Court gave the victory to his rival, George Bush, and Mr. Gore obeyed the law, accepted the verdict, for the law must be obeyed whether you like its practical outcome or not. That is the idea, anyway. If Gore had wanted he could have provoked a civil war in the country, for, clearly, those who voted for him would have loved to duke it out with Dubya's people. Social justice is not the same thing is fairness but what is within the letters of the law. If you do not like the law then work to change it but as long as it is on the books it must be obeyed!)
Socrates featured extensively in Plato's writings; he was always the protagonist arguing the point that Plato wanted to argue.
Plato wrote in dialogue form; he would gather a group of eminent Athenians and have them discuss a subject, with Socrates obviously arguing the position he himself would have liked to argue.
Plato's dialogues can be tedious for they examine the minutia of every subject argued and therefore bore folks to tears. If you are like me, you would probably say, get on with it, get to the point. Plato was not interested in conclusions and answers but in the logical process of reaching them. Moreover, what is the answer, any way? What may seem self evidently true to you may not seem true to other persons.
Plato wrote at the height of Greek intellectual flowering, about 2500 years ago. Let us summarize his essence.
THE WORLD OF FORMS
Plato believes that we are like folks living in a cave. We live in a cave, a dark cave. Somehow there is a flicker of light in the background and that light enables us to see our shadows on the walls of the cave. What we see as ourselves are our shadows, not our real selves. We do not know what our real selves are; we only know about our shadows and the shadows of thing.
Somehow one of the persons in the cave managed to get out of the cave and got outside. Initially, he could not see clearly for, as we all know, if you have been in darkness for a long while and light is brought into that darkness you tend to have a difficult time seeing. Your eyes take a long time to adjust to the light. Eventually, this man managed to see clearly and came to the conclusion that the manner he had seen things before, when he was in a cave, was differently. What he had thought were the truth of things were their shadows. In other words he learned the truth, somewhat, any way.
Imbued with a sense of possessing the truth the man climbed back into the cave to go teach his brothers and sisters still in the cave the nature of reality as opposed to the shadows they saw. He was surprised that those in the cave disagreed with him! Indeed, they attacked and wanted to kill him (philosophers are always attacked and or killed by human beings for they bring a different perspective on knowledge than the people are used to and that creates cognitive dissonance in the people and to resolve their mental conflicts they kill the philosophers and keep on living in their familiar ignorance).
What Plato is saying is that human beings are in a cave and do not know what the truth is; they accustomed themselves to false perceptions of the nature of things and come to think that they know what the truth is.
Philosophers are those persons who somehow managed to get out of the social norm, get out of their society and go see things differently. When they bring their new perception of reality to their people their people reject them, even attack and want to kill them (the level of abuse I have taken from Igbos is well known; and why did they attack me; it was because I told them to get out of their primitive ways of seeing things and they do not even know that their ways of seeing things are primitive; they take their ignorance as civilized; they are in a cave and take the shadow of things as their reality).
Plato believes that we see the shadows of things, not their true essence. He believes that everything we see on earth is an imperfect imitation of its reality.
Plato believes that out there, there is a perfect state of everything we see. There are archetypes of things that are perfect. There is an ideal form of things.
His philosophy is often called the philosophy of forms; that is, there are ideal forms and we are like folks in a cave and misperceive those ideal forms.
God is the ultimate ideal form, the perfect good. Each of us has a perfect self but that self is not the self we see on earth or the self that we are aware of.
Plato's philosophy sets out to unearth the perfect forms of things as they are supposed to be in reality, not in the world of appearances we live in. Thus, Plato's philosophy is idealistic (philosophy could be idealistic or realistic, as we shall in the next lecture, Aristotle's philosophy is realistic; he accepts the world of the here and now as all there is to the world).
Plato believed in God but not necessarily God as you may understand it, not the punitive God of Judaism, Christianity and Islam. His was the philosopher's God; God is the perfect good.
Each of us senses that we are flawed but that there is an alternative perfect self that we could become. We all strive after the good.
Where did we get the idea that there is a good to be strived after? I do not know but Plato thinks that this inherent aspect of us is God?
As it were, we are God that manifested in matter (which is darkness) and therefore no longer see properly and are motivated to see properly. Philosophy (Greek for Knowledge) is our attempt to see properly, to return to the manner we saw while in spirit form, ideal forms.
Plato believed in reincarnation. He believed that when we die that we return to the world of ideal forms (aka Christian heaven...please note that he wrote 500 years before Jesus Christ). We return to perfect forms and then reincarnate. The moment we are born on earth we have entered a cave and are now in darkness and no longer see things clearly. Philosophers help us to see things clearly. Thus, to Plato philosophy is the highest vocational calling in society.
Perhaps, Plato's best known book is his The Republic. In that book Plato argued that democracy is not the ideal form of Government. As he sees it, most people are ignorant so why ask them to rule? Democracy means the foolish ruling the foolish. Instead, Plato wanted society to be ruled by Philosopher Kings.
As he sees it, there are three types of people: philosophers (thinkers), warriors (administrators) and producers (workers).
Plato wanted society to be structured along those three classes of people. His society would be a caste society with the few philosophers' at the top, followed by the soldiers and administrators and at the bottom would be the workers. (Later, I will explore to what extent the constructors of Hinduism borrowed from Plato or Plato from them for Hinduism has society divided into three castes: the priests/thinkers called Brahmins, the administrations and warriors called Kastryas, and the workers called Sudras.)
Plato did not believe that the workers are intelligent. Therefore, they are not to go to school! The warrior class are, according to Plato, semi intelligent and are therefore to be allowed to go to some school, say, up to high school. The philosophers are the intelligent segment of society and are to go Universities. From the university educated philosophers rulers are selected (after they are done with their education at age thirty five...please note that the framers of the US Constitution were informed by Plato; the US President must be 35, educated etc).
Plato placed emphasis on thinking (which is what philosophy is all about). He had no use for poetry and arts. He believed that poets appeal to the heart, to sentiments and emotions and arouse the passions. Plato wanted to suppress the emotions rather than arouse them. As for art he called it poor imitation of beauty. Beauty is in the abstract ideal forms and philosophers seek to understand it and replicate it in society, whereas artists paint, carve and sing about it at the sentimental level.
As Plato sees it, there are many ways of knowing: from imagination, from perception (these are mere opinions), from mathematics and from philosophy. The last two are true knowledge for they can be quantified and represent the ideal that Plato believes is out there waiting for us to recognize and actualize it.
Let us recapitulate Plato's philosophy. Plato talked about ideal forms in nature. As he sees it, at our present state of being we do not see those ideals correctly. Philosophers enable us to understand those ideals and work towards them.
The purpose of living on earth is to seek ideals and to the extent that one approximates them ones life is well lived.
Plato, in essence, taught an idealistic philosophy. He posited ideals that are merely mentalistic in the sense that we do not see them yet he believed that they are real and bid us to seek them.
How do we know that ideals exist? It is a presupposition to believe that what we do not see with our naked eyes exists. As Aristotle would argue, all ideals are fantasies of our imaginations; what is real is the world we can see with our physical eyes. Thus, Aristotle departed from Plato and concentrated on the empirical world, the world of the here and now, the world we can verify with our five senses. Aristotle, in effect, was an empiricists, scientist, whereas Plato was a mere rationalist.
Plato correctly assessed the problematic of democracy. In America, we see how those that President Barack Obama is trying to give Health Insurance, instead of appreciating his pro-social efforts verbally abuse him; they call him socialist, Hitler etc. In 1965 when President Lyndon B. Johnson was trying to give older Americans Medicare (paid health insurance for those over age 65) and Medicaid (insurance for the poor) he, too, was called a socialist and other pejorative names, but today most Americans are proud of the fact that their retired parents have free access to medical treatment (they would be in the future if Obama's Public Option in the health Care Reform Passes). What Plato was saying is that if the masses are allowed to make public choices that often they choose against their best interests; we are witnessing that reality before our eyes in the present health care reform debate!
The people are often ill informed and Plato wanted to solve this dilemma of democracy by giving politics to the few, the educated. He made a mistake. All people should participate in politics.
All people, as Thomas Jefferson correctly observed, should be helped to make good political judgment by being given education. All citizens in a polity ought to have, at least, high school education if they are to make good political judgments.
Plato was wrong in not wanting the masses, the workers, given education. It is true that the masses are generally speaking not too bright (they have average intelligence) yet we must nudge them up a bit by exposing them to education without deluding ourselves into thinking that they are going to be Albert Einstein. Perhaps, in every generation there may be one Einstein?
In conclusion, Plato is the first Western philosopher. No one studies Western philosophy without studying Plato. He touched on most of the topics that philosophers deal with: ontology (how did this world come about), epistemology (what is meaningful), Beauty, ethics, metaphysics etc. Plato was a great philosopher but like all great men he had great flaws. His star pupil, Aristotle, improved on his flaws. Knowledge progresses when we improve on our teachers shortcomings.
*Next topic, Aristotle.
Ozodi Thomas Osuji, PhD
August 23, 2009