Literati: The elusive Plato

23 Oct 2010

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Greek victory over the Persians was accompanied by an unprecedented revolution also termed as “the Age of the Greek Enlightenment” in Athens. This era marked the beginning for seeking new knowledge and the richness, and the variety of Athens' political, commercial and especially cultural life entitled itto be called the 'School of Greece'.

But long before the Greek victory over the Persians, in the half century before the birth of the “prince of philosophers” Plato, Athens had reached the peak of its glory. Plato was born into an aristocratic and well-connected family in 427BC. The two major influences on him in his youth and early manhood were the Peloponnesian War and Socrates, one of the leading personalities of the day.

He was 23 years old when Athens fell, after a long and bitter fight with Sparta and subsequently in the name of democracy the oligarchy of the Thirty Tyrants was established, with its procession of murders and extortions. He expresses his disgust in the Seventh Letter, “It is expected that this government would bring about a change from corrupt to upright administration... I found that it had taken no time at all for these men to make the previous government look like a golden age”.

Even after the restoration of democracy, his friend and teacher Socrates was condemned to drink hemlock proving that a sage cannot survive in an unjust state. Plato went into exile and left Athens with other disciples of Socrates.

Will Durant, one of the greatest scholars of the world ranks Socrates lower in stature to Plato and notes that, “Socrates is half a myth, and only half a man and in good measure he owes his fame as a philosopher to the creative imagination of Plato, who used the magnificent idler as the mouthpiece of his views. How much of Plato's Socrates was Socrates, and how much of it was Plato, we shall probably never know. Let us take Plato as implying both”.

We love Plato because he was alive every minute of his life and never ceased to grow. For him philosophy was not merely an instrument for interpretation but for the remoulding of the world. He worshipped beauty as well as the truth. Plato, in the Phaedrus, defined literary creation as a 'game in honour of the gods'. The philosophical essence of the dialogues is a subtle, aristocratic writing which makes a high demand on its readers.

Plato, after returning to Athens in 388BC, laid the foundation of a philosophical school, The Academy, the first and the longest of surviving universities of the world in the gardens of Academus. The Academy was frequented by many great minds, including the mathematician Eudoxus and a young Aristotle. Plato died in 347BC while writing the Laws.

The Academy's philosophical traditions continued uninterrupted for nine centuries, until Justinian ordered the dissolution of the Neoplatonic school in 529. Plato's writings, which have been preserved in their entirety, consist of 35 dialogues (of which all but a few are certainly by Plato) and 13 letters of doubtful authenticity (today it is generally accepted that Letters VI, VII and VIII could be by Plato). Plato's dialogues are among the precious possessions of mankind. Here for the first time, writes Durant, philosophy took form and by the very exuberance of youth achieved perfection unrivalled. In the Republic one shall find metaphysics, theology, ethics, psychology, theory of education, theory of statesmanship, theory of art, feminism, communism and socialism with all their virtues and their difficulties, eugenics and libertarian education, aristocracy and democracy, vitalism and psychoanalysis — what shall you not find here?

In the Republic, Plato sought to define the necessary conditions for the establishment of a just city state, a city which would not kill Socrates. This book examines the vitality of the most accepted definition of justice; 'Rendering to each his due owed' or 'do good to one's friends, harm to one's enemies'. The whole Republic aims to show it in action. Other works follow such enquiries to less definite conclusions and a discourse leads to a state of 'aporia' or cluelessness.

In Plato's thinking, we cannot understand truth with language or the senses. They existed before we were born and await our contemplation when we die. Elusive as ever, Plato never tells us what love really is. But then, who ever did?