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Let's get one thing straight. There will be no—we repeat no—Play-Doh jokes. We are talking about the Greatest of the Greats here. The Father of Western Philosophy!
Show some respect, people.
Now let's get to molding…
Okay, fine—one Play-Doh pun.
So who is Plato with a T? Well, Whitehead, the unfortunately-named 20th-century philosopher, pretty much summed it up best with his statement: "The safest general characterization of the European philosophical tradition is that it consists of a series of footnotes to Plato" (source). All right, so it's a slight exaggeration—those are some mighty long footnotes—but Plato was responsible for introducing most of the fundamental questions and concerns that have occupied philosophers for the past several millennia.
The next obvious query is: what does this Daddy-of-all-that-is-profound-and-important say in response to all these big questions he raises? What is his basic position? And the answer is…
It depends who you ask.
Super helpful, we know.
For some scholars, Plato is the ultimate rationalist, the Mr. Spock of philosophers; he values reason above everything else and even goes so far as to claim that the intellectual world is far more real than the physical things around us. Others insist that no, he is a mystic, who holds that we have to completely transcend the limits of reason to gain true knowledge. Still others say, sorry guys, he's much more of a skeptic.
Then there's the view that Plato is primarily a political philosopher. But what kind of political philosopher? Well, someone who advocates extreme totalitarianism. Or possibly liberal democracy…
So how is it that one guy can be all these different things at the same time? Well, actually he can't. But pinning down Plato's ultimate view is harder than discerning the Bachelorette's true feelings prior to the Final Rose (though at least Plato never claimed that anyone was the "complete package").
This is one slippery dude.
One reason for this slipperiness is that Plato didn't write treatises, but only dialogues—about 36 in all (depending on which ones you count as genuine). In them, we find lots of different characters and different perspectives—and it's difficult to determine which one of these, if any, represents the view of the author.
On top of that, the point of the dialogues is often unclear, with the ending typically inconclusive and with many twists and turns in the discussion along the way. And on top of that, the whole style and tone of Plato's writing seems to markedly shift over the course of his career. His views seem changeable, malleable, unstable—sort of like…Play-Doh.
Oops, we did it again.
But, don't freak out yet: there are some things we can confidently assert about Mr. Plato. Most people agree that everything begins with his idol and teacher, the person whose claim to fame lies in knowing nothing. No, not your local politician—Socrates.
Ol' Socrates had a nasty habit of wandering around ancient Athens, questioning its citizens (especially the prominent ones) and showing them they didn't know what they thought they did. It was such a nasty habit, in fact, that he acquired a reputation of being a subversive and was eventually brought to trial, convicted, and sentenced to drink hemlock (which, besides tasting quite bitter, also happens to be a deadly poison).
Plato was heavily influenced by Socrates in many ways, and that influence is especially evident in the so-called "early dialogues," the ones he wrote in the first part of his career. (And yes, we must acknowledge that there is—surprise, surprise!—a lot of disagreement about this account of Plato's philosophical development…but we also must acknowledge that you're probably okay with not knowing every little detail of that debate.)
Like Socrates, Plato in these early dialogues focuses mainly on ethical questions; like Socrates, too, he doesn't advance any positive theories, but is concerned mainly to open up larger questions. Just one thing, though: Plato wasn't so keen in emulating Socrates' death at the hands of the Athenian jury…which is probably why he so effectively disguises his true views.
Over the years, Plato developed a little swag, and as he entered his "middle period," he began to engage in a good deal more philosophical speculation than his old mentor would have approved of. In middle dialogues like the Republic, the Phaedo, the Symposium, and the Parmenides, Plato moves beyond a primary focus on ethical matters to take on broader questions like the immortality of the soul, the nature of beauty, and of course, the true nature of…everything (we wouldn't want to leave out that little detail).
At this point, Plato was (seemingly) advancing positive theories about the nature of reality—most famously, his theory of forms. This is the view that every group of things (or "particulars") we call by the same name shares an essence, an essence that makes those things have whatever character they happen to have. Plato, intriguingly, maintains that this ideal essence, the form, exists apart from the particulars that partake of it, off in some timeless, spaceless region.
For example: it is the Beautiful itself—the ideal form of Beauty—that is responsible for the beauty manifested in this painting, that piece of music, these lovely Shmoop writings. If you want to know why what you're reading is so dazzlingly beautiful, you must look beyond the words themselves to the unchanging, transcendent entity which they imperfectly imitate.
And now we come to the inevitable question. Plato's forms: pure genius or pure whacked-out silliness?
We'll forgive you if you can't instantly decide. Not only have people been wondering how to understand the forms for the past 2,500 years; Plato himself seems to have been unsure on the verdict. That's right, in the Parmenides, he has Socrates put forward an extended criticism of his own theory of forms. This leads us to Plato's late, mature period, where the theory of forms is dropped altogether, as is, to a certain extent, Socrates as a character in the dialogues.
Do you ever wish that people don't get too mature? It's great that they're wise and measured and all that, but sometimes this makes them a little bit, you know…dull. So it's not that Plato doesn't produce first-rate philosophy during this late period; there's the Sophist, for example, and the Statesman, among other works. But unfortunately, in Plato's later period, the literary dimension of the dialogues—the entertaining and philosophically rich exchanges between the characters—is largely tossed out and replaced by dogmatic monologues.
And some of these later works…yowza. The Laws, for example, his very last dialogue, may be a work of genius, but it is also an endlessly long, detailed lecture, a discussion so dreary and dry it would make any grad student proud. (Zing!)
Over the course of Plato's long career, he inquired into the nature of knowledge, ethics, rhetoric, art, politics, education, religion, mathematics, the physical world, and pretty much every other topic you can think of. He put Western philosophy on the map to stay. So we guess we can forgive him if he didn't end up as one of those old guys who wears purple and drinks margaritas on the beach.
But how cool would that have been?