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Plato, the Essentialist

Plato was among those who fled Athens following Socrates' death. He was twenty-seven then and perhaps among those Athenians who blamed democracy for having created the Peloponnesian War. At least he saw democracy as having contributed to Athens' defeat, and he was among those who wished for a government wiser than that which had arisen from the Athenian multitude.

Like Socrates, Plato was dissatisfied with the world that had unfolded around him, but rather than see remedy only in individuals improving themselves, as Socrates seemingly did, Plato saw remedy in new institutions. As Karl Popper wrote in The Open Society and Its Enemies, Plato was big on social engineering.

Plato wrote that "Until philosophers are kings, or the kings and princes of this world have the spirit and power of philosophy," the world will have no rest from "evil." Plato wanted to save the world from common people and people who believed in freedom and democracy. Like Confucius a century or more before him and some people today, his mind was fixed on decay. Plato was an aristocrat, and aristocrats like him had slaves to do their labor, but Plato saw common people as shameless, as living solely for pleasure and having disrespect for what was needed to maintain a world of law, order and human decency.

While holding these attitude's Plato considered himself wise and a philosopher. He defined a philosopher as someone with more than just curiosity or a lover of knowledge. A philosopher, he wrote, is a man who loves the "vision of truth."


Plato. He believed that abstractions
existed outside our heads and that words had god-given essence.

He searched his imagination for an ideal society, one strong enough to win wars, a society able to provide a livelihood for its people, a society free of what he saw as the self-serving individualism and commercialism of Athens, and a society unified by a harmony of interests. He wanted something better than the kind of rule that had existed among the Spartans and societies with aristocracies, and looking into the past he saw that societies led by aristocrats could degenerate and that some aristocrats were unfit for leadership. He wrote a work titled The Republic, imagining a society with a ruling elite made up of men who could pass their status to their sons but who would lose that status if their peers decided that they were unfit. And someone from a lower status would be admitted to the ruling group if the group judged him as having developed into a sound philosopher.

Plato imagined a society without the weaknesses of rule by inheritance and the weakness of leadership chosen by the multitude. Like Solon and others, Plato thought of justice as harmony emanating from godliness. He believed that philosophers who understood the harmony of all parts of the universe were closest to God and that only they were capable of creating a harmonious and just society. These philosophers, he believed, would agree and get along with each other with equal harmony rather than break into hostile factions. It was an opinion about a political party in a small state. Plato perceived the ideal society as a city-state of no more than 20,000 people. (In the late 1800s, harmony among the philosophically-minded leaders of Europe's Social Democrats failed, and a faction that split off to become known as the Bolsheviks also broke into hostile factions.)

Plato believed that his ruling elite had to be free from labor so they could specialize in philosophy. Under his ruling elite, Plato invented a second and third class of citizens. The second class were the warriors, who were to be free from ordinary labors so they could train to become as highly skilled in combat as possible – as with Sparta's warriors before Sparta's fall. And the third class consisted of laborers.

Plato wished his ruler-philosophers to be unconcerned with possessions, leaving them interested in harmony and justice only. The best men, he believed, serve society out of devotion rather than pay.

As for possessing women, he thought it best that men rule, but he believed that women should be free rather than possessed by men. He believed women were equal to men in many ways. He believed they had the capacity to be philosophers and were capable of virtue. A mentally accomplished female, he proclaimed, was superior to a mentally incompetent male. He approved of the greater respect and freedom for women that he had seen among the Spartans. He believed that the harmony that was essential to his utopia would be best served by his ruler-philosophers and their women associates and children living as one large family, the men and women coupling freely with whomever they pleased.

Plato's idea of a sound philosopher was someone like himself, certainly not someone like Thomas Jefferson, whom he would have despised (and Jefferson would not like Plato). Plato wanted trust in an elite who thought as he did.

Plato believed that it should be official doctrine that class divisions had been created by Zeus, and he thought that citizens of his republic should be obliged to believe in Zeus. Plato decided that the reading of certain kinds of literature should be forbidden. Like Socrates, Plato was no admirer of the gods of Homer. He wanted the works of Homer forbidden along with stories that depicted virtuous people as unhappy or villains as happy.

Plato declared that religious cults that attempted salvation of the soul should be outlawed because their attempts at salvation implied that wrongdoing could be absolved through ritual.

He thought that to prevent corruption, his utopia should control the kind of music people listened to. He believed that to help prevent the spread of corruption, dissidents, including atheists, should be imprisoned. These dissidents, he believed, should be reformed by persuasion, and if they proved incorrigible they should be executed.

As for Plato's "vision of truth," he rejected the views of Heraclitus that reality was a process. He rejected Heraclitus' belief in evolution and he rejected the atomism of Democritus. Like Pythagoras, Plato believed in perfection and saw perfection in mathematics. And like Pythagoras he saw mathematics as more than established rules regarding relationships between numbers. He was in love with abstractions and gave to numbers the same kind of essence that he gave to words. For Plato words were more than developing social conventions. Words for Plato had a permanent god-given essence.

He believed in perfect reason and that the mind was located in the head because the head was round and roundness was the perfect shape and therefore the appropriate place for reason. As had Pythagoras, he looked to the heavens and speculated in astronomy. He believed that perfection existed in the heavens, that the heavens consisted of perfect spheres and circles.

Like Pythagoras, he made harmony fundamental to his philosophy – beyond political harmony. He sought what Pythagoras had described as the permanence that lay behind the flux and chaos of appearances. The world of the senses had not yet produced much in the way of machinery to save physical drudgery, or science to remove ignorance, but rather than concern with the world of senses he believed that the world known through the senses was an illusion. It was a view expressed in what would become known as his cave allegory, a view also that could be found in Hinduism. In his Vision of Er the Pamphylian, Plato displayed familiarity with Hindu doctrines. Reality to him was idea. For Plato, the foot part of a kick to his buttocks would have been an illusion; the humiliation part would have been real.

According to Plato, a person as a material being develops and dies while his essential, unchanging reality, his soul, remains eternal. He believed that a person's soul has its rational side and its irrational side, that on one side was mind and the ability to reason and on the other side was desire – what some would call impulse. Plato believed that a person served his or her soul by denying oneself the bodily desires of the material world. He believed that the part of the soul that was mind survived death while desire did not.


Plato believed that the wise loved beauty in the abstract more than they loved specific, material things – an exclusion of visual beauties. He turned love into an abstraction, believing that it begins as a lowly specific and perhaps as a carnal and amorous experience. A good person, he believed, turned lowly experiences into spirituality by comprehending such occurrences as an abstraction, elevated to a pure form of beauty, to perfection and to an ideal. At this level, he believed, love and beauty motivated one to beneficent deeds.

Melding philosophy and religion – as had Pythagoras – Plato believed that the highest activity of an individual was to contemplate the beauty of God and the immortality of his own soul.


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