Alfred useful in his surprisingly successful time as

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Alfred useful in his surprisingly successful time as

Alfred North Whitehead once said,
“the safest general characterization of the European philosophical tradition is
that it consists of a series of footnotes to Plato.” Overall, while philosophy
students differ in many ways, most can agree that Plato is indeed one of the
most prominent figures in Western philosophy. He was unique, but also relatable
on a wide scale. If you have ever pondered about which forms of government work
best, reality and whether or not it even exists, or perhaps how much knowledge
is actually possible, you have already started to think about some of the
things that Plato had hoped to address.

            The name
Plato is actually a nickname derived from the Greek word, Platon, meaning “wide,” or “broad.” Some say that he had a broad
forehead and some say that he had broad shoulders, which would have been useful
in his surprisingly successful time as a wrestler. The name that Plato was
given at birth was Aristocles. Aristocles, or Plato, was born into an elite and
wealthy Athenian family. His family lineage was so impressive that it was said
to trace back to the God of the Sea, Poseidon.

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            During
Plato’s years as a young man, the Peloponnesian Wars between Athens and Sparta
took place. This conflict brought about an event that changed the way that
Plato thought. Athens surrendered to Sparta in 404 B.C.E., bringing in a new
method of ruling by a group of nobles known as the Thirty. Plato’s family was
amongst the nobles of this group. Their time in charge didn’t last very long,
but they still left some impressions. The Thirty was bitter about the loss in
privileges Athenian democracy had caused. They therefore ruled very greedily,
with only the interests of the upper class in mind. This left Plato with an
impression of disdain for elitism based on bloodlines.

            Another
event that changed Plato’s views was the trial and death of his mentor,
Socrates. Socrates’ role in Plato’s life and philosophy cannot be overstated.
Even Plato’s writing, which appeared with a conversational format instead of an
essay one, consisted of mostly conversations with Socrates. A good amount of
what we know of Socrates comes from Plato’s reverence. Socrates was a strange
but incredibly wise man. Part of the problem that Athenians saw in him arose
from one of his methods of teaching. Socrates believed that to simply tell a
student information, is to “fill an empty vessel.” Therefore, he taught using a
question-and-answer style to force students to find answers on their own, and
this style has become know as the Socratic method. However, many Athenians
found his tendency to question everything, especially that which they would
prefer left alone, offensive. As Socrates gathered a following, he was no
longer seen as the strange man that aimlessly wandered Athens, instead he
became a threatening figure to those that didn’t agree with him. Another thing
that concerned some people of Athens was Socrates’ connection to the general,
Alcibiades. Alcibiades had been one of Socrates’ students. As a result, when
Alcibiades left to assist Sparta during the Peloponnesian Wars, some citizens
believed that Socrates’ influence was to blame. Furthermore, after Sparta’s
defeat of Athens, the Thirty came into power and led ruthlessly. Socrates has
friends amongst this group of nobles, which soiled his reputation further when
the Thirty lost power. Eventually, these all climaxed in Socrates being brought
to trial. At the trial, the majority vote had decided on his guilt. After a
customary waiting period, Socrates was executed, and he accepted this with
dignity. This particularly stuck with Plato. Plato saw that Athenian democracy
was dangerous as it allowed the unintelligent majority to have power through
numbers alone.

            Plato came
to realize that rule by the elite was ineffective, but so was rule by the
majority. As a result, Plato developed perhaps one of the most appreciated
works of philosophy, The Republic. The Republic, which consists of multiple
books, is quite larger than most of Plato’s works. Despite its size, it is
still written as a dialogue with Socrates as a main speaker. In this work,
Plato proposes a government and social structure that he thinks would work most
effectively. Before explaining Plato’s ideal world, it would be best to explain
the “cardinal virtues.” These are the virtues that, according to Plato, are
required for a soul to function correctly. While each virtue is essential to
all classes, some are more particular to grouping. Temperance, or constraint,
is needed especially in the working class. Courage is vital for the warrior
class. Wisdom relates to the guardians, or philosopher-kings, according to
Plato. Justice is the virtue that is gained through the presence of the other
three virtues. Plato believed that all of these virtues must exist for a just
state. As the name indicates, Plato believes that philosopher-kings should rule
entirely, with no democratic features. According to Plato, democracy has some
bonuses, however there is no control or wisdom. It is unsurprising that Plato
had such feelings towards democracy since, as in the case of Socrates, he saw it
being used as a way for the majority to overpower reason.

            In the
modern world, it can be a bit difficult to consider the possibility of a
government and society like Plato’s. Compared to the scale of history, we now
live in a world with a lot of liberty. We are so used to liberty, that the idea
of any form of government with restrictions is considered repulsive. Plato said
that, in a democracy, “the minds of the citizens become so sensitive that the
least vestige of restraint is resented as intolerable.” To some extent, this
can be seen today. However, regardless of how someone feels about democracy, it
can generally be agreed that there are some benefits and down-falls of a
Platonian society. If we were to live in a society ruled by philosopher-kings,
there would be no concern of mob-ruling. On the other hand, most people are not
comfortable with a government in which they are not allowed any say.

            In closing,
most can agree that Plato is a figure that deserves at least some
consideration. While some of his ideas may have been extreme, there is some
wisdom to be taken from him. However, that wisdom can only be obtained if one
makes an effort—as Socrates said, in the
Republic, “‘You can’t persuade people who won’t listen.'”

 

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