Philosophy 63 - 4.2.4 Socrates and Plato

As Socrates never wrote anything, he is remembered today because thinkers like Plato featured him in their writings. Plato deliberately dramatized the life of his teacher Socrates. One of the key questions of Plato’s scholarship is exactly how many liberties he took in depicting the life of his teacher. Scholars generally agree that the dialogues that Plato wrote early in his career are more faithful to the life of Socrates than later ones. His writings are usually divided into three periods: early, middle, and late.

The early dialogues feature a skeptical Socrates who refuses to advance any doctrines of his own. Instead, he questions his interlocutors until they despair of finding the truth at all. These early dialogues tend to be somewhat short with a simpler composition. One of the dialogues features a young man named Meno who is the pupil of a prominent Sophist. The dialogue focuses on the nature of virtue and whether virtue can be taught. At one point in the dialogue, Meno famously compares Socrates to a torpedofish, a fish similar to a stingray that paralyzes its prey. Socrates does this to his dialogue partners: they begin the discussion believing that they know something and over the course of the dialogue begin to question whether they know anything at all.

Connections

See the introduction to philosophy chapter for more on Socrates as the paradigmatic philosopher.

Gradually, Plato has Socrates give voice to more positive doctrines. These include what comes to be known as the theory of the forms, a metaphysical doctrine that holds that every particular thing that exists participates in an immaterial form or essence that gives this thing its identity. The invisible realm of the forms differs fundamentally from the changing realm we experience in this world. The invisible realm is eternal, unchanging, and perfect. The material things themselves change, but the immaterial forms remain the same. Consider, for example, the form of a rectangle: four adjacent straight sides that meet at 90-degree angles. You can draw a rectangle, but it is an imperfect representation. The desk or table you are sitting at might be rectangular, but are its edges perfectly straight? How perfect was the instrument that cut the sides? If you nick the edge of a table, then it changes and becomes less like the form of a rectangle. With the doctrine of forms, Plato may be said to combine the metaphysics of Parmenides with that of Heraclitus into a metaphysical dualism.

The philosopher’s task is to access the immaterial realm of the forms and try to convince others of its truth. Plato further believed that if we understand the true nature of virtues like wisdom, justice, and courage, we cannot avoid acting in accordance with them. Hence, rulers of states should be philosopher-kings who have the clearest understanding of forms. Yet philosopher-kings never have perfect knowledge because our understanding is based on a material realm that is always changing. True knowledge is only possible in the abstract realms, such as math and ethics.

In the dialogues, Socrates claims that he was divinely inspired to question prominent citizens of Athens to determine whether their claims to know could be verified. These citizens grow annoyed with Socrates after some years of this treatment, eventually bringing charges against him for corrupting the youth and making the weaker argument appear the stronger. The proceedings of the resulting trial were immortalized in Plato’s Apologia, where Socrates presents his defense of his life’s work as a philosopher. The dialogue’s name derives from the Greek apologia, meaning “defense”—Socrates never apologizes for anything! He is found guilty and sentenced to death. Socrates becomes a martyr to philosophy, put to death by the democratic government of Athens.

Connections

This text examines Plato’s ideas in greater depth in the chapters on metaphysics, epistemology, value theory, and political philosophy.

The content of this course has been taken from the free Philosophy textbook by Openstax