Plato, a student of Socrates and teacher of Aristotle, was one the greatest philosophers that ever lived. His ideas, in simple terms, like Forms, Allegory of the Cave and Socratic Method are penned here.
He wrote numerous books and was a widely acclaimed scholar. Born of nobility, he enriched himself in the knowledge of various kinds. He was the founder of the first university in the western world. He is also coined as one of the first political scientists; for him being a ruler was no different than any other field, a ruler must be a person who has learnt the craft. In his version of an ideal city, a ruler must be a philosopher as well. He also believed that women would be no less capable than a man to be fit as a ruler in this ideal city. But he also had a vision where he would compare women with children. He believed that a child in a womb was a live animal in a woman’s body, which could move throughout the body and that would lead to many illnesses. This thought badly influenced western medicine for hundreds of years. The great philosopher believed that reason was more powerful than senses when it came to understanding the reality of our world. A general history can be found on History.com
Looking at our current world, we usually arrive at crossroads with a question of what is wrong with our life in terms of career, love, or even society as a whole? We live in a world where questioning this is the first step but the second one is usually looking at the real world and trying to formulate a new theory that solves the problem that we are in.
Plato suggested a rather clinical means of arriving at the solution. He said the first step after questioning should be to imagine what the ideal version of that particular aspect in question would be. What he meant was that if for example, we are questioning what is wrong with our friendship, then the first step would be to imagine what an ideal friendship would look like and then go about creating changes in the direction of achieving that version for ourselves. It is like creating a work of art that is copied from either another work of art or from imagination itself, first we look at the work that we wish to create and then work towards creating it. Plato called it as forms of reality, the ideal form.
Allegory of the Cave
There was once a group of people stuck in a cave for the entire life. For light, all they had was a single source, which would cast light and shadows on a wall in the cave. They were very well adapted to the darkness and could see quite clearly even in the darkness of the cave.
The light would cast shadows of various things, sometimes animals, sometimes of people or other things that landed by chance in front of the light. They would ponder upon the shadows and try to understand the world. Many had great theories, wrong ones due to lack of truth behind the shadows but theories none the less. They felt a sense of pride with every new theory that they came up with.
One fine day, one of the members stumbles upon a path to the outside world. He climbs his way out and sees the world for the first time, he sees the sun and the light that let him see the world. He sees colours and forms of things for the first time. His discovery leads him to a realisation that they were mistaken about the about their theories and that world is very different and that there are things more than the shadows.
Ecstatic about his discovery, he wants the others from the cave to see the world, so he decides to go back into the cave and bring them out. His eyes had adjusted to the light in the outside world and when he returns to the cave, he finds it difficult to see the world inside. So he stumbles and slips his way back to the people inside.
This man, now, seemed very dull and unimpressive to the people inside and they decide to not believe him or theories. He insists and gets declared mad to the point where the rest believe that it is better to get rid of him and decide to kill him.
Plato suggested that the people of the world are like the people in the cave, uniformed but sure about their beliefs. The outside world is lit by the light of philosophy which guides us to the true form of the world. If we rush the world into believing what a philosopher has uncovered, we risk retaliation of the worst kind, thus we must do so, very slowly and carefully. Plato had seen this first hand at the sight of the murder of his teacher, Socrates.
The Socratic Method (a.k.a. Elenchus)
Plato wrote many books, in which Socrates, his teacher, was the protagonist and he would go about meeting people and would have dialogues with them. The main motive of the dialogue would be to find the truth that the other person claimed to know. The method that these dialogues would follow came to be known as the Socratic Method.
The method came about due to the claim that Oracle of Delphi made. She said that Socrates was the wisest man in Athens, and this claim confused Socrates as he believed that he knew nothing. So in order to understand or even to debunk this claim, Socrates would go about meeting people who claimed to know various things and would start a discussion with them.
His method of discussion which came to be known as the Socratic Method was simply to take one claim of a person’s belief system and then have a discussion about the subject at hand. During the discussion, Socrates would come upon a few more facts that the person would believe in and using the new facts as the base, Socrates would conclude that the new facts imply that the original fact is not true. Thus proving that the person did not know what they claimed to know in the first place.
Yes, it’s a little confusing, let me explain with the most famous example of the Socratic Method.
Euthyphro claimed that he knew what was good and bad, so Socrates asked him how does he define good and bad? Euthyphro said that what is dear to Gods is good and what is not, is bad. To this Socrates points that Gods quarrel and disagree amongst themselves, which Euthyphro agreed to. Socrates said that this means that somethings which are dear to one God are the exact opposite to another God. But one thing cannot be good and bad simultaneously. Through this, Socrates was able to show that Euthyphro’s initial claim contradicts his other beliefs.
Coming back to the story of Oracle’s claim, Socrates went about Athens discussing things with scholars in a similar fashion and landed up proving that the scholars, in fact, did not know what they claimed to know. Thus he concluded that the Oracle was right, as others didn’t know anything but that they thought that they know while Socrates knew nothing but was aware that he knew nothing.
The Allegory of the cave tries to warn us of the poison that the society holds; many claim that Socratic method is the true form of creating an environment of change in the society, but the fact remains that Socrates himself was unable to save himself from the disastrous cave. Socrates was held guilty of poisoning the minds of the youth and was sentenced to death by hemlock for his acts. Maybe there is another form of ideal Socratic Method that even Socrates was unable to adhere to and we as a society will someday find a philosopher that can bring about the change by that method.
As Always, Thanks for Reading!