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Plato - Philosopher: On Education and Politics

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Plato - Philosopher
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The Greek philosopher Plato spent some time as a politician in Athens after finishing his military service. Unhappy with the corruption he found in the government, especially the unfair treatment of his friend and fellow philosopher Socrates, who was put on trial and condemned to death in 399 BC even though he had supported the politicians in the past, Plato turned to philosophy instead. He visited Sicily three times - the first time when he was about 40 years old and again when he was in his 60s. He met and worked with the kings of Syracuse and developed theories about what an ideal government would look like.

The troubles of mankind will never cease until either true and genuine philosophers attain political power or the rulers of states by some dispensation of providence become genuine philosophers.
- Plato, Letter VII

Hence, several of his works address the subject of politics, investigate models of government, and consider how to educate the rulers of states. Plato also founded a school (the Academy) in Athens, through which he hoped to improve the politicians of the future. The Republic is the most well known of Plato's books about politics, in which he sets out his concept of the ideal government (formed of philosopher rulers) in a dialogue led by Socrates, and compares the ideal to other models of government that were known at the time, including Athenian Democracy.

As well as founding the Academy, Plato also recorded dialogues that aimed to educate people. These included Charmides, which debates the nature of temperance or moderation, Laches, which addresses the subject of courage, and Philebus about science and the classification of things. Protagoras and Meno address the question of what can be taught and how. Cratylus considers language and examines ideas and the words used to express them, as does Euthydemus. Plato also wrote a number of books, including Gorgias and Ion, about the art of rhetoric - giving persuasive speeches about any subject, compared to the philosophical idea of giving speeches or creating dialogues that are less sophisticated in technique but aim to convey only the truth.

To add realism to his works, Plato often included a setting of the scene. For example, in the Symposium, it is made clear that the tale originated from someone who was with Socrates at the drinking party described in the book. Real people from Greek history often appeared as characters in Plato's dialogues too, such as Critias, a politician and author; Aristophanes, a comedy playwright; and Alcibiades, the infamous Athenian politician (beloved of Socrates) who also served in the governments of Athens' enemies Sparta and Persia in his desire for glory.

Plato's later works, in particular The Sophist, The Statesman and Laws, have a more technical style than earlier works, launching directly into the dialogues with little setting of the scene, and with very little (if any) involvement by Socrates, which was unusual. This possibly shows that Plato's philosophy had moved away from the ideas of Socrates, although there is also some debate about whether Plato actually wrote all of the Laws for example, as in places the style is very different from his previous works.

The Sophist and the Statesman

The Sophist is a discussion of a new style of teaching that was becoming popular in Athens. Socrates is present in the dialogue, plus Parmenides (a well known philosopher) and Theatetus (a young man), who had both had discussions with Socrates on previous occasions. The main speaker, however, is an 'Eleatic1 Stranger', who was a pupil of Parmenides and conducts a question and answer session with Theatetus. They deduce that sophists are argumentative salesmen who ask for payment in return for describing things which they do not really have knowledge of.

Like Plato's earlier work Parmenides, this book contains a critique of the history of philosophy and of Plato's own work. This evaluation may suggest that Plato recognised there were questions he had been unable to solve himself and was hoping the future of philosophy would provide the answers (if it avoided the inferior methods of the sophists).

The Statesman follows on from The Sophist2. Again the discussion is led by the Eleatic Stranger, but a young man named after Socrates, who is the gymnasium partner of Theatetus, takes on the role of answering the questions. The Stranger uses the methods of The Sophist - through classification of things, he sets out how to identify statesmen. It is deduced that statesmen are shepherds, not much different from the people they rule over, but with the ability to see what should be done to benefit the state. Much like The Republic, this work considers forms of government and the 'art of law', but it also has a focus on rhetoric. The main theme is the weaving together of people with different characteristics to create a government that will carry out plenty of action that has been well thought through (since courageous people could act without thinking, whereas moderate people could be reluctant to act even if they have developed a sound plan).

The Laws

The Laws is a long work, divided into 12 books. It is a dialogue between an Athenian, a Spartan and a Cretan and considers the differences between the laws and customs of each of their countries, comparing them with Egypt and Persia as well. The Athenian then imagines he is a lawgiver, and sets out the laws he would make his citizens obey in order to create a well-functioning state. He discusses every aspect of life, including families, education, travel, trade and crime. As in The Statesman, the idea is that opposite natures should be woven together in order to create moderation and stability. His people would be entitled to a private life, but if they were indiscreet and were discovered to be doing 'unnatural' things, including same-sex love between consenting adults, then they would be punished. 'Platonic' love was encouraged, though, as it could give rise to creativity that would be beneficial to the state.

The Laws is more practical than The Republic, and considers how the real world might be improved, rather than just imagining an unrealistic but ideal state. Overall, though, the Athenian describes the dialogue and his speech as just 'an old man's game of play'.

1The Eleatics were members of a school of philosophy founded by Parmenides in Elea, Southern Italy. The most famous Eleatic was Zeno.2It is mentioned during the discussion that the Stranger plans to define the Sophist, the Statesman and the Philosopher, so there should have been a third work, The Philosopher. This final work was never written.

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