Plato (430-347 B.C.)

Plato was a student of Socrates. Plato used Socrates as the protagonist of all but one of his dialogues. Socrates died for his beliefs. The Athenian government convicted him of heresy and corrupting the young, even though Socrates denied the charges. He was given the choice of leaving Athens forever and promising to never again teach his views to others or death by drinking hemlock. He chose death over living a life which would violate his beliefs. Socrates’ death had a tremendous impact on Plato.

Plato believed that true reality is not found through the senses. Phenomenon is that perception of an object which we recognize through our senses. Plato believed that phenomena are fragile and weak forms of reality. They do not represent an object’s true essence. The senses are not trustworthy. Plato believed that there was a higher realm of existence accessible only through using your intellect to go beyond your senses.

The universal forms exist in this higher realm. A universal is an abstract term or object which ranges over particular things, such as the concepts large, chair, and green. We can sense objects which exhibit these universals. Plato referred to universals as forms and believed that the forms were true reality. Through developing our intellect, we can attempt to gain greater understanding of reality. This helps us act in ways that are closer to the ideal.

Plato argues that the soul is a universal, pure, one substance, unchanging, immortal. The body is a compound substance, ever changing, and mortal. The body interfere’s with the soul’s ability to sense reality. Furthermore, this means that the soul must survive death and exist prior to birth, like any other universal. Our difficulty is being able to get beyond our sense so that we can realize this prior to the death of our bodies. The true philosopher should never fear death because the soul is freed from the handicap of the body and joins other invisible, pure, beings untainted by the body, able to bask in pure reality.

The myth of the cave:

In this allegory, people are chained from birth in a cave where they see nothing but shadows created by others. Plato asks us to imagine how those who are chained can learn about and come to accept true reality. This story illustrates Plato’s theory of knowledge, truth and education.

People chained in the cave = Those who, knowing no better and having no opportunity to know better, accept phenomenon as reality. What they perceive, they interpret as real.

How can they know better? Someone must free them and force them to learn. It will be painful and distressing. This must be accomplished gradually. Finally they will be able to see the sun (source of true reality) thereby gaining understanding of what is actually real and putting their previous life into perspective. They would pity those still left in the darkness. They would not want to return to their previous existence. They are happier now.

However, they must return, even though it is risky. Those who are ignorant are liable to think them mad or deceptive. Those who profit from the ignorance of the masses will not welcome their efforts. The enlightened realize that no one can make this journey alone. Each of them would still be in the darkness if someone who understood reality did not make the effort and take the risk to free and help them to leave the cave and learn the truth. Therefore, in order to increase the world’s happiness and to repay their debt to those who helped them, those who attain understanding must return to the cave to try to help those still in the dark.

Plato’s View of the Just Society and the Soul

According to Plato, justice in the State and justice in the individual are similar. Each are divided into three parts, with justice being when each does what is proper for it, without interfering with the business of the other two.

Three parts:


3 Parts of the State 3 Parts of the Soul Job Realms Essential Virtue
Traders Appetite Goods & Services Temperance (moderation)
Auxiliaries (police & military) Passion Protection Courage
Guardians/Counsellors (rulers) Reason Governance Wisdom


While all three aspects of the soul/State are necessary, Plato clearly thinks that reason/Guardians need to have tight control over the other two aspects of the soul/state.