Following on from last week’s Friday Philosophy post about Socrates, this week we continue our series looking at the big ideas of influential philosophers with Plato. A student of Socrates and founder of what may have been the first school of philosophy, the Academy, Plato is perhaps the most influential Western philosopher of all time.
Who Was He?
Plato lived in ancient Greece between 427–347 BC. Unlike many of the philosophers that preceded him, Plato left a large body of written works that we still have today, although the authorship of some remains in question. Perhaps Plato’s most famous work is The Republic in which he outlines the way the ideal state might operate. He composed many dialogues, including for example Phaedo, Meno, and Crito, in which he utilises the dialectic as a method of philosophical inquiry.
What’s the Big Idea?
Perhaps the most famous of Plato’s many influential ideas is that of the realm of forms. Plato believed that only that which is unchanging and eternal is real, and reasoned that while the phenomena we experience through the senses are fleeting and subject to change, behind every object or idea there must be an eternal form. So, for instance, the reason why we can conceive of a dog is that even though every dog is different, there exists within the realm of forms the ideal form of a dog, which is why we are all able to recognise a dog when we see one.
Plato’s theory of forms is significant as it makes us think deeply about why we are prone to categorise individual things into groups. There must be a reason why human beings are able to look at a thousand different beds, and recognise each one as a bed. My own theory as to why we have this ability is that a God exists who is working in our bodies and minds as we perceive things. The reason something makes sense to me is because of an impression in my conscious awareness that God has brought about in that moment.
In theory, I believe it would be possible for me to look at a dog and think ‘cat’, if God were to create that particular impression in my awareness. So while Plato believed objects have meaning because they share in an abstract realm of forms, I believe meaning is a manifestation of a God who enjoys order and likes to impress on our minds ideas about His creation with regularity.
We can note from our dreams, where sometimes the rules of nature and meaning are different, that things in our world don’t have to be the way they are. It’s all dependent on the will of God, who works in our minds to create certain thoughts and ideas in this single eternal moment, of which He is in sovereign control.
Next Friday we’ll be looking at a big idea by Aristotle, who was a student of Plato and would prove to be a huge influence on Christian thought, particularly in the Roman Catholic tradition. To receive an email when that post is published, consider subscribing. Thank you for reading!