The Axial Age
Plato (428 - 347 BCE)
He was an aristocrat, his mother was descended from Solon, and father from the last king of Athens, Codrus. Unlike his mentor Socrates, Plato was a prolific writer as well as a teacher. A devoted pupil of Socrates, three of his early dialogues – The Apology, Crito, and Euthyphron – plus the later Phaedo are devoted to the trial, prison days, and ultimate death of his teacher.
After the death of Socrates, Plato, disillusioned with political life, traveled in Egypt and Italy for approximately ten years. He made contact with the followers of Pythagoras whose understanding that numbers and geometric forms provided a way in which to understand reality, stimulated his own Theory of Ideas (of Forms).
In 387 BCE Plato founded the Academy in Athens which lasted in one form or another for nine-hundred years until 527 AD. Plato and other teachers instructed students from all over the Greek world in metaphysics, epistemology, ethics, politics, natural and mathematical sciences. Although the Academy was not meant to prepare students for any sort of profession, members of the Academy were invited by various cities to aid in the development of their new constitutions.
Around 390 BCE Plato is thought to have written The Republic. He did this in part to challenge the prevailing attitudes of the Sophists, the hired teachers that instructed the sons of Athens at this time and who were teaching a subjective morality that went something like this: whatever is to one’s advantage should be engaged in, and whatever is not, should be avoided. They considered any other morality a mere convention, insisting that the strong have advantage over the weak, and concepts of objective justice or objective truth were merely the products of propaganda and the tools of oppressors.
Perhaps the most famous extract from Plato’s work is in Book VII of The Republic, where he describes his ideas in the form of an allegory. In a dialogue between Socrates and a student named Glaucon, The Allegory of the Cave, provides a poignant image of human beings who, although ignorant of their condition, are, since childhood, imprisoned in a cave, chained and able only to face straight ahead. Unable to move, in that position they can see only the shadows of what is behind them reflected on the cave walls in front, and can hear only echoes of real voices. Knowing nothing else, these shadows and echoes seem to them to be real, as appearances are real to us.
Towards the end of the allegory, Plato refers to the demise of his old master when, as Socrates, he asks us to consider what it might be like if someone who had seen reality came back down into the cave. What, he asks, would the people think of him? He would inevitably be misunderstood and would become a laughing stock. If, in addition, he tried to set the captive men free and take them to the light, “if they could somehow get their hands on him and kill him, wouldn’t they do just that?” Glaucon agrees that they would.
Then Plato, as Socrates, further reveals the meaning of this allegory and his own philosophical understanding: “That is the picture then my dear Glaucon, and it fits what we were talking about earlier in its entirety. The region revealed to us by sight is the prison dwelling and the light of the fire inside the dwelling is the power of the sun. If you identify the upward path and the view of things above with the ascent of the soul to the realm of understanding, then you will have caught my drift, my surmise, which is what you wanted to hear. Whether it is really true, perhaps only God knows. My own view, for what it is worth, is that in the realm of what can be known the thing seen last and seen with great difficulty is the form, or character of the good. But when it is seen, the conclusion must be that it turns out to be the cause of all that is right and good for everything. In the realm of sight it produces light and light’s sovereign, the sun, while in the realm of thought it is itself sovereign producing truth and reason unassisted. I further believe that anyone who’s going to act wisely either in private life or in public life must have had a sight of this form of the good.”
The world revealed by our senses is not the real world but only a poor copy of it. The real world can only be apprehended through the effort of rational thought. Justice was rational, and people needed to be brought up in a society governed by reason. Enlightened individuals, in Plato’s view, had an obligation to the rest of society to serve it. Society in order to be good should be ruled by them – the truly wise Philosopher-Kings.
“We should keep our seriousness for serious things and not waste it on trifles, and … while God is the real goal of all beneficent serious endeavor, man … has been constructed as a toy for God, and this is, in fact the finest thing about him. All of us, then, men and women alike, must fall in with our role and spend life in making our play as perfect as possible.”
The Laws by Plato
Axial Age Greece was approaching its end, unlike the teachings of typical Axial teachers, Plato’s utopian city was elitist and lacked compassion. He argued that all conventional political systems were inherently corrupt, and therefore the state ought to be governed by an elite class of educated philosopher-rulers, who would be trained from birth and selected on the basis of aptitude.
Always seeking a practical application of his ideals, he identified justice as presiding in the structure of this ideal city where its functions are implemented through specialization: everyone does what he is best fitted to do and you have a just city. Similarly in the individual – in a just soul, there is a correct balance between the parts: the rational part must rule and dictate the overall aims of the human being, the emotional part must enforce the rational parts convictions, and the appetitive part must obey.
Plato claimed that since our experiences were unreal compared with the world of the Forms, people should devote themselves to understanding the reality of the Forms which they could do if they applied themselves, through discipline and rational thought. He disapproved of poetry, music and theatre, which were part of traditional Greek education, because these things aroused irrational emotions and encouraged people to give in to them; they encouraged immoderation and sympathy, both of which were incompatible with virtue in Plato’s view. Life was sometimes miserable, but it was not real, and it was only possible to ascend to the real world through self-controlled, disciplined and rational behavior.
“At the beginning of his philosophical quest, Plato had been horrified by the execution of Socrates, who had been put to death for teaching false religious ideas. At the end of his life, he advocated the death penalty for those who did not share his view. Plato’s vision had soured. It had become coercive, intolerant, and punitive. He sought to impose virtue from without, distrusted the compassionate impulse, and made his philosophical religion wholly intellectual. The Axial Age in Greece would make marvelous contributions to mathematics, dialectics, medicine, and science, but it was moving away from Spirituality.”
The Great Transformation by Karen Armstrong, (p 387).
For a reading of The Allegory of the Cave, go to www.youtube.com/watch?v=d2afuTvUzBQ
Plato’s Academy would eventually become the model for the Western university.