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PLATO: The Man

Plato (429?–347 B.C.E.) is often regarded as one of the most brilliant writers in the Western literary tradition, as well as one of the most perceptive, wide-ranging, and influential philosophers ever. He is an Athenian citizen of high status who displays his absorption in the political events and intellectual movements of his time in his works, but the questions he raises are so profound and the strategies he uses to address them so richly suggestive and provocative that he has influenced educated readers of nearly every period in some way, and there have been philosophers who count themselves Platonists in some important respects in almost every age. He wasn't the first person to use the term "philosopher" to describe a thinker or writer. Only Aristotle (who studied with him), Aquinas, and Kant are widely considered to be of comparable depth and range in the history of Western philosophy. 

Many people link Plato with a few key tenets that he espouses in his writings: The world as it seems to our senses is flawed and full of errors, but there is a more genuine and flawless realm, populated by everlasting, changeless beings (called "forms" or "ideas") that are responsible for the structure and character of the world as it appears to our senses. Goodness, beauty, equality, bigness, similarity, unity, being, sameness, difference, change, and changelessness are among the most important of these abstract objects (as they are now called because they are not located in space or time). (Those who write about Plato frequently capitalise these terms—"goodness," "beauty," and so on—to emphasise their exalted status; similarly, "Forms" and "Ideas" are capitalised.) In Plato's philosophy, the most fundamental distinction is between the many observable objects that appear beautiful (good, just, unified, equal, big) and the one object that is what beauty (goodness, justice, unity) truly is, from which those many beautiful (good, just, unified, equal, big) things receive their names and corresponding characteristics. Almost all of Plato's major works are devoted to or rely on this distinction in some way. Many of them consider the ethical and practical implications of this divided conception of reality. We are encouraged to change our values by recognising the greater truth of forms and the flaws of the corporeal world. We must understand that the soul is a distinct object from the body, in the sense that it does not rely on the body's existence for its functioning and, in fact, can grasp the nature of forms considerably more easily when it is not bound by anything physical. We are told in a couple of Plato's books that the soul retains the ability to remember what it formerly grasped of the forms.

when it was disembodied prior to its possessor's birth (see, for example, Meno), and that our lives are to some extent a punishment or reward for decisions we made in a former life (see especially the final pages of Republic). However, it is asserted or assumed in many of Plato's writings that true philosophers—those who recognise the importance of distinguishing the one (what goodness, virtue, or courage is) from the many (what is called good, virtuous, or courageous)—are in a position to become ethically superior to unenlightened human beings due to the greater degree of insight they can acquire.
We must explore the form of good to understand which things are good and why they are good (and how can we become good if we aren't interested in such questions?).

Although these premises are frequently recognised by Plato's readers as being at the heart of his philosophy, many of his biggest supporters and students point out that few, if any, of his writings can truly be defined as simple advocacy of a set of ideas. Even those beliefs that are being advocated for our attention are frequently met with discontent and puzzlement in Plato's works. The forms are sometimes referred to as hypotheses, for example (see for example Phaedo). The essence of good, in instance, is portrayed as a mystery, whose true nature is elusive and as yet unknown to anyone (Republic).

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