Plato was Socrates’ disciple and recorded most of what we know about his master. Plato is best known for defining truth as existing in universal forms. Thus, he was painted by Raphael in The School of Athens with finger pointing up to the abstract forms. Of even greater impact was his model for a communist tyranny in The Republic. Philosopher-kings rule by virtue of superior knowledge of the forms
Who was Plato? Plato (427-347 B.C.) was the pupil of Socrates and his main biographer. The last 50 years of his life he spent in philosophical study with students at his “pleasure-grove” or Academe near Athens. Plato is perhaps best known for his theory of the “forms.” He considered abstract math to be the highest expression of truth. And so, he inscribed these words over the Academe portal: “Let no one ignorant of mathematics enter here.” A student once asked about the practical value of the math theorems he had to learn. “What is to be gained from them?” he demanded. Plato told his servant to “Give this young man an obol [a small coin] that he may feel that he has gained something from my teachings, and then expel him.” Plato believed only those who excelled in philosophy were equipped to govern. “Until philosophers are kings, or the kings and princes of this world have the spirit and power of philosophy,” he said, “…then only will this our State have a possibility of life and behold the light of day” (6).
Historical context. Plato wrote during a period of decline in the Greek golden age of culture and politics. This came near the end of the Peloponnesian War. The general debauchery was reflected in Plato’s same-sex relations with his students. This was practiced as the highest form of student-teacher intimacy.
Summary of Plato’s teaching. A philosopher is a “lover of wisdom.” Two basic concerns of philosophy are ontology (theory of being) and epistemology (theory of knowledge). Plato’s epistemology held that the essence of reality consists of “ideas” or “forms.” These exist independent of the material universe. Material objects are only symbols or shadows of the forms. This is called “Realism”, depicted in Plato’s famous cave metaphor. Men shackled in a cave could see reality only in shadows cast on the rock wall. Plato’s focus on the “forms” was depicted in Raphael’s Renaissance portrait of “The School of Athens.” Plato is painted with finger pointed up to the transcendent forms. Aristotle points down to the material particulars. Plato was critical of such art in his own day. He considered it a further step away from the reality of the “forms.”
Implications for subsequent history. The Oxford Dictionary defines “dualism” as “the theory that in any domain of reality there are two independent, underlying principles.” Platonism tends to a dualistic view of reality where only the “spiritual” is worthy. The physical is profane. The early church fathers were attracted to Platonism. In the 3rd century, Plotinus carried Plato to his logical extreme in the doctrine of Neo-Platonism. Here the material world — rather than sin — was defined as the source of evil. In the early middle ages, this fostered a monastic outlook on life. The most spiritual withdrew from the world and its temptations into cloisters. The world was thus left to go its own way apart from God. Monasticism, per se, has declined, but the monastic (pietistic) outlook has plagued the church to the present day. The calling of the church leader is more “spiritual” than that of the “secular” laity. The latter are held to be concerned only with the mundane affairs of this world.
Following in the footsteps of his mentor, Socrates, Plato said the cause of immorality was ignorance. Thus, Plato paved the way for tyranny in later ages. He taught that the state has an obligation to “take possession of their children” for education. Then “they will be unaffected by the habits of their parents” (Republic, VII, 540-541). Many tyrants have used this idea to justify their harsh rule with government paid education.
Biblical analysis. The Bible reminds man often of the primacy of the invisible spiritual world. But it does not downplay the material universe. Matter is of course part of the creation of God, which He called “very good.” God’s pleasure in the material universe was further validated by the incarnation of the Son of God. He was sent to redeem the entire creation, not just the souls of men, back to Himself. The best Bible critique of Platonism is found in Romans 1:22, 24. “Professing themselves to be wise they became fools,” said Paul, “Wherefore God also gave them up to uncleanness through the lusts of their own hearts, to dishonor their own bodies between themselves.” The knowledge of God is clearly recorded in the works of creation and the Bible. When men reject this God gives them up to vain thinking and immoral practice.
The culture mandate requires taking an active, biblical stance toward the environment. Government education leaves men passive and subject to manipulation by the despot, philosopher-kings. For example, Nebuch- adnezzar sought to teach Daniel all the wisdom of the Babylonians. Daniel remained faithful to God because of his previous immersion in biblical truth.
Corrective or prescriptive actions. The Bible makes the salvation of man’s soul first priority. However, it has much to say about man in his current condition. Man is a material creature in a material universe. Man is called to subdue the world for God and rule it in terms of His law. Law must be derived not from philosophical guess work, but from the Word of God. Plato proposed a self-contained city-state. It would be man’s all sufficient caretaker with power over life and death (e.g., abortion) and teaching for state purposes. This idea must be rejected in favor of the rule of God in all things, material and spiritual.