The Sources of Plato’s Opinions-Russell’s History of Western Philosophy, chapter by chapter- (13)

This is a short post, and in it Russell outlines the areas of Plato he is going to discuss, whilst also explaining the thoughts which influenced Plato’s personal philosophy.

He tells us that Plato was born 428/7 BCE in the early years of the Peloponnesian war. He came from an aristocratic family and despised democracy. There were two main reasons for this, the first of which is that he attributed democracy as being the cause of the downfall of Athens. Secondly, he was devoted to Socrates, and blamed his execution on democracy.

His personal antidote to the democratic system of Athens was to be drawn from Sparta. He believed in the system of kings, ephors, and councils, but believed in far less democracy. He was an eloquent writer, and exercised his writing skills to dress some rather oppressive ideas up as liberal ideas. Russell accuses readers of Plato of defending him because of the fame of his name and the finesse of his writing, not because of the fairness of his ideas.

Plato has four main influences-

  1. Pythagoras. From him he kept the Orphic tradition of religion, and a reverence for numbers and logic.
  2. Parmenides. From him he retained the idea that there was something permanent beyond our perceptions of nature.
  3. Heraclitus. From Heraclitus he borrowed the idea that there was no permanence in the sensible world, and therefore we should use logic, not our senses, to arrive at conclusions.
  4. Socrates. From his teacher he developed an interest in the idea of the good, and wrote much ethical philosophy in the vein of Socrates’ inquiry.

Plato’s politics lined up with his metaphysical ideas. Since he believed that what is purely good was an abstract ideal beyond the perceivable world, he attempted to discover this and design a state based on these values. The perfect state, he believed, was built on eternal values, not earthly values. He believed that rulers should therefore have a great understanding of metaphysics and mathematics since ideas of good in the eternal sense could be arrived at through logical and geometrical proofs (a la Pythagoras).

Plato believed, like Socrates, that nobody sins knowingly. Bad, then, is a product of ignorance, which can be defeated through a study of philosophy. Through this ideology, he arrived at the idea that the rulers of states should be philosopher kings. An idea he would explore at great length in Republic.

In the next five posts, we will look at Plato’s

  1. Idea of Utopia.
  2. Theory of ideas.
  3. Theory of immortality of soul.
  4. Cosmogony.
  5. Theory of knowledge.

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To read the other posts in this series, click HERE

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