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Plato's Blog

Plato's Blog

Previously: Socrates

In our last newsletter we looked at Socrates. We learned how Socrates' great contribution to philosophy was to challenge us all to think more deeply about what we mean when we use moral words; what does it MEAN to say, Justice, Fairness, Equality and Friend.

Socrates said that if you do not have a clear understanding of the meaning of these kinds of words, then when you use these words, you use them in the same way a parrot speaks. A parrot can speak, but he has no idea of his meaning and therefore the parrot is not wise.

Simply mouthing wise words, without fully understanding their true meaning is not wisdom.

Socrates made the point vivid by finding then-famous Athenian politicians and exposing their lack of understanding: He would ask them to define what they meant by, say, Justice, and by careful cross examination Socrates revealed that they had no clear definitions in mind. They were using language as a parrot does. The Politicians used language in the form of mere catch phrases and buzz words, but had no deep conception of moral concepts.

Socrates said that if you wanted to be wise, you must gain conceptual knowledge; and be able to define your terms and be able to defend your ideas against hostile cross examination and questioning. Otherwise, you are not wise. He summed this point up with one sentence.

An unexamined life is not worth living.

Socrates was Plato's teacher and when Socrates died, Plato continued his philosophical thinking and became the founder of philosophy, as such. It was Plato who created and defined the field of philosophy, as a distinct discipline, as apart from mathematics or biology or astronomy etc.

Plato was the first one to define the subject of philosophy and was the first one to write an integrated philosophy with a fully worked out system in all branches.

Before Plato, Philosophy did not exist as an intellectual field on its own. Plato set the terms for the field by laying down the parameters of the subject, in the following terms.

Philosophy is composed of the following subsets:

  1. Theology: the study of god, or the gods, and mankind's relationship with Him, (them).
  2. Metaphysics: the study of the material universe as a whole: what is the nature of reality?
  3. Knowledge: How do we gain knowledge of reality and how do you know that what you think is true, actually is true.
  4. What is the Nature of Mankind: What kind of being is Man. Does he have a soul? If yes, what is the nature of his soul?
  5. Ethics. What is morally right and wrong behaviour? How should you live? How should you treat others? What should be the purpose of your life?
  6. Politics: who should rule? How should they rule?

In this blog we cannot possibly cover the whole of Plato's philosophy. So, I want to restrict myself to his most important idea: which is his theory that we are born with innate ideas.

To understand what Plato means, you must first understand that Plato was religious. He believed in the wheel of birth: meaning that you live, you die, your spirit survives death and you are reborn in another body. All that business. There are many people, even today, who believe that we are spiritual beings, and the spirit survives death. And many people, even today, believe in reincarnation.

Plato believed in reincarnation too.

Plato believed that, when you were born, knowledge of everything was inside you. He thought that you were born with unconscious knowledge relating to every class of thing, and every idea.

These ideas are innate at birth. Just like a spider is born with the knowledge of how to spin a web, so are we born with innate ideas.

But at birth the ideas are inaccessible to you. Education is the act of revealing to you what you already know, on a deeper level.

In fact, even the word education means "to draw out"; which implies that a person already has the knowledge, and that education is about drawing out the innate knowledge that is buried in the mind of the student.

According to Plato then, you educate yourself, not by looking out at the world, but rather by looking inwards, into your own mind, and thinking.

According to Plato, you don't need to observe reality to learn: Instead, to learn, you need to sit in a dark room and contemplate.

Your goal as a thinker is to introspect and uncover the ideas that are in your mind.

The called this type of Innate ideas, "The Forms".

In another realm, before you were born, you gain knowledge of all the Forms. The forms are spiritual archetypes of everything that exists. The forms are perfect, idealised forms. There is the form the perfect man. There is the form of the perfect woman. There is the form of the perfect banana. There is the form of the perfect horse. There is the form of the perfect circle. There is the form of the perfect government.

Education is the act of recovering knowledge of the perfect forms.

If you are a man, once you understand what is the form of the perfect man, then you should act to emulate the perfect man.

If you are a woman, then your job is to understand what is the perfect form of woman, then you should strive to become as close as you can to the perfect form.

Knowledge is knowledge of perfect, abstract forms.

In this world, you won't find the perfect man. But in your mind you can see him.

Perfection is attainable in the mind, and education is learning about theoretical perfect forms and then try to emulate them here on this imperfect world.

The ultimate knowledge is to gain knowledge of "The form of THE GOOD".

Plato's abstract perfect "FORM of the GOOD" was the apex of all knowledge. If you understood, the true nature of the form of the Good, then you would have gained wisdom.

But in order to gain that knowledge, you must shun exposure to this world and must instead closet yourself away and sit and think. Introspect.

Don't get your hands dirty. Don't work manually. Intellectuals are supposed to be pure. They are not interested in facts, they are interested in abstract theory that is superior to mere this worldly facts.

To be a Platonist is to be a thinker without sullying it with action.

So platonic love is love without sex. Platonic love is mind love. Not body love.

The main thing to remember about Plato's theory of knowledge is:
knowledge is innate.

It consists of abstract forms.

Knowledge is gained by quiet contemplation.

Knowledge is not gained by observation and experiment.

Plato summed up this theory in one sentence.

Learning is remembering.

Plato's theory still influences schools. We still talk about drawing out the child's innate abilities.

Question: to what degree do you think learning is about drawing out innate abilities?

And to what degree is education about pouring knowledge into the person.

Aristotle, who we will cover next time, thought Plato was wrong. He did not think you can gain knowledge without experience. He thought we were born Tabula rasa which means, Blank slate. And that education was the act of putting knowledge into the mind, not trying to draw it out.

We will look at Aristotle's ideas next time......

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About the Author: Chris Farmer


Chris Farmer is the founder of the Corporate Coach Group and has many years’ experience in training leaders and managers, in both the public and private sectors, to achieve their organisational goals, especially during tough economic times. He is also well aware of the disciplines and problems associated with running a business.

Over the years, Chris has designed and delivered thousands of training programmes and has coached and motivated many management teams, groups and individuals. His training programmes are both structured and clear, designed to help delegates organise their thinking and, wherever necessary, to improve their techniques and skills.

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