Plato and the legacy of Socrates

Plato and the legacy of Socrates Roman copy of a bust of Plato, originally found in Smyrna. Athens 427 BC - 347 BC (Louvre, Paris)

Born in 427 BC, Plato fled Athens in 399 BC after Socrates was executed, blaming democracy and the Peloponnesian War for his teacher's death. An aristocrat and an elitist, much of what we know about Socrates is based on the writings of Plato, who uses Socrates as a character in many of his writings.

Like Socrates, Plato remained convinced there were such things as absolute goodness, beauty and truth. He believed the soul was eternal, and all knowledge was just a remembering of things the soul knew before birth. For Plato the changing world was really just an illusion that hid a higher reality of unchanging ideas. In order to explain this view he wrote the parable of the cave. In it men sit around a fire watching shadows of the outside fall on a cave wall. So absorbed are they in watching this reflection that they mistake this shadow play for the real world, unaware that if they only turned around the true world would be revealed to them.

In other respects Plato differed from Socrates. Where Socrates emphasized individual people examining their lives and actions, Plato broadened his intellectual inquiries to include institutions and social organizations. His book The Republic is one of the earliest and most influential books of political theory ever written.

With such a broad range of writings on numerous subjects, it is sometimes said that all western philosophy 'but a footnote' to Plato. He died in 347 BC.

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