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Few individuals have influenced the world and many of today’s thinkers like Plato. One 20th century philosopher even went so far as to describe all of Western philosophy as a series of footnotes to Plato. He created the first Western university and was teacher to Ancient Greece’s greatest minds, including Aristotle. But even one of the founders of philosophy wasn’t perfect. Along with his great ideas, Plato had a few that haven’t exactly stood the test of time.
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So here are brief rundowns of a few of his best and worst ideas. Plato argued that beyond our imperfect world was a perfect unchanging world of Forms. Forms are the ideal versions of the things and concepts we see around us.
They serve as a sort of instruction manual to our own world. Floating around the world of Forms is the ideal tree, and the ideal YouTube channel, and even the ideal justice, or ideal love.
Our own reality is comprised of imperfect copies of ideal Forms. Plato argued that philosophers should strive to contemplate
and understand these perfect Forms so that they may better navigate our misleading reality. While it may seem silly, the disconnect between the world as it appears and the greater truth behind it is one of philosophy’s most vexing problems. It’s been the subject of thousands of pages by theologians, philosophers, and screenwriters alike.
It raises questions like should we trust our senses to come to the truth
or our own reason? For Plato, the answer is reason. It alone provides us with at least the potential to contemplate the Forms. But reason didn’t always pan out for Plato himself. When he sought to situate humankind amongst the animals, he lumped us in with birds. “Featherless bipeds” was his official designation. Diogenes the Cynic, annoyed by this definition, stormed into Plato’s class with a plucked chicken, announcing, “Behold. Plato’s man.”
But back to a few good ideas. Plato is one of the earliest political theorists on record, and with Aristotle, is seen as one of the founders of political science. He reasoned that being a ruler was no different than any other craft, whether a potter or doctor, and that only those who had mastered he craft were fit to lead. Ruling was the craft of contemplating the Forms. In his Republic, Plato imagined a utopia where justice is the ultimate goal. Plato’s ideal city seeks a harmonious balance between its individual parts and should be lead by a philosopher king.
Millennia before his time, Plato also reasoned that women were equally able to rule in this model city. Unfortunately, Plato was inconsistent with women, elsewhere likening them to children.
He also believed that a woman’s womb was a live animal that could wander around in her body
and cause illness. This bad idea, also espoused by other contemporaries of Plato, was sadly influential for hundreds of years in European medicine. Furthermore, he thought that society should be divided into three groups: producers, the military, and the rulers, and that a great noble lie should convince everyone to follow this structure. The noble lie he proposed was that we’re all born with gold, silver, or a mixture of brass and iron in our souls, which determine our roles in life. Some thinkers have gone on
to credit the idea of the noble lie as a prototype for 20th century
Through the centuries, we’ve had the chance to test those ideas through writing and experience, and have accepted some while rejecting others.
We are continuing to refine, amend, and edit his ideas.