Dr. Wren has a Platonic Idea.

Plato (inspired by his teacher Socrates, who did not write anything himself) shaped the way men and women in western cultures have understood all the "big questions" of life, including of course the question of what it means to be a human being. Why did Plato, and not some other early philosopher such as Protagoras or even Aristotle, have such an impact? My answer goes as follows (that's me on the left, by the way, with apologies to the Renaissance painter Raphael).

Plato's idea of two orders of reality, the visible order and the much more important invisible one, correspond in several remarkable ways with the Christian idea of a natural and a much more important supernatural one. Admittedly I am using the word "important" differently in each case, since Plato did not (at least not directly) think what was at stake was redemption and salvation. However, he did associate his views of what was important with a historical person, his beloved Socrates, in roughly the same way that Christians draw their inspiration from the life and teachings of Jesus Christ. I think this "personal touch" (to put it mildly!) did much to make both Platonic philosophy and Christian theology so inspiring to so many people for so many centuries.

Of course Plato and Socrates were there first, and so it requires a bit of imagination to think, as I do, that it's their resemblance to Christianity that accounts for the enduring popularity of their thought. But that's my thesis, which I offer to you with all due modesty since there are many other explanations of why Plato's writings have shaped western thought so extensively that the early 20th century philosopher and mathematician Alfred North Whitehead could make his now-famous characterization of the European intellectual tradition as "a series of footnotes to Plato." For what it's worth, some of the earliest Christian thinkers regarded Socrates and Plato as "proto-Christians" (St. Augustine did not go quite this far, but still deeply admired Socrates' ethical life). So think about it.

Socrates, Plato's Favorite Teacher (470-399 B.C.E.)Socrates bust

Socrates was born in Athens in 470 B.C.E., when the city was still living in the flush of its great victories over the Persians at Marathon and Salamis. Perhaps it was because of this collective self-confidence that the city was teeming with new ideas of all sorts, much as Italy came alive in the Renaissance era, England was most imaginative during the imperialist eras of Elizabeth and then Victoria, Vienna's greatest life was under the Habsburgs, and ... well, you fill in the rest.

The playwrights Euripides and Sophocles were still boys, and the great Athenian democrat Pericles was a young man. As a young adult Socrates watched the majestic Parthenon temple being constructed on the Acropolis, he looked forward to following in the footsteps of his father, a sculptor. As it turned out, though, it was the career of his mother, a midwife, that he identified with, declaring at the end of his life that his role as teacher was that of helping students give birth to ideas that they already had within them; his job was simply to facilitate the process.

Socrates liked to make fun of himself in many ways, but he was actually a very respectable figure. He had a classical education, sculpted some lovely statues of the Graces, served in the army, and was a magnet for the best and the brightest of Athenian youth. His noble life and death are described with great power in Plato's Apology and Phaedo, a few snippets of which are provided here. At the time of his death, Athens was no longer the ebullient city of Socrates' youth, owing largely to the disastrous wars with Sparta and internal political divisions that created the conservative backlash that led to his execution.

Plato's Writings and Other Links

It is difficult to separate Plato's ideas from those of Socrates, especially since Socrates' interaction with his students consisted entirely in conversation, not in composing books (or web pages). Plato's own writings are designed as dialogues, usually centered around the figure of Socrates. The view of most scholars is that in the early dialogues the words Plato puts into Socrates' mouth represent what Socrates actually thought, whereas in the later dialogues they represent Plato's own mature views. It is about the middle dialogues such as The Republic that scholars disagree, but most of the elements of Plato's thought that are presented in Palmer's book are probably close to though not identical with Socrates' view of human nature.

Please visit these links. An asterisk indicates they are required readings that you should examine very closely. Otherwise, just take a quick look now and come back later when you have time to relish these classic texts.

The picture at the right is a section of the famous Renaissance painter Raphael's fresco, The School of Athens, which you may recognize because it was once the background image for the Loyola Philosophy Department's amazing web page and still hangs on the wall of our departmental office, if you'd like to stop by and see it in person. The figure on the left is Plato, who is supposedly talking with his student Aristotle. Plato points to the sky, since he understands philosophy as the contemplation of eternal meanings ("the Forms"), whereas Aristotle, whose palms are facing the earth, has a more empirical, this-worldly conception of philosophy.


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