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3.3: Plato

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  • Plato (429-347 B.C.) came from a family of high status in ancient Athens. He was a friend and fan of Socrates and some of his early dialogues chronicle events in Socrates’ life. Socrates is a character in all of Plato’s dialogues. But in many, the figure of Socrates is employed as a voice for Plato’s own views. Unlike Socrates, Plato offers very developed and carefully reasoned views about a great many things. Here we will briefly introduce his core metaphysical, epistemological and ethical views.

    Metaphysics and Epistemology

    Plato’s metaphysics and epistemology are best summarized by his device of the divided line. The vertical line between the columns below distinguishes reality and knowledge. It is divided into levels that identify what in reality corresponds with specific modes of thought.

    Objects Modes of Thought
    The Forms Knowledge
    Mathematical objects Thinking
    Particular things Belief / Opinion


    Here we have a hierarchy of Modes of Thought, or types of mental representational states, with the highest being knowledge of the forms and the lowest being imaging (in the literal sense of forming images in the mind). Corresponding to these degrees of knowledge we have degrees of reality. The less real includes the physical world, and even less real, our representations of it in art. The more real we encounter as we inquire into the universal natures of the various kinds of things and processes we encounter. According to Plato, the only objects of knowledge are the forms which are abstract entities.

    In saying that the forms are abstract, we are saying that while they do exist, they do not exist in space and time. They are ideals in the sense that a form, say the form of horse-ness, is the template or paradigm of being a horse. All the physical horses partake of the form of horse-ness, but exemplify it only to partial and varying degrees of perfection. No actual triangular object is perfectly triangular, for instance. But all actual triangles have something in common, triangularity. The form of triangularity is free from all of the imperfections of the various actual instances of being triangular. We get the idea of something being more or less perfectly triangular. For various triangles to come closer to perfection than others suggests that there is some ideal standard of “perfectly triangularity.” This for Plato, is the form of triangularity. Platoalso takes moral standards like justice and aesthetic standards like beauty to admit of such degrees of perfection. Beautiful physical things all partake of the form of beauty to some degree or another. But all are imperfect in varying degrees and ways. The form of beauty, however, lacks the imperfections of its space and time bound instances. Perfect beauty is not something we can picture or imagine. But an ideal form of beauty is required to account for how beautiful things are similar and to make sense of how things can be beautiful to some less than perfect degree or another.

    Only opinion can be had regarding the physical things, events, and states of affairs we are acquainted with through our sensory experience. With physical things constantly changing, the degree to which we can grasp how things are at any given place and time is of little consequent. Knowledge of the nature of the forms is a grasp of the universal essential natures of things. It is the intellectual perception of what various things, like horses or people, have in common that makes them things of a kind. Plato accepts Socrates’ view that to know the good is to do the good. So his notion of epistemic excellence in seeking knowledge of the forms will be a central component of his conception of moral virtue.


    Plato offers us a tripartite account of the soul. The soul consists of a rational thinking element, a motivating willful element, and a desire-generating appetitive element. Plato offers a story of the rational element of the soul falling from a state of grace (knowledge of the forms) and dragged down into a human state by the unruly appetites. This story of the soul’s relation to the imperfect body supports Plato’s view that the knowledge of the forms is a kind of remembrance. This provides a convenient source of knowledge as an alternative to the merely empirical and imperfect support of our sense experience. Plato draws an analogy between his conception of the soul and a chariot drawn by two horses, one obedient, the other rebellious. The charioteer in this picture represents the rational element of the soul, the good horse the obedient will, and the bad horse, of course, represents those nasty earthly appetites. To each of the elements of the soul, there corresponds a virtue; for the rational element there is wisdom, for the willing element of the soul there is courage, and for the appetitive element there is temperance. Temperance is matter of having your appetites under control. This might sound like chronic self-denial and repression, but properly understood, it is not. Temperance and courage are cultivated through habit. In guiding our appetites by cultivating good habits, Plato holds, we can come to desire what is really good for us (you know, good diet, exercise, less cable TV, and lots more philosophy - that kind of stuff).

    Wisdom is acquired through teaching, via the dialectic, or through “remembrance.” Perhaps, to make the epistemological point a little less metaphysically loaded, we can think of remembrance as insight. A more general virtue of justice is conceived as each thing functioning as it should. To get Plato’s concept of justice as it applies to a person, think of the charioteer managing and controlling his team; keeping both horses running in the intended direction and at the intended speed. Justice involves the rational element being wise and in charge. For a person to be just is simply a matter of having the other virtues and having them functioning together harmoniously.

    Given Plato’s ethical view of virtue as a matter of the three elements of the soul functioning together as they should, Plato’s political philosophy is given in his view of the state as the human“writ at large.” Project the standards Plato offers for virtue in an individual human onto the aggregate of individuals in a society and you have Plato’s vision of the virtuous state. In the virtuous state, the rational element (the philosophers) are in charge. The willing element (the guardians or the military class) is obedient and courageous in carrying out the policies of the rational leadership. And the appetitive element (the profit-driven business class) functions within the rules and constraints devised by the rational element (for instance, by honestly adhering to standards of accounting). A temperate business class has the profit motive guided by the interests of the community via regulation devised by the most rational. The virtuous business class refrains from making its comfort and indulgence the over-riding concern of the state. Plato, in other words, would be no fan of totally free markets, but neither would he do away with the market economy altogether.

    Plato’s vision of social justice is non-egalitarian and anti-democratic. While his view would not be popular today, it is still worthwhile to consider his criticism of democracy and rule by the people. Plato has Socrates address this dialectically by asking a series of questions about who we would want to take on various jobs. Suppose we had grain and wanted it processed into flour.

    We would not go to the cobbler or the horse trainer for this, we’d go to the miller. Suppose we had a horse in need of training. We obviously would not go to the miller or the baker for this important task, we’d go to the horse trainer. In general, we want important functions to be carried out by the people with the expertise or wisdom to do them well. Now suppose we had a state to run. Obviously we would not want to turn this important task over to the miller, the cobbler, or the horse trainer. We’d want someone who knows what he or she is doing in charge. Plato has a healthy regard for expertise. As Plato sees it, democracy amounts to turning over the ethically most important jobs to the people who have the least expertise and wisdom in this area. There is very little reason to expect that a state run by cobblers, millers, and horse trainers will be a virtuous state.

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