The direction in which education starts a man will determine his future in life. – Plato
So we might understand the importance of Socrates and Confucius, but what about Plato? Why should we know about Plato? Wasn’t he just a student of Socrates who wrote things down? Right place, right time, end of the story. Well, no. It isn’t easy to separate the voice Socrates from Plato in Plato’s dialogues. But once separated, the importance of Plato’s well-defined thought and philosophy becomes very clear. So we can’t leave Plato behind, not today or any day for that matter.
Plato (427-347 BC) was a student of Socrates, and it’s through him detailing many of the dialogues of Socrates that historians get most of their knowledge of Socrates. There is much debate to the voice of Socrates or Plato in dialogues, but there is a consensus that later writings are attributable to Plato’s thought. Much like Socrates, Plato was interested in the individual and morality. Unlike Socrates, he expanded his scope with interests in politics and society. Plato’s volume, a Socratic dialogue focused on politics, titled The Republic, is his most enduring work.
In The Republic, Plato stressed the importance of ideals and truth. These perfect ideals and truths can be found in the forms. The forms can be defined as an ideal form of an object or concept (e.g., a flower or justice), which is located in the perfect and pure world of the forms, which is not our world. The contemplation of these forms is the goal of philosophy. The ideal ruler of a city-state, according to Plato, would be a philosopher-king who would have a greater understanding of the forms of the city-state, including notions of justice and equality, then the typical ruler. The philosopher-king would also lead the polis to a better understanding of the ideal forms of politics, where the individuals of the city-state would place the welfare of the polis above their well-being and the creation of a perfect society.
With the forms, Plato also developed an understanding of human ethics and morality in which every individual was trying to reach for a higher, purer, and almost spiritual truth that will enlighten our lives and transform the world around us. Of course, this type of thinking has made Plato a significant transcendent reference point of mysticism and religious belief in the Western tradition, including Plotinus and Saint Augustine. His writings on the forms have also influenced many other artists, musicians, writers, philosophers, and theologians over the past 2400+ years.
Plato’s influence extended well beyond his writing when he opened an educational center for young men to learn and discuss philosophy, called the Academy. In this setting, he taught Aristotle, who would later become just as influential to Western tradition but in a different direction. Plato was focused on understanding through contemplation, while Aristotle was valued observation and experience. It is the classic dichotomy of the liberal arts and the sciences that will continue throughout Western educational thought into the 21st century. This importance of this tension is very well analyzed in the text, The Cave and the Light: Plato Versus Aristotle and the Struggle for the Soul of Western Civilization by Arthur Herman.
Although the Academy would be destroyed the Romans in 86 BC, its legacy would continue. It was the first place where scholars gathered to debate, discuss, and teach about the world. Platonism taught at the Academy would influence later Neoplatonism, which had a significant impact on Christian theological thinking. The concepts of Platonism and Neoplatonism also later influenced the development of science and philosophy in the late Medieval period in Europe. This led to the eventual development of universities, like the University of Paris, Oxford, and Cambridge. The Academy was a model of debate, teaching, and learning at these and other universities in Europe during the Middle Ages, having a profound impact on the West. More on these developments can be found in A Legacy in Learning: A History of Western Education or The Wandering Scholars of the Middle Ages.
Thus, Plato is essential to an understanding of Western culture philosophically, educationally, and theologically. You can move forward without Plato.
Below is an excellent clip of Plato’s best (and worst) ideas from TED-Ed. It is a great clip and well worth the watch!