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 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
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.
Have you taken the
assessment quiz for this chapter?
Have you called your parents this week?
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