By Petros Papapostolou
Dr. of Philosophy at the University of Athens, Theologian
THE TIMELESS NECESSITY OF PLATO
Plato’s philosophy constitutes the keystone of the history of global intelligentsia. It is widely known that the thought of the Athenian philosopher (427 – 347 B.C.) emerges as a complete intellectual system, which inaugurated Idealism and has affected many generations of ponderers worldwide. During the 5th and 4th century B.C. Plato’s idealistic thought completed, unified, evolved and surpassed all the current Greek philosophical proposals (Pre-socratic, orphic and Pythagorean philosophers, as well as sophists), giving throughout his 36 books (“Platonic Dialogues”) a complete philosophic system that covered and answered a broad spectrum of codependent fields: From the superior world of Ideas, metaphysics and soul immortality, up to the structure of the state, the political psychology, the human situation, the physiology of the soul, as well as, the fields of morality, rationality, mathematics, education etc. In simple words, philosophy as a whole, and for the first time in history, is systematized and can be presented as a science through an erudite and voluminous work, which manages to embrace and analyze almost all the problems of that era, both in theory and in practice. Rational, physical and moral philosophy constitute a single whole in Plato’s work, giving to the researcher and to the average reader a solid ideological system that is founded on everlasting Ideas (the theory of Ideas), underlines the importance of Mathematics (Pythagorean origins), is based on the immortal human soul (the theory of reincarnation), is expressed by cognitive virtues (prudence, bravery, sense, justice), is manifested in the way of ruling (the ideal Republic) and constantly aims at the “human being” that is “beyond essence” and comprises the “greatest lesson” of every erotic seeker of truth (“Agathon” meaning Good).
From its birth, Plato’s thought became the base of contemplation in philosophical, scientific and/ or theological circles. After the philosopher’s death, the known Platonic Academy, founded in 387 B.C., continued his work and was the only institute of philosophy that incessantly produced ideas and brought out educators until its closure by the byzantine emperor Justinian in 529 A.D. Beyond the Academy, Plato’s thought has affected all philosophies of different eras and its principles fold back in the Middle Platonism (Plutarch, Dio Chrysostom, Theon of Smyrna, etc.), evolve in Neoplatonism (Plotinus, Porphyrios, Amelius, Proclus, Iamblichus, Damascius, etc.), and are readjusted in the theology of Great Fathers of both Eastern and Western Church (Origen, Clement of Alexandria, Athanasius the Great, Cappadocian Fathers, John of Damascus and Saint Augustine, Hieronymus, Ambrose of Milan, Tertullian respectively). It is known that the church writers of the first centuries studied Plato’s work and were influenced by it, while the great Cappadocian Fathers (Basil the Great, Gregory of Nazianzus, Gregory of Nyssa) drew upon Plato and Aristotle in order to philosophically substantiate the Orthodox doctrine against the heresies. In the West, Saint Augustine soon “christianized” Platonism (4th – 5th century). Much later Scholasticism (11th – 13th century) was significantly affected by Plato, even though, back then, philosophy was oriented towards Aristotle’s views (Thomas Aquinas, Bonaventura, Anselm of Canterbury, Peter Abelard, Albertus Magnus, John Duns Scotus, William of Ockham, etc.) During Renaissance (15th – 17th century) Plato’s philosophy – and generally the philosophy of the Greek intelligentsia – is not only determinant (Gemistus Pletho, Bessarion, etc.), but also capable of alienating European thought from obscurantism and of founding de novo the timeless values of the Greeks.
Plato constitutes the necessary mental basis for all intellectuals of modern Philosophy; from Descartes to Kant, from the great German Idealists (Hegel, Fichte, Schelling) to the romantic philhellene poets of the 19th century (Goethe, Schiller, Hölderlin). Immanuel Kant (1724 – 1804) inaugurates the so-called German Idealism, where the origins of platonic thought, – even though they were revised, modified and adjusted to his philosophic system -, are obvious and alive. This leads to passing on to the next philosophers a new intellectual guarantee, consorted with the era’s needs and capable to advance to new conquests that bear, even vaguely, the platonic thought.
Platonism, as a whole, has proven useful in all centuries. It has been prerequisite knowledge and necessary foundation for all philosophers, even the ones that didn’t adopt it. The relevant catalogue of influences is long, hence we will only refer to the philosophy of the 20th century and to the ontology of Martin Heidegger (1889 – 1976). He amended the entire metaphysics philosophy and re-examined everything preceded it by turning to the first, unrefined works of Parmenides, Heraclitus, Plato and Aristotle.
In our days, Plato is more useful than ever – even regarding his basic components that we can all understand. Nor because his historic significance is proved and indispensably interweaved with the western thought, neither because Christianity itself, as a whole, was philosophically expressed through the word of Greek philosophers and, in particular, through Plato’s work. His Idealism teaches faith to superior Ideas, supports the intellectual character of virtue, acknowledges knowledge as our unique escape from “the dark cave” of the world of images that surrounds us, seeks rulers-philosophers to govern a state properly, supports education as the base of our civilization. It deems as prerequisite the metaphysic, moral and logical significance of justice and of other values, it endeavors to found the society on firm principles and faces human soul as an immortal, divine and honorable creation. For these reasons and many others, Plato’s Idealism has to be contemporary, because it is always useful and necessary. It is those principles that are primarily timeless, classical.
Consequently, not only is it essential for all of us to know the light shades and infinite interpretations of the Platonic contemplation, but also an imperative need to turn to the general principles that rule the Platonic texts. Through our own familiarization with them, we shall enrich our world with Ideas, principles, morals and a vision for the future. In fact, several Platonic Dialogues can be read with a relative ease, being instantly accessible to non-specialists. Plato has a multifaceted way of writing; apart from his abstruse and thoughtful works (such as Timaeus, Sophist, Parmenides, Theaetetus, etc.), there are several other texts of his that can be read and impart timeless theories to modern readers (to name a few, Apology of Socrates, Symposium, Crito, etc.). Each of us, as well as our entire educational system, legislation, philology, contemporary theology, sociology, psychology, psychoanalysis and almost all the other components of modern science can draw upon Plato’s work; His spirit may have been passed, but never surpassed. Consequently, we are compelled to study Plato’s work. Not as if it were a boring text, but as a personal, jubilant experience. His word can easily cultivate virtues in our spirit and soon change our way of thinking by transforming us into an erotic seeker of knowledge, virtue and truth.
Concluding, I would like to refer back to a saying by the great mathematician and analytic philosopher, Alfred North Whitehead (1861-1947), which can summarize and praise the timelessness of Plato’s work: “The safest general characterization of the European philosophical tradition is that it consists of a series of footnotes to Plato.”