Plato (428 BC-348 BC) was an Athenian nobleman who sacrificed his life to discover justice (dikaiosuné) and ideal type of state through philosophy. Philosophy is a Greek word, which means the “love of knowledge”. In Plato’s epoch, many Greek polis (cities) were administrated with radical or direct democracy, a type of government system in which all male citizens were coming together in large public squares to discuss and decide on specific policies by raising their hands. Especially Athenian polis was a center of science, democracy and welfare at this epoch. However, this radical democracy was in elitist nature and only available for some groups in the society. In addition, there were problems like corruption and the transformation of democracy into despotism. Plato, who is also known as the founder of the Academy, was a student of famous Socrates who died in the hands of Athenian democracy. Plato learned a lot from Socrates, most importantly how to think and what sort of questions to think about. He accepted Socrates’ basic philosophy and dialectical style of debate: the pursuit of truth through questions, answers and additional questions. Plato was a keen admirer of Socrates (all we know about Socrates comes from Plato’s writings) and he was extremely affected by his execution. Thus, he decided to collect Socrates’ ideas and theoretically create a utopian state in which philosophers would not be executed but instead rule their polis. Plato wrote Republic to show the basic characteristics of his ideal, utopian state.
. In his masterpiece Republic, Plato tries to define justice and show its superiority against injustice. He also draws us a picture of his utopian state and the ideal man. In Plato’s ideal state there are three main classes: the first class is the class of Guardians (Rulers, Auxiliaries), the second class consists of artisans, workers, farmers, businessman and the third class refers to slaves who are not accepted as citizens. Guardians are the golden class of Plato’s ideal society. According to Plato, Guardians must have been selected from the most talented children of the society and should have a special education containing physical, philosophical and mathematical training. They should have a kind of ascetic life, away from mundane pleasures and they “must be both warrior and philosophers” (Plato, p. 197). In his idea, Rulers should exercise the supreme authority and deal with the philosophical aspect of political life whereas Auxiliaries should deal with military, police and executive duties. Plato believes in the supremacy of “true” knowledge and his dream is to live in a society ruled by philosophers who have the greatest capacity of producing knowledge. Plato also thinks that Guardians should not have private property but instead have a special prestige that no man from other class can achieve. In his utopia, the passage from one class to another is very difficult but possible. The second class consists of artisans, workers, farmers and businessman and they are the major actors in economic life. Plato states that every man should deal with the best job he can do. Plato also claims that specialization is very necessary for the development of a society and thinks that every man should be specialized in his job. Third class refers to slaves but Plato does not talk too much about them. In his idea, an ideal society would be realized through the harmonious functioning of these three classes.
In the case of the individual, we see again the importance of harmonious functioning. Plato completely believes in the dominancy of the knowledge and information. So, his ideal just man is a person who always makes rational decisions and suppresses his instincts and emotions. He claims that there are three important parts in our minds: reason, spirit and the desire and appetite. Plato believes that we have to use these three parts with harmony in making decisions. His ideal justice requires always the use of reason before spirit and desire. Each part of our mind has a function and the right time to use this function but they should not trespass on each other’s area. Of course, reason should be the dominant element. The spirit is related with our feelings, it can be useful when it is used in right time and place but it could be dangerous too. The desire and the appetite part is the most dangerous element of our decision making process because it is the animal part of us.
In both his ideal state and his ideal individual, we can observe that Plato focuses on knowledge. He wants to give the ruling power to only a small class of philosophers that can think differently from other people. He wants individuals acting according to their reasons rather than their spirit or desires. This is caused by Plato’s idea of supreme knowledge, which directs him to consider a single ultimate truth. This is related to his views on forms and the simile of the cave (Plato, p. 186-190). In this analogy, there are men living in the darkness in a cave and think that the world is only about their dark cave. However, one day, one of these men who have courage goes out of the cave and sees for the first time the sunlight. At first, he has great difficult in reconciling his eyes to the powerful sunlight and his eyes get sun burnt. However, after a while his eyes get used to the sunlight and he now has chance to see that the world is not about darkness and his cave. So, he begins to discover new things and feels himself responsible of telling the truth to his friends still living in the darkness in their cave. But when he returns to the cave he has difficulty to this time to get used to the darkness. Plato uses this simile of the cave for showing the logic of his idea about forms. Plato believes that like the man going out of the cave and discovering new things about the world, philosophers who should rule the country, reach to the stage of forms and begin to act according to pure knowledge and understanding (noésis) that is superior to imagination, belief and thought (Plato, p. 183). This cave example and his idea of forms (or ideas) clearly show Plato’s trust in the supremacy of knowledge and the singleness of the ultimate knowledge, which can only be, discovered by philosophers.
David G. Ritchie in his book “Plato” analyzes Platonic Ideas and ideal state. In Ritchie’s idea, Plato spoke of things being knowable only as participating in “ideas” or “forms”. These words and manners gradually become technical and “we are apt to treat it as more technical than it ever becomes in Plato” (Ritchie, p. 87). In Plato’s thinking, ideas or forms are ultimate truths which are never known by the “obscure perception” of our senses but only through philosophy by “true knowing” of thought (Ritchie, p. 88). Plato thinks that there are universal laws and concepts, which cannot be seen by ordinary human senses and thus, philosophers, have to rule a country. For instance, Ritchie gives the example of atoms for showing Platonic understanding of Ideas. Although atoms are conceptual, they are not perceptual entities and only philosophers could discover their existence. Plato by drawing a sharp distinction between opinion and knowledge, tried to exalt philosophy and philosophers (Ritchie, p. 100). For him, “knowledge of the truest and highest kind must go beyond assumptions and move only in a region of ideas” (Ritchie, p. 101). Plato seems to conceptualize advancing knowledge “consisting in getting away more and more from the things of sense” and wants philosophers who would act as the innovator man in the cave, to be the rulers of a state.
Plato’s belief in the supremacy of not sensual supreme knowledge, which is in the form “Ideas”, can be caused from his antipathy and lack of trust towards democracy that led to the execution of Socrates. His theory is somehow elitist and he thinks that ordinary people cannot think as comprehensive as philosophers. Thus, what he proposes as an ideal state is elitist in nature and we see a deep social stratification. His specialization as a philosopher is also effective in his formation of a distinct world of ideas. Because a philosopher tries to think of hypothetical situations and deeper, unseen truth. Plato is still a very important philosopher that should be analyzed carefully.
- Plato, “Republic”, 1992, Indianapolis: Hackett Publishing Company (translated by G.M.A. Grube, revised by C.D.C. Reeve)
- Ritchie, David G., “Plato”, 1993, Bristol: Thoemmes Press
 Plato, “Republic”, Introduction part p. viii