Plato

(c. 427-347 bce)
   Often described as the greatest of all ancient philosophers, and sometimes as the greatest philosopher ever, Plato was born into an aristocratic Athenian family but fell under the spell of Socrates and so never pursued a proper political career (though he did abortively attempt to influence Sicilian politics), devoting himself instead to philosophy. Plato was also a great stylist and his works, mostly written in the form of a dialogue, are very pleasant to read. His output is usually divided into three periods: early, middle and late. To the category of early dialogues are usually attributed: Charmides, Crito, Euthydemus, Euthyphro, Gorgias, Hippias Major, Hippias Minor, Ion, Laches, Lysis and Protagoras. These are often called 'Socratic' dialogues because, scholars think, in these dialogues Plato was not so much attempting to construct a pervasive philosophical system, but merely trying to give a reasonably faithful portrayal of the historical Socrates and his habit of asking questions (particularly ones concerning ethics) rather than giving answers. Of these, perhaps Euthyphro has exercised the greatest influence on Christian philosophers, since it poses the classic question now known as the Euthyphro dilemma. The works of Plato's 'middle' period are usually said to include Phaedo, Cratylus, Symposium, Republic and Phaedrus. In these dialogues it is thought that Plato elaborates his own views on a variety of philosophical topics using Socrates as a mere mouthpiece. Republic in particular has exercised a great influence on philosophers of all sorts, including Christian philosophers, particularly with its picture of humans as prisoners in a cave seeing mere shadows and mistaking them for reality until they are liberated and brought into the real world outside. Plato uses this metaphor to illustrate the process of philosophical awakening and the turning from transient particulars to the eternal Forms. Many Christian philosophers have, however, taken this as a picture of the intellectual process accompanying salvation, as one's eyes are opened to see spiritual things. The traditional division of Plato's work is completed by considering six dialogues as Plato's late works: Sophist, Statesman, Timaeus, Critias, Philebus and Laws. Out of these perhaps Timaeus has been the most important for Christian philosophy, particularly during the period of medieval philosophy, because Timaeus was the only work of Plato's widely known then. In this dialogue Plato describes the making of the world by a demiurge or divine craftsman, who takes pre-existent matter and fashions it in accordance with the heavenly blueprints of the Forms. Plato's influence on subsequent philosophy has been so great that Whitehead said that all philosophy since had been mere 'footnotes to Plato'; his influence survives explicitly as Neoplatonism.
   Further reading: Fine 1999a and 1999b; Kraut 1992; Melling 1987; Plato 1899-1906 and 1997

Christian Philosophy . . 2015.

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