With Plato, philosophy as we know it, took shape. Born in Athens somewhere around 428 BCE into an aristocratic family, Plato is probably the single most influential person in Western philosophy. Unlike most philosophers of ancient Greece, all of Plato’s writings are preserved. This has been a contributing factor to Plato’s eminent role in the history of philosophy. According to Alfred North Whitehead, all subsequent European philosophy are just a series of footnotes to Plato.


Plato is known for writing in dialogues, where philosophical topics and issues are discussed between two people or more. In the dialogues, Socrates is often the protagonist whereas his most common antagonists were the Sophists. The Sophists were philosophers with a more pragmatic approach to philosophy, they believed that rhetorics and the art of persuasion could be just as important as insight derived from philosophy and dialectics. Moreover the Sophists had a relative world-view, i.e. nothing was fixed, there was no absolute truth, knowledge and morality. This was unlike Plato/Socrates who is known for his idealism and belief in eternal values.

For students of history, it is well known that for us today it isn’t quite clear what exactly are Plato’s own thoughts and what were his teacher, Socrates. The dialogues of Plato weren’t written as long and dry philosophical dissertations but as highly gripping literary texts, where the protagonists appear as convincing characters who could be serious and humorous, provocative and modest at the same time. Thus Plato is often regarded as one of the earliest literary geniuses.

Around 387 BCE, around the time when Plato turned 40, he founded the first academy (the Akademia) just outside the walls of Athens. The academy, as a institution of learning, was the first of its kind in the West and it became a model for future universities in and around Europe. Aristotle, the most prominent disciple of Plato, studied at the Akademia for 20 years until he himself founded the Lykeum.

Plato died in his home country of Athens at the mature age of 80, historians put the date to around 348 BCE.

The Many Ideas of Plato

Plato is known for many interesting ideas and theories, here are some of his most notable:

  1. The allegory of the cave, a famous parable by Plato where he describes people sitting chained in a cave with their eyes to a wall where they can only perceive the shadows cast against the wall, unable to turn around to the light shining behind them. These people have never experienced anything but the shadows displayed on the wall and thus are completely unaware of the reality, the sun, that gives rise to the shadows. For them, the shadows are reality.
  2. The theory of Forms, which is a worldview that negates or denies the reality of the material world. For Plato, the ideas or forms existed in a separate and truer plane of existence, moreover these ideas were also eternal and unchanging. The material world (which we inhabit) and its content were but images or copies of this “ideal” real world. According to Plato, most people live in this shadowy material world of ignorance while being blind to the reality of the forms. The truth and the forms can only be understood by the philosophers, who have left the cave and beheld the sun.
  3. Recollection being the source of knowledge is yet another interesting notion by Plato. From Plato’s understanding, knowledge was acquired through a process of recollection and not observation and study.
  4. The Socratic method where Socrates in the dialogues attempts to arrive to a satisfactory knowledge through a systematic way of asking questions. It usually starts by Socrates asking someone a question like for example what is knowledge? Or is there beauty? What is courage? Then through a back and forth discussion, possible answers that arise jointly are highlighted.
  5. The demiurge was presented in the Timaeus by Plato as a creator god. Demiurge which literary means craftsman, did not create the world out of nothing like say Yahweh, the god of Abraham, but rather brought order to the pre-existing matter that was dispersed in a chaotic clutter. It is worth to point out that many Greeks regarded the universe as infinite and eternal.
  6. The philosopher king, which was a type of ideal ruler(s) and government described by Plato in the Republic. In it Plato sketched the outlines of an utopia where the philosopher(s) ruled the city-state, mainly because the philosophers had access to true knowledge and were thus equipped to rule optimally. Plato divided the state and society into three distinct classes. First, a working class consisting of farmers, merchants and other ordinary workers (the stomach). Then a class of warriors or guards as Plato called them, who would protect and defend the state (the chest). And finally the top of the hierarchy were the philosophers who would rule over all other classes (the head).
  7. Platonic love, which was understood by Plato as pure love, a type of spiritual love, free from erotic desire. The term platonic love was long used as a term for devotion and love towards God, but is used today for friendships without a sexual component.
  8. The ancient city of Atlantis, which is a idea that is probably older than Plato’s first reference to it, was a highly advanced civilization that was located on an island somewhere in the Atlantic Ocean. On the island, the people lived the ideal life until one day, for some reason, the kingdom and the island was submerged into the sea. The myth of Atlantis has since served as a great source of inspiration for writers, composers and filmmakers.

Having gone through some details on Plato, here are some of his most insightful and interesting quotes, selected randomly from different dialogues:

Death is not the worst that can happen to men.
Plato (On the Laws)

Poetry is nearer to vital truth than history.
Plato (Ion)

Time is the moving image of eternity.
Plato (Timaeus)

Friends have all things in common.
Plato (Phaedrus)

Truth should be highly valued.
Plato (The Republic)

The soul of man is immortal and imperishable.
Plato (The Republic)

The eyes are the windows of the soul.
Plato (Phaedrus)

Must not all things at the last be swallowed up in death?
Plato (Phaedo)

Those whose hearts are fixed on Reality itself deserve the title of Philosophers.
Plato (The Republic)

The direction in which education starts a man will determine his future life.
Plato (The Republic)

For no good man would accuse the innocent.
Plato (Socrates in the Gorgias)

CALLICLES: Do you want me to agree with you?
SOCRATES: Yes, if I seem to you to speak the truth.
Plato (Gorgias)

Wealth is the parent of luxury and indolence, and poverty of meanness and viciousness, and both of discontent.
Plato (The Republic)

Musical training is a more potent instrument than any other, because rhythm and harmony find their way into the inward places of the soul.
Plato (The Republic)

The greatest penalty of evildoing – namely, to grow into the likeness of bad men.
Plato (Theatetus)

The beginning is the most important part of the work.
Plato (The Republic)

The more the pleasures of the body fade away, the greater to me is the pleasure and charm of conversation.
Plato (The Republic)

Astronomy compels the soul to look upwards and leads us from this world to another.
Plato (The Republic)

You cannot conceive the many without the one.
Plato (Parmenides)

I have hardly ever known a mathematician who was capable of reasoning.
Plato (The Republic)

No evil can happen to a good man, either in life or after death.
Plato (Socrates in The Apology)

Life without this sort of examination is not worth living.
Plato (Socrates in The Apology)

For our discussion is on no trifling matter, but on the right way to conduct our lives.
Plato (The Republic)

There is an ancient quarrel between philosophy and poetry.
Plato (The Republic)

The gods are not magicians who transform themselves; neither do they deceive mankind in any way.
Plato (The Republic)

The hour of departure has arrived, and we go our ways — I to die, and you to live. Which is better God only knows.
Plato (Socrates in The Apology)

It is said that Socrates commits a crime by corrupting the young men and not recognizing the gods that the city recognizes, but some other new religion.
Plato (The Apology)

You are young, my son, and, as the years go by, time will change and even reverse many of your present opinions. Refrain therefore awhile from setting yourself up as a judge of the highest matters.
Plato (Theatetus)

False words are not only evil in themselves, but they infect the soul with evil.
Plato (Phaedo)

A man who has any self-respect, nothing is more dishonourable than to be honoured, not for his own sake, but on account of the reputation of his ancestors.
Plato (Menexenus)

Mankind censure injustice fearing that they may be the victims of it, and not because they shrink from committing it.
Plato (The Republic)

Would he not be a bad manager of any animals who received them gentle, and made them fiercer than they were when he received them? What do you say?
Plato (Socrates in the Gorgias)

He who is of calm and happy nature will hardly feel the pressure of age, but to him who is of an opposite disposition youth and age are equally a burden.
Plato (The Republic)

The people have always some champion whom they set over them and nurse into greatness…This and no other is the root from which a tyrant springs; when he first appears he is a protector.
Plato (The Republic)

But if we had no master to show, and only a number of worthless buildings or none at all, then, surely, it would be ridiculous in us to attempt public works, or to advise one another to undertake them. Is not this true?
Plato (Socrates in the Gorgias)

All knowledge, when separated from justice and virtue, is seen to be cunning and not wisdom; wherefore make this your first and last and constant and all-absorbing aim, to exceed, if possible, not only us but all your ancestors in virtue.
Plato (Menexenus)

Man is a prisoner who has no right to open the door of his prison and run away… A man should wait, and not take his own life until God summons him.
Plato (Phaedo)

And at first he would most easily discern the shadows and, after that, the likenesses or reflections in water of men and other things, and later, the things themselves, and from these he would go on to contemplate the appearances in the heavens and heaven itself.
Plato (The Republic)

In no way can it be uttered, as can other things, which one can learn. Rather, from out of a full, co-existential dwelling with the thing itself – as when a spark, leaping from the fire, flares into light – so it happens, suddenly, in the soul, there to grow, alone with itself.
Plato (Seventh Letter)

Sons, the event proves that your fathers were brave men; for we might have lived dishonourably, but have preferred to die honourably rather than bring you and your children into disgrace, and rather than dishonour our own fathers and forefathers.
Plato (Menexenus)

When the mind’s eye rests on objects illuminated by truth and reality, it understands and comprehends them, and functions intelligently; but when it turns to the twilight world of change and decay, it can only form opinions, its vision is confused and its beliefs shifting, and it seems to lack intelligence.
Plato (The Republic)

Either death is a state of nothingness and utter unconsciousness, or, as men say, there is a change and migration of the soul from this world to another. …Now if death be of such a nature, I say that to die is to gain; for eternity is then only a single night.
Plato (Socrates in The Apology)

But if I died because I have no powers of flattery or rhetoric, I am very sure that you would not find me repining at death. For no man who is not an utter fool and coward is afraid of death itself, but he is afraid of doing wrong.
Plato (Socrates in the Gorgias)

Never mind if someone despises you as a fool, and insults you, if he has a mind; let him strike you, by Zeus, and do you be of good cheer, and do not mind the insulting blow, for you will never come to any harm in the practice of virtue, if you are a really good true man
Plato (Socrates in the Gorgias)

Let every man remind their descendants that they also are soldiers who must not desert the ranks of their ancestors, or from cowardice fall behind.
Plato (Menexenus)

Philosophers tell us, Callicles, that communion and friendship and orderliness and temperance and justice bind together heaven and earth and gods and men, and that this universe is therefore called Cosmos or order, not disorder or misrule, my friend.
Plato (Socrates in the Gorgias)

I tell you, Callicles, that to be boxed on the ears wrongfully is not the worst evil which can befall a man, nor to have my purse or my body cut open, but that to smite and slay me and mine wrongfully is far more disgraceful and more evil.
Plato (Socrates in the Gorgias)

No man can escape fate, and therefore he is not fond of life; he leaves all that with God, and considers in what way he can best spend his appointed term;—whether by assimilating himself to the constitution under which he lives.
Plato (Socrates in the Gorgias)

Well, then, if you and I, Callicles, were intending to set about some public business, and were advising one another to undertake buildings, such as walls, docks or temples of the largest size, ought we not to examine ourselves, first, as to whether we know or do not know the art of building, and who taught us?—would not that be necessary, Callicles?
Plato (Socrates in the Gorgias)

Any one who has common sense will remember that the bewilderments of the eyes are of two kinds, and arise from two causes, either from coming out of the light or from going into the light, which is true of the mind’s eye, quite as much as of the bodily eye; and he who remembers this when he sees any one whose vision is perplexed and weak, will not be too ready to laugh; he will first ask whether that soul of man has come out of the brighter light, and is unable to see because unaccustomed to the dark, or having turned from darkness to the day is dazzled by excess of light.
Plato (The Republic)

So when the universe was quickened with soul, God was well pleased; and he bethought him to make it yet more like its type. And whereas the type is eternal and nought that is created can be eternal, he devised for it a moving image of abiding eternity, which we call time. And he made days and months and years, which are portions of time; and past and future are forms of time, though we wrongly attribute them also to eternity. For of eternal Being we ought not to say ‘it was’, ‘it shall be’, but ‘it is’ alone: and in like manner we are wrong in saying ‘it is’ of sensible things which become and perish; for these are ever fleeting and changing, having their existence in time.
Plato (Timaeus)

The society we have described can never grow into a reality or see the light of day, and there will be no end to the troubles of states, or indeed, my dear Glaucon, of humanity itself, till philosophers are kings in this world, or till those we now call kings and rulers really and truly become philosophers, and political power and philosophy thus come into the same hands, while the many natures now content to follow either to the exclusion of the other are forcibly debarred from doing so. This is what I have hesitated to say so long, knowing what a paradox it would sound; for it is not easy to see that there is no other road to happiness, either for society or the individual.
Plato (The Republic)

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