History of Western Philosophy: Ancient Philosophy, Plato’s Times and Life (based on Greg L. Bahnsen’s lecture series)
Plato’s Times and Life
His troubled context:
-the Cosmos is pervaded by a mathematical order; Plato picks up on this, this notion that there is a non-physical order to things.
-eveything in the universe is made of numbers and shapes
-scientific knowledge was not for the sake of understanding and controlling the world, but was a means to spiritual redemption
500BC- Esipius, Heraclitus
450BC-Euripedes, Anaxagoras, Protagoras
425BC-Plato’s birth, Democritus, Gorgias
Plato figured that he needed to come up with a philosophy that accounts for the objectivity of reality, the usefulness of man’s reason and an absolute good by which man should live.
The biggest threat for Plato was the Sophists. They opposed to traditional values and ancient Greek religion. Plato agreed with their opposition to religion, but not to traditional values. Sophists recognized that with the gods being rejected, that this left morality up for grabs. Sophists looked upon moral codes as changing and culturally relative. Since morals are culturally relative, you should just learn the way of your culture or you don’t have to be bound by your culture’s morality at all. They held that our senses were only private subjective states. I look at a book and I see it as brown and another person sees it as black. There is no universal and objective knowledge of the world available; hence, man becomes the measure of all things. Plato, however, wanted to reverse the Sophist notion that there is no objective discoverable reality. For Sophists, truth is nothing more than human opinion; it is just common sense. However, if truth is relative, what is common to one group of people is no common to another. They looked at moral and civil law as conventional; there is no higher law that we must abide by. Later Sophists said only power matters; this comes about through rhetoric tricks, manipulation or military strength and domination.
Did the materialistic Atomists give an account for objective discoverable reality? They did show how change was possible and hence a philosophy of science. Democritus agreed with the Sophists about the subjectivity of knowledge. The things we experience with our perceptions are subjective. There is not a universal experience for everyone. How do we know that there is an objective world existing? We discover that by reason and not by perception. We have an epistemological dualism here; we learn about one kind of realm through our senses and another view of reality through the use of reason. They though the course of nature was completely regular and orderly without intervention of the gods; hence, they had a basis for science. However, there is a problem with this view, if the course of nature is completely regular and man is part of nature, then free-will disappears. Democritus bought into this. Their view of natural regularity was arbitrary since there was no proof of regularity; it was just asserted.
For the Atomists, the material world is eternal and indestructable. Since if there was an infinite amount of time in the past for the world to be destroyed, it would already be destroyed, but since there is a world now, we know that it is indestructable. Atomists thought of atoms of bodies, and yet the world of atoms was known not through common experience but through the use of the mind. Atoms were theoretical constructs not known through empiricism. This raises the question why they should trust their mind to obtain knowledge of objective reality.
They said the atoms were falling through infinite space, but if space is infinite then it has no boundaries, if it has no boundaries then it makes no sense to give directional adjectives like up or down, in which case, the idea of atoms falling no longer makes sense. It makes no sense to call one set of atoms called “man” as having certain qualities. I’m looking at a brown book, as I’m touching and looking it, it feels soft and is brown. But on an Atomistic account of the world, I am one set of atoms and the book is another set of atoms, what does it mean for one set of atoms to experience another set of atoms as brown and soft? This doesn’t make sense of human perception and self-consciousness?
Another problem is, “what is human thinking?” The thought process is nothing more than atoms falling through space; there is no such thing as inference and deduction. In addition, how does a set of atoms, work out a theory about atoms? Morever, how do we focus our thoughts if we are atomists? If our thoughts are nothing more than atoms falling through space, how is it that I can focus on one image and not another? How do we have the ability to focus our thoughts on something that is not part of our immediate experience? What are the abstract ideas that we think about like logic or love. They are not material objects, how do material thought have thoughts of abstract objects?
How can ethical value ever be objective? They would have to be subjective. Some set of atoms (people) believe that murder is good and other set of atoms believe that murder is wrong. If there are only atoms that are real, what am I as a personal evaluator? I am just atoms falling through space, how can I experience moral values?
The Sophists had run everything into subjectivism and skepticism, and this is going to undermind ethics and civilization. The Atomists end up nothing being able to give an account of the world or the knower or the values by which we should be living. Atomists refused to submit to authority and ended up not being able to account for rationality, the world or ethics. The Atomists hold that nature is uniform and without divine intervention, but their understanding of the regularity of nature was arbirary and speculative. Given their explanation of the uniformity of natur, it destroyed reasoning, values and free-will. Atomism was inadequate regarding the dignity of humanity. This was the troubled context in which Plato lived.
His Life and Relationship to Socrates
Plato was born in 427BC in the city of Athens, this would have made him old enough to participate in the Peleponesian War. He grew up in the years of defeat and social and economic upheavel that the Athenians had to endure. He was born into a noble family; his family was part of the oligarchical faction. On his mother’s side, he was descended from one of the greatest statesment. Plato saw the excesses of the Oligarchy, so he knew that a different social order was called for. What impressed him was that example of Socrates. Socrates would have been over 40 years old when Plato was born. Socrates made a name for himself was his intelligence and humility. He didn’t think he was any better than his fellow Athenians. Socrates did believe that there was a reality to moral goodness and that there was an objective standard by which man should live. He had a deep moral sense and a religious conciousness about him. What got Socrates into trouble with the public is that he didn’t take public opinion seriously and he would cross-examine them. Since he was challenging common notions and widespread public opinion, it appeared he was challenging democracy. But to challenge the State was to challenge the gods; hence, he was guilty of atheism. Socrates was brought before the assembly to defend himself, but he didn’t defend himself as he should have. Instead, Socrates said that he had done a great service for Athens; he argued that he was not guilty. Socrates was charged guilty and sentenced to die. When his friends attempted to free him, Socrates refused because he believed it would be wrong to escape. Though he knew the State was wrong in their judgment of him, he knew that he had to submit to the State.
Socrates made such an impression on Plato’s life, that instead of going into politics, he would go into philosophy. When we read Plato’s dialogues, the spokesman for Plato is called, “Socrates.” Are we to believe that the Socrates of the dialogues is the Socrates of history or is he a literary persona? We might not know anything about the historical Socrates. The death of Socrates, confirmed Plato’s opposition to aristocratic prejudice. Plato believed a bad state cannot produce good men. When a state is ruled by the people, it is inevitably a bad state. The people are ignorant and self-centered. Plato knew that he had to find a basis for a good state. He said he needed to find intelligent and moral men–philosophers. If you don’t have the intellectuals of society, then we will always be making mistakes. The way in which Plato taught was the literary dialogue. The reason why Plato presented his view by dialogue was because he didn’t want to reach positive concrete conclusions. After Plato set forth his theory of the forms, we will find that in his dialogues, Plato criticizes his own dotrine of the forms. He was demonstrating that we must continue to question and cross-examine. In one of his letters, he claimed to never want to put down his views in writing. He said that you will never find in his writing a full answer of philosophical problems. Plato is claimed to be the greatest rationalist of all time, but even he claims that he doesn’t have all of the answers.