Plato lived in the city of Athens in Ancient Greece following the conclusion of the Peloponnesian War (431-404 B.C.E.) and before the rise of Macedonia and the military campaigns of Alexander the Great (336-323 B.C.E.) It is interesting if we consider the lives of Socrates, Plato, and Aristotle, each latter a student of the former, and how they were influenced by historical events. After Sparta defeated Athens the democratic government was dissolved, and instead the city was ruled by the Thirty Tyrants. As the name suggests the new rulers of Athens did not respect the traditional norms of the city. Socrates was connected to some of the Thirty Tyrants by way of the family on his mother’s side, and a few of his students were anti-democratic supporters of Sparta.[1] Socrates’ condemnation to death by democratic government of Athens after the rule of the Tyrants makes more sense when we consider the likelihood that many citizens might have related his philosophy with the foreign occupation. Aristotle played an influential role as the tutor of Alexander the Great, although to what extent his teaching influenced Alexander is questionable. Plato, in between two great historical events, comes to embody Greek thought in this period of history. 

Plato and Socrates

Plato was Socrates disciple, and I would stress this word over ‘student’ because Plato devoted a significant portion of his philosophical work to Socrates’ teachings. His earliest works were “for the purpose of preserving the memory of Socrates and making plain the superiority of his hero, in intellectual skill and moral seriousness, to all of his contemporaries—particularly those among them who claimed to be experts on religious, political, or moral matters.”[2] In Plato’s dialogues, Socrates is more often than not the central figure whom the arguments and debates of the other characters revolve around. We know that Plato intended to make a true representation of Socrates in his dialogues because the character in his work never speaks about philosophical questions that Socrates was not known for, as we can tell from other accounts of Socrates by Aristotle and some of Socrates’ contemporaries. Plato called Socrates the wisest and most just man of his time. Because of the obvious effect Socrates had on Plato’s philosophy and from the recreation of his hero in the dialogues, the relationship between this teacher and student must have been close to that of a father/son relationship. Although to put Socrates as a parental figure in Plato’s life is strictly speculation on my part.

Like a typical man of his time, Plato had originally intended for life in the political sphere saying When I was a young man I had the same ambitions as many others: I thought of entering public life as soon as I came of age.”[3] Plato wanted to get into politics for moral reasons. He hoped to help lead the city out of the unjust life she had been living and establish her in the path of justice.”[4] However, Plato denied a life in politics when his hero and teacher Socrates was taken to trial and condemned to death for, what Plato believes, was inadequate charges. The death of his teacher at the hands of the Athenian government certainly had a big impact on Plato. He would even write a fictional account of the trail, although he certainly drew on aspects from his own memory, in Apology.

In 387 B.C.E. Plato purchased some buildings and a grove of trees about a mile away from the city of Athens. There he founded a type of society or religious fellowship the “Academy” which was named after the Greek hero Hecademus.[5] For the rest of Plato’s life he led the school and determined its practices and activities while he continued to write his dialogues. Student came from other cities in Greece and from foreign countries to study philosophical inquiry, mathematics, and moral and political thought. Through his Academy Plato could develop his ideas and spread them to influential people in the world. The ambition to educate potential rulers on the values of moral philosophy can be discerned from Plato’s failed attempt to tutor the ruler in Syracuse only to be taken prisoner for some time. As he grew old Plato focused on political questions and died having not finished his last work Laws, were he lays out his ideas about the structure, goals, and character of a polis and how rulers should use philosophy to govern. Sure, by way of his school Plato hoped to enact positive change to the world.  

Plato’s Allegory of the Cave

The “shadows” that Plato refers to are from his allegory of the cave in where prisoners have been conditioned in such a way as to perceive mere shadows on a wall as the actual representation of reality. The shadows would take the shape of different people and artifacts that traveled through the cave out of sight from the viewpoint of the prisoners. Any voices or noises created by the real artifacts and people would be echoed off of the same cave wall onto which the shadows were cast, thus completing the lesser reality. Using the information that Plato gives us, we can assume that because the shadows were the medium from with the illusions on the wave were formed, the prisoners would not have the concept of what a “shadow” was such as a fish in the ocean could not know that they were swimming in water. In Plato’s allegory, even the social roles of the prisoners depend one who can identify and predict the forms of the shadows best. The relationship between the real artifacts in the cave and the forms they create as shadows are important, in that Plato indicates that the lesser reality is still formed from what is real. The sun in Plato’s allegory is a metaphor for truth. The point of Plato’s allegory is of course, that our reality as we see it is not real, there is a truer reality of “forms” that can be attained by philosophical contemplation.

To understand what Plato means by “forms” we have to go back to the allegory of the cave where the outside world, “reality” contains a purer and rewarding sort of life as compared to the lives of the prisoners in the cave. In comparing the two in Republic, Plato’s characterization of Socrates asks if the man freed from the cave, “would much prefer to ‘work the earth as a serf for another man, a man without possessions of his own,’ and go through any sufferings, rather than share their beliefs and live as they [the prisoners still in the cave] do?”[6]  In turn Glaucon responds, “Yes, I think he would rather suffer anything than live like that.”[7] To be able to see “forms” instead of “shadows” is to significantly alter a person’s state of living. Plato stresses some sort of barrier that exists between the two realities. He argues that for someone to leave the cave and be exposed to the light, or to enter the cave and become blinded by darkness, would be considerable painful adjustments either way. Thus, he concludes that those who have found such enlightenment in life, would be much more interested in experiencing true reality than to participate in the normal activities of life with those still living in darkness. However, this is not a justification for philosophers to keep their heads in the clouds, but rather a pointed flaw in the role of a philosopher in the political community.

The search for truth is important to Plato because it is essential for the survival of the political community. This is why in Republic after Socrates gives an account of the allegory of the cave he immediately turns to conversation to the role of philosophers and education in the polis. Socrates argues that the uneducated will never be fit to rule over a city and by educated we can assume Plato means those with a philosophical education. Going back to the allegory of the cave, for a philosopher to rule it would be like the prisoner, who was freed from the reality based on shadows, to descend back into the cave to be with his fellow prisoners once again. As stated earlier this would be as painful as leaving the cave. However, if a city were to cultivate a philosopher king, he would owe his enlightenment to the city and thus be obliged to descend once again into the darkness to rule among those in the lesser reality. In Plato’s idea society rulers rule not for personal gain or power but because it is something that is nessacery for the survival of the political community. The alternative for Plato means the very destruction of the political community from civil war and internal strife.


L. Michael, Classics of Moral and Political Theory, 5th Edition (Hackett Publishing Company, Inc., 20110915. VitalBook file.)

Plato (Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy)

Sources Cited

  • [1]  Morgan, 31.
  • [2] Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy-Plato
  • [3] Morgan, 32.
  • [4] Ibid.
  • [5] Ibid.
  • [6] Morgan, Michael L. Classics of Moral and Political Theory, 5th Edition. Hackett Publishing Company, Inc., 188.
  • [7] Ibid.