Plato, student of Socrates

Plato - 428-347BC

"Ignorance, the root and the stem of every evil."

Plato was a student of Socrates, teacher of Aristotle, and founder of the Academy in Athens, thought by many to be the first university. Plato's masterpiece is the Republic; using dialogues of Socrates and others, Plato's Republic is a theoretical ideal society in which the leaders are trained from birth to rule, with each citizen working for the good of society.

"Wise men talk because they have something to say; fools, because they have to say something."

In the Republic, Plato's dialogues recognize that a person's environment when growing up will shape his personality.

"And the first step, as you know, is always what matters most, particularly when we are dealing with those who are young and tender. That is the time when they are easily moulded and any impression we choose to make leaves a permanent mark."1

In the 21st century, more than two thousand years after Plato's Republic, it is recognised that faulty or inadequate parenting, for example failure to set boundaries, leaves a permanent mark on the adolescent, which in turn can lead to behavioral problems in adulthood, including narcissism.

His Theory of Forms attempts to underpin knowledge and truth, and sets the scene for The Republic. Because of the vagaries of an ever changing, fluctuating world, Plato believed that all things, including man, related back to one universal form. Although there are many men, all men are made in the image of the universal 'image of man'. This influenced Christian theology many years later in the belief that man is made in the image of God.

Plato recognized that the world of experience is illusory. Many centuries later, Kant appeared to confirm that Plato was right in his view of how individuals experienced the world. Before Kant it was thought that the mind was a passive recorder of events; objects tending to conform to the way the world really is. But Kant turned this view around; maintaining that the mind is active and plays a part in shaping the world of experience. The objects must conform to our minds.

Plato's Cave

Plato described a world in which people are imprisoned in a cave, chained so that they cannot move, facing a wall. Behind them is a fire. It is not possible for them to turn their heads so they can only see the shadows which are cast on the wall by the fire. There are people carrying things, including figures of men and animals, moving around. Knowing of nothing else, the people take this to be reality. Of course, it is not; but as they have no conception of any other way of living, it is their reality.

Eventually, one of the prisoners is released and forced to turn around towards the fire. At first it is disorientating and scary, but soon he is able to identify the shapes and forms of which we had previously only seen the shadows. Soon he knows what is real and what is only a shadow, and realizes that his former life was just a meaningless illusion. He can now free his mind and achieve true intellect.

The prisoner goes back into the cave to enlighten his former colleagues, but they pour scorn on him and tell him that his sight has been ruined. It's analogous to the conclusion of Socrates' life; for years he tried to enlighten the people of Athens, but they ended up putting him to death.

It's also analogous to the way many people seem to live today. Contemporary existance for many consists of time spent being passively entertained by television and seeking other fantasies and illusions for constant diversions to avoid having to face the reality that is their lives, which is, in effect, living in Plato's cave. If you try to help them by pointing them towards a more rewarding existance, they look upon you as the people of Athens looked upon Socrates. Then they continue with their life in the cave.

As Socrates asserts in Plato’s Cave, "The unexamined life is not worth living." Plato would have us leave the lazy but secure existence in the cave and walk in the sun; the potential rewards being so much greater than the risks.

For more information about the great philosophers and their views on narcissism and happiness, read Finding Happiness.

1 Lee, Desmond (2003 - second edition), Plato The Republic (Translation by Lee), Penguin Books, London, p. 69.