Plato is one of the most famous philosophers in history, living 2500 years ago. The world continues to be fascinated with his philosophy, and in this article, we are going to look at the question: how did Plato influence the modern world?
Plato’s influence on the modern world is seen in how we think about politics and justice, and the belief in the soul. He created the first official school, and inspired the Scientific Revolution which is the beginning of our modern technology. Along with his mentor Socrates, and his protégé Aristotle, he elevated the importance of thinking.
1) Plato founded the Academy, the blueprint for our schools
After many years of seeking knowledge and wisdom, Plato founded the Academy, one of the first institutions of higher learning in the world. It was a new concept at the time to have a place dedicated to knowledge and wisdom, and formed the blueprint for schools and universities that are now commonplace in our modern world.
Plato founded the Academy in 387 BC, Located just outside the city of Athens. It was located in a grove of olive trees, and was a site that had already been dedicated to the goddess Athena for hundreds of years. The school continued after the death of Plato, until eventually being destroyed in 86 BC by the Roman dictator Sulla.
Plato named his institution the Academy after a character in a Greek myth named Academus. During war between Athens and Sparta, Academus heroically saved Athens by revealing where Helen of Troy was hidden, whom had been kidnapped by King Theseus.
As the Academy progressed for hundreds of years after Plato’s death, it produced many distinguished philosophers, and went through different philosophical phases. This included the immediate successors to Plato, including Aristotle and Heraclides, as well as successive generations who favored a skeptical philosophy, which denies the possibility of knowing an absolute truth.
“Opinion is the medium between knowledge and ignorance.” “If a man neglects education, he walks lame to the end of his life.” “All men are by nature equal, made all of the same earth by one workman.” “Books give a soul to the universe, wings to the mind, flight to the imagination, and life to everything.”
2) Plato inspired the Renaissance which led to the Scientific Revolution
The Renaissance started in the 14th century in Italy, and eventually spread throughout Europe over the next couple hundred years. It was a time of incredible flourishing in the arts, which saw the likes of Leonardo De Vinci, Michelangelo, and Raphael creating their masterpieces. It was also a time of philosophical innovation, including the development of Humanism, which placed importance on human welfare and dignity. Both the artists and the philosophers of this time were totally influenced by ancient Greece, and much of the art being created was simply attempts to recreate what had been done in ancient Greece.
Out of the Renaissance came an era known as the Scientific Revolution, which was a period of massive change in how we think about the world, and the beginning of modern science.
Until then, it was believed that the earth was at the center of the universe, but then Copernicus placed the sun at the center of the universe. In 1543 he published On the Revolutions of the Celestial Spheres, which described the planets as rotating around the sun, in what is now known as the “Heliocentric solar system”.
Galilei was another important researcher at the time, who added to Copernicus’s work with much greater details, including the discovery of moons around Jupiter, observations about the phases of Venus, the recognition that the tides of the oceans are related to celestial events, and also awareness of the existence of stars that are not visible to the human eye. He also developed early concepts of relativity and gravity.
3) Plato elevated the importance of thinking
Inspired by the Pythagoreans before him, and of course Socrates, Plato regarded abstract thinking highly. We take it for granted now, but just the simple idea of being fascinated with, and being professional about the approach to thinking had to have been created.
Plato came up with many ideas about justice, ethics, politics, and metaphysics, including The Theory of the Forms. This theory asserts that the physical world we live in is not the real world, which exists beyond our world. There are two realms, the physical realm, and the spiritual realm, which Plato called ‘the Realm of Forms’ a realm of ideas and ideals. The physical realm is a less perfect copy or reflection of the true reality of the realm of forms.
According to Plato, the Realm of Forms transcends time and space, and consists of abstract, perfect, and unchanging ideas or ideals. This argued against the idea that we can perceive things directly as they really are.
4) Plato continued the Socratic Method
Plato probably would not exist without his mentor, Socrates, who was declared by the oracle of Delphi to be the wisest man in Athens. Socrates left no written work, and was eventually killed for being a threat to the status quo of Greek society. Socrates built his proteges using what is known as the Socratic method. This involved asking questions, rather than trying to pass on knowledge to the listener. Through this process of questioning, Socrates would lead his students to their own realizations, which often led to them realizing that they do not have the answer and require more knowledge. Plato continued this method after the death of Socrates, as he spent many years travelling and studying following his mentors’ death, prior to returning to Greece and founding the Academy. You can read more about Socrates and the Academy here.
5) Plato shaped our ideas about politics
Plato is considered the founder of political philosophy, and focused much of his philosophy on politics. In Plato’s famous book the Republic, Plato wrote that society consists of rulers, auxiliaries and citizens, and each part can live in harmony, through reason, order, and rationality.
Plato argued against democracy, saying that it was anarchic, lacking in unity. He believed that in a democracy man is more concerned about their personal wealth than the common good. To Plato, the ideal state is an aristocracy, led by the best and brightest. A benevolent ruler who understands goodness and justice is the ideal political system.
Plato came from a wealthy aristocrat family. His father’s family claimed to descend from an earlier king of Athens, and even that their family descended from the god Poseidon. You can learn more about Poseidon in an article here. This upbringing probably contributed to Plato’s ideas about Politics.
6) Plato influenced our ideas about Justice
Plato was very interested in ideas about justice, goodness. He presented the questions ‘What is justice? And is the just or unjust life better for a person?’ He argued that justice is not only the ability of the strong to exert their strength, but rather was the ability to create harmony for everyone. An important part of his Theory of Forms is his concept of ‘The Good’, or ‘The One’, which is the most important of all forms. This form transcends all other forms. Like everything in our world is a reflection of a perform form in the realm of forms, all forms are a reflection of the Good, which is the ultimate and perfect form.
7) He trained his greatest student: Aristotle
Aristotle joined Plato’s Academy as a seventeen-year-old, and quickly established himself as the greatest student the school had ever seen. Aristotle was a student at the Academy for twenty years, before going on to found his own school, called the Lyceum. Under the mentorship of Plato, Aristotle produced his own philosophy, innovating many concepts about logic and scientific thinking which heavily influenced the next thousand years and beyond.
Aristotle invented a systematic concept of logic, and is often considered the world’s first scientist. He moved towards a more empirical view of the world in comparison to his mentor Socrates, rejecting the theory of Forms, and instead believed that the essence of a thing resided within it, and that our consciousness is in our physical form. He wrote more prolifically than Plato, was perhaps the most important thinker for the next one thousand years or more. You can read more about Aristotle here.
8) Plato inspired our modern idea of “Platonic Love”
In his work “the Symposium”, a series of dialogues on the nature of love, Plato suggests that romantic desire is best expressed as an amicable truth-seeking relationship. This is where we get the term “Platonic” when describing a relationship based on friendship and mutual interests, rather than on physical chemistry.
9) Plato believed that we have a soul but live in a material world
In today’s society there are many different religions and spiritual belief systems, though a common element amongst so many is the concept of the soul. Most people consider the soul to be a part of a human that is non-material, and is often considered to be beyond time and space and therefore eternal. Major religions such as Christianity, Judaism, and Islam all have the soul as an integral and core component of their beliefs. Newer belief systems such as Wicca and the New Age movement talk about the soul.
But perhaps Plato’s influence on this subject is most profoundly present in the mainstream secular culture whom the majority of people fit into. People who do not practice a religion are often open to the idea of the soul. Certainly, there are dedicated atheists, but these are typically intellectuals who have taken the time to form position on the debate of wither the soul exists or not. For those who have not put much thought into it, the idea of the soul is usually considered very reasonable, which is a direct influence of Plato from 2500 years ago.
According to Plato, the soul has three parts: Reason, Spirit, and Appetite. Each part is located in a different part of our body. The Appetite is our desire for pleasures, comforts and physical satisfactions. It is located in our stomach. The Spirit is located in our chest, and is the part of the soul in which we get angry or hot-tempered. Reason is the part of the soul which loves truth and seeks to learn. He argued that Reason, which is located in the head, is the smallest part of the soul, but should rule over the other parts.
10) Plato inspired the specialization of labor
Nowadays in society most people are highly specialized in their skills. It is the norm to possess a skillset that allows us to earn a salary, while being almost completely useless in other areas of life. This is in contrast to earlier styles of life, where people would be responsible for almost all areas of their life, including preparing their food, fixing their clothes, dealing with medical issues, and so on. Plato said that people fall into one of three categories, each which is suited for different kinds of labor. The three categories also correspond to the three parts of the soul, Reason, Appetite, and Spirit.
One category is those who produce things, which includes farmers, and craftsmen. This category of labor corresponds to the Hunger element of the soul.
There is also the group of labor that is the Spirit of the soul. These are considered responsible leaders, such as military generals, who possess traits such as courage and trustworthiness.
The third group has to do with the Reason part of soul. This group of laborers are the rulers and scholars of society. They are dedicated to intellectual pursuits, and are the smallest part of society.
For 2500 years people continue to study the philosophy of Plato. His influence is seen in subtle ways throughout our society, and it is hard for us to imagine what our world would be like without his influence. Without Plato, we would not have records of Socrates, who never wrote anything down. Nor would we have Aristotle, the world’s first scientist. Plato laid the ground work for our modern ideas about politics and justice, and taught us the importance of thinking.
If you want to continue exploring this subject more deeply, you can see which books I recommend by clicking here.