Plato was the student of Socrates, who in turn is widely recognized as “the Father of Western Philosophy.”

Socrates, though, was not the West’s first philosopher.  In fact, he and Plato inherited a battery of philosophical problems that, courtesy of those thinkers who are today loosely known as “the pre-Socratics,” was already nearly 200 years in the making.  To these issues, we’ll turn shortly.  But first, we’ll look at his ethical theory, including, of course, his political philosophy, which is itself an aspect of ethics.

Moral Philosophy

To put it simply and in today’s terms, Plato is an ethical objectivist: He maintains that moral standards exist independently of perception, opinion, and belief.  They are what they are irrespectively of time and place.

More specifically, Plato is what’s known as an ultra-realist.  What this means is that he not only thinks that such things as Beauty, Justice, Truth, Goodness, etc. are real, i.e. standards governing all people in all places and at all times; Plato believes that they exist beyond the spatial-temporal universe in their own supra-sensible realm.

This is Plato’s “Two Worlds” theory.  For Plato, this world—our world—is the World of Sensible Particulars.  It consists of individual particular things that can be seen, tasted, touched, smelled, and heard.  These are things like individual particular chairs, humans, animals, rocks, and vegetables, as well as things that are beautiful, true, just, and good. Sensible particulars are temporal, mutable, and corruptible. The things of this world, that is, are in a perpetual process of becoming.

But the world of sensible particulars is not the only world.  It is but a shadow, an image, of another realm, what Plato refers to as the World of Universals, or Forms.  Jack is a particular human being.  Humanity is the universal.  What makes Jack a particular human being, and not some other kind of being, is Jack’s “participation” in, or “reflection” of, the universal, Humanity.

Particulars are the particulars of the kinds that they are because they are finite examples of the universals that they represent. So, what makes, say, a particular act morally good is that it conforms to and expresses, however incompletely and imperfectly, the universal of Goodness.

Whereas particulars, subject as they are to the constant flux of time, are impermanent and finite, universals are eternal and incorruptible: they never change.

The relationship between the World of Particulars and the World of Universals is for Plato fundamentally similar to how the Christian conceives of the relationship between this world and Heaven.  Just as this world, for the Christian, depends for its existence upon God, so too, for Plato, the World of Particulars depends for its existence upon the World of Universals.

Particulars stand in relation to Universals as shadows stand in relation to the objects that cast them.  Particulars, like shadows, are real, but they aren’t as real as Universals.  Objects are “more real” than shadows only in the sense that objects cause their shadows and are more durable.  Universals are more real than their corresponding particulars because they are the causes of the latter and are changeless, having neither a beginning nor an end.

So, for Plato, then, moral standards are not only real; they are maximally real, more real than their finite illustrations of which they are the causes.  Examples: If you donate some of your resources to a worthy charitable cause, this would be an example of an act that most would recognize as “good.” And if you were someone who habitually aspired to help the needy, most would recognize you as good.  But what makes you and your actions good is the “participation” of you and your actions in the Universal or Form of “the Good.”

Goodness is real and the apex of all of the Universals. It is the cause of all good things here in the World of Particulars.

Similarly, all beautiful, courageous, just, and truthful things in this world are what they are because of their dependence upon Beauty, Courage, Justice, and Truth, respectively, in the World of Universals.

To put this point another way, there wouldn’t be, there couldn’t be, any instances of what we today tend to generically call “moral values” unless these imperfect, finite instances derived from perfect, infinite Values.  There would be no limited instantiations of moral value unless they were contingent upon that which is unlimited, for, since something can’t come from nothing, these limited instances in the World of Particulars would have had to come from somewhere.  Something would have had to cause or “start” them, to make them what they are.

Hence, Plato’s conclusion that the particulars of this world—which, being intrinsically imperfect and mutable, never actually be, but are only ever becoming—depend for what qualified existence they possess upon true Being, the Universals of which they are but passing images.

Political Philosophy

Political philosophy is ethics.  For Plato especially, his ethical theory is one with his political philosophy.

Socrates, Plato’s teacher, is the key character of The Republic.  Though a lively debate has ensued as to whether Plato accurately represents the views of the historical Socrates or, rather, uses Socrates as a literary device by which to express his own thoughts, for our purposes we can and will view the ideas and arguments in The Republic as belonging to Plato.

 The Republic is an intellectual tour de force, a masterpiece of political philosophy that determined the themes and issues with which all subsequent political philosophy would have to come to terms.  Within this classic, for the first time, questions concerning the natures of justice and the State, as well as the responsibilities and rights of rulers and subjects, were subjected to a philosophical examination whose rigor was matched only by the richness of the imagination in which the issues were resolved.

The issue with which Plato was chiefly concerned was the issue of Justice.  The desire to clarify the nature of justice is the impulse that sets The Republic in motion, the thread that unites and pervades its parts. Plato was convinced not only that Justice is a property of both individuals and (political) communities, but that the Form or Universal of Justice would be virtually identical in the one as in the other.

Justice, that is, is a unitary concept, as universal in its application as it is timeless in origin.  But since the community is larger, or more visible, than the individual, in order to determine what justice is in the individual, he concluded that we must first determine what it is in the community, or the State.

The Republic, hence, is Plato’s effort to delineate the essential conditions of what he envisions as the ideal State.

In the ideal (or what Plato freely admits is an “imaginary”) state, each person will fulfill those functions which the class to which he belongs is by nature best suited to fulfill.  The notion that Nature is itself normative, the supreme authority whose call we ignore only at the cost of our own ruin, is a central feature of Plato’s thought.

In more recent times, this view has been criticized, often relentlessly so, on the grounds that the natural need not be, and is not, synonymous with the moral.  For example, that it is “natural” for people to have sexual relations with people other than their spouses doesn’t mean that it is morally permissible for them to do so.

But it probably isn’t primarily Plato’s equation of the natural and the moral that elicits fury from his critics as much as it is his conception of nature that does so: that nature (what we today may call “genetics”) plays no small role in distributing aptitudes isn’t as remotely controversial a proposition as the proposition that Nature has arranged these aptitudes in an hierarchical order.

It is this belief of Plato’s that shocks the sensibilities of all with a modicum of sympathy for the egalitarian spirit of our times.

To acknowledge that nature has something to do with the fact that the aptitudes and talents of individuals are different is one matter; to suggest that by nature some of these aptitudes and talents are intrinsically superior to others is another matter entirely.

But this is Plato’s claim.

There are, according to Plato, roughly three groups of which society consists. Those who belong to the first group, the masses, are driven primarily by appetite. These are the farmers and craftsmen—in short, the laborers.

The second group is comprised of those who are motivated essentially by their passions, including and especially the passion for honor.

The third and final group is constituted by those whose lives are governed by Reason.

As long as the members of each group are assigned those responsibilities and only those responsibilities that nature made them best suited to discharge, there will be Justice and, thus, Happiness in the commonwealth.

What this last point means is that those who nature ordained to be laborers should provide all of the basic necessaries for the citizens of the commonwealth by laboring; those who are full of high spirit, the passion for honor, will be the State’s “guardians,” protecting it from both external attacks as well as erosion from within; and, finally, those should rule who are “Guardians in the full sense,” those who are themselves ruled by reason.

The triadic structure of the State mirrors the triadic structure of the human soul.  In Plato’s understanding, the human person is essentially an embodied soul. This soul is comprised of three “principles” or parts: reason, passion, and appetite.  Just as Justice in the State is a reality when each of its three parts are related to one another as they should be, so justice in the soul is achieved when each of its three parts are in natural harmony with one another.

Simply put, as long as the passions and appetites are under the rule of reason, there is Justice.

Because of the premium that he places on reason, Plato is a rationalist of a sort. Yet his insistence that the most rational of society’s members must rule in the ideal Republic should not be permitted to obscure his acknowledgment that the subordinate classes are not without that which can be said to be knowledge in a sense. The difference, however, between the laborers, say, and the rulers, is that the laborers possess a specialized type of knowledge: they know, in short, how to labor. Rulers, in contrast, by virtue of the exceptional degree of reason with which nature has endowed them, know what is best, not just for themselves, but for all.

Historically, Western thought has affirmed four “cardinal” virtues: Wisdom, Courage, Temperance, and Justice:

A community’s wisdom is located within the smallest part of itself, among those relatively few who are ruled by reason.

Its courage is similarly located within a reasonably small part of itself, among those who are entrusted with the responsibility of defending it.

Its temperance consists in all of its members being in agreement that the naturally superior should rule the naturally inferior.

The following are some of Plato’s own remarks on this subject:


“So if a state is constituted on natural principles, the wisdom it possesses as a whole will be due to the knowledge residing in the smallest part, the one which takes the lead and governs the rest.  Such knowledge is the only kind that deserves the name of wisdom, and it appears to be ordained by nature that the class privileged to possess it should be the smallest of all [.]”


“Courage is another quality which a community owes to a certain part of itself.  And its being brave will mean that in this part, it possesses the power of preserving, in all circumstances, a conviction about the sort of things that it is right to be afraid of—the conviction implanted by the education which the lawgiver has established.”


“Temperance works in a different way from courage and wisdom: it extends throughout the whole gamut of the state, producing a consonance of all its elements from the weakest to the strongest as measured by any standard you like to take…So we are entirely justified in identifying with temperance this unanimity or harmonious agreement between the naturally superior and inferior elements on the question which of the two should govern, whether in the state or in the individual.”


“Where there are three orders, then, any plurality of functions or shifting from one order to another is not merely utterly harmful to the community, but one might fairly call it the extreme of wrongdoing. This is injustice. And, conversely, when each order—tradesman, Auxiliary, Guardian—keeps to its own proper business in the commonwealth and does its own work, that is justice and what makes a just society.”

 In summary, the perfect State is one that is ruled by a small, elite order of “philosopher-kings”—those whose souls are ruled by the soul’s crown jewel: reason. Their authority to rule derives from nature.


Metaphysics & Epistemology

It’s important to note that Plato’s moral philosophy is inseparable from the rest of his overall philosophy.  When philosophy initially took flight in ancient Greece some 200 years or so before he was born, the first philosophers, the “pre-Socratics,” weren’t primarily interested in addressing ethical questions. Rather, it was ontology or metaphysics that was their chief preoccupation.

If philosophy can be imagined as a tree with many branches, then metaphysics is its trunk.  We know what appears to be real, but what is really real?  This is the central metaphysical question.  What is ultimately real?  Jews, Christians, Muslims, Hindus and others answered that God is ultimately real.  Plato submitted that it is the universal of the Good.  Others from throughout Europe and around the world supplied still other responses.

The key question for metaphysics is: What is ultimately real?  For epistemology, the question is: How can we know what is really real?  Epistemology is the study of knowledge.

Plato’s overall philosophy is best understood as a synthesis of rival philosophical traditions that preceded him.  Parmenides is a philosopher who argued that this world of ever-changing multiple things—what Plato would refer to as the World of Particulars—is mere appearance.  This world is illusory, for change, Parmenides contended, is impossible.  He argued thus: If things changed, then they would have to move or change from the past, which, being no longer, is not, to the future, which, being not yet, is equally not. 

But what is not is nothing.  And nothing is inconceivable.

Thus, there is no multiplicity.  There is no change.  The only reality is what Parmenides called, “The One.”  Reality is a single, homogenous, indivisible unity that defies sense perception.  However, we know that it is as Parmenides explains it courtesy of Reason. His verdict regarding the nature of reality is the product of a deductive chain of logic:


(1)It is;

(2)It is not;

(3)It is and it is not.

Options (2) and (3), while grammatically sound, are metaphysically impossible, for what is not is no-thing.  And nothing is neither a referent nor even a possible object of thought.

So, the only alternative is (1).  What is, is. And what is must, then, be self-sufficient, without beginning and without end, changeless, One.

Because of his reliance upon Reason and repudiation of sense-perception, Parmenides is recognized as the West’s first proponent of the theory of knowledge, the epistemology that would come to be known as Rationalism.

At the other end of this spectrum is Cratylus.  A disciple of Heraclitus (who famously remarked that one “can never step in the same river twice”), Cratylus insisted stability, what the psychologists call “object-permanence,” is the illusion.  The reality, he maintained, is perpetual, omnipresent change.

The world is constant flux.  Cratylus didn’t think that Heraclitus went far enough.  Since change is constant, it follows that one cannot step in the same river even once.  It is language, Cratylus believed, language with its labels and names that gives rise to the false impression that the world consists of stable objects, entities that endure over time.  For this reason, Cratylus, it is said, tried to refrain from even speaking! Instead he would wag his finger and point.

And because Cratylus believed that nothing exists for more than the smallest unit of time, he concluded that knowledge is impossible.  In order for something to be known, it must be knowable over time; it must never change. But since everything changes, there is never anything there to be known.

This is his argument for the epistemology or theory of knowledge known as “Skepticism.”

Plato achieved a synthesis of these two competing traditions of thought.  This is the brilliance of his Two Worlds Theory.  His reasoning is as follows:

Parmenides is correct that knowledge is possible; that it derives from Reason; and that ultimate reality is changeless, a unity, and transcends sense-perception.

But Parmenides is incorrect inasmuch as he denies the existence of the world of time and space, of ever-changing, sensible particular things and, thus, the legitimacy of the senses.

Similarly, Cratylus is correct in noting that the spatial-temporal world, the flux, is real.  He is as well correct in asserting that only if something is changeless is it knowable.

But Cratylus is incorrect in denying the oneness of reality and the possibility of knowledge.

Parmenides and Cratylus both went awry in failing to perceive the hierarchical structure of reality, the gradations of reality.  They both failed to see that there are, in Plato’s terminology, two worlds.  This world is indeed real, but only as real as a shadow, i.e. not as real as another world, an invisible world that it “reflects” and that is its ground, its cause.

Both Parmenides and Cratylus are correct that only that which is changeless is, strictly speaking, knowable.  Genuine knowledge, for Plato, is knowledge of the Universals.  Yet because sensible particulars, however imperfectly, instantiate or reflect these Universals, we can know the essence of these particulars.

Again, it’s not that the details of particulars are knowable; about the details, we form, not knowledge, but beliefs or opinions.  We are, though, able to identify particulars as being the particulars that they are precisely because we are able to discern—via Reason, and not sense perception—the Universals that these particulars embody.


Philosophy, in the final analysis, is indivisible.  How a person answers questions of one kind–What is real? Is knowledge possible and, if so, how so? How should individuals conduct themselves? How should societies be arranged?–are all ultimately inseparable from one another.  Plato’s philosophy is illustrative of this.  By now, it should be clear that it’s not really possible to understand and appreciate Plato’s moral philosophy without locating it on the map of his overall worldview.


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