May 21, 427 B.C.E.

Delphi Platon statue.

Today is thought to be the date of birth of the Greek philosopher Plato, student of Socrates and teacher of Aristotle. Together the three formed the basis of Western philosophy. Nevertheless, when one compares Plato with some of the other philosophers who are often ranked with him — Aristotle, Aquinas, and Kant, for example — he can be recognized to be far more exploratory, incompletely systematic, elusive, and playful than they. That, along with his gifts as a writer and as a creator of vivid character and dramatic setting, is one of the reasons why he is often thought to be the ideal author from whom one should receive one’s introduction to philosophy.

Plato was born with the name Aristocles. He was surnamed Plato because of his exceptionally well-developed broad shoulders. He founded the Academy in Athens, Greece, which is considered to have been the prototype of the modern university. Many of his writings focused on justice, virtue and politics, although he also had great interest in rhetoric, art, and literature. Plato himself did not contribute substantial works directly to science and mathematics, but his stress on mathematics and philosophy, and his insistence on defining terms rather than trusting intuition, influenced many later thinkers. Furthermore, his ideas on education and what constituted knowledge inspired his followers to explore the world in new ways.

In Plato’s dialogue entitled Theaetetus, Socrates considers a number of definitions as to what knowledge is, the last being that knowledge is true belief that has been “given an account of” — meaning explained or supported in some way. According to this definition, in order to know that a given proposition is true, one must not only believe the relevant true proposition, but one must also have a good reason for doing so. In other words, no one would gain knowledge just by believing something that happened to be true. For example, an ill person with no medical training, but a generally optimistic attitude, might believe that he/she will recover from his/her illness quickly. Nevertheless, even if this belief turned out to be true, the patient would not have known that he/she would get well since his/her belief lacked justification. This is the most widely accepted definition of knowledge that has persisted to the modern day.

Interestingly, Plato, through his famous Symposium, has given his name to the love that dare not speaks its name, even though Platonic love has come to mean lately a kind of sexless friendship. That Platonic love before Freud was clearly Gay love is evident in Patience, Gilbert and Sullivan’s devastating satire on the aesthetic movement, in which the effeminate poet Bunthorne sings about “an attachment a la Plato for a bashful young potato and not too French, French bean!”

Noteworthy Quote:

Every heart sings a song, incomplete, until another heart whispers back. Those who wish to sing always find a song. At the touch of a lover, everyone becomes a poet.

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