It’s all very well for Alfred North Whitehead to characterise the development of Western thought as “a series of footnotes to Plato”, but come on: it’s 2017. Why do we still care about what some old, dead, white guy thought and wrote?

Science doesn’t bother itself so much with that. In physics, for instance, we don’t sit down and learn what Euclid thought, or Archimedes, or Eratosthenes (who, incidentally, calculated the circumference of the Earth – and he wasn’t far off!). Of course not. What would be the point? You’re not interested in what they thought, because science has moved on. In philosophy papers I took as an undergraduate, though . . .

Knowledge and Reality – started (indirectly) with Plato.
Aesthetics – started with Plato
Political Theory – started with Plato
Meta-ethics – started with Plato
Ancient Philosophy – didn’t start with Plato (because he was the whole middle section of the course).

In the case of Aesthetics, it wasn’t even a survey from ancient thought through medieval, modern, contemporary to the present; we looked at Plato then jumped straight into the 1950s. So I think we can safely say that philosophy departments have a bit of a hardon for Plato. So he’s got to be relevant to how we do philosophy in the twenty-first century, right? Otherwise we wouldn’t bother looking at his work so much. That certainly seems to be the case for the philosophers who came before old Baldy (Plato’s name in Greek – a nickname, actually – means “broad”; possibly a reference to his physical stature or the size of his forehead. I favour the forehead theory, myself): the first recorded Western philosopher, Thales of Miletus, is not mentioned in any course at my uni that I know of except Ancient Philosophy, so he isn’t relevant anymore. Why not?

Well, we’re not asking the same kinds of questions anymore. Thales (and other pre-Socratic* philosophers) were more interested (though not exclusively) in how the world had come to be and its nature, questions we’d now consider science. Aristotle gave them the name “inquirers into nature”.** So we’re not going to turn to them for answers any more. Fair enough, right? There’s still research going into the Pre-Socratics, and there are a lot of unanswered questions, but they don’t wield the might and power they used to.

So, what makes Plato relevant? Surely we’ve answered his questions by now.

If only.

The old master raised some questions we still don’t have answers to two and a half thousand years later. Let me put that in context for you. The Roman Empire, seat of ancient civilisation and inspiration for so many shitty movies, was still a little insignificant village in barbarian Italy when Plato was around. It’s thanks to him we get the word “academic”: he founded the Academy in Athens.

Now, when I say we don’t have answers to Plato’s questions, that doesn’t mean nobody’s suggested any, it means there’s not answer that’s universally accepted. Perhaps they’re all wrong. Or, perhaps they’re all right. I don’t know.

Let me give you some examples of Plato’s questions that we haven’t answered. These are the generic ones:

How should we live?
What happens after death?
How do we have knowledge?
What is knowledge?
What is the best kind of political regime?
Who should rule?

Here’s a more specific one, called the Euthyphro Dilemma (which really deserves its own article, and which I’ve updated and rephrased for modern times):

Is an action morally good because God commands it, or does God command it because it is morally good?

If you answer “because God commands it”, that makes morality arbitrary (which we’d generally say is a bad thing). If you answer “because it is morally good” then God is not required for morality and so any Divine-Command theory of morality (such as the Abrahamic religions) has a bit of a problem. We don’t have a universally accepted answer to the Euthyphro Dilemma yet, but the best answer I’ve seen is: it’s both. Some morals are independent of God, others aren’t. Deal with it.

Have some of Plato’s questions been answered? Yes, sometimes by him and other times by the philosophers who came after him. In a late work, the Sophist, Plato tries to work out what “not” means. That sounds simple to us, but he was working in a philosophical tradition that said not-being didn’t make sense. Nevertheless, he worked it out, and thus we have the first concept of negation, one of the key relations in logic. Is negation a settled question? Not at all. But we’ve got some groundwork laid, thanks to the old master.

So the moral of the story is that philosophers have been looking for answers to basically the same questions for twenty-five hundred-odd years. We’ve still not answered most of them satisfactorily. We look to the Greeks not just because of their historical value, or because they’re intrinsically interesting, but because we think they might be able to help us shed some light on these questions, even today.

And that, frankly, blows my mind.


* Pre-Socratic, as in prior to Socrates (c. 469-399BC), even though some of them lived at the same time as him. That was also fairly obvious.
Waste of a footnote, really.

** Physiologoi, if you’re interested. Metaphysics 986b.

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