Plato was born in 428 BC and grew up in a time of major political change in Ancient Greece. The Peloponnesian War began a few years after he was born and continued until he was twenty. Plato would have been liable to serve in the military after 407 BC and it is thought that he probably served in the final years of the war (Luce 94).
During the final years of the war, open disloyalty to democracy grew. This led to a period where the group known as the Thirty Tyrants ruled Athens. This group included two of Plato's relatives, Critias and Charmides. While Plato was tied to the group through family, it is believed that he was against their beliefs and actions. These actions included confiscating goods from wealthy citizens and putting many individuals to death (Irwin 85). At this time, Plato also had a close relationship with Socrates, who opposed the oligarchic rule.
The Thirty Tyrants and their government were then deposed, with democracy returning in their place. However, this democracy viewed Socrates as antidemocratic and eventually put him on trial and executed him. This is the trial that Plato describes in the Apology.
This led Plato to turn away from politics, which would have been his life work because of his parent's political background. Instead he turned to travel, study and philosophy. The period was one where the beginnings of science were just developing. Individuals studied astronomy, geology and religion in exclusive universities across Europe. Learning was not yet something that every individual was involved with.
The time was also one where government was becoming the focus, rather than religious matters. People were not governed by the laws of God, but by the laws of the state. This was a time where the rules of government were just being implemented and on a political level, a time of great change and uncertainty.
B. Who was Plato?
Plato was a philosopher whose writings spanned many subjects. To examine Plato's philosophies more closely, they can be divided into three sections: the Socratic, the Platonic and the Late philosophies.
The first of Plato's writings are referred to as 'Socratic.' This is because rather than present Plato's own ideas they reflect on the ideas of Socrates. These works include Apology, Crito, Protagoras and Gorgias. Socrates was Plato's teacher and before Plato is able to present his own philosophies he first comes to an understanding of the philosophies of Socrates. This process is analogous to the learning methods in modern society. A student of mathematics, for example, first learns the theory that the mathematicians before them has developed. After understanding this, the mathematician is then able to make their own addition to the subject. This first period also illustrates that Socrates was one of the major influences on Plato's life. The ideas of Socrates became the basis on which Plato modelled his own, accepting and analyzing the ideas and then adding his own perspective to them.
The next set of dialogues are what are termed 'Platonic.' This illustrates two things. Firstly, that these dialogues are now based on Plato's own ideas, rather than those of Socrates. Secondly, that the ideas in these dialogues are so revolutionary they have been used to label an entire philosophical system. It is a tribute to the lasting relevance of these ideas, that even today, philosophies based on these ideas are still referred to as Platonism, even though they have been created by modern day philosophers. These dialogues include Republic, Phaedo, Symposium, Parmenides and Theaetetus. In these dialogues Plato covers subjects such as metaphysics, politics and psychology and also deals with the theory of forms and the theory of ideas.
The final period is the late period and includes Sophist, Statesman, Philebus, Timaeus, Critias and Laws. This is a period where Plato reflects on some of his earlier philosophies.
Looking at some of the major ideas presented in Plato's works it can be seen what influenced his work and how his ideas developed. Two of these major ideas relate to the nature of knowledge, the nature of justice in the state.
Plato's ideas on knowledge are expressed in his dialogue Theaetutus, where Plato asks the question 'what is knowledge?' Plato then attempts to develop criteria that can be used to define when someone really knows something. In doing this, the distinction is made between believing something and knowing something. Plato makes this point by using the example of a court case. In a court case, the skilled lawyer can convince the jury to believe that someone is guilty, even if they are not (Appiah 36). Plato makes the point that believing that something is truth, does not mean that it is true. Hence, there is a difference between knowledge and belief. Plato then answers the question 'what is knowledge' by stating that knowledge is something you believe, something that is true and something you are justified in believing (Appiah 35). Plato's ideas on knowledge are also expressed in his theory of Forms. Plato defined two conditions that are necessary for knowledge, "The object of knowledge must be an unchanging object, and it must be directly grasped by the mind" (Luce 99). According to Luce (99) "a Platonic Form (Idea) is not a thought in someone's mind but something that exists per se as an immutable part of the structure of reality." These philosophies on knowledge can be related to Plato's own experiences. Plato's lack of belief in the court system is one component of his life that became a motivating factor for these philosophies. Plato saw Socrates be executed based on the beliefs of the court room and the jury. Plato was aware that while the court room did believe that Socrates should be executed, their beliefs were wrong. This was a firsthand experience of seeing the difference between knowledge and beliefs. This situations seems to have evoked a need in Plato to remove the subjectiveness from such matters and base them on objective means. Plato's attempt to define knowledge and distinguish it from belief is the result. Also applicable is Plato's belief in the sciences. These are based not on subjective means but on objective means. It is likely that Plato's experiences recognizing the error in beliefs led him to seek out the certainty that science offered. His own philosophies then sought to find this same objectiveness in human experience that was seen in the sciences.
Plato's rejection of the politics of society also had a significant impact on his philosophies. As noted earlier, Plato witnessed the rise of the Thirty Tyrants and their rule and then their subsequent replacement with democracy. Yet in both approaches, Plato saw the form of government as problematic, with the Thirty Tyrants executing citizens and then the democratic system executing Socrates. In the Republic Plato "denounces democracy as a system that both flatters and moulds the impressionable and irrational impulses of the public, with no concern for people's real interests" (Irwin 107). He then argues that "the right sort of state cannot exist unless philosophers rule it" (Irwin 107). In saying this, Plato is rejecting the state as either a democracy or an oligarchy. In both cases, according to Plato, the good of the individual is lost with people instead seeking meaningless things.
This rejection of the government of the time is one reason why Plato was so controversial. At a time when democracy was being implemented as a government for the people, Plato was saying the opposite, that it was really a system working against the people. Rather than focus on human virtue, the government causes people to seek out other benefits. Plato also argues in the Republic that a democratic government leads to class conflicts. In giving a solution to this problem, Plato argues that, "Since most people do not know what their own interest is, or what will promote the common good, they should not be rulers. The people with the necessary knowledge are the philosophers who know the Forms; hence they must rule the ideal state" (Irwin 108). This argument illustrates three reasons why Plato's ideas caused controversy. Firstly, they reject democracy as a good thing. Secondly, they state that the average person does not know what is in their best interests. And thirdly, they state that the philosopher is the only one capable of ruling a state effectively. Whether or not these statements are correct, it is not surprising that they were taken badly. Asserting that people don't know what they want is almost certainly going to be taken as a personal insult. The same applies to those in government. The final statement that a philosopher is the only one who should rule is also certain to be taken as a sign of Plato being self-centered. The controversy that Plato caused then, is a product of the arguments he makes as well as the way he presents them.