Born at Athens in roughly 428 BC, Plato was a
disciple of Socrates and the teacher of Aristotle. Founder of the school
known as the Academy, named after the grove of Academus in which it was
located. The selections below deal with how man is able to know things
outside of himself (The Republic), and communion with the divine in beauty
(The Symposium). Plato is said to have continued at his work until
death at the age of eighty.
Catholic Encyclopedia s.v. "Plato and Platonism"
Plato, The Republic - Book VII
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And now, I said, let me show in a figure how far our nature is enlightened or
unenlightened: - Behold! human beings living in a underground den, which has a
mouth open towards the light and reaching all along the den; here they have been
from their childhood, and have their legs and necks chained so that they cannot
move, and can only see before them, being prevented by the chains from turning
round their heads. Above and behind them a fire is blazing at a distance, and
between the fire and the prisoners there is a raised way; and you will see, if
you look, a low wall built along the way, like the screen which marionette
players have in front of them, over which they show the puppets.
And do you see, I said, men passing along the wall carrying all sorts of
vessels, and statues and figures of animals made of wood and stone and various
materials, which appear over the wall? Some of them are talking, others silent.
You have shown me a strange image, and they are strange prisoners.
Like ourselves, I replied; and they see only their own shadows, or the
shadows of one another, which the fire throws on the opposite wall of the cave?
True, he said; how could they see anything but the shadows if they were never
allowed to move their heads?
And of the objects which are being carried in like manner they would only see
Yes, he said.
And if they were able to converse with one another, would they not suppose
that they were naming what was actually before them?
And suppose further that the prison had an echo which came from the other
side, would they not be sure to fancy when one of the passers-by spoke that the
voice which they heard came from the passing shadow?
No question, he replied.
To them, I said, the truth would be literally nothing but the shadows of the
That is certain.
And so, Glaucon, I said, we have at last arrived at the hymn of dialectic.
This is that strain which is of the intellect only, but which the faculty of
sight will nevertheless be found to imitate; for sight, as you may remember, was
imagined by us after a while to behold the real animals and stars, and last of
all the sun himself. And so with dialectic; when a person starts on the
discovery of the absolute by the light of reason only, and without any
assistance of sense, and perseveres until by pure intelligence he arrives at the
perception of the absolute good, he at last finds himself at the end of the
intellectual world, as in the case of sight at the end of the visible.
Exactly, he said.
Then this is the progress which you call dialectic?
But the release of the prisoners from chains, and their translation from the
shadows to the images and to the light, and the ascent from the underground den
to the sun, while in his presence they are vainly trying to look on animals and
plants and the light of the sun, but are able to perceive even with their weak
eyes the images in the water (which are divine), and are the shadows of true
existence (not shadows of images cast by a light of fire, which compared with
the sun is only an image) - this power of elevating the highest principle in the
soul to the contemplation of that which is best in existence, with which we may
compare the raising of that faculty which is the very light of the body to the
sight of that which is brightest in the material and visible world - this power
is given, as I was saying, by all that study and pursuit of the arts which has
Plato, The Symposium
This, my dear Socrates,’ said the stranger of Mantineia, ‘is that life
above all others which man should live, in the contemplation of beauty absolute;
a beauty which if you once beheld, you would see not to be after the measure of
gold, and garments, and fair boys and youths, whose presence now entrances you;
and you and many a one would be content to live seeing them only and conversing
with them without meat or drink, if that were possible-you only want to look at
them and to be with them. But what if man had eyes to see the true beauty-the
divine beauty, I mean, pure and clear and unalloyed, not clogged with the
pollutions of mortality and all the colours and vanities of human life-thither
looking, and holding converse with the true beauty simple and divine? Remember
how in that communion only, beholding beauty with the eye of the mind, he will
be enabled to bring forth, not images of beauty, but realities (for he has hold
not of an image but of a reality), and bringing forth and nourishing true virtue
to become the friend of God and be immortal, if mortal man may. Would that be an