A Modern and Practical Take on Plato’s Philosophy

Plato’s Republic approaches questions about the nature of goodness, how it affects the actions of men, the nature of truth, what motivates us, and the nature of justice. Plato does so with an eye to exploring the socio-political and individual ramifications of these topics, as well as explaining his theories on how they are inextricably intertwined.

The Republic’s sixth and seventh books comprise some of the most influential literature in Western philosophy. Is this philosophical and political treatise, written during the 4th century, still relevant to modern society? Like any literature, The Republic is only as important as the influence of those who read it. To effect improvement in a society, we must look beyond the pipe dreams of philosopher-kings and epistemological meanderings; we must apply truth in a practical sense, and endeavor to appeal to the desires and dreams of our fellow man. Philosophy for pleasure is all well and good, but philosophy for living is another thing entirely. If taken in this light, the Republic could be perceived as a call to action.

What, then, would Plato’s cave allegory call us to do to improve our own lives in respect to justice, goodness and truth?


Idea #1: Think for yourself.


        There’s a at least a hint of this sentiment in all of Plato’s themes discussed in the Republic. A strong heart of this assertion exists especially in his Divided Line, in that belief and faith are denounced as weak suppositions, and rational thought is held as being the highest standard for evaluation and interpretation of ideas. Likewise, Plato’s Cave Allegory makes this point a central theme, extolling the virtues of leaving the cave of ignorance where others remain, and finding the light of wisdom on your own. Only when you leave this dark and ignorant place can you begin to awaken to the light, the shadows it casts, then the objects of the world themselves, the stars, and finally, the sun. While those persons left behind are busily conferring ridiculous honors to one another in the erroneous wisdom of the cave, once a man has seen the light, he has no desire for these honors. Plato asserts that the wisdom of Homer speaks of a higher truth: It is better to be the poor servant of a poor master and to endure anything, rather than think as they do.


Idea #2: Be humbled by truth.


        This goes along the lines of Socrates’ paradoxical “scio me nihil scire” (I know that I know nothing). Fortunately, Plato’s Realm of Forms aids us in giving shape to the undiscovered and unknown. Plato tells us that we dream, impossibly, of things we have never seen. This is made possible due to the existence of truth and the realm of forms, in which perfection is modeled and all less perfect things are styled after. Although we cannot ever hope to attain perfect wisdom or understanding, we can, through the aid of mathematics and science, come closer to the perfect truth if we allow ourselves to accept new ideas. In a sense, Plato says that we should not anticipate what we expect to find in our search for truth, but that we should instead be receptive to things we had not anticipated and humble ourselves to the truth. This imperative, by nature, supersedes any notions of faith or belief, and places it trust solely in logical thinking, rather than mere sensory perception.


Idea #3: Expect resistance to teaching the truth (and then do it anyway).


        Plato’s mentor, Socrates, was sentenced to death by the Athenian government for disrupting the social order. He was, apparently, more interested in truth than self-preservation.  His execution is a perfect example of the violence that Plato attempts to caution us about. Like the former cave-dweller who returns to the cave to offer enlightenment to his former companions, anyone who attempts to share wisdom and truth with the masses exposes himself to ridicule and violent rejection. This didn’t stop Socrates, and it shouldn’t stop us, either. Not everyone is in a frame of mind to accept their dogmas being challenged, but those who are must be found. Perhaps this is why Plato preferred the company of educated men, who had already chosen to open their minds to a new way of thinking in the interest of gaining some insight as to the true nature of existence.

As detailed in Plato’s divided line analogy, there are those who seek a higher wisdom, and those who are content to adopt religion and the beliefs put forward by others. He places faith on the opposite end of the spectrum from intellect, which would seem to cast a shadow over the plausibility of any religious belief system. Plato would have likely espoused an agnostic spiritual view, in which he admits to being ignorant of the nature of the original cause for existence, and places his trust squarely in the hands of philosophical and scientific reason. As Plato’s divided line theory and sunlight analogy demonstrate, perfection cannot be attained by man, but understanding of goodness and justice can be achieved through the light of intellect.

To all of these ends, Plato wished to inspire us. He dares us to be bold; he dares us to find our own truth. Anyone who seeks enlightenment is sure to find it. With enough honesty and humility, true wisdom is possible. It is much more difficult, however, to sustain the courage and tenacity that the truth requires.

12 thoughts on “A Modern and Practical Take on Plato’s Philosophy

  1. Seems the timeless, unchanging search of man is for meaning in life! For Truth! The paradox to me is the interchanging of the idea of concluding one’s own truth as ‘the truth’. The Socrates quote: I know that I know nothing” comes from a search for knowledge and truth by one incredibly knowledgeable fellow. This implies to me, that the search for knowledge and wisdom leads to more searching and finding. And, that one can discover truth but not alter it, and the idea of one’s truth being true for oneself and another’s truth being true for that self is … untrue. Truth is truth whether I believe it or not. I can find it, but I cannot manufacture it. Truth IS, and longs to be found, but will not be created by me or any man. So… faith and intellect seem to exist side by side, not on opposite ends of the spectrum. 🙂

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    1. Jewel Love

      I really like your thoughts on this. I’ve come to the same conclusion as you: The search for truth often leads to more questions than answers. Your comment on faith is interesting. It made me wonder: Are faith and truth really on the same end of the spectrum of reality? I believe they are on the same end of the spectrum of ” experience,” but when it comes to truth, there is only one reality, one genuine truth. If we evaluate our existence and everything in it by “faith” and subjective perspective, then what we are evaluating is not truth, but a mere “perception” of truth, which I believe are two very different things…

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  2. Idea 2 (being humbled by truth and “I know that I know nothing”) really resonates with me– and most people if I had to wager a guess! We should always be thinking deeper and I think this was a great post on some tried and true ideas!

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    1. Jewel Love

      Thanks, Jessa! This particular topic is of special interest to me, and the idea of being humbled by truth has been with me for as long as I can remember. While it may be a bit rough around the edges, this essay was cathartic to write. It’s nice to get the ideas you’ve had trapped inside your head for so long out on “paper.”

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  3. Your post reminds me of other examples of people who have sought and evangelized the truth but have suffered as a consequence. Galileo determined that the Earth revolves around the Sun but he paid a price for going against popular beliefs. I think we are seeing this today with scientists telling us one thing and leaders telling us another. I don’t think this problem is going away. Thank you for a great post!

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    1. Jewel Love

      It takes courage to be honest with yourself and discover the truth, and even more courage still to do something about it in a way that improves the quality of life for mankind. It’s interesting how the struggle for that truth seem a steep a difficult climb, while the descent into conformity and greed through dishonesty are an effortless roll downhill. I don’t like to think of myself as a pessimist, but this propensity for decline does make me wonder about the inherent nature of mankind.

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