Assumption in Athenian society was the spike that Socrates struck at most. Socrates expressed passionately during his time that knowledge brought about virtue and excellence to the human condition. Individuals acted wrongly or unjustly out of ignorance. Socrates, like many of his fellow sophists were doing at the time, was challenging established thought. He was supreme in rhetoric and went beyond arguing points to show logical inconsistencies in his opponents’ arguments. He always reached for moral clarity that could be arrived at through rational debate, he thought, because of his profound belief in knowledge and virtue. Thus, the concept of human morality that was independent from time, space or circumstance was born, so to speak, and has marked western civilization thought ever since.
Socrates’ teaching and his uneasy relationship with powerful members in Athens put him and risk. He was brought up on charges and in accordance with Athenian democracy, stood before a jury, or an assembly of the people, and was found guilty by a margin of 280 to 211. After scolding the assembly, Socrates chose poison over execution.
This, of course, was all recorded by his star pupil, Plato. Athens mob behavior under its democratic system during time of war or uproar appalled him. However, the decision by the citizen’s jury gave Plato a real sense of disgust and lack of confidence in the wisdom of the people. That is because Plato felt the real world, the ideal one, was beyond our physical approach and senses. Therefore, knowledge could not be found using the natural senses. In his work The Republic, Plato said physical life was like that of people living in a cave. Because of the caves’ darkness, all the inhabitants can see are the shadows coming in from those outside of the cave where the ideal world existed. That passage revealed his distrust of the senses from the physical and a persons’ inability to grasp the ideal.
Being that Plato was a student of Socrates and a citizen of Athens, one would expect Plato to be a democratic reformer and philosopher. However, many are shocked after reading The Republic and Plato’s very undemocratic ideas. There is no free exchange of ideas, poetry, or art in Plato’s republic. His republic is ruled by oligarchies of philosophy. The upper classes’ family life is abolished in favor of system of eugenics where children would be administered to and instructed for leadership roles of the republic. In essence, Plato sought to build a fixed and finished society, past the messiness of the physically limited world and into the ideal.
Plato’s obsession with the ideal caused him to introduce idealism into politics which paves the way for tyranny and totalitarianism. He left the foundation of rational debate and turned to abstract rationalism. He gave up on an open society and the confidence in the rule of people. Plato chose control over liberty, an uneasy thought for westerners. There is certainly much to criticize from Plato’s The Republic. However, there is a very important gift Plato gave to the western world. He envisioned an ideal republic where intelligence could be used to determine man’s predicament in the physical world, and strive for perfection from the ideal. Thus, the concept of abstraction was given to western philosophers and has been with our civilization ever since.