Plato was an ancient Greek philosopher born in Athens during the classical period around 428 BC to 348 BC. Plato founded the Academy in Athens, a school of philosophy and research. His teachings and ideas would later become known as Platonism. Plato was a pen name, derived from a nickname given to him by his wrestling coach when he was a young man, which referred to his broad shoulders (as platon means flat in Greek). His actual name was Aristocles.


Plato was an innovator of the written dialogue and dialectic forms in philosophy. He also critically analysed the nature of knowledge and the application of mathematical principles in understanding the cosmos. Consequently, Plato’s Academy became the ancestor of the modern university. Plato wrote many works that have survived and have been read by many great thinkers, philosophers, scientists and mathematicians through the ages. Plato taught that the world that appears to our senses is in some way defective and filled with error, and that there is a more real and perfect realm that is eternal and changeless that exists beyond space and time. Among his most famous books is the ‘Republic’, which describes an ideal state that governs a society that is truly just, honest, free of corruption and crime.


In the ‘Republic’, Plato describes the importance of educating people so that they can lead better lives for themselves, the community and for society. Pluto famously uses the allegory of the cave to explain the importance of education. In the allegory, he likens ignorant people to prisoners chained in a cave all their lives, facing a blank wall. These people watch shadows projected on the wall from objects passing in front of a fire behind them and they give names to these shadows. The shadows are the prisoner’s reality but are not accurate representations of the real world and we perceive these inaccurate forms through our senses. Plato, using Socrates as the narrator, explains that a well-educated person or scientist is likened to a prisoner that breaks free from his chains and escapes the cave to see the sunlight, which represents a higher level of reality. Once this person returns to the cave and tells the prisoners of his observations, they refuse to believe him and consider him mad. Plato reminds us of the dangers of ignorance and how easy it is to manipulate and brain-wash the ignorant, and only through knowledge can we produce a better and just society.


Plato greatly influenced Western philosophy and knowledge by developing its many branches, including epistemology, metaphysics, ethics and aesthetics. He also inspired the notion that true knowledge of reality can only be acquired through mathematical contemplation of abstract forms. Modern theoretical physicists, past and present, are essentially Platonists, including Paul Dirac, Werner Heisenberg, Erwin Schrödinger, Albert Einstein, Linus Pauling, Steven Hawking, Roger Penrose, and many others. Plato also inspired Renaissance and Enlightenment thinkers, including Rene Descartes, Johannes Keplar and Isaac Newton, and his legacy and writings together with Aristotle, have profoundly influenced Western philosophers and scientists alike.  


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