“Do we say that justice itself is something? Of course. And the fair and the good? Surely. Then have you ever seen any of these sorts of things with your eyes? In no way. But then have you grasped them with any other sense through the body. . . . Is it through the body then that what is most true of these things is contemplated? Or does it hold thus?” –Plato (Phaedo)
“No one is able to attain the truth adequately, while, on the other hand, no one fails entirely, but everyone says something true about the nature of things, and while individually they contribute little or nothing to the truth, by the union of all a considerable amount is amassed.” –Aristotle (Metaphysics)
“You will always be a child of two worlds. . . . The question you face is: which path will you choose?” –Sarek to his half human, half Vulcan son, Spock (Star Trek)
For the last 2,500 years, the Western world has hosted a battlefield — a philosophical tug of war if you will. Repeatedly stretched and twice torn asunder, the West has developed under two almost diametrically opposed and competing worldviews. It’s remarkable that it ever mends, but it does. The two teams in this ceaseless struggle are the philosophical descendants of Plato (c. 428 – c. 348 B.C.) and his rebellious student Aristotle (384 – 322 B.C.). These two ancient Greek titans of thought share my designation as the 30th most influential figure in Western history.
You might not know it, but you probably adhere, with some minor deviations, to one of their schools of thought. You’re either a Platonist, who believes in absolute morals, the supremacy of the ultimate good, objective truths unveiled by a series of deductions, and the potential release of the immortal soul from our material world into an idealized higher plane of existence; or you’re an Aristotelian, one who looks to this material world for answers in a never-ending, empirical quest to learn about the universe, studying and categorizing all findings, using not just deduction but also inductive reasoning to incrementally unearth knowledge. In personal relationships, mind you, they get along fine. On larger scales, however, these competing schools have competed for centuries.
Still, the most ardent Aristotelian must have a great deal of respect for Plato. The English philosopher Alfred North Whitehead once argued that “The safest general characterization of the European philosophical tradition is that it consists of a series of footnotes to Plato.”
Plato learned under the legendary Socrates and his eponymous method. Consequently, Plato’s prime years were filled with wondering, questioning, re-questioning, and challenging preconceived notions. Through this critical analysis, Plato would grow into a renowned philosopher in his own right, and it’s his own writings that make Socrates a legend at all.
Plato’s inclusion in my Top 30 stems mainly from his contributions to government, metaphysics, and epistemology. Centuries after his 348 B.C. death, his worldviews were largely appropriated by Christianity — particularly the Roman Catholic Church — and it is the adoption of Platonic ideals into the West’s dominant religion and denomination that secured Plato’s spot on this list.
Perhaps his most famous work, The Republic outlines an ideal form of government. Disillusioned with the democratic process that killed his mentor in 399, Plato instead argues for a meritocracy — a government in which the most capable citizens rule by a series of qualified, chosen successors. Neither democratic nor despotic, such a state would avoid the volatile whims of an impulsive mob as well as the menacing moods of an arrogant autocract. These enlightened leaders, or “philosopher-kings,” would be educated in the affairs of the state, own little land, make little money, have no familial distraction, and would place the health of the state above all personal concerns. While no actual state has fully adopted this mode of governing — autocracies and, much more recently, republics have ruled the world — many of these ideas have nevertheless been embraced in Western governments.
Still, while no government has wholly adopted The Republic’s ideals, the Catholic Church came pretty close. Like Plato advised, the Church’s officials — from popes to priests — are chosen from within the organization after years of ecclesiastical education, and most of its clergy have lived in poverty, with little land and no wife or children.
Not limited to just the Church’s clerical hierarchy, Christianity’s roots in general drink deeply from the wellspring of Platonism. Plato proposed that the material world perceived by our basic senses is filled with imperfect manifestations of idealized “Forms,” which exist on a conceptual plane of reality that most of us cannot yet perceive. Essentially, the things we perceive around us are imperfect copies of those Forms. Examples include shapes, like circles and squares. No perfect circle or square exists materially; zoom in enough to either and flaws will emerge. Yet, we know circles and squares conceptually, and we agree on these forms’ properties even if we can’t reproduce them materially.
When we expand that analogy beyond shapes, we’ll understand why early Christians appropriated many facets of Platonism to strengthen their doctrine. Instead of shapes like circles, think about concepts such as beauty and goodness. Like shapes, they are universal concepts; yet, in practice — in the material world — they are rarely perfect. Take “Goodness” for example. For millennia, ethics and philosophy classes have debated the idea of a “universal good.” Are there moral absolutes? Is anything universally right and good or wrong and bad? For many, it’s a messy debate with no easy answers.
But for Platonists and Christians, there are, in fact, moral absolutes. There is an absolute Good. Plato likened the Good to the sunlight outside his allegory’s cave — a warm bath of knowledge and grace withheld from those stuck in a dark dungeon. Christians, similarly, propose God as the originator of morals prescribed to the world through the Bible. In Plato, all goodness emanates from the sun; the more one allows the light to guide them, the closer to Good and Knowledge one gets. Christians, too, spend lifetimes studying their religion, trying to move closer to God and His perfect knowledge. In either case, just as we can’t create perfect shapes, we can’t reproduce perfect Beauty and Good; to err is still human. Yet, according to Platonism and its Christian cousin, the forms of Beauty and Good exist conceptually thanks to the Sun/God, and we’re encouraged to work toward them. The kicker: Plato, in Phaedo, argues that at death, our immortal soul is released from the material world into that higher plane. The Christian connection could not be clearer.
Also clear, then, is Plato’s importance in Western history. When early Christians like St. Augustine and Pseudo-Dionysius merged Neoplatonic philosophy into their religion, they solidified Plato’s ongoing influence on the West’s dominant religion. Even when the Greco-Roman world crumbled in the fourth and fifth centuries, the Roman Catholic Church during the subsequent Middle Ages became the dominant political and social institution in the Western world. Thus, even in the greatest socioeconomic collapse in civilized history, Christianity survived and propagated. The result was that Plato, “the Athenian Moses,” continued to deliver the truth to the Christian people.
As the Middle Ages progressed under the premise of a singular, ultimate Good, the Church used its authority to control all corners of western Europe. After all, if there is only one truth and one perfect Good, anyone who disagreed with it must be less good — and maybe even bad. No longer was one allowed a personal, local relationship to God or the gods. The Church did its best to homogenize Christianity. Over the next ten centuries, the swords of armies commanded by Constantine, Clovis, Charlemagne, and others ingrained the Catholic interpretation into the region. Only with Martin Luther and the Protestant Reformation of the sixteenth century did the Church lose its grasp on the West, and only since then has the right of the people to personally interpret the Word returned. Still, from the rise of Christianity to its reformative schism, the West was decidedly Platonic.
Book-ending the Middle Ages are the ancient and modern worlds. The transition from ancient to medieval was marked by a tumultuous fifth century that included three raids on the city of Rome and the dismemberment of the Western Roman Empire by Germanic tribes. As shown, the power vacuum left by Rome’s fall was replaced by an increasingly dominant papacy. Platonism, via Christianity, became the reigning Greek philosophy for the next thousand years. But then, as medievalism gave way to modernity, the Church’s power slipped, and Plato’s philosophy gradually lost control of the West. It was then that the philosophy of his star student made a roaring comeback.
But to learn about him, you’ll need to come back on Friday.
Socrates won’t make our list of 30, and here’s why. Socrates’s teachings, method, and philosophy were never recorded by him. Rather, it was his students, Plato especially, who circulated and preserved Socrates’s ideas. Most notably, Plato’s famous “dialogues” star Socrates as the main inquisitor. Moreover, the idolization of their master — especially after his heroism in the face of a flawed trial and execution — surely corrupted the students’ accounts of their great teacher. The inability to precisely know what Socrates thought, said, and did has become known as the “Socratic Problem.” Thus, his dependency on Plato for posterity and his problematic reputation bump Socrates from our list in favor of his pupil and pupil’s pupil.
His founding of the Academy in 387 should not be overlooked, but for the sake of column length, I will be overlooking it.
For example, many argue that the height of Roman power was under the “Five Good Emperors” (A.D. 96 – 180), the last four of whom were adopted by their predecessor based on merit, which was similar to Plato’s proposal. The termination of the adoption line—marked by the ascension of Emperor Commodus, the true son of the last of the Five Good Emperors, Marcus Aurelius, in A.D. 180 — is hailed by many as the beginning of Rome’s lengthy downfall. Point Plato.
More recently, the American founding fathers did their best to set up a meritocracy, creating a constitution that ensured their own office and placed numerous checks on the power of democracy over the federal government. In fact, the founding fathers only pejoratively used the term “democracy.” I assure you they had read their Plato.
Interestingly, after “Neoplatonism” was introduced into third century Christianity, mostly thanks to St. Augustine, many historians and some small Christian denominations argue that this meddling changed Christ’s original message, doctrine, and practice. But that’s for another time. Side note: Augustine did not make the top 30, but he would have made a top 50.
Most commonly, the idea of mass murder is brought up as an example of an absolute wrong. However, when it comes to defending one’s homeland, family, or self, all of a sudden killing seems appropriate. Modern terrorists are excoriated for killing innocents, but Truman and the Enola Gay bombers get passes for incinerating 70,000 Japanese civilians. So, potentially, even killing is acceptable under the right parameters.