Plato (c.428-347 BCE)
The process-based empirical thinking of Heraclitus and Epicurus did not become of mainstream interest and influence until the modern era. Plato had a far greater influence through most of western history. I’ll focus on a particular aspect of his thought – Platonic Idealism – to emphasise how different his views are, compared to those of Heraclitus and Epicurus. Note that Plato had a profound influence on the Christian theology of Augustine – and thence on western Christianity as a whole.
According to Antony Flew, for Plato, ‘The term ‘Idea’ is equivalent to the term ‘eidos’ (form). Both are connected with the Greek word ‘idein’ (to see); an idea (or Idea) is something that is seen – but seen by a kind of intellectual vision.’ But what is an Idea? For Plato, Ideas (or Ideals) are ‘pure’ or ‘perfect’ forms that exist independent of human agency in a transcendent realm that we could call ‘ultimate reality’. Plato argues that Ideal Forms are unchanging over time and in relation to any individual’s viewpoint. A geometrical circle, defined by an equation, constitutes an unchanging and universal ‘idea’ – whereas the circle I draw in my book or the circle formed by the edge of my cup are only relatively circular. The drawn circle and the rim of my cup have imperfections and appear to change in shape depending on our angle of viewing them. Plato takes this relativity to be subordinate to the eternal transcendent world of the Ideal circle.
So, for Plato, everything in the material human world, the world of appearances or everyday ‘reality’ is a kind of pale imitation, shadow or echo of the world of Ideal Forms – which constitutes the primary reality. Our perspective on things is always incomplete and relative. Our everyday world is a kind of illusion compared to the ‘reality’ of the Ideal. Hence, Plato’s preference for those aspects of human thinking that come closest to the Ideal realm: rational thought, mathematics, geometry.
Plato has been enormously influential (upon Christianity, Medieval scholasticism, Renaissance thinking and on later philosophers like Kant, Berkeley, Hegel, et al). This tradition has tended to place value on geometry, mathematics, rationality, logical discourse, universals, essentialism and reductivism – all of which can be seen as exemplifying Platonic Ideals/Ideas/Forms. This way of thinking, which typifies the dominant strand of Western philosophy from the Ancient Greeks to the second half of the 19th Century, tends to be highly dualistic. The mind is separated from, and valued above, the body. Rationality is valued above intuition; logic above the illogical; thinking above feeling; the abstract and general above the concrete and specific; the absolute above the actual; perfect over imperfect; mind over matter; essence over appearance; the infinite over the finite; certainty over uncertainty, transcendent and universal ‘truth’ over conditional truths; and so on.
Note how different Plato’s philosophy of unchanging, transcendent, dualistic, ideals, is to the process-based, non-dualist, anti-essentialist thinking of the Buddha – as put forward in the earliest Buddhist texts.
Early Greek Philosophy by John Burnet – Adam & Charles Black, 1971.
A Dictionary of Philosophy edited by Antony Flew – Pan Books, 1984.