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“How can you prove whether at this moment we are sleeping, and all our thoughts are a dream; or whether we are awake, and talking to one another in the waking state?”
“Good actions give strength to ourselves and inspire good actions in others.”
Plato was born in Athens in 429 B.C.E. to wealthy and aristocratic parents. His real name is thought to have been Aristocles, after his grandfather. The name Plato comes from Platus, Greek for wide or broad. We don’t know whether Plato got his ‘broad’ name from his figure, forehead, or style of teaching.
As a young man Plato spent a great deal of time listening to and talking with Socrates. When Socrates died Plato wrote down as much of his teachings and ideas as he could, which is why we know as much as we do about Socrates.
Plato was an experienced soldier and politician, but he left Athenian politics after Socrates was executed. He travelled through Italy, Sicily, and Egypt. While in Italy he learnt about Pythagoras and became convinced that mathematics provided the best training for the mind.
Around 387 B.C.E. he returned to Athens. He founded the Academy and taught there until he died in 347 B.C.E. The Academy lasted for 900 years, longer than any other known school. Plato believed that an ideal education consisted of 10 years learning arithmetic, geometry, astronomy, and harmonics, followed by 5 years learning dialectics--the art of question and answer.
One of Plato’s most well known stories comes from The Republic, one of the 30 books he wrote. In it he explains that people are comfortable not knowing the truth because they don’t know any different. If a person starts to learn the truth he may become scared and want to return to being ignorant. But as he keeps looking, the truth becomes less frightening and he is no longer happy to stay ignorant.
Plato uses The Allegory of the Cave to illustrate this. He suggests that there are people who have always been kept prisoner in a cave, chained so that they can only see the back of the cave. Behind them, outside the cave, people and animals pass by. A fire in the cave throws their shadows onto the back wall, so the shadows are the only things the prisoners can see. The prisoners naturally believe that the shadows are real.
If one prisoner is freed and turns around she will at first be blinded by the glare from outside the cave, and frightened and confused to discover that everything she had believed was not, in fact, the truth. She might want to run back to the safety of the cave, but with time she would learn the truth and would want to help others learn it, too.
Plato’s books are called dialogues. These were written in the form of conversations that students would have to study and discuss in order to uncover the true meaning of the world. In them he wrote about dance, music, drama, architecture, religion, politics, mathematics, and more.
In fact, he wrote about the world.