Justice, virtue, truth–an understanding of humanity rests largely upon these ideals. People come from varied backgrounds and strive toward different goals, but all share a fairly universal idea of what is right and what is wrong. Whatever the state of society, most people are aware that some measure of decency exists and that seeking said measure is a noble pursuit. Such was not always the case, for most of civilization’s early ages were shrouded in confusion and fear unmitigated by hope for a better way of life. Plato was one who sought to tear down this shroud.
For millennia, from Sumer to Greece, generation after generation lived in superstitious trembling at the whims of the gods–gods apathetic or outright hostile to humanity. The cosmos was not a realm of order, but the plaything of immortal despots constantly vying with each other, modeled more on petty tyrants than ageless beings of benevolence. Perhaps they could be humored by regular sacrifices and temple observances, or perhaps not; honoring one god could just as easily anger another. Life was just a ceaseless game of appeasement, and the stakes could change at any time. There was no hope in heaven, and the deities were merely fearsome extrapolations of earthly authoritarianism. It is little wonder, then, that many rejected the notions of gods altogether and embraced relativistic philosophies epitomized by the sophist Protagoras’ statement, “Man is the measure of all things.” Under close scrutiny, no reason seemed evident in the religious tenets of the time. It seemed logical to abandon the gods in favor of a mindset wholly dependent upon the individual.
With Plato came something different. Building off his teacher Socrates’ famous question, “What is the best way to live?” he showed the value of virtue as a sovereign entity. In Plato’s mind, there were absolute concepts of justice, virtue, and truth, and while physical desires clouded judgments and obscured pure wisdom, these ideals existed independently of human observation. Like his famous allegory, humanity may be staring at shadows in a cave, but a world of light exists beyond those walls, waiting to be discovered. Plato was such a person, shunning the superstitions of the past and the libertine ways of the sophists in favor of the truth–this beautiful, powerful concept that some concrete, changeless Justice exists, that there is one true point in the universe, and that people can set their course to its direction.Over the din of a raucous world, there is (to borrow from Christian phraseology) a “peace that passeth understanding.”
Of course, Plato was not the only one to strike at these ideas. In the Near East, Judaism had grown prominent, teaching that God demanded righteousness for its own sake; a code of ethics was literally set in stone, commanding people to live moral lives and deal justly with one another. In the Far East, Buddhism taught that virtue led to enlightenment; it forbade cruelty and crooked dealings. All of these belief systems share a love for truth. What separates Platonism from the others is the systematic approach it took to questions of morality, presenting opposing arguments and seeking answers through logic. Without having to appeal to the authority of a deity (although his writings often carry a religious bent), Plato strove to evoke understanding with the rationality of his teachings.
None of this should imply that Plato was perfect in his thought process, for no person can honestly claim all knowledge. Instead, it is the logical foundation Plato left for future generations of philosophers that continues to be felt in the present day. The greatest takeaway from Platonic philosophy is this: however imperfect the attempts to find it may be, however long the road, though the struggle to obtain it extends until death, truth exists, and the pursuit of it is a thing to be desired.