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Saturday, July 11, 2009

A Peek at Plato

Mr. Pinto’s Class Note – 10th July, 09.

(Scene: It’s 5 minutes to the end of Mr. Pinto’s class and he hasn’t yet arrived; busy with an extended interview-meeting. Just when we were all trudging along outside to enjoy a lazy day at the campus, he’s in our class in a flash. There’s an explosion of energy and in just about 10 minutes, he gives us a mine of information. By all rights we should have been groaning and saying nasty things about him, for first making us wait, and then making us stay those extra 10 minutes. But the palpable energy being exchanged in those ten minutes was, to everyone’s good fortune, mutually relished. Besides, it was obvious we had rescued him from what appeared at that time to be brain atrophy. So who cares about those extra 10 minutes when we were briefly heroes?!?)

‘Adeimantus, you and I are not making up stories at the moment; we are founding a community.’

[379, Republic, Book II]

Whether he had known at that time his impact on the future generations of thinkers or not, there is no disputing that the Greek Philosopher Plato laid the foundations of Western Philosophy. He gave initial formulation to the most basic questions and problems (which will be discussed in the next few postings) of Western thought. Literary critics throughout the ages have returned again and again to the classical themes set down by Plato and it would scarcely be an exaggeration to say that history of criticism cannot properly be understood without some of Plato’s key ancient texts, especially since they have exerted such a seminal influence on the discourse of criticism in the ages to come.

A lot of speculation is drawn about the personal details of Plato, only natural considering his popularity. Even his name is being speculated about. Plato or Aristocles, after his grandfather? We know that his birth was roughly around 427/428 B.C and his death, 347/348 B.C. He came from an old Athenian family, said to have played a prominent part in Athenian politics. So it’s interesting that he chose philosophy over politics as his way of curing the ills of society.

An old story says Dionysius sold Plato as a slave and his friends and uncles bought him and set him free. He then became a student of Socrates and later founded the ACADEMY. The Academy was the first school of philosophy and is acknowledged as the first university of the world. At the entrance of the Academy was written:

‘Those who don’t know geometry do not enter this portal.’

This doesn’t just refer to the significant role of mathematics in philosophy and a philosopher’s life but also the importance of abstract thinking required of a philosopher. The little that is known about the Academy is that it was a public gymnasium and that Plato didn’t charge fees for his lessons. It is unlikely that Plato’s school had many of the institutional features of a modern university, so all those who’d like to visualize Plato in his Academy as a sort of Father Vice Chancellor at Christ University, kindly cease thinking along that line of thought.

One known public lecture of Plato’s on ‘The Good’ was said to be a fiasco because the audience came to hear about probably the good life and Plato talked about mathematics.

Plato was the first thinker to demarcate philosophy as a subject, as a distinct way of thinking about, and relating to, a wide range of issues and problems. Philosophy in this sense is still taught and learned in schools and universities today. To put it succinctly, we’re still tackling the questions and problems laid down by Plato in this very 21st Century and that sums up the significance of Plato’s theories in our lives.

[References: Mr. Pinto; A History of Literary Criticism and Theory – M. A. R Habib; PLATO – A Very Short Introduction, Julia Annas]

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