Why do we know of Plato?

  • Consider when he lived, 427—347 BC. Little survives from so long ago.
  • Consider what he did. He was a philosopher. He strove to think. Thinking is a spiritual act. Our senses cannot perceive a thought. We have difficulty conveying thought. Preserving a thought is even more difficult.
  • Consider how we preserve our thoughts, in writing. What we write perishes easily if no one cares to keep what we have written.

So what was Plato’s legacy? Why does anything remain of him who lived so long ago?

PLATO, the great Athenian philosopher, was born in 427 B.C., and lived to the age of eighty. His literary activity may be roughly said to have extended over the first half of the 4th century B.C. His father’s name was Ariston, said to have been a descendant of Codrus; and his mother’s family, which claimed descent from Solon, included Critias, one of the thirty tyrants, and other well-known Athenians of the early 4th century B.C. That throughout his early manhood he was the devoted friend of Socrates, that in middle life he taught those who resorted to him in the grove named Academus, near the Cephisus, and there founded the first great philosophical school, that (with alleged interruptions) he continued to pre-side over the Academy until his death, are matters of established fact. (continued here (encyclopedia.jrank.org))

Plato was a teacher and writer. Plato taught others what he had learned about thinking, and those he taught preserved their memory both of him and what he wrote, and later generations did the same. Here is a description of Plato’s last written work.

In the Laws, Plato’s last work, the philosopher returns once again to the question of how a society ought best to be organized. Unlike his earlier treatment in the Republic, however, the Laws appears to concern itself less with what a best possible state might be like, and much more squarely with the project of designing a genuinely practicable, if admittedly not ideal, form of government. The founders of the community sketched in the Laws concern themselves with the empirical details of statecraft, fashioning rules to meet the multitude of contingencies that are apt to arise in the “real world” of human affairs. A work enormous length and complexity, running some 345 Stephanus pages, the Laws was unfinished at the time of Plato’s death. According to Diogenes Laertius (3.37), it was left written on wax tablets. (from here (iep.utm.edu))

Can you imagine writing a large composition on wax tablets. Today most of us compose on computers using word processing programs, and we consider that expensive and laborious. To share his thoughts with a small audience (one that appreciated what a gift it is to think), Plato labored much more mightily than most of us ever will.

Plato’s Laws is strangely reminiscent of the tasks Moses and later Joshua faced. Moses wrote the Mosaic Code. Joshua conquered and divided up the Promised Land by lots. Because designing the laws for a hypothetical Cretan colony of 5040 citizens is the pretext for the Laws, Plato includes a system for dividing up the property of the colony.

What follows is an excerpt from Plato’s Laws. This excerpt is also the basis for the question posed by the title of this post.

Further, the law enjoins that no private man shall be allowed to possess gold and silver, but only coin for daily use, which is almost necessary in dealing with artisans, and for payment of hirelings, whether slaves or immigrants, by all those persons who require the use of them. Wherefore our citizens, as we say, should have a coin passing current among themselves, but not accepted among the rest of mankind; with a view, however, to expeditions and journeys to other lands,—for embassies, or for any other occasion which may arise of sending out a herald, the state must also possess a common Hellenic currency. If a private person is ever obliged to go abroad, let him have the consent of the magistrates and go; and if when he returns he has any foreign money remaining, let him give the surplus back to the treasury, and receive a corresponding sum in the local currency. And if he is discovered to appropriate it, let it be confiscated, and let him who knows and does not inform be subject to curse and dishonour equally him who brought the money, and also to a fine not less in amount than the foreign money which has been brought back. In marrying and giving in marriage, no one shall give or receive any dowry at all; and no one shall deposit money with another whom he does not trust as a friend, nor shall he lend money upon interest; and the borrower should be under no obligation to repay either capital or interest. That these principles are best, any one may see who compares them with the first principle and intention of a state. The intention, as we affirm, of a reasonable statesman, is not what the many declare to be the object of a good legislator, namely, that the state for the true interests of which he is advising should be as great and as rich as possible, and should possess gold and silver, and have the greatest empire by sea and land;—this they imagine to be the real object of legislation, at the same time adding, inconsistently, that the true legislator desires to have the city the best and happiest possible. But they do not see that some of these things are possible, and some of them are impossible; and he who orders the state will desire what is possible, and will not indulge in vain wishes or attempts to accomplish that which is impossible. The citizen must indeed be happy and good, and the legislator will seek to make him so; but very rich and very good at the same time he cannot be, not, at least, in the sense in which the many speak of riches. For they mean by ‘the rich’ the few who have the most valuable possessions, although the owner of them may quite well be a rogue. And if this is true, I can never assent to the doctrine that the rich man will be happy—he must be good as well as rich. And good in a high degree, and rich in a high degree at the same time, he cannot be. Some one will ask, why not? And we shall answer—Because acquisitions which come from sources which are just and unjust indifferently, are more than double those which come from just sources only; and the sums which are expended neither honourably nor disgracefully, are only half as great as those which are expended honourably and on honourable purposes. Thus, if the one acquires double and spends half, the other who is in the opposite case and is a good man cannot possibly be wealthier than he. The first—I am speaking of the saver and not of the spender—is not always bad; he may indeed in some cases be utterly bad, but, as I was saying, a good man he never is. For he who receives money unjustly as well as justly, and spends neither nor unjustly, will be a rich man if he be also thrifty. On the other hand, the utterly bad is in general profligate, and therefore very poor; while he who spends on noble objects, and acquires wealth by just means only, can hardly be remarkable for riches, any more than he can be very poor. Our statement, then, is true, that the very rich are not good, and, if they are not good, they are not happy. But the intention of our laws was, that the citizens should be as happy as may be, and as friendly as possible to one another. And men who are always at law with one another, and amongst whom there are many wrongs done, can never be friends to one another, but only those among whom crimes and lawsuits are few and slight. Therefore we say that gold and silver ought not to be allowed in the city, nor much of the vulgar sort of trade which is carried on by lending money, or rearing the meaner kinds of live stock; but only the produce of agriculture, and only so much of this as will not compel us in pursuing it to neglect that for the sake of which riches exist—I mean, soul and body, which without gymnastics, and without education, will never be worth anything; and therefore, as we have said not once but many times, the care of riches should have the last place in our thoughts. For there are in all three things about which every man has an interest; and the interest about money, when rightly regarded, is the third and lowest of them: midway comes the interest of the body; and, first of all, that of the soul; and the state which we are describing will have been rightly constituted if it ordains honours according to this scale. But if, in any of the laws which have been ordained, health has been preferred to temperance, or wealth to health and temperate habits, that law must clearly be wrong. Wherefore, also, the legislator ought often to impress upon himself the question—’What do I want?’ and ‘Do I attain my aim, or do I miss the mark?’ In this way, and in this way only, he may acquit himself and free others from the work of legislation. (from here (gutenberg.org))

Think about those two sentences. “And if this is true, I can never assent to the doctrine that the rich man will be happy—he must be good as well as rich. And good in a high degree, and rich in a high degree at the same time, he cannot be.” Was Plato right? Does his explanation make sense? It is something to think about. Do you, as Plato did, love to think?


  1. Honestly, I sometimes trust a wealthy person more. They aren’t as beholden, they speak their actual mind, and know that a good business deal is not about screwing someone. That strategy is a long term loser as many know … but many still don’t. To whom are you more likely to lend your car, a person who could buy you a new car or a friend who can’t even afford gas?

    1. It is complicated subject. This much is obvious.

      Proverbs 28:6 English Standard Version (ESV)
      6 Better is a poor man who walks in his integrity
      than a rich man who is crooked in his ways.

      Some folks seem to miss this.

      1 Timothy 6:10 New King James Version (NKJV)
      10 For the love of money is a root of all kinds of evil, for which some have strayed from the faith in their greediness, and pierced themselves through with many sorrows.

      Wealth is not evil. The love of money or wealth, however, is a problem. Jesus put it this way.

      Matthew 6:24 New King James Version (NKJV)
      24 “No one can serve two masters; for either he will hate the one and love the other, or else he will be loyal to the one and despise the other. You cannot serve God and mammon

      Unfortunately, most of us find the prospect of riches tempting. So we have this proverb.

      Proverbs 30:7-9 New King James Version (NKJV)
      7 Two things I request of You
      (Deprive me not before I die):
      8 Remove falsehood and lies far from me;
      Give me neither poverty nor riches—
      Feed me with the food allotted to me;
      9 Lest I be full and deny You,
      And say, “Who is the Lord?”
      Or lest I be poor and steal,
      And profane the name of my God.

  2. Fray, I never formally studied Plato or any other Philosopher.

    I believe any man who contemplates virtue to be a good man.

    I often wonder why God does not end our world. I believe in the story of Job that as long as their is one good man, he will not.

    I’M willing to bet on you to be the reason He will not in our age group So don’t change b4 my time up.

    Regards and good will blogging

  3. Interesting and enjoyable article Tom. I haven’t read Plato in many years, but Plato figures highly in the writings of many other authors and philosophers that I have read more recently. How do you compare Plato’s thoughts to Aristotle and to more modern philosophers like Schopenhauer or Hegel?

    Also, how do you analyze Plato’s ideas on government in that thought problem we discussed earlier, that is if all men were angels in their moral goodness, but they were still finite beings in every other way and were still living in the same finite and fallen world as we have now, how would they govern themselves? Would there be more government because our angelic leaders could be trusted to administer things morally or would we need less government because individuals could be trusted to make their own decisions, or finally, would there be more administrative government than ever and virtually no need for protective government? And how do you think wealth would be shared and distributed in such an angel state?

    1. @Tsalmon

      Glad you enjoyed this post.

      I am not going to try to compare Plato with those German philosophers. Don’t know enough. I am still trying to become familiar with the philosophers the people who founded this country read.

      Laws actually partly addresses your second issue. It would probably be better if you read what he says, but what it comes down to is that Plato thought that we should own everything in common. However, we are not virtuous enough to make such a system work. In fact, Plato seems to think the purpose of government is to promote virtue.

      Laws is Plato’s attemp to write laws for people as they are, not as we might wish. People, Plato admits, can be quite corrupt. I suppose that is why Laws is such a long work, and I am still working my way through it.

      1. Philosophy, as it pertains to governing, wasn’t exactly perfected at our founding you know. At the founding, leadership was a contentious thing, but it was still more or less a patronage system where elite, well educated, often slave holding landed male gentry passed power power back and forth within and between their own elite class’ rival party factions.

        By the time of Lincoln, universal male suffrage had turned us into a more clientelistic government where anyone who could promise large blocks of voters could control governmental and military leadership. Lincoln always had a long line around the White House of parochial potentates promising a block of votes in return for post master slots or military commissions. The professional merit driven civil service and military didn’t start in this country until Teddy Roosevelt and wasn’t really complete until WWII. These changes resulted more as a response to competitive international necessity and reality than because of methodically derived changes to governmental philosophy. In other words, the March of modernity drove changes to governmental systemics as much or more than any preexisting philosophy.

        Hegel, along with Kant, was heavily influenced by Plato and Socrates. Born about a generation later, Hegal was not quite a contemporary of the Founders, but they all would have had the same influences. Hegel, in turn had a profound effect on both Marxism and Fascism. He continues to have a good deal of influence on contemporary sociologists like Francis Fukuyama.

        Something about modernity makes, particularly Americans, think that if it didn’t just happen, it can no longer be relevant any more and it is probably obsolete. I used to think that way too – even as I was struggling through Plato, I was thinking that this has to be pretty arcane stuff. I have only recently come to realize that, although someone like Aristotle’s physics may be primitive, his metaphysics may be as relevant as ever. Some fundamental things may be timeless and true, but others, if they do not recognize current reality and necessity, must be adapted or discarded. Let’s not throw the baby out with the bath water, but let’s not keep reusing dirty bath water either.

        We should lionize the Founders. Their system of checks and balances was brilliant in its skepticism. The idea of a government for the people was lofty in its optimism. But before we go too far in deifying the oft contentious Founders, we ought to realize that, by today’s standards, we would not even recognize the government we had at the founding as a democracy.

        1. @Tsalmon

          Not too much to disagree with. I too am perfectly happy with lionizing the founders. Deifying the founders would be idol worship.

          Where are we in our progress in philosophy with respect to governing? I think the founders gave much more care to crafting the Constitution than we have given either to amending it or to the changes we have allowed by judicial fiat.

          As you suggested, some ideas are timeless. So are some of the sins we are prone to commit. The Bible is a book that contains much wisdom, including wisdom that pertains to the philosophy of government.

          Whether Plato had access to the Old Testament I don’t know, but I suspect he did. Nevertheless, it is apparent Plato did not take the Bible completely to heart.

          Where are we most mistaken today? We have forgotten the lesson of the Book of Judges. We tend too much to do what is right in our own eyes instead of God’s eyes. We forget that each of us belongs to God, not to some man, not even the state.

    1. @Lynn

      Plato favored something like Socialism, but he realized it would not work. He says everyone owning everything in common would be the highest form of government, but only the gods could do it.

  4. Plato yet would not be happy or try well liked or in tune with our contempirary USA, in my opinion.

    I wonder why he did not want foreign currency in the state?

    Seems it would be a way of keeping trade balances positive. As well as preventing foreign ownership of their State to occur.

    The USA is owned now by more foreigners than ever in history.

    Regards and good will blogging

    1. @Scatterwisdom

      Good question! Why didn’t Plato want a foreign currency? Plato did not have a high opinion of commerce. He did not want the citizens of his colony chasing after money, not even foreign money.

      Check out the next paragraph in Laws. Plato actually wanted a hard limit on what people could earn. Any excess was to be given up to the state.

      It is surprising how old are some of the ideas we think new.

      1. Plato may have been a great philosopher and thinker, but he did not understand the power of economic incentives which both reward and drive people to do more than the ordinary in our contemporary world.

        King Solomon has been described by some to also be a philosopher. His wisdom about wealth was opposite Plato, which today we might identify as a Communistic, Socialist, or even Democrats.

        Both had wonderful minds to lead mankind to Utopia. However, I believe King Solomon realized there will never be a Utopia on this Earth.

        As for gathering wealth in life, we know many times pursuing wealth becomes vanity of man and useless when we die.


        God gives some people wealth, possessions and honor, so that they lack nothing their hearts desire, but God does not grant them the ability to enjoy them, and strangers enjoy them instead. This is meaningless, a grievous evil. (Ecclesiastes 6:2)

        In my opinion, Solomon thinking was wiser and more practical than Plato on the economics in life.

        We know from recent history that the communist, socialist, thinking of Utopia fails over time or can only survive without Dictators and without freedom.

        Our contemporary socialist leaning Democrats politicians seem not to have read either Plato or Solomon.

        Either do they understand “there is no such thing as a free lunch” economics of free-market economist Milton Friedman.

        Regards and good will blogging.

        1. @Scatterwisdom

          Plato would would have been somewhat reluctant to describe King Solomon as wise. It seems Solomon was raised by his mother in his father’s harem, and King David neglected his children. Given what Solomon wrote in Ecclesiastes, he would have been hard put to disagree.

          I think Plato hoped we could use the law to create a virtuous people. He apparently saw that every now and then a society neared his ideal, but failed to keep it together. So he taught and documented his ideas.

          On the other hand, I expect that King Solomon would have saw Plato as trying to play God. As those last two verses of Ecclesiastes point out, our duty is to obey God, not government. What one man sees as virtuous, another may not.

          1. Tom,

            You stated, ” I think Plato hoped we could use the law to create a virtuous people.”

            You began your post with explaining and acclaiming Plato for writing volumes of laws on wax tablets to hopefully guide men to virtue. Solomon wrote volumes on wisdom. Moses, wrote volumes, etc/ etc.

            My point is while laws guide us what to do, there are far too many laws and far too many people in history and our contemporary world.

            What I like best about King Solomon’s philosophy was the summary. Follow the Ten Commandments and eat drink and live to enjoy your limited time of the blessing of life given you by our Creator.

            Such a simple message, yet so difficult to comprehend as evidenced by history.

            The main reason why was also given by Solomon.

            “This only have I found: God created mankind upright, but they have gone in search of many schemes.”(Ecclesiastes 7:29)

            My point being that millions of words of laws and philosophies written by man are meaningless vanities of men.

            “Be warned, my son, of anything in addition to them. Of making many books there is no end, and much study wearies the body.” (Ecclesiastes 12:12)

            Yet, here we are both writing and writing, while at the same time because men in the USA have decided that we have the freedom to say what we want and write millions of words of what we think, the answer is and always was so, so, simple.

            Yet we mortal men keep on repeating the same mistakes because in spite of what we say or do, “there is nothing new under the sun.”.

            In other words, we are fools to think we mortal men know more than our Creator.

            Sad. However, if we do not keep trying to teach his laws, we are doomed to be the victims “of our own schemes,” which history has proven to be foolish over time.

            That’s why I personally think the teachings of King Solomon (Wisdom) and Jesus Christ (Love) are the only messages of value to lead us to live a virtuous people on earth during our limited time.

            Regards and good will blogging.

          2. @Scatterwisdom

            Don’t exactly disagree, but keep in mind that Plato was a pagan. He sought wisdom as best he could.

            Plato lived in a time when might made right. He sought to convince his students and those in charge that the wise should rule, not the strong. Since the Bible tells us to pass wisdom onto our children, we cannot fault his goal. His means we can rightfully doubt, but Plato did the best he knew.

            When we devise our schemes, we tend to do what is right in our own eyes (something the Book of Judges affirms). Plato tried to see from the eyes of others, even the gods. In this he showed wisdom, and he has earned our respect.

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