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Bust of Plato (c427-347 BC). Along with Socrates, Aristotle and others, laid the foundations of Western philosophy. Plato (c427-347 BC) wrote extensively on many subjects and has given his name to the school of thought known as 'Platonism', still influential today.

One could almost call him (and Socrates) the co-founders of idealism, of the very concept of a 'better world' and so on, which still motivates some people even in these cynical times.

Socrates seems to have been the first to coin the idea of standing up for 'the good' or 'the right' even if doing so was counter to your own interests.  Although Socrates left no written records, Plato took this up (acknowledging Socrates) and developed it further in the Republic and elsewhere.  His thought was an important part of the mental furniture of pre-1914 public schools.

One of Plato's ideas was that abstractions such as The Good, Justice, Beauty, Truth and so on actually existed on some sort of higher plane of which this world was an imperfect copy.  The Republic sees the working-out of these ideas into the best way of running human society, and the emphasis on community may explain some of the appeal to public schools which were (and are!) societies in miniature even if highly eclectic ones.

He begins with justice, and the motives to become a just person, arguing that an individual's progress to becoming a just person must to an extent be mirrored in society as a whole.  He then carries his very hierarchical vision firstly into a discussion of human motivation, then into detail of how an ideal society might be organised.  (His system of psychology is complex and will not be discussed in detail here - for a reasonably accessible treatment, go to the website cited in the Bibliography.)

Very briefly, he sees human motivation as being divided hierarchically into three types.  At the top, so to speak is rationality - the drive to attain knowledge of what is good and true for its own sake.  Next comes 'spirited' attitudes - the striving for 'honour and social pre-eminence' (Stewart Shapiro), and finally 'appetitive attitudes' which include the drive to make a lot of money (some explanation here for the public-school habit of despising 'trade').

He then expands this outwards into the way society should be run, with philosopher-kings and a 'Guardian' class at the top, motivated by rationality and merchants and others at the bottom motivated presumably by 'appetitive' attitudes.  Throughout there is considerable emphasis on character, and strength of character - the latter being particularly important in the education of the upper echelons (the 'Guardians').

Such a hierarchical view would naturally find a ready audience in institutions devoted to the education and character training of the British upper classes!  Although the emphasis on 'philosophy' might be seen, logically, to contradict the games cult this does not seem to have occurred much to schoolmasters and others at the time.  Indeed, some of the training for his 'Guardians' or rulers includes physical training with an eye to the character as well, so beloved of the public-school system: 

"...The next stage in the training of our young men will be physical education."
"Of course"
"And here again they must be carefully trained from childhood onwards. My own opinions about this are as follows: let me see if you agree.  In my view, physical excellence does not of itself produce a good mind and character: on the other hand, excellence of mind and character will make the best of the physique that it is given."

The Republic, book 3, p.166 Penguin Classics edition'.

Throughout, a lot of emphasis in Plato/Socrates seems to have been on the impersonal - on virtue as Virtues, crystalline, pure, almost mathematical abstractions.  It is probably no coincidence that he sees mathematics - the study of pure forms - as an important part of philosophical training, and that familiarity with justice on the part of philosophers implies a rather impersonal duty to rule, over-riding personal desires.

In other words, rulers rule from a sense of duty derived from rational philosophising, not from personal ambition.  The phrase 'Platonic' love (colloquially, relationships without physical intimacy) arose from consideration of the duty to admire 'The Good' in another individual (rather, one suspects, than loving that individual for her - or him - self).

Some aspects of Plato, and of classical philosophy generally (both Greek and Roman) would have lain uneasily with Christianity (another pillar of the public-school establishment), but this seems to have been glossed over, at least officially.  However, Plato's emphasis on impersonal, ethereal virtues must have jarred in some minds at least with the personal God made flesh in the crucified and very human Christ Jesus.

Despite these contradictions, the 'Platonic ideal' of an aristocracy with a logical/philosophical duty to rule (rather than a desire based on personal ambition) did form an important part of pre-1914 public-school fostered idealism.  For more on this and how it affected certain individuals see the support article The Souls.


1. Plato's Republic trans. Desmond Lee, Penguin Classics edition 1974

2. World Wide Web: Shapiro, Stewart, "Classical Logic", The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy (Winter 2002 Edition), Edward N. Zalta (ed.)

Picture Credit:

Microsoft Encarta encyclopaedia, Standard Edition 2003, multimedia section for Plato

Click here to view the main article

Article and photographs contributed by Humphrey Reader.

'White Star' was a German mixture of chlorine and phosgene gas, so-named on account of the identification marking painted on the delivery shell casing.

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Minor Powers