I am happy to announce that the second installation of the Tackle the Library series is finally here! This book took me five months to write and I am thrilled to have the project completed. Plato is a tough dude to study and I read over 4,000 pages of text to write this tiny book. Do not fret, I guarantee that you will be able to understand Plato’s philosophy in this easy-to-read narrative. Below is the description.
Plato’s philosophy, political theory, and scholasticism shaped our modern day world. His ideas and writings are both important and honestly confusing. Have you ever wanted to learn about this crucial man but felt overwhelmed by the number of books on the subject? Have you tried to read dry Wikipedia articles on the “Forms” or the “Philosopher King” which soon made your eyeballs glaze over? Do you simply not care that much about Plato to commit a lot of time in dissecting his complicated beliefs?
The Tackle the Library series takes the top 5 books on a subject and turns them into a cohesive story that is not only interesting to read but highly informative. Plato is one of the greatest philosophers of all time and is worth learning about because he attempted to understand topics which impact our everyday life: ethics, desire, virtue, wisdom, love, politics, and purpose to name a few. This book makes nonfiction a painless process – no other text naturally explains the background, the evolution, the application, the history, and the paradoxes of Plato’s philosophy in a way that keeps the pages turning. Stop staring at that dusty shelf of nonfiction texts in the library and crack open a book that you’ll actually want to read.
If your curiosity is piqued, please give this book a try. It will take you a couple hours to finish and you will gain an entirely new understanding of the world. Just like my last book, We’re all Chihuahuas, I am having a special weekend sale where you can download it for free. Please click this link or any link you see on this page to download. For the next three days, I will post the first three chapters as a thank you to my readers. I hope you enjoy and gain something from the experience.
Without further adieu…
Chapter 1 – The Cave
“The beginning is the most important
part of the work.” – Plato
The path seems to meander in the distance and turn hazy in spots from shimmers of light-reflected heat. You’re on a hiking trail and slowly ascending a steep hillside during the peak days of summer – magnificent in beauty but sweltering in humidity. A quick glance off trail reveals a shaded spot and a possible resting place before the final push upwards. Sitting under the shade, you set your bag down and notice a small opening. It is a hole that emits cold air – what appears to be the entry to a natural cave. After an arduous dig, the gap widens to a large opening that teases the curiosity. Slowly you descend until your eyes adjust and all of the surroundings become discernible; this is no ordinary cave but rather one with a group of mystified inhabitants staring at a particular wall. These inhabitants were born in the cave and were forced, since birth, to watch the shapes and figures on the stone – created by the tiny holes of light behind them. They believe these shadows are actual objects and there is no more to the world than what is observed on that slimy edifice. You tap a few on the shoulder and break the spell of their imprisonment. You turn them towards the light source and show how the images are created; they are stunned and cannot believe that their reality was just a mirage.
Exalted in your good deeds, you try to lead them further out of the cave. Surprisingly though, you see the inhabitants turn back to their familiar wall and continue in their most comfortable state – ignorance. The truth is too much for them, and they prefer to look at the shadows instead of understanding their outer and inner worlds. Frustrated, you grab a few by the arm and you force them out into the summer day. The cave dwellers’ eyes sear from the brightness and they are unable to see. You slowly get them use to their new reality, and eventually, they grow in their belief and reason of what the world entails. They go back to the cave and try to get more people – only a few more decide to step out – most remain steadfast to the wall. Having done your job, you continue on with your hike and immediately tap your phone and post about your experience. You get to the top of the hill and check the news, Instagram, Snapchat, Facebook, and various other media outlets; looking up for a second you see the horizon and have a weird thought pop into your head – “Am I also looking at the wall of a cave?”
The idea of “The Cave” is one of Plato’s most relevant and endearing metaphors. In today’s world, we no doubt would have an easy time finding “cave dwellers” who propagate stupidity and selfishness – just imagine Plato reading the comment sections of an internet post. Plato was not pretentious in his view of humanity but hopeful that man could turn from ignorance and reach a better life through active reasoning; Plato wrote, “Apply yourself both now and in the next life. Without effort, you cannot be prosperous. Though the land be good, you cannot have an abundant crop without cultivation.” This cultivation begins with the belief that wisdom is something worth pursuing and that we can climb above our “sense perception” to a greater realm of understanding. Plato’s highest goal in life was not understanding the physical realities of the world – which our cave eyes could quickly ascertain – but rather the light source itself. The sun in the Cave metaphor is the source of all things good in this life: virtue, happiness, love, justice, courage, beauty, and loyalty are a few examples of the “goodness.” Plato wanted to understand a universal standard for the “Good” and a level of knowledge which would allow us to fully grasp our inner self – ultimately leading to a greater appreciation of life.
Plato made it clear that most people will never leave the wall in the cave and few will cross over the threshold of understanding the highest truths. The journey out of the cave is a lifelong process and I wanted to give the ascent my best shot. Like Bilbo Baggins exiting the Shire, I soon realized that my path towards truth was not an easy road and not a solitary pursuit. To understand Plato, I enlisted the help of others and decided to read the top five books on the subject: Plato: Complete Works – edited by John M. Cooper, Plato’s Ethics by Terence Irwin, Preface to Plato by Eric Havelock, Plato: The Man and His Work by A.E. Taylor, and The Cave and the Light by Arthur Herman. These books were challenging and entailed 4,000 pages of cave-exiting illumination. My eyes are now turned from the wall and it is my job to help you understand how beliefs morph into knowledge and how knowledge morphs into wisdom. We will climb through the mountains of Plato’s philosophy and cover subjects which have perplexed humanity since the beginning of time: the soul, desire, virtue, wisdom, love, politics, and purpose. Plato lived over 2,400 years ago, but his teachings seem more relevant today than any other time in history – our world sinking further into a “virtual” reality. Ultimately, we study Plato to open up our perspective of our inner self and our humanity so that we can live a better existence and help others to cross over the bridge of ignorance. So let’s turn our heads from the wall and take a step towards the light – let’s TACKLE THE LIBRARY.
Chapter 2 – Dead Poets Society
“Poets utter great and wise things which they do not themselves understand.” – Plato
The streets of Athens bustled with all sorts of people going about their daily tasks: traders selling goods in the market, toga-wearing statesman negotiating policies in the corridors, crowds listening to poets animate the past, and intellectuals discussing the solutions to life’s most significant problems. Athens was the epicenter of Greek philosophy during the life of Plato. To fully appreciate the Greece of Plato we must go back centuries before his birth to understand why philosophy was even a topic of consideration. Three centuries before baby Plato even knew what a cave was, there was a famous poet named Homer. Homer is the author of the Greek epic poems, The Iliad and The Odyssey, which were myths that encompassed the journeys of countless well-known characters: Odysseus, Achilles, Hector, Zeus, Apollo, Aphrodite, Hermes, Ares, etc. These poems, for hundreds of years, were transmitted through oral memorization; Greeks passed down their entire culture through the use of poets. These poets were not the finger-snapping goatee poets of our modern age but rather an odd amalgamation of trades – “The poet was in the first instance society’s scribe and scholar and jurist and only in a secondary sense its artist and showman.“ Poetry was used as the primary tool for educating individuals and the process of memorization usually entailed music, body movement, rhythm, and regular recitations among groups. The poems focused on actions and events involving characters that could easily be remembered by the listener – the student’s job “…was not to form individual and unique convictions but to retain tenaciously a precious hoard of exemplars. These exemplars of tradition made a student’s mental condition, though not his character…one of passivity, of surrender…” There was no separation of self in the tradition of oral poetry because the student had to accept the content through group recitation to continue seamless memorization. This “group” identity spread throughout the entire culture and was the psychological zeitgeist when the initial philosophers began to think outside the box.
The oral culture of Greece began to change in the 8th century with the advent of the Phoenician alphabet – an improvement over rudimentary forms of syllabic symbols which were used before this time. With this complex alphabet, artists, scholars, and the first-philosophers started recording entirely new information outside the usual confines of group memorization. The first works were primarily kept in a poetic form, but the famous author Hesiod changed this by using the alphabet for cataloging detailed information. Writing allowed men to take a step back from the “passivity” of oral tradition and begin to think of abstract ideas for the first time – “As it did this, the conception of ‘me thinking about Achilles’ rather than ‘me identifying with Achilles’ was born.” Finally, intellectuals could escape the restrictions of memorization and use ideas that could only be relayed through text – “man in his new inner isolation confronts the phenomenon of his own autonomous personality and accepts it.”
“The Greek ego in order to achieve that kind of cultural experience which after Plato became possible and then normal must stop identifying itself successively with a whole series of polymorphic vivid narrative situations; must stop re-enacting the whole scale of the emotions, of challenge, and of love, and hate and fear and despair and joy, in which the characters of epic become involved. It must stop splitting itself up into an endless series of moods. It must separate itself out and by an effort of sheer will must rally itself to the point where it can say ‘I am,’ an autonomous little universe of my own, able to speak, think and act in independence of what I happen to remember.’ This amounts to accepting the premise that there is a ‘me,’ a ‘self,’ a ‘soul,’ a consciousness which is self-governing and which discovers the reason for action in itself rather than in imitation of the poetic experience.”
The act of writing allowed the early philosophers to look into their inner selves and question the very state of consciousness. Instead of identifying with events and characters from poems, intellectuals were beginning to construct views of individual “thought” about those events and characters. A framework of abstract language was needed for this new understanding of the “self” and words enabled thinkers to understand the different attributes of “knowledge.”
This newfound journey into knowledge required the first philosophers to search for absolute definitions. There was a push to understand the autonomous person as “subject” and how that subject interacted with various abstract objects. The familiar Homeric Epic was full of contradictions which didn’t provide any working definitions – “…Agamemnon is noble at one point and base at another, or the Greeks were at one point are twice as strong as the Trojans and at another point are half as strong.” This made it impossible to connect the “subject” with any solid relationship that would be unchanging. To truly understand the “self” and the world as a whole, philosophers began to pursue abstract ideas that were steadfast. These desires for the absolute eventually led to the vocabulary and syntax of equations, laws, formulas, and topics outside time; through trial and error, the Greek mind engendered ideas of the Right, the Good, the Pleasurable, the Expedient, the Natural, and the Conventional. For three hundred years, the first philosophers worked to form the tools of language to understand these new ideas better. After three centuries, it was time for a teacher to take these tools of mental power and forge them into an all-encompassing philosophy; a philosophy which focused on consistency and a higher form of objects. By the mid-fifth century, one man, in particular, walked the streets of Athens and grasped the true power of the “psychological and linguistic consequences” of his philosophical forefathers. This eccentric man organized the abstract tool shed and pushed for a methodical understanding of the theoretical to attain true wisdom. We care about this man in particular because he is the main character in Plato’s writings and Plato’s one-time mentor – Socrates.
Chapter 3 – A Plane in the Horizon
“An honest man is always a child.” – Socrates
In a sense, this book should not be titled Plato, but rather Plato – The Student of Socrates. Most scholars divide Plato’s writings into three distinct periods: the Early, Middle, and Late Dialogues. [i] These divisions are not a hard and fast rule for understanding Plato, but they do follow a philosophical evolution. The Early Dialogues were primarily written through the historical figure of Socrates – whose original ideas formed the bedrock of Plato’s budding philosophy.[ii] Plato is the main reason we know about Socrates’ teaching because it was still uncommon at the time to record lessons and most pupils simply listened – a holdover from the oral traditions of the past. Socrates believed that “dialogue” was the best way to achieve understanding and knowledge; Plato wrote in a dialogue format to mimic the small question-and-answer circles of intellectual Athenian society.[iii] The age of Socrates saw an explosion of professionals who had supposed “wisdom.” These individuals were called Sophists, and they would charge men for the ability to acquire special knowledge. The Sophists all had different beliefs and different theories on how to achieve the optimal life. Socrates was the polar opposite to these Sophists because he did not sell his knowledge – paradoxically he stated he had no knowledge to give. Socrates only believed in the power of reason and that truth was never an individual possession – true revelation came from interactive questioning.[iv] Not one teacher or author had all the wisdom of the world and Socrates heartily disliked writing as a form of static information – “Accordingly, no book can actually embody knowledge of anything of philosophical importance; only a mind can do that, since only a mind can have this capacity to interpret and reinterpret its own understanding.”[v] Plato did his best to record Socrates’ wisdom through dialogue so that readers could come to their own conclusion; this is also why Plato never appears in his early writings – not wanting to claim any personal “truth.”
It is ironic that Socrates detested the written word when it was the written word that allowed Greeks to think about consciousness in the first place. Plato eventually moved on from purely “Socratic” philosophy – the Middle and Late Dialogues contained most of the philosophy which we now identify with Plato. Nevertheless, the Early Dialogues shaped the foundation for our understanding of virtue, the soul, wisdom, and the absolute forms of objects, all of which were pursued before the time of Socrates. What distinguishes Socrates most from his contemporaries is his sheer love of wisdom. He didn’t desire money, fame, or status; wisdom was the ultimate goal and Socrates spent his life teaching others that they did not truly understand their firmly held beliefs. He would regularly go up to prominent citizens and ask them about virtue, the soul, or even love. Each time Socrates had a dialogue, the person who thought himself wise ultimately left feigning ignorance.[vi] Sometimes, when knowledgeable people get corrected in a conversation, they get mad and seek revenge as if knowledge was a game. Targeted payback may materialize in a future argument or maybe a Facebook comment – usually harmless and uneventful; this was not the case for Socrates because he pissed off one too many “wise” Athenians. People were sick of the “know it all” who persisted in highlighting ignorance – they ended up accusing Socrates of corrupting the youth and sentenced him to death for his misdeeds.[vii] It was at this trial where Plato in the Apology recorded Socrates’ most endearing praise for the occupation of philosophy – “…the unexamined life is not worth living….”[viii] Philosophy for Socrates was not just a hobby or an impracticable set of beliefs but rather the means of living the best possible life. He believed himself to be a midwife of thoughts – “… he has great skill in assisting at the birth of a younger man’s thoughts, and in discerning whether they are healthy and well-formed or sickly and misshapen.”[ix] If one could not accurately understand the roots of happiness, justice, bravery, or the virtues as a whole, how could one lead a positive existence? In the Phaedo, Socrates professes that he would sooner be killed unjustly than give up philosophy because the latter would be the equivalent to death. [x]
Socrates would go on to become a philosophical martyr and inspire his star pupil Plato to continue the lifelong pursuit of wisdom. Without Socrates, there would be no Plato and many other classical philosophers who took up his torch after his execution. The philosophy of Socrates forms the heart of Plato’s future work and helps us understand the reasons behind Plato’s ultimate goals of defining the abstract. Socrates taught Plato to always question and identify the paradoxes of this life – not to end in failure but rather to push past ostensible answers towards a higher level of thinking.[xi] To better understand this high-minded goal, think of wisdom as a vintage WWII plane flying through the air. You want to get a better glimpse at it, so you start to walk and then you run. Eventually, you use reason and ingenuity to go faster and find the best vantage point. The plane is always in the horizon, and you fail to reach its actual source. The effort, however, is worthwhile because you are able to witness something spectacular and along the way you acquired new tools for navigating the world; especially compared to the people straining their vision and not moving at all. Now that you understand the background and purpose of Plato’s predecessors, it is possible to follow his philosophy and his motivation for pushing onwards to the horizon of wisdom. In the following chapters, we’ll focus on Plato’s most prominent pillars of thought which were expanded upon from Socrates’ own views; our starting point begins with the metaphysical: the Soul, the necessary component of our consciousness.
1.Plato: Complete Works edited by John M. Cooper (1997)
2.Plato’s Ethics by Terence Irwin (1995)
3.Preface to Plato by Eric Havelock (1963)
4.Plato: The Man and His Work by A.E. Taylor (1926) (Dover Edition 2001)
5.The Cave and the Light by Arthur Herman (2013)
 Preface to Plato – Pg 94
 Preface to Plato – Pg 198
 Preface to Plato – Pg 199
 Preface to Plato – Pg IX
 Preface to Plato – Pg 295
 Preface to Plato – Pg 209
 Preface to Plato – Pg 210
 Preface to Plato – Pg 200
 Preface to Plato – Pg 247
 Preface to Plato – Pg 259
 Preface to Plato – Pg 303
 Preface to Plato – Pg 302
[i] Plato: Complete Works – Pg XII
[ii] Plato: Complete Works – Pg XVI
[iii] Plato: Complete Works – Pg XVIII
[iv] Plato: Complete Works – Pg XIX
[v] Plato: Complete Works – Pg XX
[vi] Plato’s Ethics – Pg 278
[vii] Plato : Complete Works – Pg 37
[viii] Plato: Complete Works – Pg 33
[ix] Plato The Man and His Work – Pg 324
[x] Plato: Complete Works – Pg 50
[xi] Plato’s Ethics – Pg 7