Early History of Psychology – Plato

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Plato was born about 429 B.C. (the third year of the Peloponnesian War between Athens and Sparta) in Athens, Greece, the son of a wealthy nobleman and prominent political family of that city.  Though he may have aspired to enter politics, he seemed to have rejected the political career open to him, instead becoming a follower of the infamous and unorthodox Socrates and may have studied with the Sophists.  With the embittered disillusionment at the death of Socrates in 399 B.C., Plato forever turned his back on the political scene of Athens and devoted himself to writing the ideas of his master complimented with his own views in his dialogues.  He founded the Academy, Europe’s first university, in a park just outside of the city.  Plato’s goal for the school was to train pupils for a life of community service in the investigations of mathematics and science. 

The Academy became a major seat of learning attracting young men from all of Greece in time.  In Plato’s old age, he devoted his skills to teaching and writing until he died in 348 B.C.  Plato was the founder of the Western intellectual tradition and like his mentor Socrates, found the visionary schemes of his contemporaries misguided.  He was a practical philosopher, who first employed the term philosophos, while adamantly disputing with his predecessors for their confusion of opinion with knowledge.  Though he opposed much of their thinking, he showed some respect for Protagoras, as well as Socrates, employing some of their terminology and methods to his dialectic. 

            Plato’s term Psyche is typically translated soul, which Plato, like Christians today, believed to be immortalHe also ascribed mental properties to the soul, which lends to the translation of psyche as mind as well.  Plato’s view on the activities of the soul includes much of what we understand as psychological functions today.  Plato held a view of a triune soul with duplistic conflicts between the parts, which is echoed in Paul the Apostle’s writings in the Christian New Testament.  The early church had a love-hate relationship with early philosophy.  Justin Martyr argued that the divine Logos had enlightened early thinkers to see the errors of paganism and that the logical conclusion to philosophical enlightenment was Christianity.  Tertullian denounced philosophy as heresy, insisting that worldly wisdom without faith was vanity.  Origen used Platonic ideas to reinterpret the Christian teaching on God, Christ, and salvation.  Plato taught that the physical world was a reflection of the eternal world of spiritual forms which could be attained by philosophical contemplation.   Plato’s ideas continue to influence Christian Theologies today.  Cambridge Platonists enthusiastically believed that God was rational, and that human reason was a gift from God. 

            Plato’s dialogues can be categorized in three distinct phases.  His early works include Euthyphro, Apology, Crito, Laches, Lysis, Charmides, Hippias Minor, Ion, Protagoras, Meno, Gorgias, and Phaedo. Euthyphro, Apology, and Crito discuss the last days of Socrates. Laches, Lysis, Charmides, Hippias Minor, and Ion are the apologetic dialogues. Protagoras, Meno, and Gorgias are the Sophist dialogues culminating in the major doctrines that virtue is knowledge and that no man willingly acts unjustly.  Phaedo discusses the immortality of the soul.  The Middle works begin with Menexenus, Euthydemus, Cratylus, the Republic, and the Symposium.  The Republic is the cornerstone of Platonic thought, with an exposition on his theory of the forms.  Symposium, Plato’s most artistic, and dramatic dialogue, discusses his views of Eros.  The late works consist of Phaedrus, Parmenides, Sophist, Statesman, Theaetetus, Critias, Philebus, Timaeus, and Laws.  These divisions are evidently distinguished by the styles in which he develops his thought patterns.  Imitating the Socratic Method, Plato presents his ideas in dialogue form for conveying his philosophical views, which seems to be entirely his invention as none of his predecessors used this style.  He illustrates his arguments with metaphorical allegories, but disdains the use of poetry, though his entire work is infiltrated with strands from the classics.  He viewed poetry as a powerfully dangerous mode of communication to the public audience.  Plato’s works convey the ideas of his times as well as the society in which they come from.    

            Platonic concepts include ideas such as dialectic as a means to truth, virtue is knowledge and therefore teachable, knowledge is recollection of previous soul experience, man does no harm willingly, to cause injury to another is worse than suffering it because one’s own soul is harmed, what we see is a reflection of true reality, justice is the harmony of the three parts of the individual’s soul and three classes of citizens in the state, and the ideal state would have a philosopher king who would cling to the form of the good.   Plato’s influence on Psychology, Philosophy, and Theology is monumental in that his ideas have so infiltrated the modern thought of these that they can hardly be distinguished from his own ideas.                     

References

Brown, Colin.  Philosophy & The Christian Faith. 1968. InterVarsity Press, Downers

Grove, Illinois.  

Earle, James. Introduction to Philosophy. 1992. McGraw-Hill.  New York.

Segal, Erich. The Dialogues of Plato with an Introduction by Erich Segal. 1986. Bantam

Books.  New York.

Viney, Wayne and King, D. Brett. A History of Psychology: Ideas and Context.  3rdEd.

2003.  Allyn and Bacon. Boston, New York, Sanfrancisco.

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