The poet Ralph Waldo Emerson once remarked, "Plato is philosophy and philosophy is Plato" (Emerson 1996, p. 21). No less adulation came from the philosopher Alfred North Whitehead, who claimed that Western philosophy was a "series of footnotes to Plato," (Whitehead 1929, p. 63). These kinds of acclamations give one a sense of the major importance of the thinker originally named Aristocles, who came to be called Plato because of his robust figure. Born into one of the most distinguished families in Athens, Plato (428–348 B.C.E. ) seemed destined for a career in politics. This changed mainly because of the influence of his great mentor Socrates (470–399 B.C.E. ), who was falsely accused of impiety and corrupting the youth and executed by the state. Becoming distrustful of politics, Plato decided to carry on the philosophical traditions of his mentor. He founded the Academy, considered the first university in Western civilization, and wrote the Dialogues, which continue the eternal questions raised by Socrates.
Plato was especially interested in his mentor's pursuit of real, eternal truths (Justice, Beauty, Goodness), which Plato believed had an existence beyond the mere physical world of flux and change. Accordingly, Plato developed a dualism: There is the physical and changing world (to which the body belongs), and the permanent and immaterial world (to which the mind or soul belongs). The body is then seen as the prisoner and temporary residence of the soul, which has existed before its imprisonment and which will exist again after its release from the body at death. In this way, says Plato, the true philosopher is "always pursuing death and dying" (Emerson 1996, p. 21).
The Dialogues offer a variety of arguments for the immortality of the soul. In the Republic, Plato argues that the soul cannot be destroyed by any inherent evil or by anything external to it. In his Phaedrus he reasons that the soul is its own "selfmoving principle" and is therefore uncreated, eternal, and indestructible. And in the Phaedo a series of arguments are offered based on the cyclical nature of life and death; knowledge the soul could only have gained in a pre-existence; the incorporeal or spiritual nature of the soul; and the view that the soul is the essence and principle of life itself.
The argument regarding the nature of the soul is perhaps the one that gets discussed by scholars most often. If the soul is incorporeal, it is simple or uncomposed (not made up of parts). But death is the decay and corruption of a thing into its elementary parts (decomposition). The soul, therefore, cannot die since an uncomposed entity cannot be decomposed. The logic of this argument is compelling; however, it depends entirely on its key premise: that the soul is spiritual, not corporeal. This is a major point of contention for many, including Plato's greatest student—Aristotle (384–322 B.C.E. ). Though he firmly believed in the immortality of the soul, Plato never considered his arguments to be conclusive proofs and recognized the need for further discussion and consideration, saying that one can only "arrive at the truth of the matter, in so far as it is possible for the human mind to attain it" (Hamilton and Cairns 1961, p. 107).
Emerson, Ralph Waldo. "Plato; or, The Philosopher." Representative Men. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1996.
Friedlander, Paul. Plato: An Introduction. New York: Harper and Row, 1964.
Plato. The Collected Dialogues of Plato, edited and translated by Edith Hamilton and Huntington Cairns. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 1961.
Whitehead, Alfred North. Process and Reality. New York: Macmillan, 1929.