Socrates & Plato on Persons

Socrates (~470 - 399 B. C. E.)


Most (although not all) of what we know about Socrates is what we see in Plato's dialogues. This makes it a bit difficult to separate Plato and Socrates opinions, although we usually think that the earlier Platonic dialogues are mostly Socrates, and it becomes more Platonic in the later dialogues.



Who Are We?

Socrates is famous for following the advice of the Delphic Oracle, which was "Know Thyself". He used to say "The unexamined life is not worth living."

The story of us, for Socrates: There is appearance and reality, and this applies both to the world and to us. We seem to exist bodily in the world, but in fact our true nature is intellectual. At one time we existed as pure intellect, before we were born, and we knew the true nature of everything first-hand. But when we were born, our souls were stuffed into material bodies, which made us forget everything we knew. Our life is the process of trying to remember.

If you asked Socrates who we really are, he would probably say, we are souls, travelling through a foreign land, trying to remember how to get home.

That's the short version. There's more, of course. But it is significant that this looks a lot like a spiritual quest. Moderns tend to separate spiritual and philosophical questions. The question "Who am I?" tends to get answered by a list of attributes ("can communicate", "has freedom", etc.) For Socrates, it is a spiritual quest, in which we are not just attaining a new bit of abstract knowledge, but changing ourselves.

Plato (427/8 - 347 B. C. E.)



Who Are We?

Plato more or less follows Socrates. He also believes there is appearance and reality, and they are not the same thing. He believes that we are basically souls, trying to find our way.

Plato, however, talks more about the
forms. These are the "ideas", the intellectual realities that are more real than what we see before us.

Example: What is a chair? We can recognize chairs, but how do we know that some new thing we see is actually a chair? Plato thinks we have a definition, which has reality to it, in our minds. We got it from when we were directly aware of the forms, before birth.

Actually, he's not so concerned about chairs, he's more interested in things like virtue, courage, beauty, and the good. These, he thinks, are important to know, and they have a true, ultimately real, objective existence.

What does this have to do with the question of who we are? Just this: We need to find out our true nature, and the only way we'll do it is if we can unlock the knowledge contained within us. We do not need to construct a self, but find it.




Plato's Cave: Read the account

The Divided Line:
Read the account