Athens, 2400 years ago. It’s a compact place: only about a quarter of a million people live here.
There are fine baths, theatres, temples, shopping arcades and gymnasiums
It’s warm for more than half the year.
This is also home to the world’s first true – and probably greatest – philosopher:
Born into a prominent and wealthy family in the city,
Plato devoted his life to one goal: helping people to reach a state of what he termed:
εὐδαιμονία (Eudaimonia) or fulfilment.
Plato is often confused with Socrates
Socrates was an older friend, who taught Plato a lot but didn’t write any books.
Plato wrote lots of them: 36, all dialogues: beautifully crafted scripts of
imaginary discussions in which Socrates is always allocated a starring role - among them:
The Republic The Symposium
The Laws The Meno
and The Apology
Plato had four big ideas for making life more fulfilled.
First big idea: Think more
We rarely give ourselves time to think carefully and logically about our lives and how to live
Sometimes we just go along with what the the Greeks called ‘doxa’: ‘popular opinions’.
In the the 36 books he wrote, Plato showed this ‘common-sense’ to be riddled with
errors, prejudice and superstition.
Fame is great
Follow your heart
Money is the key to a good life
The problem is, popular opinions edge us towards the wrong values, careers and relationships.
Plato’s answer is
It means doing a special kind of therapy, philosophy:
Subjecting your ideas to examination rather than acting on impulse.
If you strengthen your self-knowledge, you don’t get so pulled around by feelings.
Plato compared the role of our feelings to being
dragged dangerously along by a group of wild horses.
In honor of his mentor and friend, Socrates, this kind of examination is called a Socratic discussion.
You can have it with yourself or ideally, with another person who isn’t
trying to catch you out but wants to help you clarify your own ideas.
Second Big idea: Let your lover change you.
That sounds weird, if you think that love means
finding someone who wants you just the way you are.
In The Symposium , Plato’s play about a dinner party where a group of friends drink
too much and get talking about love, sex and relationships,
Plato says: “True love is admiration.”
In other words, the person you need to get together with should have very good qualities
… which you yourself lack.
Let’s say, they should be really brave
Or warm and sincere
By getting close to this person, you can become a little like they are.
The right person for us helps us grow to our full potential.
For Plato, in a good relationship, a couple shouldn’t love each other exactly as they
are right now.
They should be committed to educating each other – and to enduring the stormy passages
this inevitably involves.
Each person should want to seduce the other into becoming a better version of themselves.
Three: decode the message of beauty.
Everyone – pretty much – likes beautiful things
Plato was the first to ask why do we like them?
He found a fascinating reason:
Beautiful objects are whispering important truths to us about the good life …
We find things beautiful when we unconsciously sense in them qualities we need
but are missing in our lives.
Beautiful objects therefore have a really important function.
They help to educate our souls.
Ugliness is a serious matter too. it parades dangerous and damaged characteristics in front
of us. It makes it harder to be wise, kind and calm.
Plato sees art as therapeutic: it is the duty of poets and painters (and nowadays, novelists,
television producers and designers) to help us live good lives.
Four: Reform society.
Plato spent a lot of time thinking how the government and society should ideally be.
He was the world’s first utopia thinker.
In this, he was inspired by Athens’s great rival: Sparta.
This was a city-sized machine for turning out great soldiers
Everything the Spartans did – how they raised their children, how their economy was organised,
whom they admired, how they had sex, what they ate – was tailored to that one goal.
And Sparta was hugely successful, from a military point of view.
But that wasn’t Plato’s concern. He wanted to know: how could a society get better at
producing not military power but fulfilled people?
In his book, The Republic, Plato identifies a number of changes that should be made:
Athenian society was very focused on the rich, like the louche aristocrat Alcibiades, and
sports celebrities, like the boxer Milo of Croton.
Plato wasn’t impressed: it really matters who we admire, because celebrities influence our
outlook, ideas and conduct. And bad heroes give glamour to flaws of character.
Plato therefore wanted to give Athens new celebrities, replacing the current crop with
ideally wise and good people he called Guardians
models for everyone’s good development. These people
would be distinguished by their record of public service, their modesty and simple habits,
their dislike of the limelight and their wide and deep experience.
They would be the most honored and admired people in society.
He also wanted to end democracy in Athens. He wasn’t crazy. He just observed how few
people think properly before they vote and therefore we get very substandard rulers.
He didn’t want to replace democracy with horrid dictatorship;
but wanted to prevent people from voting until they had started to think rationally. Until
they had become philosophers. Otherwise, government would just be a kind of mob rule [back to
To help the process, Plato started a school, The Academy, in Athens, which lasted a good
300 years. There, pupils learnt not just maths and spelling, but also how to be good and
His ultimate goal was that politicians should become philosophers: ‘The world will not
be right,’ he said, ‘until kings become philosophers or philosophers kings.’ [show
Hollande, Merkel, Cameron all trooping into a uni- then coming out as philosophers]
Plato’s ideas remain deeply provocative and fascinating. What unites them is their
ambition and their idealism. He wanted philosophy to be a tool to help us change the world.
We should continue to be inspired by his example.