A literature of questions: the influence of Plato
What is man? What is the purpose of life? Why does man have such a short time to live? What are good and evil, and who can judge? What is love? What are the qualities required of a king?
These are just some of the questions that the literature of the Renaissance was trying to address. The climate of intellectual uncertainty which arose in this age is partly due to a revival of interest in the philosophical ideas of the Greek philosopher Plato (427-347 BC). Plato’s idea of the nature of the world differed from that of Aristotle who had been the dominant figure in medieval philosophy because his ideas were more easily adapted to religious dogma. Plato's philosophy was also more open to interpretation.
In any case, whatever its merits, the study of Plato represented another major theory of the world. This in itself inevitably led to differences in opinion among the educated classes and encouraged freedom of thought.
Plato and the cave
Plato believed that our knowledge of the world came not through the senses but through a type of reminiscence or memory of what he called ideas. Everything that existed in nature corresponded to its idea of which it was an inferior but faithful copy.
To give a contemporary example we could say that a Platonic idea could be compared to the design of a car from which countless identical examples are produced. We can say that all of these cars participate in the idea but none of them embodies it fully. There is not one car which we can say is the original.
Plato described our sensory experience of the world as being similar to that of people trapped in a cave who can only see the shadows of things and not the things themselves in their essence. Plato says that the philosopher is he who goes outside and sees things in direct sunlight. The sun is highly important for Plato as it represents the source of truth.
For Plato it was vital to understand the essence of a thing, which the argued could only be done through the intellect. By comparing the available examples of a given object or idea we could discern what elements were common to them all, which would give us a notion of the universal form. Thus, beauty, for example, is judged by Plato to be the perfect harmony of parts.
Another crucial element in Plato’s idea of knowledge is judgement. We must be able to judge true essence from false appearance. This is why Plato wishes to exclude artists from his ideal society described in the Republic. Writers are dangerous, because if words are separated from the person who speaks them their meaning becomes ambiguous. Both art and music are dangerous because they appeal to the emotions and sensorial experience. Regarding drama, Plato says that a good man should not imitate an evil character. Like all art, acting creates a world of false appearances.
Source: Thomson – Maglioni, Literary Links. Literature in time and space, Cideb, an old Italian book 2000.