In the early days of the Philosophers’ Magazine, we quickly realised that the easiest and surest way to get attention for our little publication was to run polls. The first of these revealed another truth: when it comes to reputation, people prefer tearing down to building up. In coverage of the results, hardly anyone in the press reported that the philosopher deemed to have made the greatest contribution to the subject was Aristotle. Instead they gleefully dwelt on the list of the most overrated philosophers, topped by Derrida, followed by Marx.
I felt a little guilty about this use of click-bait avant la lettre. Nonetheless, calling out those whose influence on western thought has been too strong remains an important task. I’m not being ironic when I say that one such philosopher stands head and shoulders above the rest. He came second to Aristotle in our poll and his book The Republic topped a later vote on the greatest ever work of philosophy. He is, of course, Plato.
You could never call Plato overrated. He was clearly a genius of sorts. He set the terms of philosophical debates that have run for millennia and many of his own positions have lasted as long, albeit with revisions. But on virtually every point that mattered he was disastrously wrong, and his errors entrenched fundamental mistakes that would hamper philosophy and intellectual culture forever more.
Plato’s argument that the soul could survive the death of the body established a dualistic model of mind and matter that still hampers our thinking today. Descartes is often blamed for this, but by the time he was arguing cogito ergo sum the immaterial soul was already a mainstream idea. It was the Platonic influence on Christianity that led too many in the religion to lose sight of the Gospel accounts of a physical resurrection and to think of the soul as superior to and separate from the body.
Plato is also responsible for an unrealistic ideal of what true knowledge is. The Socrates portrayed by Plato is often thought admirable for his claim that he really knew nothing, but it is not modesty to announce that knowing this makes you the wisest person in Athens. Besides, the claim that “the only thing that…