Why is an elephant large, grey, and wrinkled?
Because if she were small, white, and round, she’d be an aspirin.
—Platonic joke you will understand after reading this post
The ancient Greek philosopher Plato still influences popular culture, art, and thought 2,400 years after his death in 348 B.C. He and his mentor Socrates are fascinating characters of fifth and fourth-century B.C. Athens, but understanding their ideas can take a lot of work.
For anyone who wants to dip a toe in the waters of Platonic thinking or just get the elephant joke, here’s some essential background on the occasion of the Getty Villa exhibition Plato in L.A.: Contemporary Artists’ Visions.(1) I had the pleasure of serving as the Education liaison for the exhibition, which meant reading and commenting on gallery texts and helping plan programs around Platonic philosophy and contemporary art.
Socrates: Discovering Truth through Talking
Let’s start with Socrates.
Socrates (about 470–399 B.C.) lived a life devoted to philosophy, Greek for “love of wisdom”—in his view, a search to understand truth and justice through dialogue. Physically, he was famously snub-nosed and balding like Silenus, an old satyr who was the tutor of the wine god Bacchus. (Plato, Symposium 215b).(2)
Socrates’s spoken words survive through his students Plato and Xenophon, who recreated and reimagined their teacher’s conversations based on their own and others’ recollections, and also reported on the self-defense speech he gave at his trial. Socrates seems to have been an honorable, loyal, stubborn, and pious man who genuinely believed that the god Apollo wanted him to question and debate his fellow citizens in pursuit of truth (Plato, Apology 23a–b).
Socrates sought to clarify the meaning of concepts such as beauty and goodness and the more practical matter of how to lead a just life. He thought that the world had an inherent order, it was good, and we should seek to understand it. Bad people were simply ignorant, since behaving with justice and truthfulness was only logical. He believed (or Plato did while crediting him) that individuals and society could be made substantially better, more virtuous, and happier with proper training and oversight by philosophers (Plato, Republic).
Socrates’s friend Chaerephon supposedly asked the respected oracle of Apollo at Delphi whether anyone was wiser than Socrates, and was told that indeed no one was (Plato, Apology 21a; Xenophon, Apology 1.14). On a lifelong search for truth, Socrates knew this could not be so, and eventually decided that his own “wisdom” lay in knowing what he did not know, and in helping others recognize their limitations. He deeply affected those who talked with him at length.
In the later fifth and fourth centuries B.C., Athens was a hotbed of self-styled experts (sophists), who were too often salesmen and charlatans. They took money to educate people in various subjects, including philosophy, and were known for teaching how to make convincing arguments regardless of truth. Socrates was lumped in with such people in the public mind, though he took no money and did not sell doctrines or techniques, but rather talked to anyone who would talk back.
The philosopher must have been infuriating: his probing questions exposed others’ shaky logic and opinions and encouraged young men to question their elders. The comic playwright Aristophanes made fun of his weird behavior in both Clouds and Birds. Socrates probably also elicited enmity for his oligarchic connections, and possibly for his views on an ideal, undemocratic state. This was to be run not by the people but by suitable philosopher kings, as described by Plato in the Republic. The experiences of the long, debilitating Peloponnesian War (431–404 B.C.) showed Socrates and Plato that most people were not ruled by reason.(3)
Ultimately convicted of impiety and corrupting the youth in 399 B.C.(4), Socrates was too honorable and stubborn to suggest a reasonable penalty, as was allowed prior to sentencing. Instead he proposed that he be fed at public expense in the council hall, like a victorious athlete, for doing the city good with his questioning of know-it-alls. Then he proposed a fine. When he was instead sentenced to death, he refused to betray his social contract with Athens by attempting escape, and died drinking state-supplied hemlock.
Plato: Preserving Truth through Publishing
Plato (about 428–347 B.C.) was a loyal follower of Socrates who decided to carry on his legacy. When he began to publish his own philosophical beliefs, he did so by recreating Socrates’s conversations with fellow Athenians, honoring the mentor who had profoundly influenced his thinking and whose death had been so unjust.
Plato left himself out of these conversations except for two incidental references at important moments: in Apology 34a, Socrates mentions (during his trial) that Plato is present in the courtroom, and in Phaedo 59b, Phaedo says he thinks Plato was ill and thus absent from Socrates’s state-assisted suicide, which was attended by other friends.
In his dialogues, Plato sometimes simplifies the replies of Socrates’s interlocutors (the word philosophers use to avoid saying “the person taking part in the conversation”). He cuts to the chase, focuses on his mentor, and curtails some of the answers to Socrates’s questions. Thus there is a fair amount along the lines of: “Why yes, Socrates.” And, “It would seem so, Socrates,” and not much in the way of complaints about being unfairly backed into a corner.
After leaving Athens for a time after Socrates’s death, Plato returned and eventually established the Academy in a shady grove that was possibly the sanctuary of a local hero named Academos or Hecademos. This is the scholarly setting after which modern schools of higher education are named. (You can see its location on this interactive map, at top right.)
Plato knew that static text is less conducive to understanding than guided, participatory conversation, yet he used text to spread his ideas.(5) Why? Despite its fame, Athens was a fairly small town in Plato’s day, especially once slaves, women, working non-citizens, and people without leisure to debate the meaning of life are discounted. The people who did count all knew one another, or of one another. Although it is hard to determine, the male citizen population may have been 30,000, of whom a quarter actively participated in running the state in one way or another. Socrates could make a name just by being out in public and talking. But Plato’s written dialogues reached well beyond the city, and across time. And now here we are, thousands of years later, still talking about Plato and his teacher.
What about the Elephant Joke?
One of Plato’s most influential concepts is that of the invisible realm of ideal forms.
In the physical world, we perceive abstract concepts such as beauty imperfectly; people come up with many different definitions of what is beautiful. Similarly there are many types of physical objects, and we perceive them differently from different angles (for beds, see Republic, 598a). But beauty itself, indivisible and perfect, exists in an intellectual, invisible world, as does the essence—the perfect form—of a bed, or a mathematical concept. We can’t see “2 + 2 = 4,” or “equality,” although we can see their physical manifestations. But they are still true and permanent.
Socrates and Plato thought the world was ordered and logical, and that we can understand it by developing our intellect, just as we can understand mathematical equations. Because the invisible, intellectual realm is hard to comprehend, the philosophers used analogies and allegories to help their interlocutors.
That’s the point of the philosophical elephant joke; the Platonic ideal form—the essence—of an elephant is not the same as the ideal form of an aspirin.
Platonic Themes in Contemporary Art
The exhibition Plato in L.A. (accompanied by a catalogue of the same name) brings together the work of 11 contemporary artists who directly and indirectly address key overlapping themes through sculptures, paintings, drawings, and large-scale installations. The works are organized into four thematic galleries, each introduced by a Platonic quotation. Let’s examine each theme and some artists’ responses. Two artists base their work directly on a quotation.
Limitations of Writing in the Pursuit of Knowledge
“Writing, Phaedrus, has this strange quality, and is very like painting; for the creatures of painting stand like living beings, but if one asks them a question, they preserve a solemn silence.” —Plato, Phaedrus 275d
Socrates, addressing Phaedrus, points out the limitation of both painting and text: their static nature does not permit engagement through dialogue, which is the philosophers’ path to genuine understanding. (Ironically, of course, Socrates’s conversations are fixed by Plato in static text.)
A neon sculpture by Joseph Kosuth reflects the irony of dialogue fixed in static text. Kosuth quotes the end of the “Analogy of the Divided Line,” in which Socrates compares stages of understanding the invisible world of the mind with parallel stages in the flawed world of the senses and perception.
As being is to becoming, so is pure intellect to opinion.
And as intellect is to opinion, so is science to belief, and understanding to the perception of shadows. But let us defer the further correlation and subdivision of the subjects of opinion and of intellect, for it will be a long enquiry, many times longer than this has been. —Plato, Republic 534a
The Analogy of the Divided Line can be difficult to grasp, especially since different translators render the Greek words differently. In essence, it is this: Ideal forms exist in an invisible realm of Being, distinct from our ordinary physical world of Becoming. The philosophical journey carries us past unfounded conjectures and beliefs grounded in the physical world of the senses all the way to intellectual, rational understanding of the unseen world.
Understanding is not based on data validated in the real world. A scientific hypothesis is tested against real-world results, but a philosophical hypothesis is tested through closely reasoned debate that refines understanding by eliminating illogical, conflicting beliefs and perceptions. It is an intellectual practice.
The “shadows” in the Divided Line illustrated above are explained in the “Allegory of the Cave” below.
The Allegory of the Cave
Plato compares the perceptions of prisoners chained in a cave, who believe reality is the shadows on the wall cast by puppeteers, with our ignorance—our faulty perceptions of reality and our inability to perceive the ideal and truth.
Observing and misunderstanding such shadows is the lowest form of interpreting the world: using the senses rather than the intellect. We all start out like prisoners in a cave, believing shadows are reality, and gain knowledge through exercising our rational minds. Returning to the Analogy of the Divided Line, shadows represent the most ignorant perceptions in the physical world of Becoming, while ideal forms reflect the highest level of knowledge.
Artist Adrian Piper sees the destructive power of ignorance and false perception as leading to Socrates’s death.
Her work above offers us a fascinating glimpse of Socrates’s personality. Piper reveals her engagement with Plato on a translated page from the dialogue Euthyphro (15b–16a), on which she underlines text and scribbles marginal notes in preparation for teaching a philosophy class.
In this dialogue, while waiting outside the court where he will be indicted for impiety, Socrates has encountered Euthyphro, a priest who intends to charge his own father with murder.
This reproduced page is the last one of the dialogue. In the conversation about piety, Socrates is revealed as a man of humor and irony, while the self-satisfied priest gets nowhere in his efforts to define godly behavior. Finally he declares that he really must hurry away. In mock despair, Socrates objects, explaining that he had hoped to learn piety from Euthyphro and then escape Meletus’s indictment by promising to change his ways. Socrates can be funny, especially if you are in on the joke, but his humor here has an edge.
Along the bottom of the page, Piper has written: “No pretentious buffoon can help Socrates escape attack by pretentious buffoons. Socrates refuses to buy the help of a pretentious buffoon by flattering him.”
“The forms that enter and depart are copies of those that are always existent, being stamped from them in a fashion marvelous and hard to describe.” —Plato, Timaeus 50c
This quotation references the invisible, intellectual realm of ideal, eternal forms. Plato uses analogies and allegories (including the Analogy of the Divided Line and the Allegory of the Cave, above) to explain our faulty perceptions and to compare objects and concepts in our material world with the unchanging forms in the ideal world.
Jeff Koons’s Play-Doh, the title a play on the modeling material for children, was inspired by a work made by his young son. This complex aluminum version, weighing over 10,000 pounds, took twenty years to create. Koons captured the nuances of working with fresh and drying dough and replicated exactly the colors of Play-Doh sold in 1994. Through his sculpture, Koons gives the ordinary, temporary material its own ideal, unchanging, enduring form.
In the exhibition catalogue, Koons says, “I’ve always been inspired by Plato’s Cave because I’ve always been inspired by the process of becoming—striving to become and to experience a higher level of feelings, sensations, consciousness.” (7)
“This is the best way of life—to live and die in the pursuit of righteousness and all other virtues.” —Plato, Gorgias 527e
The quotation comes in a dialogue about using oratory for the purpose of pursuing a just life. Dialectics—the title of the final gallery of the exhibition—are skillful, cooperative discussions about the logic of assumptions. According to Aristotle, it was Zeno of Elea (an older contemporary of Socrates) who invented the dialectical method: a logical approach to inquiry that helps philosophers pursue different possible conclusions about a subject and eliminate irreconcilable conflicts. The ultimate goal is to recognize the ideal and lead a good life.
Learning is painful, however, and agreement is not easily achieved. Socrates was condemned to death; Plato was perhaps imprisoned while trying to teach the tyrant of Syracuse how to be a good king.(8) From Plato’s student Aristotle on, philosophers have argued about life’s goals and how to attain them.
Artists in this gallery question the ideal and illuminate the anti-ideal: dialectic grounded in disagreement and ignorance.
Raymond Pettibon’s work rejects a division between the ideal and its opposite, and invites us, good-naturedly, to “muddy the waters and find something else”.(9) His references to Plato, classical art, pop culture, and cartoons play with and question what the ideal really his. His “cave” drawing above involves no chained prisoners.
In contrast, Paul McCarthy’s work shows the traumatic relationships between philosophers and requires an advisory about “sexually explicit content that may not be suitable for all viewers.”
He presents a series of narrative storyboards about the relationships of the philosophers Socrates, Plato, Aristotle, and Nietzsche and an archetypal female (women have often been left out of philosophy). Their naked bodies, sexualized, vomiting, and excreting, are a grim take on the discipline.
I’d prefer not to go out on a low note, although we have still not figured out how best to help individuals and society become good and lead a better life. Plato’s ideas have inspired thoughtful dialogue for thousands of years, and the pursuit of understanding endures. Socrates and Plato would probably say, “Keep talking.”
So I’ll end with another bad philosophy joke about questioning perceptions and assumptions:
Two friends are driving down a country road. The passenger looks out the window and exclaims, “Look! The sheep in that pasture have been shorn.”
The driver glances over and says, “Yes. On this side.”
1. This post was inspired by the Plato in L.A. exhibition at the Getty Villa and addressed topics important for understanding the exhibition. Topics not considered here, but very important for an understanding of Plato, include his views on the soul and reincarnation, the nature of love, the idea that knowledge is recollection, his appreciation of physical beauty as a path toward understanding the ideal, and his views on how to achieve an ideal state and ruler.
2. The odd citation system of Platonic works has its own Wikipedia page. The system is based on a publication of Plato’s works by Henricus Stephanus in 1578, in three volumes. Each page was numbered consecutively across all the volumes and subdivided into sections a–e. Stephanus’s system is still used, even though it bears no relationship to the pages of modern volumes. Links to the texts cited here lead to the English version at the Perseus website, which allows readers to load and compare the Greek text.
3. For more on the Peloponnesian War and its social and political effects, visit the Livius website.
4. Socrates faced an indictment by a young man named Meletus for corrupting the youth, not believing in the city’s gods, and introducing new ones (Plato, Apology 24b). It is a little difficult to understand how he supposedly introduced new gods, although he did have a divine voice that helped him recognize when he should not do something wrong (Plato, Apology 31d).
8. Thirteen letters ascribed to Plato have survived, of which most seem to date to a much later period. The seventh may be from his time; in Plato’s voice the author (or Plato himself) discusses his intentions and troubles in Syracuse.
Allen, Danielle S. Why Plato Wrote. Malden, MA: Wiley-Blackwell, 2013.
Annas, Julia. Plato: A Very Short Introduction. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2003.
Cathcart, Thomas, and Daniel Klein. Plato and a Platypus Walk into a Bar…. London: Penguin Books, 2007.
Grau, Donatien. Plato in L.A.: Contemporary Artists’ Visions. Los Angeles: The J. Paul Getty Museum, 2018.
Hughes, Bettany. The Hemlock Cup: Socrates, Athens, and the Search for the Good Life. New York: Vintage Books, 2012.
Rowe, Christopher. Plato: The Last Days of Socrates. Euthphro, Apology, Crito, Phaedo. New York: Penguin Books, 2010.
Taylor, C. C. W. 1998. Socrates: A Very Short Introduction. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1998.