Weird Wild Web
Doctrine of the Forms
The Person in the World
Knowledge and World: The Divided Line
Influence on Christianity
photo at right is of a bust of Plato from the National Archeological Museum
in Athens, courtesy of Prof. Mark Anderson (click here to see another
picture of Plato).
1. Personal life and family
- Born 427 BCE in aristocratic family, suspicious of new Athenian democracy
- Never married or had children
- Served in the military in war of Athens against Sparta
- Had frustrated political ambitions (see Republic!)
- Died 347 BCE
2. Philosophical training
- Student and friend of Socrates, who died when Plato was 31
- Travelled widely to learn about the world and different societies
- Made political contacts in an attempt to realize political ideas
- Probably began writing dialogues at age 40 or 45
3. Plato’s Academy
- Founded probably just before 370, when Plato was in his mid-50’s
- Based in Plato’s house, which was called "Academy"
- Academy closed by the Emperor Justinian in 529 CE
- Formal education for young men after their schooling in Athens
- Syllabus described in book 7 of the Republic; distinctively academic rather
than oriented to professional careers (eg. in politics)
- Founding teachers included Theaetetus and Eudoxus
- Most famous graduate was Aristotle, who came at age 17 and stayed for many years, first
as a student, and then as a teacher
For a supremely useful introduction to many of Plato's dialogues, see Prof.
Approaching Plato: A Guide to the Early and Middle Dialogues.
1. Basic Facts
- Primarily have popular works; few technical works survived
- Order is difficult to determine, and a matter of ongoing debate
2. Early period
- Dialogues with Socratic form: genuine objections and arguments
- Includes: Lysis, Laches, Euthyphro, Charmides, Hippias
Major and Hippias Minor, Ion, Protagoras, Euthydemus, Gorgias,
Meno, Thrasymachus (Book I of the Republic)
3. Middle period
- Abandonment of dialogue, except as mere literary device
- Elaboration of doctrine of Forms
- Includes: Timaeus, Philebus, Symposium, Phaedo, rest of Republic.
Click here for
a picture of an old manuscript of the Symposium.
- Also includes several non-philosophical works: Critias, Phaedrus
4. Late Period
- More sophisticated, probably written for colleagues in Academy
- Includes: Theaetetus, Sophist, Politicus, Parmenides, Laws
1. Plato on the Heraclitus-Parmenides controversy over Being and Becoming
While Heraclitus insisted that ultimate reality was constantly changing, Parmenides and
the Eleatics argued that ultimately, reality was unified and changeless. The argument for
this hinges on the contrast between Non-Being and Being: into which category should
Becoming be placed? For Parmenides, in accord with the Greek intuition, Becoming
couldn’t be Being, so it had to be placed in the Non-Being category, implying,
therefore, that the world (of Becoming) was illusory.
This argument was felt to be a first rate paradox, and all of the pre-Socratic
philosophers after the Eleatics tried hard to resolve it. Plato comes up with a decisive
and truly powerful solution that hinges on the idea of "degrees of intensity of
Being." The real world of changeless Being was extremely intense Being, on this view,
whereas the changing world of appearances was lesser Being. This solution allows Plato to
speak of both Being and Becoming as "real," though in different senses because
different degrees of "realness."
2. Plato’s Hierarchy of Being
Degrees of Being is a difficult concept for us Western, pragmatic moderns, who are more
accustomed to thinking of Being as a "yes or no" proposition. We think of
degrees of goodness, and perhaps even degrees of organization, but not degrees of being.
Yet there are lots of points of view from which it is persuasive.
- It resolves the Eleatic paradox, as just described.
- It makes sense of the difference between contingency and necessity. The idea of a house
survives the destruction of any actual house, so the idea is more powerful than the thing:
it is not subject to the contingencies and accidents of the world of appearances.
- It makes sense of the moral imperative. We have an idea of Goodness that has often
seemed to philosophers to be innate, and indeed this is still so, notwithstanding our
awareness of culturally variable conceptions of some aspects of morality. We strive to
realize this ideal in our lives, because we are ennobled by such a struggle. How are we to
think of this idea? It is superior to any actual instance of goodness, for we judge
goodness in the light of this idea. It is changeless and beautiful, far more lovely than
our concepts and enactments of goodness ever are. As we engage in the struggle to be good,
our souls participate in the idea of the Good; our lives and world are illumined so that
we see reality more clearly. This idea of the Good has enormous power and liveliness; it
is more real than we are, and our quest to realize the good in our lives and in our
societies is a quest to participate in the superior reality of the idea of Goodness. It is
because of the higher Being of Goodness that it commands us, and so we speak not of a
moral option, but of a moral imperative.
- It explains the fact that we often make mistakes in interpreting our world. This hazy
world of appearances is very hard to make out, and the easiest way to understand how this
might be so is to suppose that it is secondary in Being to the world of ideas into which,
with effort and discipline, we may enter. [Recall the cave story from Republic.]
3. The Forms
Once the idea of a hierarchy of Being has been made plausible, the plausibility of the
Doctrine of Forms follows rather easily. What kinds of things have more Being, and what
less? Well, the sensible world has less Being, and ideas are the more Real, the more
permanent and powerful, the more fundamental, eternal, good, true, and beautiful.
The world of ideas is perfect and changeless; a dynamic array of rational,
awe-inspiring beauty; the siren that captures the heart of a person and transforms them
into a philosopher, bound to the world of appearances, but struggling to understand, to
see, to envision the beauty and power of the world of the Forms.
A world of Forms makes sense out of the fact that we seem to have innate ideas.
- Consider one of the arguments from Phaedrus: The idea of equality cannot derive
from any actual instances of equality, because there are no truly equal things in our
world. Moreover, this idea has a kind of definitiveness that surpasses knowledge of the
world. The idea of equality is the standard for judging relations of equality; it is
superior, and the actual relations of equality inferior, so we need to suppose that there
are perfect Forms modeled by our concepts.
- Consider the mathematical advances of the Pythagoreans. Mathematics has a definitiveness
that surpasses the finest knowledge gained from experience. The construction of the
Pythagorean theorem, for instance, cannot be realized in the coarse dimensionality of
space and time, yet it possesses an amazing profundity and sureness. This can only be
accounted for by supposing that it is a concept formed under the impact of a perfect world
of geometrical forms. It is the participation of our soul to some extent in that world of
Forms that accounts for the fact that we can imagine something so sure and beautiful even
though we cannot realize the construction except coarsely in the sensible world.
For Plato, the soul is the invisible, rational life principle of
a human being.
2. Tri-Partite Soul: Intellect, Spirit (Emotion, Will), Appetite
Plato argues that the human soul has three parts: an intellective (rational) part, a
spirited part (having to do with emotion and will), and an appetitive part (having to do
with drives and basic impulses).
Different kinds of people can be characterized by the relations among these parts, and
an ideal arrangement can also be deduced.
- Tyrannical Soul: Appetite rules Spirit rules Intellect
- Democratic Soul: Intellect, Spirit, Appetite have equal influence and importance
- Oligarchic Soul: Intellect and Appetite influence and are submitted to Spirit (Will)
- Timocratic (one who grasps for honor) Soul: Appetite for love and recognition influences
Spirit and Intellect
- Philosophical Soul is the ideal: Intellect rules over Spirit, and these two together
subdue Appetite. A good image is the soul as chariot: the chariot rider is Intellect
(Reason), which directs two horses: Spirit (Will) is the lead horse and Appetite is the
Epistemology is the theory of knowledge. (Leading questions are
What can we know? and How do we know?)
Ontology is the theory of being. (Leading questions are What
exists? and How—in what manner or mode—do things exist?)
2. The Divided Line
Plato had a fairly well developed epistemology and ontology. In fact, his ontology and
epistemology are intimately linked. His image of the "Divided Line" expresses
both and illustrates the way they are connected.
Form of the
Things that simply are and do not
Value structures (e.g. coherence,
Dialectic (argument aimed at
Structural forms (independent of
Theoretical speculation (logical
Things that appear and change
Concrete world (contextualized things)
Belief (based on experience)
Images (including abstracted things)
Imagination (abstracting, integrating
3. Dualism: Mind and Matter, Non-Sensible and Sensible
The divided line makes very clear the distinction between the sensible and the
non-sensible, and expresses Plato's clear valuational preference for the non-sensible. In
that realm is to be found the unchanging, ever-being, eternal forms, the things we love in
the shadows around us. Matter, it follows, is a lesser stuff that is subdued and elevated
by form. This results in a sharp form of dualism that looks down on things material and
looks up to things spiritual and rational. The conflict of this idea with the Jewish idea
that material creation was declared "good" by God was to prove interesting
1. The Three Waves
Plato advocates three waves of socio-political change in the Republic:
- Rulers should be intelligent, with soul; no other criteria should be allowed to
interfere (eg. sex, money, family, etc.).
- Rulers should live communally; they should hold no property and no family in private,
though the larger population should have both families and property.
- Rulers, having to be intelligent, should be chosen on the basis of their expertise in
philosophy, demonstrated through education; philosophers should rule, and rulers should be
2. The Philosopher Monarchs: A Limited Aristocracy of Education
Democracy is inefficient, and wrong-headed. But aristocracies of wealth and lineage are
dangerous because of the propensity to corruption. The solution is a limited aristocracy
of education. Those that are best educated are best able to lead society.
3. Training to Rule: The Curriculum of the Academy
The curriculum of the Academy is indirectly summarized in the Republic.
- age 1-10: physical education; utopia begins in the body
- age 10: rescue children from their families and place them in schools
- age 11-16: music education to balance and complement physical emphasis; refines
character and increases sensitivity to feelings
- age 16-20: moral training introduced to complement previous studies, which themselves
are now greatly intensified
- age 20: Big Test—practical and theoretical; those that fail go into economic
positions such as business, farming, trades, etc.
- age 20-30: another decade of physical, intellectual, moral education
- age 30: Bigger Test—those who fail become executives and military leaders
- age 30-35: only now is philosophy taught, i.e. the disciplined seeing of the forms
(generalizations, regularities, ideals, laws)
- age 35-50: Bigest Test—rejoin the world and survive and thrive there; those who
fail stay there; those who pass…
- age 50: …automatically become rulers
4. Social Organization
System of communism among the philosopher rulers, to guard against corruption
- no private property, no money
- provisions for living come from the state
- communism of men and women (no marriage); some women wooed from other classes, others
earn their way in through education—there is no sex barrier
- sharing of children, to the point that no parent in the ruling class knows precisely who
his or her children are, and no one (in theory) cares
- pacifist in orientation
- Other members of the state (those outside of the ruling class) marry and have families
in the conventional way.
- Military protection is necessary, especially to defend the state from outside
It is arguable that Plato is the most influential of philosophers on Christianity, and
especially Christian theology. There are two caveats to bear in mind, however.
- Plato’s influence was almost always indirect, having been mediated by
neo-Platonism, to which we will come when we have studied Aristotle.
- Plato was adapted and subdued as much as he was accepted and used. The Jewish tradition
had many ideas of its own, some of which overcame Plato’s in the
development of Christian thought, some of which were
overcome, and some of which combined in fascinating ways with Plato’s.
With these qualifications in mind, here are some of the areas of influence.
- The Apologists: Christian Doctrine as Purified, Definitive Greek Philosophy
- God as Immutable: Forsaking Hebrew Ideas
- The (Eventual) Triumph of Dualism: Nature vs. Spirit, Body vs. Mind
- Creation: Forms are the Creative Thoughts of God; Prepares way for Ex Nihilo;
Inspires Neo-Platonic Hierarchy of Being
- Incarnation: Jesus Christ as Perfect Instantiation of The Logos
- Society: The Great Accidental Social Experiment Based on the Republic
- Mysticism: The Beatific Vision (of the Forms)
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