Meditation XV, Plato (c.428-347 BC) – Republic

Herma of Plato

~ When two people meet, they unconsciously affect one another in ways the mind cannot even begin to comprehend. The meeting may be brief and uneventful with nothing fruitful happening as a result of it. But the die is cast and the wheels of time have turned. The present as we know it is now the past and the future is always just beyond reach. Looking backwards, we see the roads we travelled and everything is fated. Looking forward, we see nothing but mist and mazes.  Nothing happens out of mere coincidence and randomness. No effect is without a cause just as no cause is without an effect. For every action there is a reaction and we find that events of the past are necessary and certain. Our meeting today is inevitable.

~

The name Plato comes from the Greek word Plátōn which means broad. His name seems to have stemmed from him having broad shoulders and excellent physique. But it is his achievements in philosophy rather than his physical achievements that would earn him a place in history for all time.  Plato remains to this day the best known and most widely studied philosopher of the ancient Greeks. Born an Athenian and of a noble heritage, he was influenced by the old ‘gad-fly’, Socrates, in the early days of his youth. Having found his ultimate passion in philosophy, Plato left Athens in disgust after the execution of his kind and wise mentor Socrates who was executed on the pretext of corrupting the minds of the Athenian youths. This led to Plato travelling to Egypt, Italy and Sicily, before finally returning to Athens and establishing his Academy just right outside the borders of the city. The founding of this educational institution is regarded by many scholars as the start of the first university in the world.

Although the Plato was not the first of the ancient Greeks to raise the question about the nature of human knowledge, he was the first philosopher that we know of, who provided a comprehensive account on epistemological issues. In his work, Theaetetus, he also attacks the view that knowledge and truth are relative to individuals. In another work, Meno, Plato enquired how can one know things, like geometrical truths, without having to learn them. If we already know something, we cannot learn it anew; and if we do not already know it, we cannot possibility recognize it as the right answer to an enquiry, says Plato. Following this reasoning, we must already know all we can know since in every case of possible knowledge, we either already know it or do not already know it.

In his major and most complete work, the Republic, Socrates (one of the main characters in Plato’s dialogues) described the true philosopher as one who desires the whole of knowledge. Philosophers are the people that communities should have as kings (philosopher kings) because they possess knowledge that others lack and also because they stand in special relation to knowledge and goodness. Since knowledge is the highest virtue, governments headed by philosophical kings would be the ultimate political solution! Knowledge according to Socrates however, is different from mere belief and ignorance. What then is the nature of the knowledge that Socrates speaks of? For Socrates, we must be able to answer, ‘what is X?’ before we proceed to say anything about X. In other words, one must find one thing common to all the many instances and examples of X. Socrates maintained that he never found a satisfying answer to this question.

The reason for the absence of an answer to this crucial question lies in the dilemma of knowledge as articulated in Meno. How can we know things? How, then, do we manage to attach any meaning at all to words like justice without first knowing what justice really is? This problem led Plato to suppose that there must be an unambiguous example of justice which may not be in this world that we are acquainted with. How else can we know what is red if there are no examples of red things? For Plato, these examples are what we would later come to know as the ‘Theory of Forms’. Human beings are born into this world with some recollection of the Forms (perfect paradigms and universals; translated from the Greek word for ‘idea’ and to be compared with the Latin word species) and this is the reason we have some conception of what justice is although our definition of it is imperfect. This also explains why we cannot answer the question put forth by Socrates on ‘what is justice?’

Plato believed that the material world that we see is just a shadow world of the real world. The Forms are the archetypes or abstract representations of the things we see around us. These Forms are ‘general ideas’ that more permanent and more ‘real’ than the particular things perceived by our senses. For example, Man is more permanent than James, Jack and Jill. Although James, Jack and Jill would one day grow old and die, the idea of man would exist forever. As Spinoza would say, there exist a world of things perceived by sense and a world of laws inferred by thought. This world of laws can be found in the Forms that give meaning to the things we see in reality because they are like mathematics, both certain and necessary. It is only by seeking these Forms the arrangements of things in the real world according to their classes, sequences and purposes that one can attain knowledge.

One of the best known descriptions by Plato of knowledge and the Forms is the analogy of the cave. In Republic VII, Plato represents the philosophical unenlightened as prisoners chained from birth in an underground cave. Being able to see nothing but moving shadows, these prisoners take them as the whole of reality. Only by escaping the cave can the prisoners gain philosophical enlightenment. This process of escaping the underground cave is completed through the understanding of the Forms. Perhaps we are all still prisoners chained inside a cave, seeing shadows of reality but never ever truly understanding them. Maybe Plato was right and philosophical enlightenment is out of reach for many but a few. But one thing is for certain. The acknowledgement of one’s ignorance is the beginning of knowledge.

~ Ee Suen Zheng

Bibliography

  • Peter E. Cooper & Peter S. Fosl, eds, 2010, Philosophy: The Classic Readings, Wiley-Blackwell, United Kingdom.
  • Tom Honderich, ed, 2005, The Oxford Companion to Philosophy, Second Edition, Oxford University Press, United States.
  • Will Durant, 2005, The Story of Philosophy, Simon & Schuster Paperbacks, United States.
  • Robert Paul Wolff, ed, 2002, Ten Great Works of Philosophy, Signet Classic, Penguin Group, United States.

“Philosophy, that dear delight.”

~ Plato

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  1. […] in ‘universals’ (Jack and Jill exist but man, their class, do not), he did not believed in Plato’s ‘Theory of Forms’. He held that universals were just names with no tangible objective existence while Plato […]

  2. […] the death of Plato and Aristotle, three schools, the Stoics, the Epicureans and the Sceptics would dominate the Greek […]

  3. […] Aristotle, Aquinas believed that the senses are the vehicle that transmit the Forms (see Plato’s Theory of Forms) by means of ‘images’ or ‘phantasms’ from external objects to the intellect. This […]

  4. […] This idol represents the limitations and distortions related to our individual shortcomings. Not to be mistaken with Plato’s Analogy of the Cave. […]

  5. […] ideas that we ourselves construct. Generality and universality, he maintains in contrast of Plato, do not belong to a real world but are just ‘inventions and creatures of the understanding, made […]



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